a case study in coffeenomics

I was a bit saddened today, as for the first time I had to mark one of the coffee shops in my guide as closed.

Spiral Press Cafe in Manchester, VT is no more. In fact, it seems to have closed mere days after I visited it this past August. The owner wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper giving his view on why the business went under.

This reads as a great case study for the very difficult challenges in running a successful retail coffee shop:

Staffing – the difficulty in finding, training, rewarding and retaining good, reliable staff at low wages, in a low unemployment environment; rely on students, and you add a strong seasonal element to the mix. Sometimes this is akin to assembling a bicycle while riding it; you bring in new people so you can keep the business running, but you have to maintain operations while you’re in the midst of training them.

Infrastructure – having a location that is both the right size and properly laid out, in order to serve your guests without compromising quality or guest experience. It’s hard to maintain sustainable volumes if guests get the itch to walk because you don’t have enough space to serve them quickly enough.

These first two points played out in my visit, days before the business shuttered. Spiral Press was in my guide because the coffee tasted good; the reasons it didn’t get an asterisk next to its name were the length of time it took to get my order, and some of the younger staff were clearly in over their heads.

Pricing – getting the triangulation right between demand, carrying costs, and how much customers are willing to pay in your market (think of the Italian insistence on the one Euro espresso)

Competition – oh cool, our little town is getting a new restaurant. Oh, it’s a coffee place, great! What’s it called again? Star-something? Ohhhhhhhh #*@&^!

Put yourself outside a major population center, and these pressures magnify significantly.

So remember Spiral Press the next time you wonder why the coffee your barista just made for you costs as much as it does, or why it’s so hard to find a decent espresso outside a major city.

The best things those of us who love good coffee can do to try to help with these issues? Here’s a few ideas:

  • celebrate the places we find quality coffee in suburbs, small towns and rural areas
  • support those outlets with our business and word of mouth (and maybe try not to set foot inside you-know-where when they come to small towns that have a local independent operator)
  • cut the local guy a little more slack if they aren’t always at the top of their game – maybe they’re desperately trying to find good staff and train them up

And a good place to get started with these lofty goals? How about Charlie’s Coffee House in Manchester, VT. Because it seems our story may have a happy ending after all, as the owner of Spiral Press was able to move a lot of the elements of the business to a new location two doors down the street. Let’s hope he has better luck meeting the challenges this time around.

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