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Saturday, April 17, 2010

It Takes More than a Wonder Bra (to Support Local Coffee Business)

This post is not about books or bookselling. It’s about coffee. What do you think it takes to meet expenses and make a profit selling coffee and maybe a few donuts or muffins? Why does Barb’s Bakery close in the winter, and what happens when they do? Why did I provide community coffee in the bookstore for only one season? Why did Donna at the Treasure Chest, who took over the following year, not do it this past winter, and why does Jeanette at the Northport Fitness Center, who fueled locals at Brew North in 2010, say she won’t do it again next year? Bottom line: What would it take for anyone to be able to offer Northport the friendly coffee oasis it wants during the months of January, February and March?

The coffee, all by itself, is not expensive, even if you buy the really good stuff. Say you’ve got a municipal water supply. Or, as I did one year, that you drag plastic gallon jugs of your good well water from home every morning—but no, no, let’s not go there! Let’s stick with places with up-to-code coffee-making facilities! The fact is that coffee doesn’t cost a lot to make.

And people who work (or did, before retirement) for paychecks often stop right there in their calculations. They do the same when they go to a restaurant. “We could make this at home for three dollars!” Yes, you could. But the restaurant can’t sell you that meal for three dollars and stay in business. Why?

Assume the simplest possible coffee-donut setup, leaving out full meals and a staff of servers.

Rent. Oh! That! “But they own the building!” Taxes. (Ever get a look at those on commercial property?) Maybe a mortgage.

Utilities. Phone. Garbage and trash removal. Advertising. Heat.

Heat and electric are the winter deal-breakers here in Up North small towns. You keep your business open all winter, you lose money. That’s the bottom line. Give up summer fun in the sun to make your profits (i.e., your living, i.e., what would come in the form of a paycheck if you were working for someone else) and then spend that hard-earned money heating unprofitable space all winter? Would you do it?

Let me put the question in different terms: Would you work all summer for a paycheck, then work all winter without one and also return to your employer the summer pay you’d received for the privilege of working for nothing all winter? How would that make any sense at all?

Well, how do profitable coffee house chains or big city cafes stay in business? By being in cities. Pure and simple. By being in a place with a work force, where people have jobs. Imagine a line of people stopping by on their way to work, on their breaks, on the way home, each spending pretty good money for some fancy variation on liquid caffeine. They get it and go. Or they stay and add an “overpriced” sweet to their bill. Profit! Now picture the contrasting small town scene, where a dozen retired people sit around a table for several hours, hoping against hope for unlimited refills. It’s warm, it’s cozy, it’s congenial. The trouble is, it isn’t profitable.

“Support” is more than keeping a chair warm. If it’s anything at all, it’s spending enough money to keep a business in business. Okay, who needs a donut every day? What if I just buy a cup of coffee, but I do that six days a week. Isn’t that enough? Sadly, no. By March, your provider of caffeinated comfort will be in the hole.

People in small towns don’t like it when businesses close for the winter. Some are just sad and disappointed, while others are downright pissed off. When one coffee place closes and they have to go elsewhere, the pissed-off crowd vows never to return to the one that closed for the cold season. Surprise when the substitute place isn’t open the next year, either!

Is there a solution to this perennial Up North problem, specifically for Northport? I can imagine a few possibilities. Maybe the firehouse coffee scene could be enlarged to make the whole community welcome rather than being a more-or-less closed Republican men’s club. Or maybe some other public building that’s already being heated, such as the township hall (in the same building with the library), could be set up for morning coffee—staffed by volunteers, of course, not township staff! Or, if we want to encourage private enterprise in Northport (and I always sense a bit of ambivalence on this point), perhaps a local coffee house could make it through the winter by selling winter memberships.

What’s it worth to you to have a warm place to visit with friends over coffee on winter mornings? Are you willing to pay the true cost?


Anonymous said...

I suspect that there might be enough people in Up North towns who would buy a Community Supported Cafe membership to keep it going through the winter. The volunteers-at-the-town-hall idea sounds good too. You have given me a little idea.

P. J. Grath said...

Glad I could give you an idea, Gerry. You have given me so many--but I think you do more with ideas than just have them, too.