What Does It Take To Run A Cafe? We Speak To A Kemptown Cafe Owner On His Experience and Tips
[Text for Social Media]: Brighton & Hove is becoming known for it’s coffee culture. Cafes have popped up all over the city but some are standing out from the crowd. We spoke with the owner and manager of Cup of Joe – an independent Kemptown Cafe with a reputation for warm welcomes, warm cups, and hearty local produce.
On a cold Brighton morning I wandered into Cup of Joe, an independent cafe in Kemptown, known for it’s cosy community atmosphere, for a warming cup of coffee and a warming chat with Georges, the cafe’s owner and manager, and an expatriate from France who made the move to England 24 years ago and has never looked back.
I wanted to know more about him, more about what it is like running a successful cafe in Brighton, and more about what makes Cup of Joe stand out from the stiff competition that had developed in Brighton & Hove on the back of the rise of the city’s cafe culture.
Georges firstly talked to me a little bit about his experience within the service and hospitality industries, which lead him to decide to break from the often high-stress environment of events and restaurant management, and take up the new challenge of running a cafe.
“I’ve been in this industry for many years, including working in hotels as an events manager. I’m also a wedding planner, so I’m used to working very closely with people, trying to get them exactly what they want. To put everything right, to organise, to have a high attention to detail. It’s quite stressful but its what I like to do.”
“The coffee shop was an attempt to improve my quality of life. Just daytime work and having my evenings and bank holidays at home. It was about being my own boss, that was the idea. No alcohol so if people want to have their fun after 5 then they can go and I can close. It was about spending more time with my partner, my friends and family, my home.”
“In hotels I’ve been the duty manager, and in big hotels you have to deal with lots and lots of problems. For me this is much more relaxed, especially now after two and a half years I know exactly what I’m doing. I didn’t know how to run a coffee shop before, I didn’t even know how to make a coffee.”
“I said “Me, a coffee shop?”, “I don’t know a thing about it”, but I learned and I think its very good fun, it’s brilliant, I love it.”
“I had to set up a menu for snacks and food which depends on the license you’ve got. I’m French but I live in England. I can’t think too French because it might not work.”
“I’ve been in England for 24 years now. I opened the cafe in May 2015 and it’s been going very well so far, absolutely amazing. Kemptown is a nice area, it’s like a small village, I get to know people. When they pass the door I like to know their name and call at them through the room.”
Cup of Joe stands out in the crowd and has developed an atmosphere that you rarely find in Brighton’s cafes, one removed from the pretence that is often bound to the cluttered coffee and cafes throughout the city.
It has a strong community atmosphere, something that you notice from the moment you enter, and this is something that Georges has worked hard to foster. Everyone gets a warm welcome in this cafe, and you’ll find lots of cross table chatting which is a nice change from the often isolationist experience of some of the other cafes in the city.
I mentioned this community atmosphere to Georges, and asked him to elaborate a little bit on how he has created it.
“Yeah, you can make it a good atmosphere. You make it. I’ve tried to make it very friendly. Everyone that passes through the door should feel at home. They should feel special. I love doing it, for me it doesn’t take any effort, I’m just like that.
“Sometimes customers come and at first they’re quite shy, but then we start talking and I have to make an effort to remember the name. That’s the hardest part! I have to write them down sometimes so I don’t have to keep asking, but sometimes I keep asking, or sometimes I’ll send somebody else to find it out, after a few times I have to. [Laughs]
“But the outcome of all this is just to create a signature. Before I started running this place I didn’t really know what a coffee shop was. But now I think I understand it. You can eat. You can meet people. You can come with your family, but you can also come on your own because I make it feel cosy and accessible to everybody. You can come just for coffee. You can spend less than £2 or have a little snack, but it’s local and healthy.
“Big companies, big restaurants, maybe they’ll get one supplier for all their products, and they don’t know where their products are from. Me I don’t need to worry about it. I buy local from the farm, from the countryside. From the orange juice to the sausages and bacon, it’s all really local. The beans are local too, they’re from ‘Roasted’ which is a Brighton-based coffee roaster.”
One thing you’ll certainly notice is the way that the space is divided up. One one side is the cafe, with tables and chairs, a counter and a kitchen, all to be expected from your average cafe. But one thing that separates Cup of Joe from the crowd is the ‘trading post’.
Half of the store is dedicated to showcasing the products of local makers, up-cyclers, and vintage merchants, which gives the shop a unique charm and character, and gives you plenty of recourse to wander and browse while your coffee or food order is being prepared. Think Snooper’s Paradise meets homely cafe and you’re not far off.
I wanted to find out where this concept came from, and how the space works. I asked Georges about the ‘trading post’, whether he set it up and whether he curates the collection of weird and wonderful items for sale.
“No the trading post was all set up before. The concept is shopping or coffee or both. I have customers that are regulars for the shop but they never ever have a coffee. They’ve never sat here. I have some who are always in the cafe but are never in the shop, and one day they just go while they’re waiting for their food, or after they’ve finished, you know? They can wander.
