Coffee Shop Lessons
Have you ever experienced something as a kid, and years later, reflected on the experience and seen it in a whole new light? Maybe it's a function of age. Once upon a time I worked for the world's greatest manager. I didn't realize it then. It was 20 years ago. Her name was Jackie, and she was the owner and manager of Foxy John's Coffee Shop.
I've had about a thousand jobs. I've handed out cheese samples in the mall. I've hawked frozen pizzas in the supermarket. I've taught skiing and windsurfing. I've been a grape-picker, a maid and a lifeguard. And, before I got into the plumbing industry, I spent a lot of time working in restaurants.
Restaurants have a lot to offer a young employee: food, cash and other young employees. When I was younger, I had a lot of restaurant jobs. Foxy John's was a great restaurant and the experience I had there continues to resonate in my life, personally and professionally. Keep in mind that Foxy John's had an average ticket sale of $2.69. And, the employees' average age was 19 years old.
I'm going to tell you how Jackie got me to do things I never thought I would do. She got me, a rebellious know-it-all kid, to comply and deliver. Think it's a challenge getting employees to do what you want? Let me share sales and leadership tips from Jackie, Management Master, and coffee shop owner.
I was 21 years old and a senior in college. Graduation was six months away. I was looking for an easy job-something to keep me in cash until I graduated and set off to see the rest of the world. I lived in a pretty low-rent area of San Diego. Unfortunately, Foxy John's Coffee Shop was the only restaurant within walking distance of my apartment. I had worked in lots of nice restaurants-linen tablecloths, white-cuffed shirts, napkin-over-the-arm-type restaurants. I really didn't want to lower myself to coffee shop status. But, the location was convenient. So, I figured I would at least go in and check it out.
I sauntered into Foxy John's, wondering, "Who's the genius who came up with that name?" I looked around the coffee shop-bright yellow vinyl booths, and more wrought iron than The French Quarter in New Orleans. The décor made McDonald's Playland look tasteful. It was spotlessly clean, which surprised me a bit.
I asked the hostess if I could fill out an application and speak to the manager about a job. Of course, I was pretty sure I wasn't going to work at a place like that, you know, a lowly coffee shop. The cashier handed me an application, and said, "Jackie is the owner and general manager. You'll need to visit with her if you are interested in working here. She will review your application and conduct a short interview at 2:30 on Saturday afternoon."
Then, she arched her eyebrow and added, "Be on time. And I suggest you dress up."
What? How dare she! I was wearing my favorite Cheech and Chong T-shirt and a pair of sweat pants-very few holes. It was a coffee shop for crying out loud. How particular could they be?
Still, I was intrigued. How could they be so formal, so hoity-toity? I had worked for a dozen restaurants. In most cases, I was hired on the spot, and asked, "Can you start this afternoon?" Never had I been chastised for inappropriate dress! Sheesh.
But, Saturday afternoon, I returned, at precisely 2:30, wearing a khaki skirt and a pressed blouse. Not that I planned on working there, mind you. I just wanted to meet this Jackie chick.
I submitted my application to the cashier, and sat down in a booth to wait. Jackie breezed in-big smile, firm handshake and a perfectly fitted designer suit. Very classy. She looked over my application and we chit chatted. Then, she put on her glasses and asked three very sharp questions:
If you spilled coffee on a customer's lap, what would you do?
Do you like money?
When is it OK to tell a lie?
Now, as a soon-to-graduate business student, we had been practicing interviewing skills in class. Jackie blew me away with these questions! Much better than the ones in my personnel textbook. I stammered and offered these responses.
Apologize, ask if he is all right, and keep my hands out of his lap.
Yes, I love money.
Jackie, poker-faced, just nodded. She said, "Would you be available Monday afternoon for a second interview?"
I said, "SURE! I mean, yeah, I suppose so." Why was I so interested? I certainly wasn't going to work there. But, suddenly it was important to me that Jackie would want me to work for her. So, I agreed to meet her at 2:30 on Monday.
Monday afternoon I arrived, this time wearing a blazer over a gray flannel skirt. Jackie was there, with Suzy, whom she introduced as the head waitress. Suzy and Jackie were like professional tag-team wrestlers with their relentless questions-what if this? What if that? It was challenging and fun. I was trying awfully hard to impress them. ("Why?" my inner voice wondered. "You aren't going to work in a coffee shop are you?")
Finally, Jackie said, "We would like to offer you a position as a waitress here at Foxy John's." She said this solemnly, as if she were a queen bestowing knighthood. She continued, "Your employment is dependent on three things. First, you must tell the truth. Always. Lie, cheat or steal and you are gone. Second, you will do things my way. I've got a system here, and it works. If you want to play, I can help you make lots of money and have a lot of fun. Third, you must wear the uniform. From tip to toe, you need to wear the official Foxy John's uniform."
Looking back, I realized that I was sucked into Jackie's game from the moment the cashier challenged me on my outfit. At the time, however, I still thought I might not want to work there. The reality was that I was hooked, and Jackie knew it. She knew the effect she had on me. But she also knew, that any 21 year old girl was going to have trouble wearing that uniform.
Suzy got up and walked into the kitchen. She returned with a young woman, about my age, who was sporting the official Foxy John's uniform. I gasped. I almost threw up. This, my friend, is what I would wear as a Foxy John's Coffee Shop waitress:
Bright white (polished every day) nurse's shoes.
20-gauge support hose. The really nasty band-aid colored kind, like your grandma wore.
Hot Pants. Remember them? Only these were made of thick brown polyester.
