I like to believe that amongst the articles on big multinational companies, there’s a generous number of articles highlighting the small to medium enterprises that fight, day-in and day-out, to grow their businesses. You know the ones I mean; the small operations that employ a skeleton crew, where everyone has to do every job, just to get everything done. The ones where the owner and the newbie can be found getting their hands dirty, side by side.
Independent coffee houses are a personal favourite of mine, because I spend so much time conducting meetings in them. The combination of good coffee, good space and free Wi-Fi is a model that is guaranteed to bring business people like myself flocking in their droves.
Aroma Café in Norwich is a two-storey coffee house boasting a perfect location on one of the busiest streets in the city. It is also close to numerous bus routes and a number of high-end businesses. It’s been open since 2014 and is owned and run by sibling business partners Mercedes and Thomas Hood, who recently bought out their angel investor and immediately offered the opportunity for one of their staff members, Will How, to become partner.
For a small to medium enterprise, such a transition could go unnoticed, but when it happened at Aroma, half of Norwich erupted in a rapturous cheer because the legion of loyal customers that care about the day-to-day running of the business are more like family than just mere punters.
“We call ourselves Aromans,” says Tony White, one of the customers, a regular, who is a local writer. ”When Will got offered the partnership, we were all happy because he’s worked with them and been an ambassador for the brand since the start.”
Norwich is not a big city, having only 170,000 inhabitants, but with two major, internationally recognised universities, prominent schooling and a major media and tech community, its commerce side does very well. There is also no shortage of coffee houses, independent and not. Just as many Starbucks and Costas inhabit the street corners as independent businesses, so how has Aroma been able to build such a community of customers/family members?
“By the realization of the very uncomplicated notion…that our customers are people with personalities, before they are numbers through the door. Numbers are important and counting is necessary. But not before asking Nigel how his wife is recovering from her recent operation or cheering Dave up from a long hard day teaching.” says Mercedes.
Wi-Fi is complementary and the second floor is free to hire and is usually busy during the weekends. Thanks to this free use of the floor, Aroma has seen many interesting events from open mic nights with the likes of Pirate Joe and the Heartbreak Club (fronted by Will How); life drawing, with the windows blacked out, to comedy nights and of course there are the famous Halloween and Christmas parties.
CONSTANT LEARNING AND UPDATING
Aroma has undergone several facelifts over the years and so the interior design has never had the chance to get tired. From subtle through to major changes, there seems to always be a constant development underway and the management team are never happy to sit on their laurels either.
“Information is endless and totally free these days,” Tom says. “The more you learn, the more you earn, might be a corny saying but it is very true. I read books on property investment to nutrition; biographies of millionaires to dog training books. Part of being a barista means sustaining a hundred friendships in one morning. Do you know how much people hear how are you? So much that their responses are automatic and meaningless. So better to throw in a fun fact for the day or discuss with the local estate agent how the market is looking. You want repetition from your customers but you don’t want them to ever feel bored whilst waiting for their cup of joe.”
Their main learning tools are their customers. Being so perfectly positioned to pick up as many financial investors as bloggers, all of the staff at Aroma find themselves having conversations about any number of topics. This also helps to keep them relevant.
“We offer vegan drinks and sausage rolls,” says Will How, “After a number of our customers told us they were now vegan. We also had a beer tap installed after we conducted a survey to find out how many of our customers would take advantage of it. And by ‘conducting a survey’ we mean posting the question to Facebook and simply asking our regulars what they thought one morning.”
KEEP THINGS SIMPLE
There is nothing complicated about what Aroma offers. The coffee is good, the service is friendly, welcoming and attentive and the food is always fresh and tasty. The Wi-Fi works and customers are kept abreast of new developments via a monthly newsletter. Now a blog.
“It takes a lot of hard work to keep things simple.” Mercedes says. “It’s takes far more work than to let it get complicated and constantly struggle to fix mistakes. All the boring but necessary jobs must become a system. That’s the unchanging skeleton that must become habit for all staff. This is the part you can train. You can’t train someone to be the right personality. You must find them; they are out there! Our staff need to be adaptable, unwaveringly polite, have a huge sense of humour and above all, they need to be intuitive and active problem solvers with a will power beyond measure.”
Now that the Aroma owners have settled their original refurbishment debts and re-arranged the partnership to involve their longest serving staff member, the future looks promising.
Many cafes and coffee houses rise and fall in a city as small but as busy as Norwich. At the time of writing of this article, over six of the coffee houses and cafes that were usually so busy are now just windows into empty buildings. Perhaps what was missing in these establishments were owners that take the time to listen to each of their customers. Maybe they didn’t take the time to know who they were and what their dreams were.
“I walked into Aroma after being in another country for six months,” Mike King, a senior exec for a banking firm in Scotland, said, “I came back and they knew my name and gave me a hug. It made me feel that I had been on their minds and that felt good.”
— Aroma Cafe/Bar (@AromaNorwich) February 12, 2018