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6/6/12

The Rise and Fall of The Villa Coffeehouse (and what small businesses can learn from them)



(Edit:  The owner of the Villa has seen this post and responded in a comment.  Be sure to read the entire conversation below to get the full story)


One of my more regular hangouts (when I'm actually in town) is The Villa Coffeehouse.  It's in 'historic' downtown Idaho Falls, and is an independently-owned business with a fantastic environment.

The Villa has been the subject of an early observations post and is where I do a lot of writing.

This means I have seen the flow of traffic over the last 18 months.  I talked to the old owner on a regular basis, and I chat with the new owners from time to time.

I'm considered a 'regular' and have helped them with business-building ideas from time to time.  Like any good entrepreneur, the first bit of advice is always free.

When the new ownership took over, there was a lot of excitement on both sides of the counter.  The customers were excited to see what new life would be injected into the business, and the baristas were hoping for more foot traffic (and more stability in their jobs).

Sadly, business looks on and off to me.  As I am writing this, I am one of 7 customers here, and it's still considered "lunch rush" time.  Traffic is stagnant because they're not drawing in the business.

Conversely, there is now only one barista that has been employed here for more than 60 days.  Three (of their core of four) have left in the last 2 weeks.

One moved to Boise.  Legitimate excuse to leave.

Another left because "it fucking sucks here" and she wants to go back to school.

The third left because financial ends were not being met, and getting a bump in pay wasn't going to happen.  She left for greener pastures, and I wish her well.

That leaves one girl who knows what she's doing, along with a bunch of coffee-newbs.  Customers are noticing this mass-exodus and are considering fleeing as well.  I can't wait to see what happens to this place in the next 3-6 months...

So...  what would I have done differently, and what would I recommend to small businesses everywhere?

Marketing:  It shouldn't be a scary word...
GREAT QUESTION!

First and foremost, I would make sure that there is enough personnel to handle the day-to-day business.

The Villa recently decided to open on Sundays, and are now open evenings on 4 nights (used to be 7-4 Mon-Sat).  This meant the business was open an additional 22(ish) hours, yet their employee count remained the same.

It's always better to have a 'spare' employee when you're working in the foodservice industry.  If one person calls in sick or quits unexpectedly, you can handle it without a spare.  If multiple employees do, you're screwed.

Secondly, if you're going to expand hours of operation, make sure you fill those hours.  On a recent Thursday, I was at The Villa from 3pm until closing at 8.  Besides the one barista working, I was the only one there.  No need to be open those extra hours if nobody is coming.

So let's fill the place, shall we?

Since over 60% of Americans go to Starbucks at least once a month, you are probably aware of the "hot in the morning, cold in the evening" promotion 'Da Bucks' has been doing lately.  Buy a hot coffee in the morning, get a discount on a cold drink in the evening.  It reminds people "Yes, we're open in the evening as well.  Come get a Frappuccino" and it works.  It's good for business.

Evening events at least once a month would be fantastic.  There is a lot of "hang out" space to utilize, so turn this place into a social hot-spot.

Lastly, know your surroundings.  It is 86 degrees outside right now.  Not a good time to be a coffee shop.  Promote iced drinks, italian sodas, blended drinks and the like.  Snowcone booths are open and doing well, which means extra competition.  Now is the time to focus on smoothies (and not soups or steamers).

As a small business owner, you need to be engaged in your business.  Make sure you grow or shrink based on traffic flow.  If business is slow, you need to shave off 'dead' hours or promote promote promote.  Marketing can't be a 4-letter word.  Most importantly, retain your good employees.  If you don't treat your employees right, another employer will.  One of the girls that left was the best latte maker of the bunch.  Without being too unreasonable, I would have tried to keep her if I could.  A coffee shop is only as good as their coffee, and their coffee is only as good as the baristas serving it.  $1-2 an hour more to keep someone who pulls perfect shot after perfect shot of espresso sounds like a bargain to me.

Good luck, Villa.  You still have my business while your doors remain open, but the empty echo in here is beginning to get on my nerves....  I hope to see this place packed to the gills with happy patrons soon!
Please Share it! :)

32 witty retorts:

Zombie said...

If I ever start my own small business I am taking your advice. :)

Random Girl said...

