On a typical muggy summer Florida evening this August, I strolled down Central Avenue in St Petersburg and popped into Community Café. A cluster of twenty-somethings with multi-colored hair, sporting woven hats and screen-printed tees were sprawled across a couple of the café armchairs. They were laughing and passing around cards from a board game. Passing by the local- art-covered walls, I walked to the back counter where Mandy Keyes, owner of Community Café, was swiftly maneuvering the espresso machine. She smiled and nodded when we made eye contact, “I’ll be with you in a couple of minutes.” I sat down at a hand-painted café table to wait for Mandy; we’ve been friends for years, but tonight I was here to learn about her survival skills. You see, she’s an interior designer-turned-café owner, in a city of small businesses that open one day and often close just months later.
According to the United States Census Bureau, in 2013-2014 there were 2,960 new small businesses (employing less than 20 people) in the hospitality industry in Florida. And 2,840 small hospitality businesses closed shop during that time frame1. That’s a net growth of less than 100 businesses for the entire state! Survival in such a tumultuous industry seems bleak, but three years after opening, Community Café is alive and thriving. But how?
“It’s really friggin’ hard, don’t try it.” Mandy laughed and then immediately dismissed her comment. “No, not really.” We sat and talked briefly about her experience as an entrepreneur for a minute before a rush of customers walked in and she had to take their orders.
Changing the lives of customers
While I waited for Mandy, a couple sitting at the table next to me turned and started chatting with me. “We love this place. This is one of the first restaurants we started coming to when we moved to St Pete,” one of them confessed. “Why is it your favorite?” I asked.
“We love everything on the menu, everything’s delicious. And it’s such a happy atmosphere. It’s unpretentious, it’s welcoming, and it’s just a wonderful place to be.”
I smiled and listened while the other man chirped up. They were young and well-dressed—one wearing a dark suit jacket and skinny jeans, the other in a blue dress shirt with freshly-coiffed hair.
“I want to tell you,” the man in the blue shirt said eagerly, “around the third day after we moved here, we were at the beach. We’re a gay couple, you know. And someone on the beach made a homophobic comment that made us feel terrible and afraid. And then we were like, what’s open and safe for us right now? So we searched the web and we found this wonderful haven!”
Mandy returned and we talked with the couple about their experience. St Petersburg, Florida is generally known as an LGBTQ-friendly area. With a population of just over 200,000 people2, last year’s Pride Parade involved over 200,000 attendees3. Did 100% of the city attend Pride? Likely not, but the event draws people from all over the United States.
Serving the community what they want
The young men turned back to their dinner and Mandy and I picked up our conversation. “It’s a place to bring people together,” she said. “It’s a comfy home-away-from-home environment that’s welcoming and accepting to all kinds of people. We have coffee, tea, beer, and wine, and sandwiches and wraps with a lot of vegan and vegetarian options, but we serve meat as well. That way everyone can get what they need and the whole community can come together.”
Listening to her talk about why they feature alternative-diet meals like the Stick-it-to-the-Man Wich, a vegan tofu Philly “cheesesteak” sandwich created for the cafe by a local chiropractor, I reminisced about my own diet experiments when I was in my twenties. It was difficult to find quality vegan food in a restaurant where my non-vegan friends wanted to eat. I would usually eat boring salads in restaurants they would choose, then later stuffed my face with tofu and vegetable-based proteins at home. Not an ideal dining experience!
Knowing what you stand for
When I asked Mandy why the community aspect was so important to her, she shared that she felt like it was her life goal to connect people. “I realized that my passion in life was in my personal life. I would throw theme parties and make people dress up in dorky costumes to break down barriers so people could become friends more easily.”
“We have comfy couches and board games and late night hours, so it’s a good alternative to crazy bars and loud places. Or for people who aren’t of age or people who don’t drink, for when some people are hungry and others are not. Options for everybody.”
It was clear to me that Community Café found its niche in the social space of peace and love, not just food and drink. And it’s this philosophy that has garnered a lot of support from the community. Just this March, Mandy used an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds to replace the grease trap in the kitchen, as mandated by city requirements. The campaign raised $2,000 from friends, customers, and anonymous contributors to cover the expenses.
“But that’s not something you can do all the time,” Mandy made sure to clarify. “When something big and unexpected comes along, the community can help. […] But we reach out a lot on social media more for sharing and connecting.”
Leveraging social media to solve problems
While we talked, Mandy eluded to how much work goes into running her business. It’s more than just making coffee and sandwiches. “Staffing, in general, is probably the hardest thing about running a business. It’s hard to find employees who are dedicated and passionate about the cafe and also competent. We’ve finally gotten to a place where—and it’s taken three and a half years—where most of them care. We’re in a good place for the first time.”
“I wonder if the issue is with the restaurant business, as it generally has high turnover?” I asked. “It does, but we’re cooler than most restaurants,” she confidently stated. “We shouldn’t have as high of a turnover as we have had. And I know at least one reason for that—one very difficult employee who was family. It can be really hard to work with family.”
It’s fairly common practice for small-business owners to hire family, as their resource pool may be limited when they first open. Mandy found relief from her staffing issues by reaching out on platforms where like-minded people would find the café. “Facebook is a good place to look for employees and they just added a job section that’s free to use. Basically, it will reach people who already like your page.” She said, “Even just posting a picture to our Facebook page that says “hey we’re hiring” is more effective because pictures get shared more.”
“Social media got us more employees who are connected and in line with our company vision; we got the employee results that escaped us at first. “
Making memorable experiences
When I asked if she had any advice for entrepreneurs looking to delve into a similar industry, Mandy shared a marketing tip: “We don’t have much of a budget for traditional advertising so we rely a lot on social media. We also have business cards with a free coffee coupon on the back that we hand out in person to people, which is a basic “flyering” technique. That extra little bonus gets them to hold on to the card and remember us.”
And after you’ve been there once, I assure you that Community Café is a colorfully memorable place!