Solving Problems of Leadership With David Hu
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Hi, friends. A quick note before we get started: This is a re-release of an episode I did in November 2019, and features David Hu, former owner of The Peccary, a coffee shop in New Jersey.
I wanted to re-release this episode for two reasons. One: David is an incredible resource, and I regularly turn to social media for his insights (you can follow him @the.david.hu). Second: I’m preparing a presentation on how to advocate for yourself at work as part of a coffee conference called High Density, hosted by The Barista League, and the topics raised in our conversation have informed much of my recent thinking.
My talk focuses on the ways that baristas and other service workers can stand up for themselves, and learn about the laws and protections in place to safeguard their rights. As I’ve researched and prepared for it, I keep coming back to lessons that David shared in his episode, and I think it’s required listening for anyone who has ever held a leadership position. Essentially, he asks folks to step outside of themselves, be humble, and truly do good for the people around them.
My talk is just one of dozens of events, panels, and demonstrations happening at High Density, which is a free and 100% digital coffee conference like none other I’ve ever encountered. The conference takes place on March 9, and features an international program of speakers including Gwilym Davies, Kat Melheim, Freda Yuan, Lem Butler, and Vava Angwenyi. A number of folks who I’ve interviewed for Boss Barista are presenting, and I’m so excited to be part of this worldwide event. You can learn more by going to The Barista League’s website or by following them on Instagram.
Before you jump into my conversation with David, know that we’ve changed up a few things at Boss Barista since we recorded this episode, so some things might sound a little different. Rest assured, though, that the content and lessons are more applicable now than ever. Here we go.
Everyone has had a bad boss. Everyone has probably had multiple bad bosses. I had one boss tell me I was inauthentic and that he hated me. I had one tell me he couldn’t give me more money after he promoted me. I had two bosses—a married couple—get a divorce and put all their employees right in the middle of it. And I too, have been that bad boss. I’ve been overbearing, too nitpicky, too weird, too mean.
I learned to be a better boss—not perfect, not great, probably not even good, but better—through reading countless articles, and scouring the internet for anything I could find about how to manage more effectively. Surprisingly, there aren’t a lot of resources that address how to be a better leader. There are tons of articles complaining about shitty employees, but there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between our understanding of the role of leaders and how we think they should treat and set examples for their staff.
It strikes me that we don’t really expect leaders to be held accountable for office culture—instead, we tend to write off negative work environments as a result of terrible employees. I know this is bullshit now, but the only way I learned this lesson was because of my time as a middle school teacher.
I tell this story a lot, because it’s so important to me and who I’ve become. At the time, I was trying to get my students to behave by lining them up outside my classroom, and it wasn’t working. So my principal called me, and immediately, I blamed the kids, the fact that my class was right after lunch… Then, he said the single-most important set of words I’ve ever heard. He told me their rowdiness was my fault—I was the one in charge. But then he paused, and said, “That’s meant to empower you. You’re always in control.”
Fast-forward a number of years, and I vividly remember the first time I came across some striking posts on Instagram about leadership, posted by a coffee shop called The Peccary. These posts extolled baristas, and talked about how it’s the job of leaders to make the work of being a barista easier. David Hu, the owner of The Peccary, does this in a number of ways.
To begin with, he pays his baristas more than the industry average. His employees know their schedules ahead of time for a year. They were paid for months during training and on-boarding before the shop even opened.
I wanted to learn more about how David developed such an attuned sense of purpose and vision, and how he became the kind of leader who puts his staff first. His journey is not without its ups and downs—The Peccary recently closed its doors, which we talk about—but his perspective made me reconsider what my values are, and what we can all do to live out our values.
David: My name is David Hu. I am the owner of The Peccary Coffee Bar in Millburn, New Jersey.
Ashley: What made you want to open a coffee bar?
David: It was actually very unexpected. It was not a personal dream. I have been a career designer in the corporate world, in the agency world both here in the New York area and abroad. But as a designer I guess [my work] overlaps a lot with coffee culture, mainly because I would sit in the coffee shop all the time to do work.