The coffee shop biz is a tricky one, regardless of season and even with a great staff. I had 4 going at one time, learned a ton, and will do it better next time if I decide to get back in on it at some point. I think your advice is valuable and pretty spot on, they should listen to you!

Free Webcam Dating Tips said...

simple but useful tips.

Adsila said...

Good advice. It is sad how many of these places could be doing so well, but because of bad management, they end up closing their doors.

Sweety Darlin said...

I have owned more than one company in my life and generally closed them down due to legitimate reasons, not because of a lack of business.

I have to say that some coffee shops don't use their niche as well as they could or should.

I hope they listen to your advise, and maybe they will find a middle ground and succeed. I never go to starbucks, but do go to local mom and pop coffee shops a lot. The one I like the most promotes people to have their "get togethers" there. Like church singles groups and high school clubs like future business leaders of america. Maybe that is a suggestion for them. Attendees of the get together get a discount on their drinks.

Lady Estrogen said...

Come help me open my shop, mmmk?

Brandon Lostinidaho said...

Actually Lady E, this (and some chats with Sonia form Logallot.com) has inspired me to go into business for myself. More info on that soon, but the web domains have already been purchased...

Pickleope said...

I was going to say one thing, but then read your comment above. That's exciting. Look at you getting all entrepreneurial up in this joint.
Solid advice to be sure and I look forward to more details on your pending venture. Is it weed dealing? Because I could use a new hookup. Uh, I mean, for the purposes of law enforcement, let's call it a "sodding" business and I need 8 "yards" of premium Maui "sod".

Hey Monkey Butt said...

Maybe they need a little Chef Ramsey :) Kitchen Nightmares!

NellieVaughn said...

My local coffee shop has acoustic shows once a month. That attracts many people.

villacoffeehouse said...

Hi Brandon

As owner of the Villa Coffeehouse, I thought I’d offer you my feedback on your blog post. First, business is not “on and off”. We have had increases in sales, customer counts, and average transaction size in the months of February, March, April*, and May. *Transaction size was down slightly in April, and we took over the business in mid February. I think your “customers fleeing” assertion is slightly off base.

Second, we have experienced the turnover you mentioned. We pay a fair hourly wage, plus our Baristas get to keep ALL of their tips. (Unlike other downtown merchants and a very large coffee house where tips go back to the house.) I don’t begrudge anyone who wants to make more money and I wish her well in her pursuit. As to whether or not “It fucking sucks here” you have spent enough time here and have enough insight into our operations that I think you know this is not an accurate depiction of what it is like to work here.

We have hired 3 new Baristas, all with previous food / coffee experience. One is from out of town. Another did 7 years at Great Harvest, baking and making espresso. The third is the former Manager of the Brownstone. Each of them individually has more experience than the 3 that left us combined. The two from Idaho Falls have already started and they each know as many of our regulars as I do. To say “That leaves one girls who know what she is doing and a bunch of coffee-newbs” is not an unfair and inaccurate depiction of the people who work here.

When we took over we had 3 Baristas. We now have 4 and are interviewing for two more positions this week. I agree, we need more people, but we covered the extra hours by offering our existing Baristas more hours, and thus more money. We did start hiring in anticipation of our evening hours so we had an "extra".

I think your marketing ideas are right on point. So much so that there's no need to address them individually. We did stop hosting evening events until we can figure out how to market it correctly, and due to unexpected increases in our catering business When we took it over our evening event weren’t making enough money to pay for the posters we printed for promotion.

Lastly, we have upgraded our grinders, espresso machine, and made plumbing improvements. The Villa is paying for these improvements on its' own. We are very financially stable and this “fall” you refer to is not coming any time soon. Our doors are open for good and I hope we continue to see you here. If you'd like to know how business is going, I'm happy to discuss it with you at any time.

Chip Langerak

Brandon Lostinidaho said...

Hi Chip, Thanks for Responding.

I am glad things are going better than my eyes have been observing. If numbers are up, than I am thrilled. As I have told you and mentioned in this post, I'm a regular here. I love The Villa, have for a while, and want to see it do well.

