random friday, 2006 edition: the dixie chicks, “i'm not ready to make nice”
leslie nielsen

success, café style

I have no idea what the “answer” to this is, but it occurred to me as we were eating breakfast. We go to the Homemade Café on most Saturdays, and occasionally on other days of the week. We’ve been going there for close to 30 years, and since it’s only been open for 31, I guess that makes us long-term customers. We go often enough that I am, as of this typing, the Foursquare Mayor of the Homemade Café. They know what our usual orders are, they treat us well … I’m not saying it’s better than whatever café you might frequent, I’m just noting that this is “our” café.

What I was wondering today was simply, how does a small business become a success? By “success,” I mean a place like the Homemade Café … I don’t know the finances of the place, but it’s been open for 31 years, and at some point in those three decades I think we have to accept that it’s a successful operation. But we all know that most small businesses fail, and we all know that restaurants come and go with some frequency. How do the successes pull it off?

Thinking about the specifics of the Homemade Café, I’d say the food is maybe half of the equation, or a little more. Perhaps 50% of their success lies in not sucking … they don’t often give you a reason to stay away, if that makes sense. But the quality of the food above the level of “doesn’t suck” likely adds only an incremental increase to their success. They have no real signature dishes … maybe the home fries, I don’t know … it’s pretty standard fare, eggs, potatoes, coffee, with the touches of Berkeley necessary to make a go of it here. The location is both good and bad … good because it’s a corner location that gets a lot of car traffic, so people are aware of it, bad because it’s not in the best neighborhood, although I’m not sure non-residents know that.

I think the staff is crucial. If you read Yelp etc. you’ll find people complaining about the rude service, but outside of the hurried nature of things when it’s packed, I haven’t seen this. Of course, they know us, so we’re going to get treated as a regular, but really, they don’t strike me as rude.

More important, though, is that there is very low turnover amongst the staff. I forget how much we know, but I’m pretty sure the pay is decent and includes benefits, and there’s a fairly egalitarian feel to the workforce. Whatever it is, I don’t suppose we see more than one new server a year, if that, and there are people who have been there a really long time. There’s something to be said for a place where you know the same people will be there when you show up.

Honestly, though, I still have no idea why this particular café is successful when others are not. I’m tempted to ascribe it all to luck, with the knowledge that we often make our own good luck. There are better cafes that have failed, and who knows why?

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