What makes for a great Cafe?

I have always disliked the term “Entertainment Industry”. It smacks of the food and drink equivalent of satanic mills.

The picture above is of Cafe Guerbois. Centred on Edouard Manet, its customers included Emile Zola, Monet, Renoir, Pissaro and Degas. It was the crucible from which the Impressionist movement emerged. Not bad for a cafe.

What I wonder makes for a great cafe? I found myself pondering this question as we find ourselves, hopefully, on the cusp of being able to go back to places to meet. It also begged the related question – which ones have I missed in a year of living antisocially? The answer bothered me. Very few

I think a great cafe, or pub has a number of attributes that set it apart.

  • It has a host for whom what they do defines their life. It is more than a business, it is a way of life.
  • Naturally, it serves wonderful coffee (or beer) with real provenance and pastries made with love, either on the premises or locally. Never, ever from a supermarket.
  • It has great customers who see it as part of their lives. They know each other, it is a social and support hub that is vital to them.
  • It generates great conversation, around things that matter. It catalyses a shared view of the world around them.
  • It has a sense of place. It belongs. It has roots. People would most definitely miss it if it was gone; like they would miss a limb.
  • There is always a successor. The real measure of success is a successor – someone to carry the fire.
  • There is another thing. They are unique, and don’t scale.

There are a few around me, here in Derbyshire, but not many. Within ten miles of where I’m writing this, maybe a handful amongst hundreds of other establishments calling themselves pubs and cafes. These provide a service, and acceptable food and drink, but they have no soul. Often they are owned by someone other than who runs it, and in many cases they are part of a chain, or a franchise, run by an office far, far away. They have something of the zombie about them.

When we’ve done without them for so long, the ones I will go back to and support will be a conscious decision. The handful have all survived, partly because they adapted to find ways to continue to serve those who are their community, and partly because they did not have the levels of debt and overhead that are the product of excessive ambition. They deserve more than support, they command respect.

The same is true of course of any business. A great business is at heart an idea of something. It is not a model, or a process, it is an expression of the idea of the founder on it’s way to becoming reality.

As we emerge from Covid-19 and wait for the next disruption, I think we would do well to consider how, and with whom, we spend our disposable time.

A great cafe feeds the soul as well as the stomach and creates legacy. It’s a model any business can learn from, and asks a question to us – who do we want to work with, how, where and to do what?

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