Which is one main reason I did this post. I overheard other semi-regulars talking to each other one day, saying "Wow, talk about a mass exodus of employees... I wonder if that means customers are next?" The other one responded "I wonder where 'xx' is going. If she's going to that other coffee place, I'll follow her..."

The post was inspired because of all the recent happenings, as well as the customer chatter I've been hearing. (and if it's interesting to me, I usually write about it) I was (and am) concerned, especially when I seem to come during more slow times than busy times. I'm glad there is no big 'fall' coming as you see it, but I see the fall more as a lull in potential.

I chatted on and off with the old owner, and things were 'just so' when she owned it. And that was fine. She knew it takes money to make money, but didn't invest in growing the business. Watching you take over has been a breath of fresh air, and things are trending upward. Recently, from an observational standpoint, it felt like things were trending back to 'the old days.' Not necessarily a business-ending scale, but a red flag nonetheless.

Again, I am glad to hear that perception is not reality. I know (and I'm sure you do too) that there is an exponential amount of potential here, and plenty of room to grow. Once the 'coffee newbs' get settled (and stop looking so doe-eyed) I am sure they'll do great. Any time a major personnel reset happens, the odds of complete failure are huge. HUGE. I'm glad The Villa is passing the test.

p.s. - The 'fucking sucks' employee? She is one I won't really miss. She never seemed in a good mood, and negative vibes are contagious. I'm sure if there was a 'comments' box somewhere in the shop, you would have heard more about it before now...

Katsidhe said...

Great marketing tips, and that's pretty cool that Villa has actually seen them and responded. I hope that they continue to grow since individual places have a lot more charm than chain places. (You know which I speak I guess.)

villacoffeehouse said...

Thanks for letting me put in my 2 cents worth. And I agree that a new marketing plan if long overdue for us. Thanks also for being a regular and caring enough about us to write the article in the first place.

Brandon Lostinidaho said...

@Chip: Any time you want to chime in, feel free. I not only love hearing from all sides, but I want to make sure my writing is as accurate as possible. I make changes if I don't have the story straight.

@Kat: Not only to indies have more charm, they're better for the community. I started in the Pet Industry in 2002, and learned the value of independent businesses vs big-box stores. I became 'the champion of independent pet business' and it eventually evolved into just 'independent business' in general.

I'm a huge supporter of the 3/50 project.

I used to market myself to small businesses to help them grow (website building, marketing, etc) and plan on doing that again very soon.

Lastly, I try to walk the talk. Sometimes you just have to go to a Walmart or Target, but I try to stay local. Using the Villa as a prime example, you'll never see me in an Idaho Falls Starbucks.

On that note, here's a generic call-to-arms for all of you playing along at home: Go support your local independent businesses!

Haven said...

Aw, it's really cool that you have a dialogue going with the owners. Neat.

Amy said...

I watched our local butcher, about 5 blocks from our house spend money on really dumb things and ultimately go out of business. I BEGGED him to let me help. Broke my heart.

The Empress said...

I would like to hear more about your own business.

Deets, please?

Brandon Lostinidaho said...

Working on the web design, pricing, and all that jazz. Expect a full launch at the end of the month.

Unknown said...

Best to the Langeraks on their new venture. I am delighted in the addition of the turkey avacado wrap which I just ordered again today. Also, the new addition of especially decadent lemon bars is a home run; I would wager they are the best in town.

My business and my heart are in downtown Idaho Falls and LOVE seeing great ideas, improvements and energy flowing.

Thanks for taking a chance.

Lisa Fischbach
Agency Principal
MCS Advertising
413 B Street
www.mightymcs.com

Brandon Lostinidaho said...

Hear hear. (...and they have Lemon Bars now??)

One thing I would love to see is a presence at the local Farmer's Market. They are the closest coffee shop to the event, and could easily have someone there handing out coupons.

...maybe even drink delivery service? Coffee delivery every 15 minutes (or so).

- Someone there takes the orders at the event and calls (texts) them in.
- Person #2 makes the drinks in-house.
- Person #3 delivers the drinks and is adored by all.

If they get Square or GoPayment, taking electronic payment for the drinks would be quick and easy. I would definitely pay a little extra for this service, as well as tip nicely!

Ashton Jones said...

If you haven't checked out tuscan villa rentals then you don't know what you're missing. They have some pretty fancy home for a pretty cheap cost.

