Starting a Small, Simple, Coffee Shop

By Jonathan S. Jarrow, Harbinger, The Coffee Spot

I am a coffee person. I am a barista, trainer, manager, roaster, and all around coffee enthusiast. After almost nine years in the business of making coffee, I found myself needing to decide what my long term career plan should be. The business of coffee hooked me a long time ago, but I realized that working in coffee, however fun it may be, is not very well paid. If you work hard and take on more responsibility you can eventually make better money, but there is a glass ceiling which prevents the barista from really being able to consider their job as a viable long term career.

Here the potential future splits into two paths. One is to marry yourself to a large coffee company with a stable position. Hopefully one with health insurance and the potential for advancement. The other option is much riskier, but is also the dream that almost all coffee people entertain at some point: to start your own business.

It’s incredibly glamorous. You are your own boss. You’ll do everything better than your old bosses did. You’ll have control of design and make your business breathtakingly beautiful and be a bastion of great coffee among your peers. I took this path, and over the course of the last year have gotten a much more realistic idea of what it takes for barista/coffee person to get a high quality coffee concept from concept to reality.

To begin with, starting your own business takes money, and the bigger your concept, the more money you need. I didn’t and still don’t have a lot of money, so I took the excellent advise of one of my former employers and started something I could afford, something small. If I could keep my costs low and stick to a very focused approach, then I could slowly grow into something bigger.

My focus is excellent black coffee, brewed by the cup. The equipment required to brew coffee is much simpler and cheaper than what is required for espresso. Waste is virtually nil, and the power and water requirements much easier to meet. Once the equipment was purchased, all I needed was a kiosk to house it, a platform to brew on, and a location to operate out of. The total costs to actually open for business ended up totaling about $5,000.

On January 2nd, 2012, I opened Harbinger, The Coffee Spot in Fort Collins, CO. I was able to get some great local press which made my first month a success  with friends and curious people stopping in to try something new and different. After that first month, I found that I needed to master a new skill called patience. Patience coupled with persistence. Some days were slow, very very slow. However, each new customer who came through the door was an opportunity for me. An opportunity to give them a beautiful product, provide them with great service, and also to listen. I listened to ideas for better signage, I listened to how they heard about me, I listened to their body language and how they reacted to the space. I acted on what I heard. As I was able, I made improvements. Better lighting, more color on the sidewalk sign, building a communal bar height table for people to sit at while they waited.

All of this has started to pay off. Harbinger has been open for over six months now, and has been profitable each month. Profitable might be too generous a term, but it has certainly been self-sustaining. There are big plans for the future of Harbinger Coffee in the works. Until then though, I am able to build my customer base so that when I have much bigger bills to pay in the future, I will already have these lovely people coming through the door for a product they have come to expect.

Going from barista to owner is starting to become somewhat of a trend across America. I think this is a good thing, a great thing really. It’s exciting to think of how much this can improve quality over the course of the next decade. It’s also exciting to think of the improved quality of life for those coffee people who are able to make a viable career out of doing something that they love. Cheers to that!

Jonathan Jarrow has enjoyed serving people coffee for nine years. When not behind the bar or in front of a roaster, you can find him climbing just about anything (trees, buildings, rocks); and enjoying anything that can be imbibed with friends.