I got to a point in my life—I'm 38 this year—and I felt that I've put in enough time of my life, on the commuting, on the corporate work … and I've put myself in a position where I really wanted to do something meaningful. I actually stepped away. I stepped away from working for about a year before this idea of starting a coffee shop came about.
But it was really a project where life told me that I should do something. And I got to a point where I understood what it means to hear myself talking—to understand what that urge was to step away from the daily grind, so to speak, and start something fresh.
So it certainly wasn't a project that I had thought of prior to two years ago. It was something that I think the spark of the idea was sitting in a coffee shop and talking to baristas whom I've befriended over the days and weeks and months I've visited. A lot of baristas started to tell me about the struggles they have at work.
I'm also trained as an engineer, so when they tell me things that didn't work that were logistical issues, to me, it was solvable. It wasn't that difficult. You could sit down and figure it out on paper. Then the design nerd part of me has always been very interested in designing an experience. And I saw a gap in the industry where I can combine those two experiences and try to come up with a solution that works.
Ashley: That's so fascinating to hear that your background is in engineering and to take the problems of baristas and think, “I can solve this.” So how did you go about planning the cafe to address those issues that baristas were bringing up to you?
David: Well, for example, one of the things was scheduling, right? A lot of baristas would not be able to get off from work on time because the next shift didn't come on time or someone would realize that, “Oh, this person is sick and they can't come in and fill in, but I already had something scheduled. But now I have to stay because that person cannot show up.”
I mean, this is just one aspect, but to me it was a scheduling problem. It's a mathematical problem. This isn’t to think of people just as data, but to me it was a logistical issue. And this logistical issue was compounded by the fact that I saw a lot of baristas were part-timers. So you have a store where your staff is composed of maybe 20 people, all part-time, all trying to figure out whose schedule is what.
To me, again coming from the corporate world where everybody's working 9–6, I thought there had to be a middle ground somewhere where you can address the fact that coffee shops need to be open most days of the week, especially on weekends…
That is just going to trickle down. I just had the feeling that if I could figure out the root problem, I could see all the benefits come through and trickle down. Right?
If everybody understood, for example, that there was a set schedule, that you're not running around trying to figure out week to week, day to day where everybody is, you're not trying to figure out, “Do I have the kind of coworker who is really good for the Saturday rush?” You know who's going to show up and you are going to work as a team and having that predictability and that confidence that this work is going to be there just as you are there makes a huge difference.
I just keep seeing that is more like a logistical issue. Not that the logistics solution will solve everything, but I could tell that 70, 80% of it could be solved with just good logistics.
Ashley: As a barista hearing you say things like, “You never know who's going to come in on Saturday to support you on maybe a busy day,” I'm almost holding my breath. That's such a feeling that I've had where I'm like, “I don't know who's going to come in and help me. I'd never know what my schedule is going to be like.” And you taking that and simplifying that is really powerful. So how did you start tackling these problems? What else were you noticing that you were like, “This is totally solvable?”
David: Well, one, I think I have to predicate everything that I was going to do before I actually put pen to paper was to make sure I would hire people of really good character.
I could use a lot more adjectives to describe it, but I think if I boil it all down is to just hire people with good character and good commitment.
So all the things have to fit in, right? For example, I could come up with the best schedule in the world—easy to understand, predictable, fits everybody else's private life schedule great—but if you had someone on the team who just cannot show up on time, that system is not going to work.
I brought in experiences from my corporate career because I was a designer, but my strength was not actually in design. My strength was in project management. I would manage groups of five up to a whole project where 50 people are involved, and I was the communication liaison between all these different departments. So to me having the right people is always first and foremost the most important thing. Having assumed that though, then I can come and try to figure this out.
Ashley: Let's go backwards a little bit because you talked about having the right people. So how did you code for that? What did you start looking for when you were hiring?
David: It helped that two of my eventual baristas, I was originally a customer at their shop. So when I found out that they were looking for new opportunities then I would sit down and talk to them. I talked to them about what their personal goals are. I did not really ask about skills. Skills, to me, I think you can teach as long as you have the right people to teach them and mentor them. That just simply takes time and commitment.
What I really look for is honesty, transparency, and a willingness to be very, very humble. Even before I opened the shop, I spent about eight months writing down what my personal values are and I collected it in a way and wrote it down in a way that I felt was understandable to most people.
