What kind of cafe owner are you?

By Matt Fitzsimmons

A few years ago I was talking to a café owner. He went to work one day as a junior chef and woke up ten years later as the owner of a business. Deep down he was still a chef – but now he had to deal with a bunch of other people. We all know someone like this.

There’s an important business personality framework which is especially pertinent to the café industry, what author Michael Gerber dubs the ‘Technician’, ‘Manager’, and ‘Entrepreneur’ types in his book The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It.

Technicians focus on today, and the next minute, and the next hour. Technicians are good at – and love doing – their skill all day long.

Every company needs Technicians – a chef is an excellent example of a classic modern technician. The problem is when a Technician decides to start a business. The Technician no longer has time to spend all day doing the thing they love doing, the thing that got them into the industry in the first place. They’re not happy, because they can’t do the job they want to be doing. Or, they spend all day doing the thing they like, and the business falls apart because no one’s minding the store. That’s where the Manager mindset comes in, either by changing their expectations or hiring people to help.

Managers love keeping things running efficiently. They love keeping things organised. Their goal is to optimise a team to work effectively. They’re likely not as good at doing what Technicians do, but Managers are there to align resources to help the Technicians produce better work.

In a café or small restaurant, typical Manager roles include supervisor, restaurant manager, front of house manager, Maître d’ or Executive Chef. They’re spending their time doing things like scheduling, training, providing mentoring feedback to junior staff members, and ensuring things get done. Manager contributions are inherently less identifiable than Technicians – their key role is to get things done through other people.

The Manager type has an inherent blind spot. Although they’re great at delegating to maximise efficiency, Managers are not necessarily thinking into the future. For instance, they might optimise how the company produces something that’s no longer relevant. That role is reserved for the ‘Entrepreneur’ type.

Entrepreneurs are focused on the future. Entrepreneurs see things that don’t exist today or combine existing ideas in new ways. They’re good at rallying people to follow them, even when the destination is unclear. While the Technician is focusing on finishing their tasks for today and the Manager is focusing on planning for next month, an Entrepreneur is thinking about what his or her company is doing five or ten years from now. Where a Manager in a café might be figuring out how to deliver faster meals for clients, an Entrepreneur is thinking about what the next food trend is likely to be and how they can be ahead of the curve.

Entrepreneurs aren’t just thinking about new products, they’re thinking about new partnerships they can create, and they’re meeting with people outside the company who can make that happen—advisors, business contacts, and future partners. And they’re getting feedback from clients to identify new business opportunities, beyond the current business model.

You’ve seen those cafés yourself – the ones who still tout their plain product or low prices, who offer last year’s cool product, the businesses that don’t differentiate their offer. They’re comfortable doing things the way they’ve been doing them, and they’re probably efficient at doing it, but the world’s moved on and they’re in the same place.

The danger for the Entrepreneur type is that their desire to move forward can ‘kill the goose that lays the golden egg’. They lose interest in the existing business and keep focused on the ‘next big thing’. Along with a sense of invulnerability, they can charge off chasing the newest trend and not focus on what made them successful in the first place. This is why great Entrepreneurs need even better Managers.

Many smaller cafés can’t afford for the owner to spend all day thinking about the future – totally understandable – but you can block out time to unplug from the daily grind to think about the future.

It’s not easy, without a coaching process or an accountability framework to help you make time for that focus on the future. But if you don’t start adopting some Entrepreneur mindsets in your work, you’ll be in trouble—maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but probably a year from now, and definitely a few years from now.

If you like the day-to-day doing, you may naturally be a Technician. This is good for generating income today but bad for keeping your company organised. You’ll need to accept that you need to spend less time doing and more time managing, or else consider whether you need to delegate management or go back to working as an employee again.

If you like organising teams and maximising efficiency, you may naturally be a Manager. That’s good as a cafe owner, but you’ll still need people doing Technician work, and you’ll need to find a way to make Entrepreneur time to plan for the future.

If you prefer thinking about the distant future and aren’t as concerned about day-to-day doing or organising, you may naturally be an Entrepreneur. That’s good from a long-term perspective, but you’ll need to be sure to recruit Technicians to make and deliver food and Managers to handle operation details, so you don’t inadvertently go out of business in a matter of months.

The ideal cafe owner combines a mixture of Manager and Entrepreneur mindsets. But what if you don’t see yourself there? Keep in mind that not everyone’s going to be happy as a café owner. If you hate ‘manager’ work yet don’t want to get help, you’re going to be in trouble. But that doesn’t mean you can’t adapt. Self-awareness is the first step.

Matt Fitzsimmons is the principal of The Café Doctor, a business dedicated to helping business owners of cafes and small restaurants grow their business giving them more time, profits and freedom.

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