A Strong Mission Is The Foundation of a Successful Coffee Shop
Bird & Branch in New York is more than just your everyday coffee shop. Behind the scenes, their team is making a difference in their community. This week, I spoke with co-owner Faith Lee about their coffee, their job training program, and their mission.
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A Coffee Shop With A Mission
Tell me about Bird & Branch. How did your coffee shop come to be?
It's a very good question and it's very unique. We opened Bird & Branch about four and a half, almost five years ago. But my husband and I started Bird & Branch with an express purpose to have a job training program for people who have barriers to employment. So that was the initial idea, to have a retail shop that had some ability to give employment or training to people who had trouble holding down a job.
Whether that be people who were affected by homelessness, drug addiction, who've been formally trafficked, or mental health problems. Anything that kind of keeps them from holding a job down. So that was the initial thought. We actually didn't know anything about coffee. We weren't sure we were gonna open a coffee shop.
It took a lot of conversations to end up in coffee. My husband and I didn't drink coffee. We knew nothing about coffee before we decided to open Bird & Branch. So it's definitely different from most people's journeys to opening a food establishment.
What was it about mental health that was so front and center for you as a mission?
It wasn't technically mental health. It was mostly, actually, initially it was homelessness. We live really close to Penn Station, New York City, and just confronted by it every day. You see people on the street, you see people strung out on the floor, on the sidewalk in the train stations. It's kind of in your face.
And I felt kind of just dissatisfied with what I did for people. In New York, whether that's helping out at a food kitchen or giving some money on the street, just felt like a very, very small bandaid to an enormous problem. So when I thought about this idea of creating some sort of place for people to have job training, I actually thought, okay, this could potentially help people get out of the situation, not just provide in that moment.
What is it about the coffee shop model that made it the right fit for when you were trying to figure out what is the right business to start for your mission?
It was really about the transferability of job skills. You can be a barista at—learn how to be a barista in our shop and go out and go to any other coffee shop or restaurant and also be a barista there with—then there are small things that might be different, but for the most part, the skills are very similar shop to shop.
So we felt like they would have some actual hard skills that they could use.
Learning From Others
We know starting, opening a coffee shop is not just that you would decide an opening a coffee shop, and then open it. So take me through that process.
When we finally decided to do it, we knew we needed to learn the business. So both my husband and I actually learn, just became baristas. We worked at—I think collectively worked at five or six different shops for about a year and a half just to learn how to be a barista, but also just talking to anyone who owned a small business or owned a coffee shop, just trying to learn as much as possible.
We didn't really know anything about coffee, but I think we were really, really lucky to be connected to people who are very knowledgeable in the industry and who have taught us a ton. And I—a lot of how I tell a lot of people who are looking to open their own thing—I'm like, absolutely work at other places.
You will learn from other people's mistakes, which I think is the best way to learn from mistakes when they're not your—
So what were a couple of those learnings? What were a couple of those things that you learned before you started your coffee shop that like, made a huge impact when you opened Bird & Branch?
One big thing was, um, how to treat your employees. Like when you're an employee and you're being managed by other people, you learn what it feels like on the other side how people want to be treated. And I saw a lot of things that I didn't love as an employee that made me think, "oh, I need to be better as a manager."
So that was one big thing. Another thing, just in terms of opening a shop was how the flow of a coffee shop runs, like as a barista and as a customer. We worked in some shops where the flow was very disjointed and it actually, created more fatigue for your staff to like, have to bend down more or backtrack to do simple tasks.
So the flow of the layout and the flow of our shop was really important as well.
So tell me a little bit more about that flow. What do you exactly mean when you mention the flow of the coffee shop for people that have not worked in a coffee, to understand that a little bit better?
So if you're working in a coffee shop, you want there to be a logical flow of movement. So if I am making a drink, I want my cups to be on hand. I want my saucers to be on hand. I want everything to be within reach of wherever I need to put it.