“The lady who was here before created it [the trading post]. She rented the space so we did the same. We kept it as it was. We rent each unit to sellers, so you get all these different things for sale. It’s stuff from local makers, local artists, vintage stuff. We have a seller who makes cushions with vintage material the old fashioned way. We have vintage clothes, furniture. All these people have so much stuff in their garage and they want to sell it. And here it’s good because they don’t need to be here. I sell it for them and keep all the transactions in the book. The sellers come by every week to collect their money.”
I found this cafe concept very interesting. With a large community of creative people in Brighton who make all sorts of things that they’d like to sell, but without the means to rent out a whole space for themselves, I wondered what someone would have to do to get their products on display.
“They could make an enquiry and I’d keep the details. We’d put them on a waiting list. We have for the new year a couple of departures, so we already contacted new people to fill their spot. So in a way you can have new things, refresh the shelves, and the regular people that are used to coming here will see ahh! Something new!”
I wanted to get back to what Georges said about the community atmosphere in Cup of Joe as I felt that it was a large part of the cafe’s signature, (as Georges put it). It’s something that I noticed almost immediately the first time I visited the shop, and was something that kept me coming back whenever I was in the area. It seemed to me to be comparatively unique as a space, and as Georges has been living in Brighton for the last 18 years, I wondered whether he could shed some insight into the ways in which Brighton’s cafe culture has developed and changed over this period.
“Yes it has [changed a lot], 18 years ago you could eat but in a restaurant only. You could go to the cafe for a muffin or cake but not like a healthy salad, or an open toastie. Nothing like that. Now you can eat as well as in a restaurant for cheaper, you know? Because I think that if it is healthy and the plate is not full. Sometimes you don’t want to have too big of a meal in the day, so maybe at lunchtime the culture in England is that they like to eat a nice English breakfast. When you have one of those I think it keeps you going until evening, but you need an afternoon tea you know?
“And that I think is a culture, having an afternoon in a cafe. You can’t have an afternoon tea in a restaurant. You can’t do that. It’s closed you know? So in this place you can do everything. You can eat, you can have afternoon tea, you can eat at any time from the menu, and the cakes again are from local companies based in England for generations, there are homemade cakes also, homemade brownies, flapjacks. That is what I want to do you know? I think it’s part of the afternoon tea, at 4 o’clock, when you want to have something after your lunch and before your dinner. If you have your dinner at 8 o’clock and you eat at 12, at 4 o’clock you want something to eat, like a scone. That’s classic English.”
Running my own cafe is a long standing daydream of mine, and I know for a fact that lots of other people share this cosy vision, but I wanted to see if Georges had any tips or warnings for anyone looking to take this daydream and put it into action.
“I think thats the advantage to opening a cafe, well what I will say to people who want to open a coffee shop is that they have to choose a nice coffee. That’s so important. And I think now the coffee culture has developed in England and become a part of the national taste. It used to be mostly tea but coffee is taking a big place in the national imagination. People will remember a good coffee. If it’s disgusting or bitter you know they will remember, they will talk.”
“You have to have a nice coffee. Then the cakes must be good, the place must be clean and tidy, and I think the welcome needs to be warm. You need to greet people. It’s a whole experience. I think you have to like people to get into this business, because I think in coffee shops you get a lot of regular people. If it’s the right space they can come back because they have some time, or they want to work a little bit. If they come once alone, then they might come back with family.”
“My cafe is an arts coffee place. You can come and everything is for sale. You have exhibitions, pictures, you have also got homemade cakes and home cooked food. You’ll feel very welcome. I try to make it relaxing. The music is important, it’s based on your brain. Sometimes in a shopping centre you have to have loud music, it makes you spend more money. Here, sometimes, with the jazz I put on, you order a coffee and you just relax, so that two hours later you’ve been here and you say ‘oh my god’. I always keep it relaxed.”
But Georges came to this cafe venture with bundles of experience. He ran his own French restaurant in Clapham before relocating to Brighton and found the two experiences to be wildly different. I asked him what the over-riding difference was in running a restaurant vs running a cafe.
“It was more difficult. Running a restaurant is much more difficult than a cafe. In terms of the storage of food, all the produce and products you need to buy, the wine you need to have. It costs much more money to run and it’s a lot more stressful.
“A cafe is much simpler. If you look at my menu here, you’ve got to provide healthy food, very simple but very tasty. If food that’s not going to stop you having dinner later on in the evening, but it depends on your appetite. If you’re a big eater then you eat. But there are some that don’t eat that much, so we offer a nice balance.
“A restaurant is very hard and I don’t get the same customers. It’s a less friendly atmosphere. Everything costs so much more so that if something goes wrong its a big drama. Whereas with the coffee here, maybe if we’ve made a mistake we can change it and move on and forget about. In Coffee shops, if something goes wrong you can just change it.”
It is very hard not to like Georges, and he puts so much of himself into his cafe which makes it equally hard not to like Cup of Joe in Kemptown. His warmth and charisma bleed out into the cafe, making a strong signature brew centred around a community atmosphere and community produce.
“All I want to do it make people feel comfy. To make them feel at home, you’re welcome here. And I want to treat everybody the same. I want to keep the same high standard of food and consistency. Keep it cool and relaxed, that is what I do, that’s all.”