“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” Winston Churchill famously said, a lesson we’ve taken to heart at Coffeebar during this strangest of years.
As we look back at the wildly altered landscape that is 2020, we are profoundly grateful to be here.
Like so many hospitality businesses, we were blindsided by the Covid shutdowns. Almost overnight, we shifted from our high-gear years of enthusiastic growth and expansion into reverse. Like small businesses around the world, we were plunged into a battle for survival—but the battlefield turned out to be an amazing classroom.
Lesson One: It’s okay to slow down and smell the coffee.
When you’re a fast-growth company, you tend to focus on the bright and shiny future. And when you’re an entrepreneur, you’re told you have to have “big, hairy audacious goals” (BHAGs) and strive for them. And we set Coffeebar BHAGs: number of stores, revenue, headcount. We created exciting strategic plans. We went for it.
But as the great poet Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face.”
When the pandemic hit, sales went off a cliff, plummeting to 20% of normal. We’d been experiencing years of non-stop growth and had never even considered the possibility of a rainy day. We had no reserves, because our crazy growth had been devouring cash. With 8 locations, we’d invested in a leadership team that could take us to 10 stores by the end of the year.
By mid-March, reality had set in and it wasn’t pretty. We realized quickly that we did not have a playbook that would enable us to respond to Covid. With a wildly uncertain future ahead of us, we shut down stores, reduced hours, and started negotiating with all of our vendors and landlords. Because we didn’t know how the virus was transmitted, we gave our staff the option to work or not work in the cafes. But even for those who made the choice to stay, there were furloughs. We didn’t have the hours to employ more than two to five people per day, when normal staffing levels had been 20-30 people.
In the back office, responsibilities were reshuffled. We looked inward for talent to fill the gaps. Our front line teams stepped up, with everyone working harder to ensure that our guests were taken care of.
World coffee domination is great, but I now understand that growth can never be our primary mission.
A growth-first mindset just isn’t sustainable. And while it’s fun and flattering to be the belle of the coffee ball, we’ve learned that we can’t accept every invitation we receive to “dance” in new markets.
Instead, we’ve committed to building on a solid foundation, and ensuring that we can keep our commitments to our staff and the families who depend on them. That starts with re-envisioning our core stores, and developing awesome new offerings for our current customers. We’re excited to reinvent and refresh the Coffeebar experience for the very folks who’ve been by our side through thick and thin.
Lesson Two: We can’t just expect the unexpected...we have to become the unexpected.
One of the thrilling side effects of a near-death experience is the realization that virtually everything is up for grabs. “We’ve always done it that way” can turn into, “What if we did it this way?” As we began to brainstorm new ideas to take better care of our customers, suddenly all sorts of things were on the table. Our motto became, “There are no stupid ideas!” We started to write a new playbook—one that was designed to be more resilient and more responsive in the face of uncertainty.
When grocery store shelves emptied, Coffeebar started selling care boxes with essential products; we leveraged our vendor connections to open pantries in our stores, selling fresh veggies and even hard-to-find household supplies. (Would you like some nice two-ply with your latte?) We created “Frontline Gift Cards”, inviting people to pre-purchase coffee for essential workers, who could then enjoy a restorative cuppa for free. We even developed a new online ordering platform in just three weeks.
We performed a top-to-bottom company reorganization to ensure that everyone’s role was directly connected to their strengths. A can-do spirit bloomed. Everyone, from our management team to our front-line staff, pulled together to problem-solve, innovate and improvise.
Lesson Three: Caring is Critical
While we’ve always worked hard to create a warm welcome, the events of 2020 created a more urgent need for connection and inclusion. If a deadly pandemic didn’t shake things up enough, raging wildfires, polarizing politics, and a vigorous fight for social justice meant that virtually every interaction we had held greater meaning.
Our front line team provided more than delicious food and beverages. There were 30-second therapy sessions at the register. We asked guests about their kids and their cancelled soccer games. We swapped tips on newly discovered trails, and the best shows to binge during quarantine. Sometimes we even cried together. We got to know our community in ways we hadn’t before.
We began to listen more deeply to our team members too, focusing on what they needed and wanted. We tried our best to ensure that when they served guests with frayed nerves, they could still show up as generous, smiling and authentic Hospitalians.