So that and also sort of communication between the staff, right? So who takes the order? Who's actually making the drinks, and who's presenting it to the customer? All of that is a very specific flow that needs to happen. And if there's any sort of backtracking or crossing of staff, you tend to have more mistakes, people bumping into each other or spilling, communication breaks down.
And so I feel like physical things in place, and also the communication in place is really important for the flow of the shop.
What were the things that you didn't learn until you actually opened Bird & Branch?
I mean, so many things. No one is walking you through the process of opening a shop. You're kind of learning on the fly. You talk to people, but everybody gives you different information. And there's no like checklist for it. I wish somewhere there was a checklist that you could just go through.
But I remember an opening day—actually it was like midnight the night before and realizing we didn't get change for the till. The register didn't have any coins. We didn't have any cash. We were digging through our couch to find as many coins as we could to make sure that we could at least make change in the morning before the banks opened.
There are just a little ton of things we didn't know the first week. When we opened, it took us like two hours to close the shop because we had no systems in place. We were just trying to figure out, we didn't have any order of operations when we were closing.
We just like look at this and be like this needs to be cleaned. Yeah, I felt like the systems in the shop really didn't come for a couple of months. There are a lot of things that we were just sort of learning on the fly.
So yeah, a ton of things we didn't know.
Job Training Program
What are your training programs? How did you get that started?
We work with nonprofit organizations. We partner with them. So we're not just taking random people off the street. I think we learned very early on that we don't have the capacity to do a lot of the things that non-profit organizations can do. So we partner with them for social work, housing, counseling, and therapy.
Like they are the connection for that. And we can just focus on the job training.
I don't have the skills and I don't have the capacity, to handle those things. So it's very important for us that we work with organizations who are supporting their candidates during the whole process.
So most of them say "if you notice anything is off like they've been coming in late or something is not quite right, you call me right away and let me know." Which takes a lot of the burden off of us because I'm not equipped to handle certain situations. So it gives me some support as well, to be able to take these people on.
But yeah, so we usually partner with organizations that fit with what we're doing at the moment. And we do spend quite a bit of time in shop training. There is some material that they need to learn as well. But most of our training is hands-on in the shop.
Who is it that does the training? You and your husband?
Yes, we have been doing that. And we do ask our employees to be a part of the training program. While they may not, they're not managing it or they're not doing the bulk of the training we do—in every interview of our staff, I tell them that this is what's happening in our shop and I want them to be on board and to be a part of it because I think everyone has something to share with these people.
A lot of these people have a hard time holding down a job, but a lot of times they've never even stepped in step foot into a specialty coffee shop before. Or maybe they've never experienced good customer service. So how would they know how to give good customer service if they've never experienced it themselves?
So all of our staff in the shop are essentially examples what of what it means to be a good employee. Somebody who does strive for excellence, somebody who gives good customer service, who is a good team player, who knows what it means to be responsible for their job. So everyone is participating in it.
How has it been running a mission-driven business? What lessons have you learned? How has it impacted you? And your local community?
In some ways, it's really difficult. In some ways, it's so rewarding. Everything is a bigger task. It requires more money, more manpower to do the training.
It's an extra two people in the shop anytime we do training, cuz it's the training as well as somebody training them. But I think it does give a new layer to the shop. We're not just a business making money. We're not just—our employees are not just making coffee so that I can make money.
They know that for us, we do believe in people over profit. And I think that reflects in how we treat our employees as well. And I think that shows in that our employees also feel that. So I think that has been a really great sort of side effect of the training program is that a lot of our employees are very loyal to us and enjoy being a part of something that's a little bit bigger than just a business making money.
I think people have learned—sort of the—have gotten to see the benefits of watching somebody grow.
Do your customers know about the job training that you do?
So honestly, I don't know how many of our customers know. We don't advertise it like in our shop. If you walked into the shop, you wouldn't know.
