Startup Culture Isn’t As Glamorous As I Thought It Would Be
When we imagined opening our small business, it was all glamour and excitement. We saw in our mind’s eye, a chic little sandwich shop that would be the talk of the town. The hipsters would line up around the block to get a taste of our fare, and we’d have a cash drawer overflowing with the efforts of our hard work.
The thing is, we didn’t have startup money. We quickly realized that it’s difficult as a newbie restaurant to get loans from the bank. The restaurant biz is widely known as a fool’s errand, due to high turnover rates and stiff competition. Most financial institutions are wise to this insider information and tighten their pockets when even the mention of a food establishment comes up.
Although my husband, Jamie, has years of kitchen and managerial experience, we were green to small businesses, so the entire endeavour was foreign territory to us. We quickly found that this was our first dilemma; how to get some dollar bills in our pocket.
So less than a year after having the “what about starting up a sandwich shop” conversation, we sold our home, downsized our mortgage and moved four hours away to the city of Lethbridge, Alberta.
This series of movements left us with a meagre startup budget. When I say meagre, I mean meagre. I’m pretty sure that some restaurants spend the same amount on their HVAC systems as we spent on our entire startup.
We made mistakes.
We went with a bay that had been stripped down to the bones. A savvy business owner might have cut a deal with the landlord, asking them to install the air intake system in return for a slightly higher rent price. We, however, did not realize this was an option, so we went at it alone.
We had to purchase all of our own equipment and ventilation, there were about ten electrical outlets less than what we needed, drastically limiting our options for setting up our cooking line.
This all meant we had minimal budget left for decor. We DIY’ed a lot. It turns out, that was part of our charm. We’d have customers comment daily on our weird and eclectic decorations and our homemade tables and chairs.
Of course, it wasn’t all compliments and kisses: Marco Z from Yelp found our concept “confusing and awkward” and gave us a 1-star rating.
It was our first bad review, and I cried for days over it. I cried like tweenager cries when her dad comes home with the wrong iPhone on her birthday.
As a small business, it is difficult when one receives terrible reviews. It feels as though that one comment could and will shut you down. Now looking back, Marco Z had some solid points.
For example, why were we calling ourselves a café without even having an espresso machine? Also, forgetting to put music on and having people walk into a silent abandoned “cafe” may have been a bit creepy. I get it.
When you’re a small business owner, with a dwindling budget and rent due at the end of the month, sometimes the aesthetics can slip through the cracks.
So after a brief pity party spent with a bottle of wine, spooning my Bichon Shi Tzu Chevy, and blubbering about my work-woes to his uninterested doggy ears, I returned to the grind and started making some changes.
We stopped calling ourselves a café and started using buzz words like “bistro” and “bakery.” We made sure the radio was turned on each morning, and there would always be someone available to greet incoming customers. We didn’t do anything about our decor because, well, we were still pretty poor. No amount of constructive criticism from Marco could change the cold hard facts, man.
I still think about that first bad review because we never had another one like it, but now I can see its value and acknowledge how we as a company grew from it. So I guess what I’m trying to say is, thank you to all the Marco Z’s out there, you keep small businesses like ours in a constant state of angst and begrudging evolution.
It wasn’t all trial and error, though, we did make a few smart decisions. All of our equipment was bought second-hand but in good condition. Our panini presses — the bread and butter of a sandwich shop — are simple Hamilton Beach home-style presses. They were reliable and got the job done.
It was tempting to seek out shiny new equipment, like those we had imagined in our pre-business days. However, we didn’t want to have to reflect the price of 500 dollar presses onto our sandwich prices. So we kept our budget low and free of embellishments.
I look back and see the evolution of our little mom & pop sandwich shop, and I am in awe. We made so many mistakes. So many parts of this business did not come naturally to us. We arrived blind, and we felt our way through the rough patches. We scrambled at times. And fought for inches forward only to be thrown back with necessary bay upgrades and unexpected bills and taxes.
Some days I’d find myself huddled in the bathroom crying because a customer nonchalantly called me stupid. After all, we didn’t have the specific sandwich meat he had asked for. These things actually happened; this is not a writer’s embellishment. For some reason being behind a counter opens a person up to all sorts of horrible name-calling.
The fantasy of a sophisticated business owner was quickly fading.
In the beginning, we assumed that hiring staff would be easy, and we could spend our time fleshing out the hard work like bookkeeping, advertising and menu development. It didn’t take us long to discover that staff would not be in our future anytime soon.
On top of paying their wage, there were hundreds of dollars we’d have to provide our government in worker’s compensation fees and deductions each month. So once again, reality hit us, and we accepted that we were in this alone.
There were times when Jamie was overcome with book work, and it felt as though the pressure of a business that was still being built might break him in two.
Although I am a morning person, my 4 a.m. wake-ups to get the fresh bread and baked goods in the oven before opening the store had begun to grind on me. Jamie would arrive at the shop by 10 a.m. and stay well after closing time (6 p.m.) to clean and finish up paperwork.
Our children, 7 & 9, made box forts in the unfinished basement of the bay and explored the crumbling brick walls looking for ghosts and monsters while my husband and I served lunch to hungry patrons.
Our family lived this way for three years while we ran a semi-successful sandwich shop.
Our food was real and unburdened by the mass production of so many chain restaurants these days, and our loyal customers loved this about us. They also loved that we were a real family business. Some days we’d have the kids scrubbing dishes in the kitchen or bussing tables while schmoozing with the elderly customers who’d come in for coffee each morning.
Despite our constant growth over the years we were open, we still did not get the opportunity to hire staff. Yes, there were a few times we’d hire one or two part-timers during the busy season, but it was not enough to give us reprieve from our hectic work schedules.
It didn’t take long for the burnout to hammer down. Eventually, we knew there was a decision to be made. It would take many more years of struggle and exhaustion to become the wealthy business owners we had dreamed about in those early years, and we weren’t confident our family could hold on for that much longer.
Mistakes were made, but so were sandwiches. When we decided to sell the shop, this was our unspoken motto. We held on as long as we could, but in the end, we realized that not all dreams could come to fruition.
July marks the first anniversary of shutting down our sandwich shop, and it makes me reflect on those early imaginings. Our dreams were so grandiose, so immature in retrospect.
Opening a business isn’t about the fame or fortune of entrepreneurship despite what so many Hollywood movies tell us.
It is really about the product and setting up relationships and trust between you, and those who want what you can provide.
In this respect, I look back on our adventures as a small business and think we won. We may not have lasted as long as I had hoped, and the glamourous lifestyle I had imagined of the restaurant world wasn’t even close to that of reality.
Still, we made a good many people smile with our food, and that is something that exceeds glamour every time.