5 min read

“How are you so good at remembering names?”

TLDR: it's the harder thing to do but the most surefire way to keep people coming back
Entrepreneurship might be an economic activity but it is built on relationships that are strongest when they are tangible and firmly rooted in the spaces and people who exist in the physical world. Although we might talk about the impact of digital technology on our lives and conflate entrepreneurship with high-flying global technology start-ups, the heart and soul of running your own venture remains analogue. —David Sax, Monocle

the how is always less interesting than the why

The answer’s pretty straightforward: I genuinely enjoy getting to know the people I serve on a daily basis—the more ‘outlandish’ your order, the easier it is to distinguish you in the sea of flat whites and lattes—and small talk is just part of a bag of tricks to effectively distract you from the fact that you’ve been waiting for your drink for—oh, look, there it is.

Have a nice day!

I think the very best cafes, or the cafes I believe guests derive the most enjoyment out of, manage to thread a specific needle, combining technical excellence with a flair for service. Technical proficiency can be distilled and drilled into someone. The precursor to this, of course, is finding that rare individual who both aligns with your business’ values and is willing to reframe what they understand your business to be. The trickier thing—and capturing lightning in a bottle is no small feat—is sniffing out whether that individual possesses that sixth sense so prized in our industry: are they hospitable enough?

Are they, as Danny Meyer alluded to in his seminal book ‘Setting the Table’, true ‘hospitalitarians’?

It may seem implicit in the philosophy of enlightened hospitality that the employee is constantly setting aside personal needs and selflessly taking care of others. But the real secret of its success is to hire people to whom caring for others is, in fact, a selfish act… the more opportunities hospitalitarians have to care for other people, the better they feel. —Danny Meyer, Setting the Table

Order accuracy is as important as it is a means to an end. Tell us, be hyper-specific about what you want, and we’ll make a flawless drink for you but really it’s a vehicle to start a conversation about how your day’s going, whether the nine-to-five’s still a grind, what you dream of for your future, what it means to be alive at this moment in time. A new member of the team might ask, ‘How do I remember hundreds and hundrends of names and orders?’ and see it as the problem to solve, the mountain to conquer, and become quickly overwhelmed. Or one could reframe the question: ‘How do I manufacture an environment in which people are comfortable sharing key pieces of information about themselves, thereby making it easier to remember how they like their coffee?’

Multiply that by a few hundred cups a day and that’s it—that’s what it’s like to run a cafe. Entrepreneurial success becomes less a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’. If the same people who turned up on day one still show up on day four hundred and sixty-five then that’s a win. How do you scale the business from there? Is scale even a thing you derive value from?

From that one nugget of human interaction, that careful observation of someone’s disposition and openness to fostering a connection, springs an entire ecosystem—a community. That’s what you pay for. A consistent cup of coffee is just the happy byproduct of the transaction.

Therefore the team’s job isn’t to make coffee. It’s to make sure our guests feel seen, heard, and taken care of. And how nice is it when you’re waiting in line and the person at the register looks up, makes eye contact with you, and says it’ll ‘just be a couple more seconds’—the anticipation builds, and suddenly it’s not so bad standing around waiting for your turn.

where did this all start?

Like most other cafe hopefuls, I did a coffee course a few years back in the Philippines. I could have done a day session in Perth but the facility I found was a Specialty Coffee Association affiliate offering multi-week intensives—and a chance to visit family while I was in the country.

Barista using vintage coffee machine
The Philippine Barista & Coffee Academy, circa early 2014

I flew back to Perth and got hired at a soon-to-open cafe by lying in my resume about having barista experience. As in most industries, learning theory in a classroom and executing tasks in a structured learning environment prepares you exactly zero percent for what the actual workplace is like.

I was fired not two weeks into the job.

Sure, I seethed a little. I knew I would flourish if someone just gave me the chance. Eventually I got hired at a takeaway espresso bar in the city, specifically because of my lack of experience. There I was taught the functional importance of the name-coffee combo. I can tell you from experience, ‘forgetting’ to grab someone’s name because you’re working in real time to overcome the paralyzing shyness you’ve possessed since childhood, then calling out ‘flat white, one sugar’ to a sea of blazers and pencil skirts at 8am isn’t fun. It’s even less so when your boss chews you out in public over it.

But function and purpose can mean two different things in our world. The name-coffee combo’s purpose is to enable us to turn to our guest as the drink is in the final stage of execution and say, ‘Hey so-and-so, how’s your Monday going? Did you have a nice weekend?’ Rinse and repeat fifty-two weeks in a year. The greedy capitalist in me believes if I can just get to know you a bit better, starting with your name, then I can just about sell you anything.

Isn’t that how data-mining and targeted advertising works? We’re just a bit more wholesome when we do it.

foraging for joy

It’s late November as I draft this but the post isn’t due for publication until mid to late December. We’re still in the process of fine tuning the whole brunch thing—luckily our regulars are willing to play the game.

Sourdough slices, scrambled eggs, and bacon
'Hey, Aaron—let me just take a quick photo of this for the 'gram'


Amongst the stacks of fiction, non-fiction, and graphic novels on my floor lies a heavily highlighted and dog-eared copy of Danny Meyer’s seminal book. I’ve had to look to fine dining and restaurants for reference since it’s so difficult to find any that go beyond the technical side of the industry and delve deeper into the ‘act of service’ and the thematic implications of ‘hospitality’. Entrepreneurial and management books are more widely available but it’s a time-consuming matter of separating wheat from the chaff.

Books for Cooks in Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Markets suggested I look into Charlie Trotter and his ‘Lessons in Service’. On my shortlist are Howard Schultz’s ‘Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul’ and ‘Pour Your Heart Into It’.

Please reach out if you can help point me in the right direction!