Patrick Shearer said...

Hi Brandon,
You seem to be trying to give advice for the villa on how to bring in more customers, Yet you are publishing a negative press article. This in fact does the opposite to your beloved cafe. You should be supportive to the new owners and god knows Idaho falls needs better cafes with better hours. I am one of the new employees chip was hiring that week. I worked in town at the barnes and noble for 2.5 years in their cafe, if you want to see a cafe ran poorly that doesnt care about regulars. Go there. The villa actually know what a good shot of espresso should be, and most of their baristas should as well. The villa is the only place in town I have seen that gets the cafe vibe that so many wish they could get, and the only place that I have seen that actually has latte art, or employees that know what a good shot or drip should taste like since we drink them all day. The owners are trying to new hours to give people more chances to drink better coffee. This takes time because it mostly spreads through word of mouth. Please come in again, hopefully when I am working, I am excessively tall and take pride in my work and my pursuit of bettering my skills as a barista every day. I will gladly make you the best quality latte you will find in Idaho Falls, and maybe then you can write a new article that actually supports a business that sells an amazing product in a community where over half of the population swears it off irrationality.
Thank you,
Look forward to helping you soon.
PS

Brandon Lostinidaho said...

Hi Patrick,

Point taken, and I have been looking forward to writing a 'turnaround' post for some time now. While business is picking up, I still think there is room to grow before I can call The Villa 'great' again.

Chip & Alexis are working along that path, so things can (and should) be getting good soon. With time, things will get better.

(And I'm not talking about numbers or sales; I'm sure those are organically growing. I mean service, rapport, and overall customer satisfaction. 2 out of 3 times I visit, I or someone else at some point has to wait 2-3-4-10 minutes before someone is up front to help them. 1 out of 3 times, someone gets fed up and leaves...)

Patrick, the only reason I penned this piece here was because my Idaho audience is so small. My Eastern Idaho audience even smaller. This blog is popular with those wanting to know about Idaho, and not those that already live here. 6, maybe 7 Eastern Idahoans frequent this blog (I look at stats a lot...) and Chip, to my surprise, is/was one of them. If I wanted to bash the Villa in a public arena, I'd do a Vandersloot and put it in the Post Register...

I like the Villa. A lot. Despite getting dirty looks now and then, I still frequent the place and support it as much as I can. But I can say this: If I were the owner, I would have done a satisfaction survey long ago. Good service and a good reputation are more important to me than good numbers.

Glad to have you aboard. You've served me a few times and you know your stuff. :)

Jenny said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Brandon Lostinidaho said...

It's a goal of mine, Jenny (and thank you). Unfortunately, most people think you need an MBA to know anything about business, management or leadership. A recent post I did about gaming states otherwise.

When people grasp 21st century ideas and strategies and realize a piece of paper means very little these days, I'll be in business. :)

Brandon Lostinidaho said...

...oh, wait, you're spam. Nevermind, DELETE.

Dancer McGavin said...

Brandon-I too am one of the so called "newb" baristas at the coffee house. I don't think 8 years of espresso and baking experience makes me a newbie, but to each their own perception. While some ponts are valid, I think you have it all wrong about the fleeting business. Just last Friday I probably made 50 coffee drinks back to back, while Alexis had to run the register and the other employee in the back makin food. And this was a 5 hour happening. Yes there are times when it looks slow (as in any business) but the quality of our product reflects in our numbers. As a small non for profit business owner myself I know how hard it is to market and get your product recognized. Chip and Alexis are doing an amazing job. And can I say how nice it is to finally work for good honest hard working people...can't say that about many of the businesses downtown. I love working at The Villa, and I have had several compliments on my coffee, including many out of town-ers AND returning local customers. Everybody has their own opinions and perceptions, but until you spend 8 hours a day, 4 or 5 days a week there, you wont know much about the flow of business. I' hope that I'm there one day to make you a delish cup o Joe.

Dancer McGavin said...

