Imagination, Dedication Drive St. Petersburg's Community Cafe
If you’re jonesing for a vegan Portobello mushroom quesadilla and a beer late at night in St. Petersburg, Fla., you’re in luck: the Community CafÃ© on Central Ave. is open to serve you. The visit will demonstrate a novel way of doing business.
Mandy Keyes, the proprietor of the Community CafÃ©, says she and her initial business partner developed the venture over two years, aiming to fill the void left by the closure of St. Pete’s two late-night coffee shops. Her partner pushed for a co-op model, but “He moved away and nobody else on the planning board was dedicating the time and/or finances to be a co-op owner. So I took the reins and kept the project moving forward,” Keyes says. “We still keep many collaborative elements in our membership program, such as voting on cafÃ© decisions and helping with the collaborative scrapbook, in addition to financial perks like free coffees, Free Dessert Fridays, and 10 percent off everything.”
Grassroots effort, imaginative funding launched the business
How did Keyes get the business off the ground in late 2013? “First, it was just word of mouth and Facebook to get interested planners to the first meetings,” she says. Then Keyes distributed flyers, visited local businesses seeking donations for the cafÃ©’s first fund-raiser, and paid for advertising on Facebook. Keyes also launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, where she used incentives to attract support. Some incentives included a mug with the Community CafÃ© logo and a membership. “We didn’t believe there’d be much value in the membership on its own before the cafÃ© was open, but with a mug, the Indiegogo campaign went really well. Those initial members got to vote on what color we painted our walls, and which tables we’d use from our table painting contest.” The growing membership gets “to vote on things like our art themes, which we change every two to three months,” she says.
The Community CafÃ© states its mission on its website: “To cultivate a welcoming, comfortable, and safe space that becomes your home away from home. We are very excited to offer a menu full of delicious meals with veg-friendly options served until late. Whether you want an alcoholic beverage or coffee, our comfy environment is a great place for lunch or an alternative to the bar scene. Becoming a member is a great option for people who want to be involved. You get to help make cafe decisions and get tons of awesome perks!”
Membership, family angles boost customer loyalty
The membership slant has been good for business, Keyes says. “Definitely the people that buy a membership come in more often, but I’m not sure if that’s cause or effect. Do they buy the membership because they’re already coming in often and it pays for itself? Some people buy a membership just to support us "¦ and a lot of people react positively to the idea that we have community input, even if they don’t participate themselves.”
“They also react very positively to the fact that my boyfriend and I run the place. I’m technically the owner, and he still has a day job to keep our bills paid, but we make all the major decisions together. His sister works here full-time, and their mom bakes all of our desserts. Being family- and community-oriented is very important to a lot of our customers.”
Advice to would-be entrepreneurs
Keyes offers advice to others looking to start a business. “Be prepared for how hard people say it is, and multiply that by more than you can imagine. Employees have been by far the biggest emotional and financial drain on us. It’s taken us two years to establish a somewhat-stable staff, and we still don’t have quite enough bodies to cover shifts when people need time off suddenly. If you can start a business that doesn’t have employees, it’s going to be infinitely easier.”
Today, Community CafÃ© has a lot to celebrate. “We have our two-year anniversary party coming up in January,” Keyes says. “Last year we threw a block party with 10 bands and 25 local craft vendors, and we had a great time. We’re doing that again this year. We hope the event will bring in more excitement from the community. They say after three years it should be a bit more stable, so two years down, one to go.”