Things I’ve Learned (that might help you too)

By Nicholas Cho

I’m doing it over together with Trish. And by “it,” I mean “it” in terms of the coffee business.

After building up two coffeebars, coaching four USBC Regional Champions, and establishing a great reputation for our coffee program, I’m starting from scratch now, and I can’t tell you how excited I am and how much fun it’s already been. Whether you’re starting over or starting your first coffee venture, here are the three top things I’ve learned that I’m taking with me into this next do-over:

• Outsource your weaknesses. I’m a pretty good barista, I feel very proud of my personnel management track record, but many know me for losing a coffeeshop to unpaid taxes. Without needing to get into details, one of the first things we’ve done this time around is hire an accountant and a bookkeeper who will oversee our finances.

When you’re starting out, there’s the temptation to try to do everything yourself, but there are some things that you can’t afford to count on yourself for. So whether you’re like me and bad with financial management, or if you’re simply never going to be that great at making coffee, get help! The cost of outsourcing or hiring someone else for that work, or the idea that it would undermine your authority in some way as the owner, pales in comparison to the up side of being able to focus on using your strengths as you build your business. You’ll sleep better too!

• The proof is in the cup. Learn to taste coffee! From the famous barista-champion shops to your competitor down the street to the big-box chain store, taste coffee everywhere you go, and taste it critically. Take SCAA classes on tasting coffee. Get the SCAA Coffee Brewing Handbook (either the condensed or full version). I spent years making what I later discovered was terribly weak and over-extracted drip coffee. I’ve since spent a ton of energy learning about all things coffee, but none of it matters to my customers if my end-product is still not as great as it can be. The key is to learn what great coffee tastes like, but never become complacent about this. After all, you’re a coffee professional, right?

• Build a culture. Let me share with you a little secret that most folks in the industry seem not to know: If you let it, your SCAA membership can absolutely transform your business from the inside out. Yes, there are classes and discounts and your Chronicle subscription, but I believe that the single greatest value that your SCAA membership provides is the opportunity to fill your business with the thing that most small coffee-business owners tell me they most admired about my shops: a culture of coffee excellence. The key word there is “opportunity,” and as you’ve been entrepreneurial about your business or coffee career thus far, use that same spirit and drive to make connections with your fellow members.

The best way is in-person, at one of the growing number of SCAA events. From the annual Expo to regional Professional Development courses to the US Barista Championship Regional Events, these are at their core, gatherings of like-minded folks who you need to get to know, share of yourself with, learn from, learn with, and be inspired together.

Pretty much every coffee company that you admire and read about out there has a story about how their SCAA participation made them what they are today. Now it’s your turn to get out there and make it happen.

Nicholas Cho is the brewing, barista training, and retailing specialist for Wrecking Ball Coffee. Nick founded murky coffee in 2002, which developed to be Washington DC’s premier coffeebar. Over the past few years, Nicholas served as a director on the Barista Guild of America’s Executive Council, on the SCAA’s Board of Directors, and on the World Barista Championship Board of Directors. He was also the 2006 South East Regional Barista Champion.

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