Strong coffee is good, but strong culture is great.

Is it your lifelong dream to open your own cafe, restaurant or small business? Have you been scrimping and saving just to get the bricks and mortar together? Have you already picked out your incredible coffee supplier [Commonfolk obvs]. If you’ve made it this far you should be patting yourself on the back, it’s a massive achievement to have a clear vision and idea. With a solid plan and some hard work, anything is possible!

Commonfolk was dreamt up by a motley crew of people from all different backgrounds - a zoologist, a senior pastor, a personal trainer and an aeronautical engineer to name a few. Who would have thought that crazy combo would survive the first year in our old tin shed in the back streets of Mornington’s industrial estate. Yet here we are seven years on still living the dream!

Our story isn’t an uncommon one; we’ve had to overcome challenges, commit to the quality of our coffee, prioritise customer service and aim for consistency in all things we do. We’ve learnt a bit over the last few years (ok, a lot), and while the dream continues to unfold, we’re astounded by the growth and success of the Commonfolk family. Because of this, we’ve been able to partner with heaps of local businesses as they commence or continue their dream too! While there’s no secret formula to running a business in the hospo industry, there are some non-negotiable aspects that we’ve learned have to be a high priority to keep your business baby alive. Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of what we know to be important for a great cafe culture.

The first thing to know is that people create culture. Strong coffee is good but a strong culture is great! From the outside, Commonfolk looks like it’s in the coffee business serving people, in reality we’re in the people business serving coffee! Without exceptional people who understand and truly buy into the vision and values of your business, the dream quickly becomes one that comes and goes in the blink of an eye. My philosophy around people has always been simple, if they are the creators of your culture, they’re your biggest asset! So look after them; treat them with respect, make sure they feel valued and give them a pathway to grow in their role. As obvious as it may be, paying well helps! Give your culture creators the incentive to grow your dream and you’re on your way to a long term and sustainable business.

The next, and perhaps most important, thing to note is at the heart of any hospitality business must be the desire to serve. In my view, the service culture in Australia is often hit and miss. In light of that, any cafe or restaurant that works out how to deliver a genuine and warm experience for their guests, in the unique flavour of their business, is one that stands the test of time. It’s a big reason why I believe Commonfolk works. The truth is, whatever your role, the hospitality industry is hard to crack; and having a heart to serve means more than just turning up every day and going through the motions.

True hospitality is being kind and generous, exceeding expectations even on the days when you don’t feel like it.

Consistency is what will set you apart from the rest; it solidifies your culture and builds a community that comes back again and again, and not just for the great coffee.

Part of building a good culture means including people other than your employees! The next thing to consider is knowing your family. What do I mean? Well, it’s simple, know your guests by name, get to know their partner, their kids or their dog! When you make a genuine effort with people you build relationships, and they become much more than a transaction, they are your friend! Commonfolk is a second home for a lot of people. Building an environment where people feel comfortable with the staff and community enough to work, catch up or relax in your space doesn’t happen by accident. Seeing people happily spend a whole day in a concrete factory is a great indication of the culture we’ve built. Knowing your café family does not happen overnight, and certainly doesn’t mean there won’t be ups and downs - what family doesn’t have them? It’s good to know these people are there to support you and help you grow, and if you’re really doing something right, will bring others to meet you!

It blows my mind just how many hospitality businesses exist in Australia and how competitive the industry has become. To be honest, everyone seems to be doing the same or similar things; sell coffee, serve food and try to meet customer expectations. If you’ll take it from me, my strong encouragement is to be different, and know it’s OK if you are!

The best way to build your cafe culture is to base it on who you are and not change to suit an audience. You will attract the people you’re after if you stick to your guns and do what you know. You do you! At Commonfolk we’re definitely a little left of centre, alternative in our approach to specialty coffee, and definitely unconventional in the way we do everything else. But it works! It’s our style and our way, and for some reason,
it appears to be working! As said at the start, there’s no silver bullet in building a café and it’s culture, these are some things that have worked for us. They have guided the decision making of the leadership and grounded our business in what we know we do well - that is, coffee and people! There is no quick fix!

Hospitality is hard, we won’t kid ourselves! Thinking otherwise won’t get you far because in reality you have to work hard to make the dream come to life. For those doing what we do, or thinking of jumping in (hats off to you!), remember the reasons why you had the idea in the first place. Really, all these things apply to any business owner. Remain passionate about what you do, genuinely value your employees and customers; open your doors everyday and commit to bringing your best for the people around you. For us, that’s a relentless approach to perfection in every coffee, every dish and every interaction.

Building a great culture takes time, and it starts with you. Soon you’ll look back at something you’re proud of. Thanks for being part of the Commonfolk family; we couldn’t do it without you!

BlogSam Keck