What we can learn from the entrepreneurial spirit of Manchester baristas

From the Northern Quarter to Spinningfields, there are hundreds of coffee shops in Manchester. I am sitting in one now, on a damp Manchester March morning. It’s blowing a hoolie out there with the usual horizonal Manchester rain. Inside, it’s different, there is a vibrancy of energy, chatting, laughter and camaraderie, the people of Manchester bonding on this dour Tuesday morning as the windows steam up.

So many features of this airy cafe are familiar to others in the city – the stripped back facades and basic décor, the all-consuming noise of hissing steam. Then the heavily tattooed barista, who has Death before decaf etched into one of his arms. I overhead the chat: I had to learn how to make 400 coffees in a morning.

The place is cramped, tiny stools at tiny tables piled into a tiny space. A small kitchen sends out freshly made artisan breakfast meals that are just fascinating in design and flavours, matching the artistry on the menu boards on the wall, and in reality judging by the gusto with which they are consumed, tasty. Scrambled eggs with avocado on sourdough toast seems to be breakfast of choice.

The cafe’s vibe is warm and welcoming, with six staff working at a pace with more arms than an octopus serving a customer base that comes and goes with amazing frequency. What I see here is an example of entrepreneurship at a much smaller, individual scale – forget the tech frenzy engulfing Manchester, the wave of independent coffee shops are the playgrounds of barista entrepreneurs.

The barista-entrepreneur is no different from any other person choosing to launch their business idea into a startup reality. They need to do understand their market, learn their craft, secure funding, find premises, create and test their product and then launch it. And then they work, they really do.

In small independent coffee shops, the barista serving your flat white is often one of the founding team, having to juggle everything from serving the coffee to mastering social media to managing suppliers. They are operating in a highly competitive and saturated market, against other independents and the global chains. They will stand or fall on the quality of their product, customer service and ambiance of their venue.

I enjoy working in Manchester, the hustle and bustle, sight and sounds, but most of all I’ve got into the habit of seeking out the artisan independent coffee shops mid-morning and mid-afternoon to recharge myself and use the new venue to observe entrepreneurship in action.

I watched baristas operate as true go-getters, from beans to roast to brew, offering signature blends of coffee with smooth taste, providing an alternative to the international chains known for the powerful brands, but their industrial scale lacking intimacy. The independents have a feel of craftsmanship and artisan care.

The extent of personalisation provided by the baristas surprises me, earning accolades from customers in their sincere greetings and genuine thanks. There is recognition and rapport between barista and customer, so much so, that in most cafes I visit, the baristas recognise the customer as they step in through the door, and what coffee they’ll want before they’re asked – despite them having thousands of customers each day.

Manchester does coffee. Coffee served quickly, exactly like the customer asks for it, they do it right, the baristas are prepared. Baristas serve two functions in this equation. Baristas make the coffee the way the customer likes the coffee, but before they do that, they listen and recognise what they customer wants.

They serve the very important function of listening. This made me stop, because I didn’t realise just how much practice it takes to listen, especially to the multiple variations of flavours of coffee available. It’s a vital piece in the customer relationship, over and above the coffee itself.

The latte served is exactingly made, very tasty, and perfectly portioned with milk that’s just hot and foamy enough. For those looking to try something new, there’s a rotating selection of boutique, in-season beans at a higher price point. Along with cortados and lattes, you’ll find the slightly more obscure shakerato, espresso shaken over ice and served with simple syrup and an orange twist.

But, back to the practice of listening. It’s a lot like the practice of delivering great coffee. Listen to what baristas say: I have that grande decaf mocha for you, when you’re ready; Tall skim cappuccino on the bar, just for you.  A little extra touch. No matter how crowded and busy the queue, they talk to their customers, and in talking with the customers, they learn about them.

So let’s look further at the lessons to be shared between successful entrepreneurs and baristas, what are their common attributes, behaviours and qualities?

Discipline Both have discipline, entrepreneurs to ‘make the main thing, the main thing’, to focus and not deviate. For a barista, maybe the game plan is simply consistency, prepare a great cup of coffee time and time again for every customer on every visit. All entrepreneurs have a North Star, a barista is no different. Indeed scaling a business means being consistent and delivering to every customer, time and again.

Keep a clear head Amidst the hullaballoo and the noise of the frantic queues in the coffee shop, baristas have to keep a clear head. In the heat of the moment, they cannot get caught up in the intensity and lose focus or the lessons learned from their training, which is an important skill to have as an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs have to be both mentally alert, agile and ‘always on’, it’s what makes an entrepreneur see the opportunity when others around them can’t see the way ahead.