So one of the things is the idea of baristaship. I actually Googled that word. It doesn't come up that often, to be honest.
Ashley: No it doesn’t.
David: Baristaship is a bit of a generic word. But everybody knows maybe on the surface what it means, but nobody actually sat down and defined it. So for me, I defined it as:
The baristaship is founded on three core values. One is self-awareness. Second is self-respect. Third is self-discipline.
I boiled down many, many things I wrote down to those three things that I feel cohesively help a barista become a self-respecting coffee professional—who then has the humility to understand that they are at the very end of a long chain of people who also are committed to bring coffee into our shop so that we can brew this cup of coffee for a customer.
So it's almost an ownership of responsibility, this huge responsibility, but if you are willing to commit to this, then you can be rewarded with all the tremendous knowledge and community that this culture brings. And at the same time elevate you as a person to be a good citizen.
So I mean, that was a long way of saying that. But that's what I tried to simplify and distill so that any barista who joins The Peccary has that right off the bat—it's not about coffee skills, it’s not about how well you dial in, it’s not about how well you do a pour over. I don't even really care if you know like, the elevation at which a certain coffee was grown. All that stuff, I don't care. What you need to bring to my company is character, humility, and you're willing to commit to this.
Ashley: I think there's so much power to the fact that you outlined this from the get-go—that you spent so much time thinking about what your values are. You wrote them down, you made them clear to your staff before you even hired them. So can you talk a little bit about what it was like to sit down and really think about what your values are and to not just have them in your brain—but really sit down and think, “What does this look like on paper, and how do I communicate it to somebody else?”
David: That's something that I was quite accustomed to doing because as a designer—well, when I first started as a design student, it was just really to design cool stuff. And once I got into the industry, then it was like a job. And then I get told what to design and I design it, and there's a project that gets shipped out. It gets sold and whatnot.
Eventually, and I think most people inevitably get to a point sometime in their career where they start asking, “Why am I doing this?” And same thing happened to me: “Why am I designing? Why am I a designer? What does it mean to be a designer?”
I went through that process over a number of years where I wrote down my own philosophy about design. What it means, and why I should be a designer that literally puts more physical waste into this world.
For me, if I do not anchor myself in this idea of the true humanistic value of being a designer, I cannot call myself a designer. It would just be job title that anybody can take away from me at any point in time.
So I saw parallels to someone who, for whatever reason, came into this as a barista—whether it's for practical reasons or for more fanciful reasons or for whatever personal reason that may be. I do believe that eventually they will ask themselves the same questions. Even if you don't, you should, because of how human-centered this industry is.
Just like design, it's a very creative field. Being a barista is a fundamentally creative industry. And if you do not understand the humanistic foundations of why you are doing this day in and day out, it's very, very difficult for you to see what lies before you, what can be there for the future.
And I think that idea, the simple fact that most people don't talk about this, makes it very difficult. You're just running on fumes. Most people, they're like five years into it, 10 years into it, and they go, “Wow, I've been doing the same thing all this time. I don't know what's fueling me except this idea of, ‘I like my coworkers. I like the customers.’ And I don't know what else lies before me.”
I think it's a very big missed opportunity [to not define your values]. And I count myself as very, very lucky to have done that. Yes, I did it on my own, but I was very lucky to have understood that on my own. I could have very easily fallen into the trap of just making design, getting a paycheck, and going home and go like, “Yeah, I'll just spend my money wherever I want.”
But I was very lucky to do that. As I see more people falling into that trap, I just felt like there has to be some way of talking about it so that people don't get so discouraged or get burnt out because these are people, whether it's a shop I go to once a week or a shop I go to every day, these are people I care about because they show me a lot of kindness. They show me reminders of why we are here and why we do these things that we like. Even though it's very much a thankless job, right? And to see young people fall into that, it’s kind of—it's disappointing.
Ashley: Hearing you tell that story reminded me of my very first coffee job.
I worked at a coffee shop in Times Square and it was a grind. But I had this manager who was really good at identifying what people were good at. Like, “You're good at this. You should do this.” She was really kind and generous with finding things for us to do that bent to our skillset.
