Author- Mike Duke
I am a co-owner of Connections Coffee House. For many years I worked as a scientist in the space program of the United States, at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. When I retired from NASA, I spent a few years at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. I was interested in the development of resources of the Moon, Mars and asteroids and later founded the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden Colorado. I have been interested in coffee shops for some time and with my daughter, Donna Weis, have entered a new phase of life in Connections. From time to time, I expect to write about our experiences here and how they may connect with space exploration and the world at large. If you like what you read here, please write a review on Facebook.
How does one start a coffee shop?
You might like to know what it takes to open a new coffee shop. After all, there are lots of them, meaning lots of competition. Another one opened in Crosby just last month. If you’re reading this, you probably saw the home page of our website that says we are opening in late-January, 2018. Here’s a short story of how we got to this place and an overview of what we have done to get started.
The owner, Donna Weis, and her Dad and Mom, Mike and Carol Duke, got together over a year ago to discuss Mike and Carol’s upcoming move to Crosby, to be closer to the kids and grandkids. In the course of the discussion, the absence of a specialty coffee shop in Crosby was noted, as well as the fact that Crosby appeared to be growing pretty rapidly. It looked like there might be an opportunity to create a new community-oriented business. But, we had to admit that we didn’t know anything about how to start a coffee shop.
We spoke with Vicky Lewis, who owns Mazama Coffee Company , a coffee shop in Dripping Springs, Texas, and got some crucial advice. “Go to school.” She recommended Texas Coffee School , where Donna and Mike took a three-day course “Starting a Coffee Shop” that seemed to cover almost every facet of starting a coffee shop business, with lots of lectures as well as hands-on training, and a thick manual that contained most of what anyone would want to know when taking the plunge. So, in February, 2017, we decided to take the plunge. In retrospect, going to school was the best thing we could have done. The course gave us an overview of the process of starting a coffee shop, hands-on experience in the most important elements of producing the coffee drinks that people love, and what equipment would be necessary. The manual saved us literally hundreds of hours, possibly thousands, of research as well as a thorough check list to make sure that our research, which we still had to do a lot of, was complete.
The very first thing that is emphasized in most discussions about opening a new coffee shop is to understand why you are doing it. Since the art of making a good cup of coffee is not a secret and there are hundreds of stores locally where coffee can be purchased, you have to have something more to offer your customers if you expect them to return. What is going to be your objective? your style? your ambience? in short, what will distinguish your coffee shop from everyone else? You are probably already familiar with coffee shops, but visit as many as possible, both locally and away, and get a firm grip on what will make your shop stand out. And talk to the owners. If you are not in direct competition with them, most owners are anxious to brag about their success. But, more importantly, you may be able to learn about their problems, which could be the same ones you will have to overcome.
One of the first things we learned about starting a coffee shop is that location matters. We satisfied ourselves that Crosby had enough population, enough traffic and a community-centered environment that would allow a coffee shop to succeed, if we could run it well. We looked for a good location and, after a false start, found one on Crosby’s main street, Farm to Market Road 2100 (FM2100). This location would provide easy access to morning traffic, which is heavy with people going to work in Houston and the Baytown area. We got together with the owner of the property and worked out a lease agreement. Getting a good location and a good lease agreement is an essential starting point, and we retained an attorney to prepare the lease agreement to make sure that it would meet our needs.
With information provided by the Texas Coffee School we were able to design a functional work flow and set-up that would fit into the space available. We located a contractor, Damon Doherty (Doherty Painting and Home Repair) to do the build-out of the leased space, but there were a couple of other steps that were needed. Fortunately, we were able to consider opening the store without going to the bank for a loan, which might have been difficult, as we had no prior business experience and only personal references. But there were some other steps that needed to be done, in particular, getting permits from Harris County Health Department and the County Engineer’s office. They required rather detailed plans to review, so these had to be prepared and sent to the appropriate offices. We found that the personnel of both offices were very helpful, so the process went fairly quickly, although the county engineer disapproved our first submission because of the way in which we had laid out the store. However, when the layout was changed slightly, they quickly approved the revised plan.
Build-out of the interior of the building was started around October 1. About the same time, we started to order the major pieces of equipment, particularly the espresso machine, which is the centerpiece of a specialty coffee shop. We found the people at GEVA Premium Coffee Co. especially helpful. They provide sales and service for the important tools of the trade, including a site (in Houston) where we could train. They visited our store during the time we were building it out, to make sure that our layout would work and the equipment could be correctly installed. They did the installation of the equipment and will provide maintenance for those systems when we are operating. We also purchased a lot of equipment from Webstaurant and Acemart Restaurant Supply, as well as Amazon and even from Home Depot and Walmart. We purchased our store furniture from Red Daddy’s Furniture in Baytown, Texas.
With the physical attributes of our shop seemingly under control, we began to implement our marketing strategy. We focused on two types of customers: (1) people driving to work in the morning in need of a cup of strong coffee to accompany their journey. Our shop is located on a busy road that feeds traffic from our area onto the freeway that takes people into Houston; and (2) people who have a need to sit down for a few minutes to an hour to talk to friends or colleagues and drink a good cup of coffee or tea and munch on a light breakfast or lunch. Our principal marketing tool for the commuters is a digital sign that is mounted on a pole at the curb. This sign allows an endless set of possible displays in high definition that announces our presence, lets people know our hours, advertises specials and displays items of interest in our community. For the other group, we are focused on marketing through social media with our website, Facebook and Instagram posts. We also make contacts through the Crosby-Huffman Chamber of Commerce, businesses and organizations in our area to make sure that people know we are here and encourage small groups of people to come in for meetings.
Running a business means having to deal with Federal, State and County regulations, including permits from Harris County, taxes and fees required by the State of Texas, and federal Income and Social Security taxes. For very small businesses such as ours, a combination of Quickbooks for Business and Turbotax for Small Business seems to be sufficient. We have learned to utilize these systems and do our bookkeeping ourselves. However, as the number of our employees grows, it may become necessary to hire an accountant to help.
Our initial staff will be made up of members of our family, but we anticipate having to hire non-family members in the future. This means that we will have to conduct familiarization and training of new people from time to time. Our commitment to the business will include a commitment to our employees to become members of our family, but this is ground that we have not yet traveled.
This has been a very top-level view of what we have done to get to the place where we are open for business. There are many many more details. If you are seriously thinking about doing this yourself, please let us know and we will try to answer any questions.