Putting The Team First With Seth Weber
This week, I had a fantastic chat with Seth Weber, the co-owner of Mocha Nut Coffee in Indianapolis, IN. We talked about the importance of good communication amongst your team, the difficulties of finding good coffee education resources, and the pros and cons of working with your family.
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Want to skip through to the good parts? Find everything in the transcript below:
A Brief History of Mocha Nut Coffee
Let's start with a little bit of background into Mocha Nut Coffee. It's only 3 years old. Why did you decide to open a coffee shop?
So, I'm one of a couple of owners, but on my side of it, I was working in a restaurant before. We were so fast-paced all the time, and I could really build relationships with the team or the customers that were coming in. We were apparently hitting all the targets, but it felt like we were missing an enormous piece.
I started thinking and talking with my family about a coffee shop, because people come in there, and it's relaxing. They're coming to meet friends and family, and whoever else, or to really get work done. So that was one of the first thoughts that I remember having about a coffee shop.
What took you down the path of a coffee shop? How did you find your co-founders?
It was pretty easy to find my co-founders actually. Because it's my family, my parents.
I was talking to them. They do background checks, and it was on their minds as well to do a coffee shop for some reason, and it was pretty crazy. So, we talked a little bit, and my grandma, who's a realtor, heard us talking about it. And she was like "Well, I know a couple of places if you guys want to check it out. We can walk through."
We looked at multiple locations, and the one where we ended up, was a Greek restaurant. We actually drove around it at first because we were like "Man, the old Greek restaurant would be where we would go? I don't know if I see that." And so we drove around it, and it turned out to be a really good location. We walked through and could really picture it. We gutted the dining room, but it turned out to be a great place.
Does your family have a background in owning restaurants, or hospitality locations? Was there any experience that you had coming into this?
Not on their end. They've run their background check business for twenty years, so they have business ownership experience.
I was a General Manager of the restaurant that I was working at, so I was getting a lot of the operational knowledge, like par sheets and inventory and staffing. All that kind of experience.
How long did it take? To go from your grandma showing you places to converting the Greek restaurant and opening Mocha Nut?
It took 2 1/2 years I think. The coming soon sticker was on the sign probably like a year and a half or so.
It took us a lot longer than we expected. So next time we'll know. Don't start putting anything up about coming soon until maybe a couple of months before!
We did a lot of work on the place. We did a lot of it ourselves. Most of it actually. People, our community, friends, and other family helped us to do the construction. It was a great experience but we didn't have the typical hiring contractors, knock it out in a lot less time situation.
What sort of emotions were you going through once it opened? It was a long time coming.
Yeah. The first day I remember thinking "Man, how is this going to go?"
I got up and drove to the shop, and the first couple of hours were pretty quiet.
It was probably 9 o'clock, or something, we got started. And we were busy the whole rest of the day. It was really cool. It was such an exciting experience to see all the work we put in, and that it was truly something the community wanted and was excited to have. It was a great first week.
I worked open to close every day, then started to intentionally taper that back pretty hard after that.
Finding The Right Location
How did you know the community was looking for a coffee shop? Did you build up that demand so that on the first day you were busy?
We knew the community was going to be interested from first-hand experience. When we were starting, I realized that every time we wanted to get good, local coffee we were driving twenty minutes to downtown, or twenty minutes to Greenwood. There was nothing here. So that was our experience.
We went to a local business chamber meeting kind of thing in Southport, where we're at, and they started mentioning needing a coffee shop in the community. We were like "Wow this is perfect because we're already working on that."
As far as marketing to build it up, we didn't have a whole lot of experience at that point, so the coming soon signs and things like that got the attention of a lot of people that drove by. During the construction phase, if people would wander in and ask what's going on, we always had coffee brewing. We'd serve them a cup, sit down and talk to them a little bit.
Tell me why you chose Southport for your location?
We live here. That was a lot of it. We noticed this need in our community that we lived it. We didn't go scout different neighbourhoods or anything like that. It was something that would be amazing to have, and that we've missed. It was something that if somebody else opened it, we'd be all on board.
And then, in the community, my family has a lot of friends and connections. My mom went to Southport High School and graduated there. My aunt teaches Perry Schools, and one of my aunts is an Assistant Superintendent of Perry Schools. Just, all of these connections in the community. This is where we need to be.