Five years later, I was working as a trainer for a coffee shop. And I asked my coworker—who was also trainer—I was like, “What are you good at?”
And she said, “I don't know.”
I said, “Has nobody ever told you?”
She said no.
I realized that I was also very fortunate to have that moment where someone invested time in me to say, “What are your values? What do you care about?” And I wonder as a leader, as somebody who does hire people and had these values listed out for themselves, how did you start to think about imparting values or helping people see their value as one of your employees?
David: It has to start right off the bat. I think one of the things that I told myself before I even hired anyone, and I wrote this in my job ad, was, “You're coming here for yourself. I, as an owner, am lucky that you are willing to share with me this time and this energy and this commitment with me, because at the end of the day, yes, I'm running a business. You're not deciding how I run my business. So you are working for yourself and I, as a boss, have to work for you. I have to work for you.”
It really can't be any other way. Having that value I think is really, really important in the very beginning. And I told them, I said, “This is what I'm about. It's a lot of exploration. It's a lot of experimentation, but I'm here to support you.”
In fact, when I was building out my team, two of the baristas I trained for over a month. I paid them for full-time, trained them for over a month before I even opened the shop. That is, as far as I know, unheard of to be a barista—to be trained and paid full-time for over a month before you actually start a job. And the vast majority…
Ashley: I can count the number of times I haven't been paid for working. (Laughs)
David: 60-70% of that time was spent on mentality training, if you could believe it. It was not skills. I had a very good friend who was a Q grader who taught them a tremendous amount of coffee knowledge, but most of that training was observing and teaching them how to think, how to be independent.
I have to see from a consumer side that that's what people come to coffee shops for, right? If you come in and you get a cup of coffee and you get people who respect you and talk to you and see you as another human being, you will understand why coffee is so special.
A lot of this is my gut feeling, to be honest. There are no books on this. There's no Google or Wikipedia page for this. It's just me following what I think felt right.
Ashley: What did that first month look like? What kind of emotional and mental training does that take? Because I can kind of imagine it, but I think when you just said that there's no books on this, you can't Google it … that also resonated with me because I feel like so much of what I value is ineffable. It's hard to explain.
David: When they were hired I was at the very tail end of finishing construction. And when I hired them, I told them, “Come see the shop as it's being constructed. Meet my contractors, shake hands with them, introduce yourself, talk to them, befriend them.”
I also took them to the dairy farm to talk to the farmers and get a tour of the farm. We get our milk from a Jersey dairy farm about an hour away. I said everything that I'm going to put into this business, you need to understand because I am training you to be independent. And that's part of the training. Go meet the farmer you are working with. Meet the contractor you are working with. Seeing what they do day in and day out, and respecting what they do day in and day out, you inversely understand why I respect baristas day in, day out.
And once you understand that I'm coming from a place of respecting my employees, you will get to understand why you should respect yourself and all the people who came before you, right?
I don't care how much money I have, I cannot build a shop. I don't know how to do it. And so a lot of the training was a lot of talking to people, sitting down and telling them, “Hey, remember today, remember what it was like to go up to our coffee roaster up in Portland?” And talking to them and seeing how they carry themselves. How you guys talk to each other. The words you say, the gestures you use, the way you stand, the way you answer my questions. So there are times when I talk to them and I'm saying something, and I said, “Take out your notebook, write this down.”
“I'm pointing this out in the most respectful way: I did not like the way you answered that question, not as an attack, as this is how you should say it and convey it, so that people understand you are being respectful.” Because once you understand the nuances of communication, you will actually become more empowered to know that when you say something and somebody takes offense to it, but you are clear about what you said, that responsibility of being taken offense is on them. It's not on you. It's yourself, right?
So clarity about who you are gives you so much more power. And I understand this because baristas have to meet all kinds of people, all walks of life, of all levels of respectfulness. They will get someone who's a bit of an ass—maybe twice, three times, five times a day. Right? You cannot take that to heart.
I will support you, but I'm not going to chase a customer out because I'm not there. You need to be able to understand where you are, and I am backing you up 100%.
If you need to take a break, whatever, but on the day-to-day communication, I want you to feel strong about who you are. And that trickles down to the way I built my shop and everything.
