company - education - coffee

Friday, June 08, 2012

About starting dwelltime

Managing a small roasting operation that grew to be something much greater than we ever expected  has been a wonderful and challenging experience.  Full of a lot of ups and downs but coming into the end of our fourth year, there is a sense of happiness with the things we have accomplished, if not simply the great things we have lined up this year.  The amount of work is something I would personally be very unlikely to sign up for again (unless we had a bigger starting budget).  Starting out with as small a budget/staff/space as we did and to grow to where we have has been humbling.

We were at a turning point last year and many of us felt a pull to do something to change our direction.  For me, it was a desire to get back to that original idea we had when opening barismo.  Our first proposed location for barismo was down the street from where dwelltime currently is. It's a neighborhood we really wanted to be in.  At the time though, we wanted to be a big island style coffee bar offering many different roasters.  (Much like Cafe Grumpy in NYC became shortly thereafter, though they now roast their own).  When that space fell through we regrouped and moved barismo to Arlington, MA to roast.

dwell presented this opportunity for many of us behind barismo to do something we loved and graft in great food to our model in a way we could not have early on.  Signing onto this project of building restoration and then a cafe shortly afterwards was no easy feat.  We essentially changed the investor group, management, and whole attitude of barismo as a company in the process of this other venture.  Signing the lease on 364 Broadway was a real stress test.

What made the project great from the beginning was that our landlords at 364 are tremendous.  They really cared about the project and getting the building back to a historical look as part of their vision.  Now that they have gotten awards for the job done in remodeling and restoration, it's a bit easier to forget the hurdles over the last year of construction.  A building that had water issues in the basement, a lack of any up to date plumbing or electrical, unique problems only faced with Cambridge regulations, and those were just the beginning of a long trying build out.  

The unexpected part came from things outside our control.  Neighbors and local groups who had opposition to everything from a sign, to the windows, to being able to play any music, to having any heating or cooling units that might make noise, any external lighting, and having any food service or trash removal was what shortly followed. It impacted every decision we made going into opening this space. Due to some of those interactions with a neighborhood group, we even compromised to shorten our weekend hours considerably under the impression the neighborhood was so quiet on weekends (a huge mistake that bit us quickly with unhappy neighbor-customers wondering why we got up so late and left so early).

I get that now.  Living in Inman Sq. the last four years but working nearly 6 days a week in Arlington, I did not pick up on what was leading those concerns.  Now, spending as much time as I do walking back and forth to Broadway, it began to clarify.  There was possibly a fear we would be the shop that had the neon signs or that we'd be that shop with loud music blaring out onto the street.  There was likely the expectation that coffee shops produce the multitude of paper cups that litter the neighborhood and bringing that to our neighborhood that had been quiet for so long -would be disruptive-.  They were right, it would have if we were that kind of convenience store  style coffee shop though nobody would know what we were until we opened.  I now understand the resistance that existed and why people stood up to voice these concerns.

The real problems were not these issues being brought up, but the way it left us so flat footed to open the shop.  Because of all the resistance we heard, we did not see the building anticipation in the neighborhood for our opening.  We were unsure if we would be accepted and feared a painfully slow opening.  We were not prepared for the support that literally poured into the shop from day one.

That first weekend, we ran out of everything.  We even pulled an old barismo customer into the kitchen to help with dishes and a barista from another shop to help make drinks.  The first two weeks, Hong and I personally worked every day open to close with most mornings being a stretch to eat or even to see our daughter.  It was stressful and tiring.  It reminded me how difficult the first years at barismo were.  We survived and pulled through the first month but my desire to execute at a higher level with customer service that feels more like a bar/restaurant left me frustrated that we could not be who we wanted to be on day one much less the first month.

Things have calmed and dwell is staffed up, training up, and I'm getting a little rest as well.  The last of the hurdles at dwell has been awaiting the seating expansion in late June which will allow the space to be complete.  Filling that empty space will enable us to present our original design full and complete to our customers.  That's a lot of work in a small amount of time.

This is probably the last barismo/dwelltime combo post I will be doing here as I have moved more to the dwell side of things as far as day to day work.  There are new things to talk about including a new addition to our roasting team at barismo, new production staff coming in, and a change of the bar presentation are all happening at 169 Mass Ave shortly.  That and the tremendous gains we've made in sourcing thanks to the work Silas has done leave the roasting operation ready to make some big moves.  A few posts about those changes will follow.