Resilience Boxers get punched in the face, some get knocked down. The difference between a good boxer and a great boxer is the ability to get back up. It’s the same for an entrepreneur, they have to be able to dig deep, look within themselves, and have the confidence, courage and heart to keep getting back up, no matter how many times they get knocked down.

Baristas may not get punched in the face, but sometimes when things don’t go your way, it may feel like it. But if you are confident enough in yourself and your business, and you want it bad enough, no matter how many times you get knocked down, you will find the courage and heart to keep getting back up.

Build muscle memory Muscle memory is equally important in business as it is in sport, especially when times are tough. Having weathered countless storms in the past, entrepreneurs rely on my muscle memory to kick in so that despite a loss, they maintain the mindset of growth and opportunity to go again and find new customers.  For Baristas, resilience in times of peak demand is needed to keep the customer experience as fresh and stimulating as the coffee.

Patience As an entrepreneur patience is as important as an ability to move quickly. Sometimes you may want to rush out and spread the word about what you’re doing or talk to potential customers, but if you move too soon, you may not have a full understanding of the opportunity. It is important to make sure that when an opportunity arises, you are prepared for it, able to recognise it, and attack it with great precision.

For the artful barista, it’s the combination of the quality of the product and the experience, they don’t cut corners despite the customer perhaps being in a hurry, creating the product takes time, care and attention, whilst finding a few moments engaging with the customer personally is a vital ingredient too. 

Enjoy the oxygen Top rugby players use a technique whereby they take 30-second breaks in-between agility drills, weightlifting, jump-roping and sprinting in a five-minute intense workout. During those brief seconds, they are exhorted to enjoy the oxygen. This teaches them how to breathe using their diaphragm, not their lungs, and to lower their heart rate during breaks in play when on the pitch.

So many business folks are so caught up in the heat of the moment that they don’t stop to take a deep breath, step back, and pause for reflection, or to appreciate, understand and evaluate what they’ve accomplished. Pausing to collect your thoughts, regain composure and adjust your physiology helps entrepreneurs persevere over the long-term, especially when encountering those unexpected speed bumps and disruptions.

I’ve seen the baristas do this too, spending a quiet moment to themselves to reflect on the events in their business that morning, enjoying the success of seeing returning customers, before going again. 

Put accuracy before power Business is more about rhythm, technique and accuracy than simply raw power. Power is useless if it misses its target, it wastes energy. That’s a great analogy for any entrepreneur who’s chomping at the bit to launch a new product or service, and dazzle the world. The best planned product or service will fail miserably if it doesn’t solve a customer want or need, all the smart marketing muscle in the world won’t matter.

This is how the independent coffee shops win against the global chains, they do lots of little things differently, they don’t try to compete on the same basis, they make a difference by being different, and focus on that. 

Keep moving forward Although entrepreneurial success is heavily dependent upon skill and the perfection of the craft, anyone can be broken physically by a relentless challenge. It’s hard to keep moving forward when you don’t see visible signs of success, it becomes as much a battle of wills and mental endurance as it does a battle of stamina, strength, and skill.

Many of the greatest successes are of those people who just kept working – James Dyson, inventor of the dual cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner, spent five years and produced over 100 prototypes of his machine before success. We never hear about the guy who quit, but the guy who persists and perseveres and keeps moving forward to their goal.

People’s desire for that perfect cup of coffee or shot of espresso creates a queue of people in a hurry, but where baristas showcase their art form of artisan beverage making, everyone is happy to wait, watching the barista perform with purpose.

I see tonnes of guile, grit, flair, personality and determination – and smiling faces – from the hard-working baristas in Manchester who put a long shift in every day. They knew that today was a step forward to success, even if it may not feel like it in the moment, but a focus on their horizon and holding their vision is vital to success.

As TS Eliot said, I have measured out my life in coffee spoons, and like everyone else who makes the mistake of getting older, I start my day with coffee and reading the obituaries. Why did the hipster burn his tongue? because he drank his coffee before it was cool.

Yes, we are now a nation addicted to coffee, and we love the barista’s style and craftsmanship, but’s it tough out there and the pace is fast. Like any entrepreneur they have discipline, clarity and focus to guide their thinking and making it happen. We could do worse than to follow their entrepreneurial spirit.