How (Not) to Become a Business

Here in lower Northern Virginia, we live amidst a sea of chains and franchise businesses. Every once in a while a unique little place opens up and sometimes they stick. And sometimes they don’t.

Last year Don opened Blackstone Coffee, a delightful but tiny place in a good location, at a light, in a little strip mall across the street from a big strip mall. Don is a coffee roaster and he is very good at his job; his coffee blends are delicious. He also sells a small assortment of pastries, but people come there for the coffee. And people come to see Don.

Don *is* Blackstone Coffee. He’s not just the master roaster, he’s gregarious and happy and funny and remembers everyone’s name and what they like and how they like it. There are a couple of stools at the end of the counter, and they are always occupied. My only problem with Blackstone is that if I am in a hurry I won’t stop there because I know it will take at least 10 minutes to get my cuppa joe. When not in a hurry, this is a fun way to spend 10 minutes, as the place is so small you can’t help but feel intimate with every stranger in there with you. When two people are having a conversation, the whole place is involved.

Last Spring, it seemed that Don got really busy for a couple of weeks or so and couldn’t always be at his store any more. He hired a couple of nice college-age kids to work the counter for him when he was out. These kids could have been plucked right out of the Starbucks a mile down the road. Perky, pretty, chatty girls. One of them had a nice boyfriend who sat on one of the stools while she was working.

Can you guess what happened? Blackstone was completely, and I mean *completely* a different place. Suddenly the place was quiet, and people didn’t hang around any more. The girls were nice but they didn’t know anybody, or what they wanted or how they liked it. They were 19 or 20 years old and didn’t have the conversational skills to engage the 30- or 40-something customers. They weren’t Don.

So, within a week or so, the business seemed to sag. I’m sure Don knew (how could he not know?) although I never said anything. Eventually, after a few weeks or maybe a month or so, Don came back, the business came back, the crowds and conversations came back. I stopped in there this morning for my $2 cup of “Zimbabwe Blend” or whatever it was. It didn’t actually take 10 minutes, I think it only took eight. There were at least six customers inside (including two police officers — regulars) and two more customers sitting outside having a business meeting, paper coffee cups in hand. Everyone was lively and chatty and Don and his teenage son were working the crowd from behind the counter.

I love Blackstone Coffee, but I feel a little sad for Don, because his business can’t survive without him. The business is built around his personality, his friends, his personal brand. If he wanted to take some time off or even retire someday, how will he turn over his business to someone else? It couldn’t survive under different ownership, e.g. “non-Don” ownership.

In the meantime, Don loves his business and we, his customers, love him.

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