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Betting On Maybe

There are many reasons why Melbourne has been crowned World’s Most Liveable City four years running—great coffee is just one. It’s impossible to walk a hundred metres in any direction without stumbling on a place to grab a ‘good enough’ macchiato, so there’s a lot of competition in the coffee business and no shortage of new operators entering the fray.

In the suburb where I live cafes line both sides of the street—some so close they literally touch each other. So I was surprised to see two new white tables and a set of blue stools appear unannounced on the pavement, beyond where the shopping strip ends last Monday morning. Unused cups, stacked high on the pristine coffee machine were visible from gleaming windows, as were the two business owners who peered out hopefully at every passer by willing them to come in and give the cafe a try. Maybe they will and maybe they won’t. It’s only a maybe because these passers by don’t have a coffee problem. There is no reason to switch from the Albert Park Deli that’s been going for forty years, or the place on the corner with more room inside and out, complete with shade, heaters and blankets for frigid winter days.

The new cafe owners have fallen into the ‘build first, sell later’ trap and now they are forced to come up with a marketing plan to attract people— a story that makes more people want what they sell. This strategy might work well if you’re creating a minimum viable product like an app that requires a small bet to test and then refine, but the Lean Startup methodology is harder to apply to a business like a cafe where there’s a significant investment up front. A two year lease isn’t easy to pivot.

Contrast this shiny, new, empty cafe story to the one of the vegetarian, organic wholefood, (only raw treats sold here) cafe that opened a couple of months before. They don’t just sell fair trade coffee, they sell a story to people with a particular worldview.

So what should the blue stool owners do now beyond stand there looking terrified and hopeful in spotless aprons? They must start thinking less about ‘what’ they sell, and more ‘who for’. Then they need to give that specific person (not everyone) a reason to want to come inside and a story to believe in and share. Because freshly roasted coffee beans do not make or break a cafe in a world where good is a given.

A cafe is not just a place to sit, where drinks are served. It’s more than tables and chairs, croissants and raspberry chocolate chip muffins. A cafe is a feeling we want to experience. Whatever we spend our money on, from a song to a donation tells us something about who we are and what matters to us, and even a $4 coffee needs a story about ritual or community, sustainability or quality, convenience or indulgence, that we can buy into.

Image by Dorte.