The Coffee Business
We produce a product that’s not necessary for the sustenance of human life.
That was the realization I had, sitting on the floor of our kitchen, crying with my wife one night the first winter our coffeehouse in the Granary District was open.
We just weren’t making any money. We weren’t long term locals, so we didn’t have the support structure that comes with living/playing/schooling/worshiping/eating in a community for a whole lifetime. We weren’t ace-in-the-hole business people, either. We were really feeling our way forward as young entrepreneurs. A lot of our days felt like they were two steps forward and maybe one-&-three-quarters back.
So we were sitting there on the floor together and my wife said to me, “Are you even passionate about coffee anymore?”
That sort of hit me like a ton of bricks. But slowly. Like someone threw a brick at my head every day for a year. I realized in that moment that I wasn’t passionate about coffee because being passionate about coffee is stupid. A man should be passionate about things like a woman. Things like his God. Things like mountains or trees or the ocean. A man should be passionate about his family or his community. But a man shouldn’t be passionate, in the truest sense of the word, about coffee.
That event—that night on my kitchen floor has done more to influence my thinking about my business than almost any other single thing. That thinking is what brought on the Schnecken. Stay with me. I’ll get there.
To Be Loved and Cared For
My business is coffee, but my life is people. I try to measure everything I do through a “Loved and cared for” filter. “People will feel loved and cared for, when (blank)” and then I fill in the blank. If I can’t fill in the blank, I try to avoid that thing.
“People will feel loved and cared for when I overcharge them for coffee that’s not very good.” See? That one doesn’t work.
I have a friend who comes to my coffee shop just about every day. His work is varied and mobile and he’s often in the shop ALL day. And we love each other. So when we’re together we just keep drinking coffee until our hair is standing on end and our brains aren’t working correctly anymore.
My friend is someone who values quality time spent, and for him, (and for me), feeling loved and cared for meant spending more time and drinking less coffee. So one day I pulled a double shot of espresso and split it into two heated rocks glasses with a little water and produced two 3-ounce Americanos.
I called it the Schnecken. In German, schnecken means snail, but it also refers to a tasty little sour cream cinnamon roll, a Sunday morning tradition in Jewish households. The tradition spread throughout German society in the early 20th century and after World War II the schnecken (bun) could be found in places like Brazil and the Eastern USA. It was in New York where the term schnecken came to mean, (to some) any sort of tasty little morsel—not a full snack—just a little schnecken.
I’m neither German nor Jewish. But for some reason I’ve always just sort of owned this term. So it made sense to me when I made two little tasty afternoon-coffee-treats, to call the process a Schnecken.
The Power of the Schnecken
The idea of the Schnecken is important and special to me because it represents the realization of an ideal that I want to be true about myself as a man and as a business owner. To me, it speaks to this idea of being together and sharing a thing. It’s a reminder of the very deeply held (though, in truth, easily ignored) value for the people around me to feel loved and cared for.
“People feel loved and cared for when you stop a minute and hear them, when you care for them on a real level and when you split a thing.” See? That one works.
Two people who both independently have bread to eat is a good thing. One person sharing bread with another person is a special thing.
So here’s the rub. I can’t have this conversation with everyone who walks into my shop. I don’t always have time and I’m not always there. Does my staff have time? If the Schnecken is on the menu, does that mean that my entire staff has to share my peculiar brand of passion?
People don’t know what the Schnecken is, and if I don’t have time to tell them then they either see us as pretentious coffee-jerks, or, (worse), they think they’re dumb.
People will feel loved and cared for when there’s paper towels in the bathroom. When the lighting has been addressed and thought through. When the music is set to a proper volume and when the playlist is curated. People will feel loved and cared for on deep levels that don’t even register consciously when they know how to say a thing, how to spell a thing, how to order a thing and how to enjoy a thing.
So, friends, there’s my predicament. The Schnecken is representative in my heart of something I hold dear. But, by its nature, it’s accomplishing the opposite.
Recently, I’ve been regretting putting the Schnecken on the menu for this reason. I mentioned this to a pal and he’s since been good-naturedly hassling me about the Schnecken, taking great pleasure in recommending the beverage(s) to unsuspecting customers and watching me squirm as I try to adequately communicate what it is and why I put it there, without boring them. It’s really this ribbing I’ve received that has precipitated this editorial. I’m asking for your advice! What do I do? Does the Schnecken stay or does it go?