We do have a little bit of information on our website, but for the most part, we want customers to come to our shop because the product is good. And we give good customer service and we—because our cafe is inviting, not because we're doing the job training. I think there a big reason why we haven't like, sort of like plastered it all over is mostly for respect of the trainees themselves that they're here not as a marketing scheme for me but just as people who have a safe place to do what they need to do.
Some do know and people who have in-depth conversations with us will know that that that's happening. But I would say the majority of customers have no idea.
I'm happy to tell people about it. I think it's—and there have been instances where people do talk about it.
And I'm happy to share. I think it's just a—I want people to come to our shop because they wanna come to our shop. And you know, if people find out about it, then I'm happy that they found out about it too.
Sourcing Ethical Coffee
How do you source your coffee?
We get our beans from Saint Frank. They're a roaster based out in San Francisco.
I was connected to Kevin who owns St. Frank, I guess probably, five and a half years ago. And through—a friend of mine is actually an investor at Saint Frank. And so when he found out that I was opening a coffee shop, he was like, "I have to make an introduction. I think you guys would be really great partners."
Um, so we sat down for dinner, and honestly, because we're trying to be—I like to use the word restorative or restoration. We're looking at restoration on the retail side for people who are working in retail, and I felt like Saint Frank was doing that on the sourcing side. So, if you're familiar with coffee, the supply chain can get very muddy.
So there can be a lot of exploitation along the supply chain. And the wonderful thing about Saint Frank is that they are really transparent. They are relationally sourcing coffee. So not just tasting what's best on the cupping table or, or looking for the best-tasting coffee. They are really looking for small, poor farms that are doing excellent coffee and going to the farms meeting these people, seeing what their needs are and committing to purchasing from them. I think this is a big thing, stability for farmers is knowing that they're gonna have a commitment to purchase, year after year. So we've really been lucky.
My husband and I were able to go to Bolivia with Saint Frank, with Kevin, and his team. Thankfully before the pandemic in 2019, and were able to see sort of the fruit of that investment where you invest in people and they are able to go and invest in their families and in their farms and continue to do good work year after year. And to see really the hard work and sort of all that goes into the cup of coffee that we drink every morning. That's why we use St. Frank.
So how does that work? Do you get specific blends in? Do you change which blends you order based on the time of year?
So we have one blend we used as our espresso, one of our espressos. And mostly it's for milk-based drinks. So if you get a latte, you're gonna get that blend and it's a medium roast. And they, Saint Frank will always try to keep that blend tasting pretty much the same year-round, year after year. And then we rotate single origins.
So every, I would say, two weeks, we're probably getting new coffees from different origins. And we serve three different single origins at one time, one on espresso, one on hot coffee, and one on ice coffee. So anytime you come into our shop, there are three opportunities to taste, three different origins.
Selling New Coffees
How do your customers react to that selection?
Things have been changing in New York. I think, when we first started, New York is slower to the roasting scene than, the West Coast. I feel like San Francisco, Seattle—they've been roasting and roasting specialty coffee for quite some time. I think New York has been a little bit behind and I think for various reasons, we have a lot of European influence. And then also, space, you need space to have a roaster. And New York is tight, so most places are not just gonna pop a roaster into their shop.
So I think New York was a little bit behind in the specialty coffee scene. So when we first started, we got—especially in the beginning when people didn't know who we were, got a lot of like, do you have dark roast? Do you have, you know, like, um, and we kind of struggled with whether or not we.
Give people what they thought they wanted or give people what we think is good quality that they will, they will learn to enjoy. As we go along and so we kind of stuck to our guns and I think the landscape is changing. I think New York is changing. A lot of people are very much into specialty coffee.
Of course, there's still gonna be people who want different things. And we try to, and honestly, I think a lot of the things that we, we serve can still hit the mark for people who want a dark roast is either you want a dark roast because you want something chocolate or nutty, or is it you just don't like, you know, acidity or, or you know, cuz you can get those notes from, from a different origin.