Brandon - I too am one of these so called "newb" baristas at The Villa. And while I have only been employed by them for a few months, I have 7 years coffee and baking experience. I drink coffee, I make coffee and I know coffee. The Villa has some of the best in town, and that's not a bias opinion. I respect your opinion and appriciate some of the comments made. Everyone has their own perception, but I must disagree with you on one of your major points. Business is in no definition of the the word 'fleeting'. We stay super busy! Lunch time is not a busy time of day for coffee drinkers, come in on a Friday around 10 and you'll see what I mean. Just last week we had a 5 hour span where we produced about 50 coffee drinks and sandwich after sandwhich.
And on behalf of those who are new to the coffee scene, it is no easy task to learn this skill. It takes time and patience and it's a hard job. Just as in ANY new job, There is anxiety and frustration, and it takes awhile to get he hang of things. As far as quality goes, I've had several out of town-ers that have complimented my coffee, along with many return local customers. Patrick had a fellow tell him it was he best coffee he has ever had!!
Also, doesn't it say something about the business if we are able to stay open late regardless of the few customers?? It reflects in the numbers.
Chip and Alexis are doing an amazing job, and as an owner of my own local non profit business I know that marketing is one of the toughest parts. And can I just mention how nice it is to finally work for good/honest/hard working people???

Patrick Shearer said...

Hey Brandon thanks for getting back to me!
I'm sure we all would appreciate a turnaround post, maybe not saying that it is perfect, but that it is on a clear upward direction. I have pretty strong history and experience with photoshop and have been making some drafts for posters and flyers etc for the villa which would definitely spread our name and reputation . Next time
You are in ask me for a latte and I'll show you my latest improvements in latte art, a skill which takes practice and precision. Latte art I think is often overlooked as gimmicky but it shows the customer that we know how to froth foam, not just put air in their latte, and we know how to pull that smooth creamy espresso shot that all cafes should strive for. I only say this because when I was talking to a friend of mine who works at another cafe in town, she said she wish she could make latte art, but the manager said it wasn't possible on their machines, which is a lie. Chip and Alexis embrace and encourage us baristas to get better everyday and the increased frequency of art makes that apparent.
Us coffee lovers may be few in SE idaho so we must stand sting and together.
Look forward to serving you again soon
Cheers,
Patrick

Brandon Lostinidaho said...

To Patrick and Dancer -

Make sure to read the comments as well as the article. I love the Villa and still frequent there, and I am definitely seeing improvements overall.

When I decided to write this post is when customers were talking. Remember to think from a customer's view, where perception is reality. They saw 3 of the 4 baristas leave at almost the same time. One was talking smack on her way out. Customers started to talk, to worry, and wonder what was going on. The rumblings around the couches made me decide to write this.

Yes, business is picking up. No, you all aren't 'noobs' anymore. But you have to admit, those first few weeks everyone was quiet and had an overwhelmed look on their faces. Big BIG kudos for Alexis and Leah for making sure the transition went as smoothly as possible, and big kudos to the staff there now. It is a very strong team, and my drinks are always top-notch.

However, like I mention in my response to Patrick, there is still room to go. Minor things now, but still areas of improvement.

- Awesome new music selection. Pandora? A+
- The internet still blows. A lot of laptop-slingers come in, and when I'm there I can barely get a page to load. Not that I like them, but the BV in town has awesome internet (but that's about it).
- Sometimes there is a lull in service. Nobody at the front counter, or hiccups here or there. Like I mentioned, I have seen people walk out after waiting too long. 'Regularly' is too strong a term, but I can still say 'consistently.'

And Patrick, Latte art is HUGE. What I would love to see is a regional latte art competition like you sometimes see on TV. Take the best of Southeast Idaho and have a latte-lympics. It would be good PR, and lots of fun for everyone. Plus, if you're as good as you say you are, you can win and the Villa will have another cool thing to brag about.

The good news is I am working on a "must see" list for those ever coming in to Idaho Falls. The first thing I wrote on my list was The Villa. Look for that soon (assuming you'll come back and read other things...)

Dancer McGavin said...

Sorry for the double comment- you may delete one if you like, I was writing from my phone and didn't think it sent. Oops. Anywho, forgive us if we are quick to defend the new owners and our beautiful veneu we have here at the Villa. I did read all the comments, and I realize that there are several positive ones! We just wanted to get our ponts and viewpoints heard as well! We love what we do and take pride in our jobs!

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