A skirt over the Hot Pants. Why?
A fitted bodice, same brown polyester. The color of dog poop.
A flirty yellow and white gingham apron. Stiff material. Kevlar, I think.
All topped off with poufy sleeves. They were so poufy, that the waitress's earrings were resting on the top of the poufs.
My mouth hung open. Certainly, the waitresses didn't really wear that? Perhaps that was the suggested uniform. Jackie leaned forward, looked me in the eye and said, "You'll wear that if you want to work here. If you show up with white sneakers instead of the nursing shoes (How did she know what I was thinking?!) I'll send you home. Out of uniform twice, and you are gone for good."
Maybe I accepted the job just to find out if people really wore that horrible costume everyday. Maybe I wanted to see how Jackie managed to pull off getting young girls to willingly wear an outfit that would condemn them to eternal spinsterhood.
Whatever it was, Jackie sold me. I took the job.
On my first day, I showed up wearing a coat over the dreaded uniform. I wore sunglasses, as I had damaged my retinas by looking directly at my too-white shoes. It was 7:30 am on a Saturday morning, and the restaurant was buzzing with brown and yellow waitresses. No one seemed to mind wearing the uniform. I took my coat and glasses off, and reported to Suzy.
Suzy handed me a nine-page training guide. I wasn't to speak directly to a customer for the first week of my training.
"Uh, Suzy," I offered helpfully, "I already know how to waitress. I have had lots of experience."
"I know," Suzy countered. "But, Jackie insists on doing things her way. And her system is pretty good. Play it by the book. She hired you in spite of your experience. Jackie is unimpressed with what passes for service at most restaurants. By the way, Ellen, congratulations. Jackie is picky. You are the first person she's hired in the last 25 interviews."
Really? Well. How about that? Instantly, I stood taller in my scratchy polyester. I looked around at the other waitresses, all friendly and welcoming. Learning how particular Jackie was, they moved up a notch in my eyes.
Still I tested the limits. Was Jackie as tough as she made herself out to be? I cornered another waitress, Alyssa, while she was filling saltshakers.
"So, what's Jackie really like? She talks a big game, but would she fire you if you didn't wear the shoes?"
Alyssa said, "The money is so good. The work is easy and fun. Why risk it over the shoes? What's the point?"
Suddenly, I felt petty. What was the point? Alyssa said kindly, "The shoes bug everyone at first. Jackie has weird taste. How about the name? Foxy John's? And, have you ever seen so much wrought iron? But, it all seems to work."
Every day I bought more of what Jackie was selling. She was a fanatic about numbers. Everything we sold was documented on this huge white board-total sales, average sales, number of customers. Selling was the game and there were contests everyday. What a competitive bunch of women! Once, I bought a brownie myself just to break the tie and win the dessert contest.
Suzy grilled me like a drill sergeant on procedures. On a busy shift, a coffee shop waitress can write over 100 tickets. Suzy would grade each ticket, and make corrections in red pen. No kidding! Each week she would go over the red marks, showing you the right way to do it. Each week I made fewer mistakes.
In restaurant lingo, side work is the cleaning tasks that you do when you aren't busy. Like filling saltshakers, and cleaning ketchup bottles. As the new kid, I got the worst side job-cleaning the wrought iron. With a toothbrush! That's why the restaurant was so clean.
In exchange for wearing the uniform and doing things her way, Jackie made good on her promise. I made lots of money and I had a blast. She also taught me about sales. Here are tips from the coffee shop. Use them to make more sales at your shop.
Smile. Show some teeth.
You might just be the best part of someone's day. Husbands and wives grow tired of talking to each other. Talk to them. Entertain them. Give them something to talk about after you're gone.
Ask questions. Listen. Answer questions. Give them what they want.
Use adjectives to describe what you offer. Never say, "Do you want some dessert?" Instead say, "Wow, we just pulled a fresh apple pie out of the oven. Would you like some? Maybe with a scoop of vanilla ice cream melting on top?"
Bigger sales mean bigger tips. Even if someone is a chronic 10 percent tipper, 10 percent of $10 is more than 10 percent of $5.
Support the people who support you. Befriend the dishwasher and bus-person. They make your life easy.
Punt with personality. This is a great tip. At some point, you are going to screw up. Be yourself. Take responsibility. And don't rest until you have resolved the problem.
Jackie taught me about sales. And discipline. Most importantly, Jackie taught me about leadership. If she could get me to wear that uniform, well, what wouldn't I do for her? In Jackie's world, things made sense. There were logical consequences for your actions. In an insane world, Jackie's world was an oasis of sanity. Oh, and Jackie loved us, and we loved her. I would've taken a bullet for her. (It probably would've bounced off the Kevlar bodice anyway.)
On Sundays, Jackie would strap herself into that awful uniform and wait tables with us. She could carry plates all up and down her arms, like a good coffee shop waitress should. It was a wonderful place to work, to BE. The customers picked up on this, too, and they came in for their daily dose of Foxy John's.
Six months later, I graduated and moved away. Now, as an older woman, I appreciate what she taught me. At the time, I was clueless. I assumed lots of businesses operated like Foxy John's. I didn't realize how extraordinary it was. It was just a coffee shop.
I don't know what happened to Jackie. Foxy John's isn't there anymore. I visited San Diego for the first time in 20 years and saw a bank where Foxy's once stood. I don't even know Jackie's last name. I'm hoping that someday she hears me tell this story, or she reads this article. If so, Jackie, give me a call at 417-753-1111 so I can say, "Thank you."