You know, a Guatemala is gonna have chocolate 90 notes. but it's gonna be a, it could be a light to a light-medium roast. Um, so I, I always like to give people a taste cuz you know, they might say they want something and I'm like, here, let, why don't you just try it and you can tell me if you like it or not, and I won't be offended if you don't
Um, and I can always make you something else, you know, a cappuccino or something if, if you prefer. Um, so yeah, and I think, uh, just by giving people the options. Um, so one thing that we do, our, uh, espressos, we have our blend and we also have a single origin on hand at all times. And we don't charge extra for the single origin, even though it is more expensive to us.
Yeah. Um, mostly because I don't want people to. Uh, shy away from trying something because the price is more expensive. Um, because I think if people try it and they do like it and sort of tastes start to change, it's beneficial for the coffee industry. It's beneficial, um, for us. So I enjoy seeing people sort of change over time.
How does it benefit your coffee shop to have customers trying something new versus your regular coffees?
Because a happy customer, a satisfied customer who's had an interaction with me is a loyal customer.
I have found that people who I have had conversations with who, when they first started, they only wanted the darker roast. And I've, had conversations and been like, "Hey, why don't you try it? If you don't like it, I'll pull you, I'll pull you the Sister Moon."
And they—Now they only want the single origin and they're bringing all their friends to tell them that, "Oh, this coffee shop changed the way I thought about coffee." And so I see that as beneficial to us as well.
How have you built a local customer base for Bird & Branch? And what have you seen work or not work for creating that loyalty in your customers to come back more often to come back, bring their friends, create that, word of mouth marketing as well? Like what is your secret sauce?
I don't know that I have a secret sauce. I think for us it's just connections. You know, relationships go a long way. I'm actually firmly against loyalty cards. We don't have punch cards. I kind of hate them because. There's no—like if you go to a bar, you don't get your 10th drink for free. I don't know why people expect to get their 10th drink for free.
And I understand why people do loyalty cards. I absolutely understand why. I just kind of don't like that idea. And I think people get very entitled with their loyalty cards. And the reality is that, I want people to come because we have a unique product that they really enjoy.
And I think that's where we've sort of differentiated ourselves from other coffee shops is that we don't just serve the same thing. The coffee shop around the corner is serving—so we don't. We serve Saint Frank. I think we're one of the only shops maybe on the east coast that's serving Saint Frank.
So when you walk in, that is already something very different from other coffee shops.
We don't serve alternative milks from a box. We make our own all the macadamia nut milk from scratch every, every day. Our signature drinks are—all of our syrups are made in house and we don't just do like a honey latte.
We're always gonna do something a little bit different. And I think that's what brings people to our shop. Something that's a little bit different from your standard coffee shop and that we're trying to pursue excellence, that we're not just pulling shots, without taking into mind like how, what this is gonna taste like and whether or not you're gonna enjoy it.
We are trying to serve an excellent product every time. So I think that's the way, for me at least, how I'm trying to gain loyalty is not to give you your 10th drink for free, but to put effort and pursue an excellent product so that you'll want to return and, that it would be different from something you can get somewhere else.
A Place to Take a Break
One other thing that I read on your website is the way that you describe your shop was as a place to take a break. What does that mean and why is it important to you?
New York is a little bit crazy and honestly, our neighborhood is right next to Times Square, so it can feel a little hectic.
New York feels like a lot sometimes. And if you're a tourist in New York, you are on your feet. No other place in the United States I think walks as much as New York does. And so we're very close to sort of the hustle and bustle of New York and sort of the craziness of New York.
And so I wanted to create a space that was a place of rest. I think if you walk into our shop, our shop is very bright. It's mostly white light colors. And I just wanted it to be different from what New York outside is like. And for people to grab a hot drink. Get to sit down, enjoy it with a friend, and take a break from sort of the grind.
I think a lot of ways New York can be a grind. And I wanted this, our space to be peaceful and for people to find connection. I think that's really huge. I love that cafes are a place where you connect with people, whether that's your barista or you meet up with a friend. I love that people can sit down and have conversations, in our coffee shop, and connect in a way that they can't in a lot of other places.