What was the response that you got from the community once you were open?
As far as feedback, I think one of the different things about being the first local shop in the community is everyone expects and wants you to either be Starbucks or a breakfast place because there's no in-between.
They used to get coffee at a breakfast place, or they used to get coffee at Starbucks. So this local shop that just has banana bread and cookies that we bake in-house, and some muffins and then coffee being the main thing was sort of new.
We got suggestions about if we ever thought about serving breakfast sandwiches, lunch or fountain coke. And we haven't really thought about that. I think if we start offering too many things—a lot of places go wrong in doing that. Their main thing really slips. We really wanted to nail the coffee and do that well.
So that was a big suggestion that we got right off the bat.
Other than that, there was a lot of "hey, we're really excited you guys are here! There hasn't been anything here!"
Hearing that over and over again was really affirming of our goal for the place.
Coffee Culture & Education
How is Mocha Nut different? Why are you creating that difference in your coffee culture?
Just from tasting different coffees over the last however many years. I used to be all for the caramel macchiatos and pumpkin spice lattes, but as I started to dive into coffee a little bit more, I was like "Man, this can be like this?" It can be so different than what I'd ever experienced. So I started to go to local shops and was tasting that there too.
That's what kind of started the deep dive of coffee for me.
So the big issue, when you're starting something new in your own category in an area, is the customer education piece. How much of your time in the first few months was spent on customer education?
We really believe in equipping our team with knowledge about these things. I think that's where it starts.
Unfortunately, another thing that coffee is known for is that sometimes you'll go to some shops, and they really don't want to answer any questions about their coffee. If you don't know, "shame on you!" You have to order something and move along.
We really care about just creating an experience for people. Part of that is explaining the quality to whatever degree they want to dive in. It can be a pretty deep rabbit hole sometimes. You can go as deep as you want. We want to make this a place where everybody knows that they're welcome to ask questions, stay and enjoy, hang out for a little bit.
We equip our team first, then create the space to be relatable.
You took over a Greek restaurant, which means you probably have more seating than the average coffee shop. How are you using that space?
We kind of do have a little more space than a lot of shops that I've run into. We do use it for events. There's not much through the week, but we have a lot of events on the weekends. We have open houses, bridal showers, whatever.
One thing that we would like to do at some point when things slow down enough that we can pursue our other things, is more classes. More coffee classes would be something that would really benefit the community and they would really love it.
We've had one that went really well recently, but it's kind of a scheduling thing. A lot of times we're just so busy and continue to get busier. We spend a lot of time just training new people.
What was the coffee class like? Tell me a little bit more about that.
As most people know, the aroma is a big part of tasting. You know that when you plug your nose and eat something it's way different than when you're breathing while you eat. So that was one part of the tasting experience.
We had these vials of different smells, and it was like a game. We just had a bunch of different vials of different smells and it was a kind of blind tasting, blind smelling, and writing down which one of the flavours you thought it was. Thinking about things separate from the taste at first.
Then, we were tasting a couple of different types of citric acid, and whatever was in there so that we can describe the coffee. This was so that we can describe the coffee. It tastes like it has a little bit of citric acid kind of flavour in it because there are natural flavours that come out in the coffee. Unless you taste it by itself, sometimes you're not going to know how to describe it.
So that was a lot of what we did that day, then we did different roast levels and different regions.
How did you educate yourself on coffee?
It was tricky and hard to find at first because I remember six or seven years ago, I was looking up coffee and thought that it wasn't an espresso unless it was called an espresso roast. But no, you can use anything in an espresso.
It was very hard to find information at first. And then you run into the right people, and they start mentioning different sources, and then it starts. You start finding other things from there.
Barista Hustle is a website that does a lot of education on coffee. It's really solid. James Hoffman is a popular one on YouTube that people watch. He's got a book called World Atlas of Coffee that was really informational. It talks about different regions and different processing methods and what that does to the flavour of coffee.
What was really tricky was milk steaming and latte art. That was—man. We had this little Bevel espresso machine which is just not anything crazy. And I remember practicing latte art for four or five months before I was consistently getting something. Some of it might have been the espresso machine, but also it's tricky. I just couldn't figure it out.
Now when we have new baristas in they're figuring out that stuff in like a week or two. I'm glad I could take that learning curve upon myself so that they don't have to.
