By Ben Briggs, Hidden House Coffee
The rapid expansion and growth of the coffee industry has drawn a variety of people to the market. The dream of owning a small “mom and pop” shop is becoming more attractive with the success that many are having in the industry. The journey that most people do not see, however, is the work involved in getting to the point of opening the store. The struggles of being an entrepreneur become more evident when you decide to take that step and open your own shop, or by making that move towards expansion; at least this has been my experience with Hidden House Coffee.
Hidden House Coffee went from a family dream to reality within a few months. We opened our first brick-and-mortar shop in San Juan Capistrano, California in May of 2010. With really no vision or understanding of what the specialty coffee world was, we simply just went for it. Now that the dream of owning a coffee shop was real, it was evident that I needed to figure out a direction to pursue. After discovering the specialty coffee industry, I started visiting different cafes all over the country that were looked up to in the industry, such as: Blue Bottle, Stumptown, Coava, Cafe Grumpy, Ritual, and a few smaller local roasters along the way. I was so intrigued by what the coffee world really had to offer for Hidden House Coffee. I truly fell in love with every aspect of the industry; the craft of coffee became a passion that I wanted to learn and grow in.
Technology provided me with an accessible foundation of knowledge through various research and the accounts of others who have gone down this road before me. Reading blogs, books, and watching videos played a vital part in my coffee education. Knowing what information to use in formulating my own thoughts and systematic approaches to things was achievable through technology, along with a willingness to learn from all the shops I had visited. Every time we learned something new, we found a way to make it work in our store, our way.
Everything we have achieved thus far has been through organic growth, and absent of any outside investors. We did not have the luxury of opening our store with all the fancy bells and whistles, but we grew and upgraded with time. My journey through coffee has enabled me to learn so much about coffee culture, and the true meaning of being an entrepreneur. From fixing things in the store after hours, to pulling barista shifts when we didn’t have enough staff, to finding ways that to be more effective in serving our customers, we have gone from a coffee shop serving a million different things with no rhythm or reason, to legitimate coffee roasters with a cafe and bakery. We have scaled our offerings and are trying to create a level of quality that we can be proud of. Five years later, we are sourcing green coffee and expanding with our second store in downtown Santa Ana, California.
If I were to give any advice to aspiring cafe owners I would want to tell people that opening a new shop (or any new business, particularly in the food service industry) is very difficult. Having an adequate amount of funding to ensure that you get from start to finish is essential. Knowing the city’s regulations, doing your own research, and understanding the permitting/building process is also extremely important. I would also add that it is crucial to do your best to NOT cut corners; this may sound like it would be easy, but when it comes down to it…it’s a money game. Having a set of detailed plans will get you through the permitting and building process. Once you are to the point of opening the shop, my next set of advice comes into play. I find that this is very important and once again sounds easy, but I see this done incorrectly all the time: Knowing the target market you would like to capture. Ask yourself who is your audience and why? The goal for my stores is simple: providing an excellent experience with quality products. I want our customers to feel wanted, ensuring that they want to support the business and become part of the journey with us. It is also critically important to find ways to cut down your overhead. I see so many cafes overstaffing, which can be fatal to the bottom line of the business. Be creative in the ways you staff your cafe.
When all is said and done, I find myself feeling blessed and privileged. I know that may sound cliché, but the love I have developed for the coffee industry is something to be thankful for. Through Hidden House Coffee I have developed relationships across the world (I am writing this as I sit in Frankfurt, heading to Ethiopia to visit one of the farms we buy from), and have made lifelong friends.
When coffee shops and roasters succeed in their own businesses, the industry as a whole benefits. It is my hope that sharing my experience will provide others with the insights that I was so lucky to gain from others in the industry that so willingly shared their knowledge to help me succeed.
Ben Briggs began his service in the Marine Corps, but has since transitioned into the rapidly growing specialty coffee market. His first shop, Hidden House Coffee, has earned a wide and growing following over the last five years with a commitment to in-house small batch roasting and direct trade, single source coffees. His evolving business model privileges relationships with small farmers in El Salvador and Ethiopia, and an acknowledgment of diverse coffee processing methods across farms. His holistic approach to coffee is now expanding to include a second retail and roasting location in Santa Ana, along with a new venture in local food and craft beer.