New York real estate is really expensive. How do you make that make business sense?
The reality is our shop is really small. It's not big at all. We're 530 square feet in total. I think probably 250 square feet of that is customer space. So we try to use our space wisely. I mean, I would love to have a thousand square feet where people could really enjoy the space, but it's just not possible.
We can't afford that kind of space, so we do what we can with what we have. And I think there is a balance between an expansive, really comfortable space where people can camp out for hours, and I think that we actually created a—one of our tables is a coffee table, not like a normal height table? Mostly because I wanted to reserve that space for people who wanted to make connections rather than just wanting to do some work. So I think there are some thoughts that I had that I didn't just intentionally try to make the space some, something where, someplace where people weren't just coming to work, but people were coming to make connections.
What's been the biggest challenge you've faced in your time running the coffee shop?
I would be lying if I didn't say Covid was the biggest challenge that we faced. I feel like we lost a lot during Covid and not monetarily, but we lost a lot of our staff.
It was just like we had built something and then I felt like Covid sort of dismantled it all and we had to start over. I think there was a huge learning curve for my husband and I, Brandon when we first opened the shop, and then when Covid happened again, I think we had another set of learning curves.
The biggest one was staffing, actually. During Covid, we were able to keep everyone that wanted to be kept, and who wanted to work. But we did lose about half of our staff for good things. Like people went back to school, some people got full-time jobs off remote work.
And I was very happy for them to be able to do things that they weren't able to do before Covid. But when business came back and I needed to staff the shop, I had to post on a job board, which I'd never done before. And I think this is one of the things that was really beneficial about us having a mission aside from just being a business, is that we didn't have much turnover in those first two years.
Most of our staff were with us for quite some time, and almost everybody was somehow we were connected to. Either somebody had worked with them before or one of us had worked with them before, or somebody knew somebody. So I'd never posted on a job board before. And so when Covid sort of died down a little bit and we had to staff back up, I posted on a job board and Brandon and I did not know what we were doing.
Sifting through resumes, sitting in interviews, and asking questions that anyone can answer. We didn't know what we were doing and so the first batch of employees was not a good fit for our shop and it was quite traumatic actually to have to deal with, sort of turnover and training and then retraining and the spiral of like, it felt like it was never-ending. So in a lot of ways, we have learned a lot from that experience, and what we're looking for in our employees and how to sort through and sift through all of the noise.
What keeps you up at night, about the business?
I feel like we are looking to, we are expanding the business, so we will be opening up. And still staffing keeps me up at night.
I think looking forward and worrying about not one shop anymore, right? One shop, I think we've gotten a better handle on it, but now if we have two, now I need almost double the staff and sort of juggling. That is another challenge.
And I think when you have a small business and just one, there are things that you cover as the owner, right? Like, oh, somebody's sick, let me go in and cover for them, or, do what I need to do to make sure everything is okay, and our staff are okay and our customers are being, served well.
Once you expand, you can't cover everything, anymore. And so what is it gonna look like if multiple people are sick and I cannot cover me and my husband cannot cover all of those shifts. Like, what is it gonna look like? That is my biggest worry in terms of the quality of our service and the quality of our product.
What advice do you have for someone else that wants to run their business off a strong mission like yours?
I would, I would love to see other businesses doing what we're doing. I really believe that as business owners, our goal cannot just be to do business, to make money. It can't, it just cannot be our only goal. I think we have such power in creating businesses, and we come from a place of privilege that we're even able to do it.
So I would encourage people to think bigger. Find ways to support, the people in your community, whether that's your staff or your customers or other people in the community. What ways can your business, support other people? Because I think when we reach out to other people, we really enrich everyone that, that our business touches. And that's kind of the beauty of what we're doing, is that this is not about me. And I feel like I'm never gonna have a crisis of what am I doing because I know that my business is touching other people, not just for myself. So I feel like it gets me up every day.
Knowing that it's not just about me and it's not just about my husband. It really is about the other people that we serve and we try to love.
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.