Company Culture & Communication
What are the other things you've learned in the past three years that you didn't expect to learn?
I hadn't previously learned a whole lot about—you know when you're in restaurants there's not necessarily an emphasis on caring for your team and different ways of doing that. A lot of it's creating time to discuss things so that's something we've invested a lot of time in just through learning. Like, "Hey, I don't think we're all on the same page. Is there a way we can consistently be on the same page?"
I didn't learn anything about that. We never had one on ones or work reviews like performance reviews or evals or whatever in any of my restaurant experiences. It was just running into a disconnect. Then trying these things out. And wow, we're all on the same page a lot now.
I think that's something that is pretty untapped a lot of times, and so we've really dove deep into different ways of having good communication.
Not conflict resolution, because a lot of times people just assume that all conflict is a bad thing. But conflict is a really good thing, we just don't see it done well a whole lot.
It feels like this bad thing and we think that the best solution is just to ignore frustration and move on. But, that actually creates resentment. Just talk to somebody who can do something about it. Talk to me, or whoever.
I think that takes a lot of training sometimes too. Our team is a great team, and we don't run into a whole lot of it done the wrong way. But I think that there can be a tendency sometimes for people—myself included—to know what to talk to people about, and what not. I think that has been a lot of learning and I think it's benefited us all really well.
I think one of our core values is a team first because we know—like you just mentioned—if the team is taken care of first, they're going to want to and be in a better spot to take care of all the customers that come in.
Customer-first sounds really nice, but I think that a lot of times it doesn't work out the way we picture it working out. Sometimes customer first means that you don't take care of your team, and that's definitely going to put the customer at the very bottom, not first.
We're hearing from a lot of coffee shops and restaurants about the issue of the staffing shortage right now. How are you feeling about it?
There have been times when I think it's been harder to find people. We try to be a little extra—not overstaffed, but on the heavier side of adequately staffed.
I think by investing in the culture you start being known as a place with a really great culture that takes care of its team. You can't measure it, which is another reason I think a lot of times it's overlooked.
But yeah, we haven't had a ton of issues. We've definitely felt that it's harder to find the right people but we haven't recently been in a short-staffed kind of situation. I think all of last year we lost one person on our team. I think that speaks to how we care for the people on the team.
If any of our listeners want to implement that, what's your suggestion for them?
I think it's really important to have the time and space for communicating with your team so that their voices are heard. When people feel like they're listened to, it creates that trust with your team. Especially when you follow up and do things about it.
We create that space through weekly meetings with our shift leads and management. So that we get on the same page. We also do some personal development kind of stuff, leadership skills training.
With our baristas, where we're starting to do one on ones with each of them, and just scheduling that. You know, if you don't schedule things a lot of times they don't get done. So just schedule 15 minutes end of the day, or before your shift or whatever. How's work going, just let them talk and you know, even if it's personal stuff. When we see somebody is extra stressed or not doing as well, that change is because of our personal lives a lot of times. We try to separate these two things but we are one person and we bring our personal life into work as much as we try not to.
How is it running a business with your parents? What are the ups and downs of running a family business?
I think that's another—it can be a hurdle sometimes because you do have to think a little differently for them. I'm not there as their son—I'm not their son at work. I am currently General Manager or whatever, we split some roles sometimes, and head up different things as well sometimes. Just remembering "this is my role right now" and looking at them like "this is your role right now."
So I call them by their first names at work, which feels a little weird at first. It's like remembering we're working together and we have to be able to take some of these hats off and put different hats on sometimes. That's tricky for some people. I think there is a good edge to it as well.
We've built something for us. We have a lot of trust in each other so we know that we have each other's best interest. There isn't some of the tiptoeing around things that you feel like you have to do with some people sometimes. We can probably be more direct with each other at times. I think that can be an edge as well.
Advice to New Businesses
If you could give a piece of advice to someone who wants to start their own coffee shop today, what would that be?
I think just learning to listen. Slow down and ask questions. You don't have to have all the answers. If you all work together you're going to be able to come up with some solutions. I think a lot of times we try to have all the answers ourselves and we don't want to go look or ask around. I think that really shoots us in the food. It's ok to not have all the answers.
Amin Yazdani is the CEO and Co-Founder of Craver, a fast-growing mobile platform for Restaurants, helping them gain and retains their loyal customer base.