What it’s like to open your own vegan cafe

Welcome to a new series of articles called Lessons In Business. I’ve been thinking about this for quite a while and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to create a website with a way of sharing more of ‘me’.

One of the biggest thing’s I’ve noticed as a young business women is that to be seen asΒ just another human is, by some, considered a weakness. To show vulnerabilities is to be the opposite of a strong business women. We are thought to be strong when we portray the masculine. We work our butts off to show we can be just like any man, and on occasion, require the presence of a man to be taken seriously at all.

However, I am a strong business women. But I have vulnerabilities, insecurities and imperfections. I work hard, I break, I put the pieces back together, and I become stronger.

This series on Lessons in Business is about the things I’ve learnt in the 11 months since opening. I’ve much yet to learn, but I wish I had read something written by someone who told the truth. Not just another corporate article, but a real human, a real women, sharing her insight in to owning a vegan business in a small town.

In this lesson, I want to talk about the process I went on towards opening my vegan cafe. In the year preceding April 2017 when we opened, I quit my PhD after only one year as I couldn’t handle the stress (oh, if only I knew…). I loved studying, but in reality, I had reached the end of studying in that way. My passions shifted when I became vegan in 2015 and I entered a process of my entire world view being shifted to see the reality of the society I lived in. I wanted to make a change but I knew traditional activism was dying, it was no longer converting people, it only made them switch off. So I started a food blog and Instagram account like every other 23 year old vegan. I realised I was actually REALLY good at recipe creation and having worked part time in hospitality since I was 14, I decided to quit my job and open my own cafe.

Now here comes the tricky part. You can’t just ‘open a cafe’. Money, planning, and a lot of maths are involved. I could only afford to open a cafe because I sadly had two grandparents die in 2016, both of whom I was close to. I inherited a little money, I could either buy myself a small second hand car or open a cafe. I choose the latter (and I still don’t have my drivers license.) My parents invested in me too, buying me a coffee machine and setting my bank account up so I could make those first orders. Thanks Mum and Dad.

I looked at many units and even gained change of use of one, which then fell through. I decided I didn’t want to wait around for ‘the perfect’ unit. I felt that the time was now and I needed to find somewhere. I was walking around Shoreditch one day, as you do, wondering through the markets and around Boxpark and realised I could find a ‘for now’ space, somewhere small with low commitment. Where if my business didn’t work I could leave. So I approached Southport Indoor market. In all honesty, I knew from the first conversation that it was too expensive for what it was. But I didn’t feel like I could negotiate and so I took the first price and I’ve suffered that mistake ever since. We somehow have done well despite our rent, but I can’t help but think about how much I could actually pay myself had I negotiated the rent down. No one in business talks about money, I’m not sure why, I think it’s because money makes us feel awkward and vulnerable, but I pay over Β£1200 a month for our little unit, including rent, service charge and VAT. I pay all other bills like electricity and BID on top of this.

If I were to do it again, I’d learn, I’d go in as a strong female and ask for a smaller rent. I would probably have been told no and had to have made another decision, do I pay the crazy high rent or go elsewhere. At the time, there was no ‘elsewhere’ – but I could have started my brand on outdoor markets and/or pop ups whilst looking.

In the end everything happens for a reason, and I don’t regret a thing.

I then spent a month buying and building everything to go in my cafe. I invested where I needed to, for example in a really good coffee machine. But I skimped on my fridge and freezer as I knew I didn’t need much space to keep things cool as I was only a small vegan cafe – so no meat or dairy needing to be kept on their separate shelves. My start up costs were relatively low in the end for what I got, but I pay that back in rent. And unfortunately, when someone tells you your food is expensive, saying your rent is high doesn’t change how much they’re prepared to spend on lunch.

Whilst this has been a hard lesson over the past 11 months, I am happy I made the decision I did. I have managed to create an amazing little cafe that attracts wonderful compassionate people to it every single day. And, at 11 months in, I am able to pay both my husband and I a small amount each month. And it’s all from an idea that one day popped in to my head.

Ellie x

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