We learned quickly that caring for one another was essential to our survival. We let each other vent, picked up slack or jumped in to help, encouraged each other, sent thoughtful notes and emails, and took the time in meetings to express appreciation. We wove a stronger support system by embracing everyday acts of kindness—things that we might not have thought we had time for in the past. It shifted our priorities.
Lesson Four: They’re not Core Values if you don’t live them every day.
Our company culture is a living thing and a work-in-progress. We’ve put a lot of thought and effort into creating a sense of belonging, inclusion, and significance. We’ve prioritized the well-being of community and family, and emphasized connection over connectivity.
During an economic crisis, it’s tempting for companies to toss aside the “squishy stuff” and revert to Survival of the Fittest mode. Though this may be considered “good business” in a recession, we were grateful to learn that our people-first ethos was the key to our survival. Turns out, our core values were our core job responsibilities, too.
We slowed down, we softened, we made sure to take the time to acknowledge the contributions, large and small, that our team members were making.
And this extended beyond our stores. As the global economy trembled, the important relationships we’ve built with coffee growers and importers overseas, and our financial model of creating impact at origin, became more important than ever. If we were operating from a short-term, purely bottom-line mentality, Coffeebar’s vertical sourcing might have looked like an opportune area to cut back. But we’ve made a long-term commitment to these communities. Connecting the dots between the coffee farmer and the coffee drinker is at the heart of what we do.
2020 has taught us that our core business is creating and nurturing community, belonging, and significance—one cup of coffee at a time.
Lesson Five: Trust your team.
Even when we were down to “fighting weight” with a lean-and-mean team, our workload didn’t change—everything we were already doing was still important. What did change was our focus, shifting from an emphasis on individual talent to the strength of a team as a whole. We learned that we were going to survive or fail not because of the special talents of our stars but on our ability to function as an interdependent, cohesive, flexible, and caring team.
While each of us had to remain focused on our own core responsibilities, there were hundreds of examples of team members assisting each other and doing whatever it took to reach the finish line, together. We made sure “we brought all of us with us”.
That was possible because of trust. As the company founder and CEO, 2020 was the year that I learned how an empowered group of people could live and execute our vision with amazing grace. This lesson began before Covid with the loss of my son Zephyr in November 2019. So many people stepped forward to take on new roles and responsibilities. And for the first time I had no choice but to surrender, and allow myself to be helped.
It was an incredible experience in letting go of control. Sure, there were some missteps, but the accelerated growth in skill and knowledge—not to mention job satisfaction—far outweighed the risks of offering team members the opportunity to “drive the bus”. This was the year I discovered that even if I took my hands off the wheel, we’d still get to our destination.
But I had another realization: because I’d surrounded myself with the right people, I could enjoy the ride itself and worry less about where we were headed. I learned that the journey, even with its inevitable bumps and occasional detours, is what really matters. And being fully on board for the adventure means being Present.
Lesson Six: Gratitude is the key to...everything.
I’m so thankful for both the staff and guests that believe in this company—it’s literally what has kept us alive. I’m grateful to have made all those coffees for the first few years, which connected me personally with so many people...and then to see all those people show up to support Coffeebar because they loved me. It was absolutely humbling.
Gratitude fueled the spirit that enabled us to pivot, and it was a deep sense of gratitude that ensured we never wavered from providing the sprezzatura necessary to serve every guest in this incredibly challenging and polarized environment. By demonstrating our gratitude to the team, their personal reserves of gratitude were replenished, enabling them to show up day after day under the most arduous circumstances.
As expected, some guests did not take kindly to being asked to wear a mask in our cafes. But radical inclusivity is at the heart of our ethos—and there’s nothing more radically inclusive than being kind to someone who’s shouting at you. Our baristas went above and beyond to live the Coffeebar promise, “you belong here”. And it’s gratitude that helps us welcome even the folks who don’t agree with our worldview. (We may just win them over, one cup of coffee at a time.)
As I look back at 2020, I’m so grateful that we didn’t let a good crisis go to waste. In fact, old Winston might even be proud of what we did with ours.
By Greg Buchheister