But a lot of it is explaining why I build a shop this way. A lot of it is meeting people. A lot of it is training them—the way they talk and they move. A lot of it was inspired by my own travels abroad. But then always keeping an eye on how did they express themselves as individuals. I do not want to smother that at all, but understanding and having that clarity and giving them that training makes them much more confident.
Ashley: It's so interesting to me that you talk so confidently about these values and the way that you approach training. And yet it is still so rare for somebody to approach hiring, training, employment in the way that you do. It's interesting how radical it is, but at the same time how basic it feels. Like when you say these things, “I'm like, yeah, of course, why don't we do these things?” So why do you think there is this resistance to treating baristas with the values that you've outlined? Why is this still rare?
David: To be honest, I think that the majority of people who start coffee shops misunderstand what that means.
It's a bit of a cycle. It's a bit of a self-feeding cycle where someone may go, “Oh, I love being a barista. I love being in coffee.” And they work their way up to some kind of level or power of influence where they can get enough money where they can save up and they start a coffee shop or, you know, whatever circumstances they may be.
But I think they approach that as, “This is a business. I'm going to be an owner. I'm going to have control. I'm going to have power.” To me, that's the opposite of what you're supposed to do.
To me, having that resource to open a coffee shop and then deciding to open a coffee shop is taking on a responsibility. It's not something to do for yourself as a fun thing to do to be in this position of power.
I was very, very clear about that: I am opening up a shop in service of other people. I am willing to take all my savings that I've accumulated over the past decade of my career in doing this, and I'm willing to lose it all.
I told my baristas, “I'm willing to lose all of my money to do this for you, because I need to, in this point in my life, prove that this is more than about money.” Again, that's very, very personal to me, but having done that and gone through that process, I just don't see how that's possible any other way. I just don't see it because the other ways always start off as mistreating baristas as the default. It just always happens that way. I am almost protecting myself as a business person to give up that authority.
I created the shop. I spend all that time planning on how can I make the shop not mine, if that makes any sense.
I plan that shop to not be mine. It has to belong to the baristas. I'm just the financier. I'm just the guy who brought the money. They're the ones who brought the character, right? The contractor brought the skills, that dairy farmer brought the knowledge and the time and the effort to do that. I am just someone with the money and I'm grateful for it.
I'm very grateful for the fact that I have it, but I am not going to use that as leverage against anybody else. And by not doing that, I actually am not afraid of doing it. I think it's when people hold onto that money, hold onto that power, that they get very, very scared of losing it. And so when anything happens that feels like a threat to that, they hold onto it tighter. To me, I just don't hold onto it.
Ashley: That's really interesting to think about, because that reminds me of all the coffee shop owners who are now in a little bit of hot water with their baristas unionizing. I'm thinking back to the gelato shop that's in DC that cut barista wages. And I think they were quoted saying, “We expected people to leave.” That was part of their business model so that they could pay people less money. What you're saying is in such stark opposition to that. That's really interesting to think about how, in a way, it kind of frees you from feeling that insecurity and finding that control.
David: Part of that was practicality. I knew I had enough money to pay for all this, right? The decision to pay my baristas 30 to 40% more than anybody else in the area, that is a decision that sounds good, feels good. I can pat myself on the back for doing it, but if I didn't have the money, that's no good. So that has to be balanced, right?
David: Logistics-wise, I planned out a lot of efficiencies so I can figure out, “Okay. If I treat [my baristas] right, I can pay them well—I can pay them really well.” And I don't have to mistreat them because they own the shop. They run the shop as they see fit. And I have to trust that if I hire people with good character, that they're going to work together as a really, really great team. In fact, one month after I opened, I did not have to be at the shop. I didn't have to be at the shop. They didn't need me. It just ran on.
Ashley: Right. That's so powerful too.
I've been a manager for a long time. And I think probably one of my greatest achievements was knowing that the shop was fine. I don't have to be here every day. I don't have to be here for 12 hours every day because my staff is good. They can do this job. They don't need me.
Ashley: And that's still a lesson that I feel is just not … it gets lost. I think it goes back to what you were saying about control, is that there is the sense of insecurity in control. It can come from the opposite end where if you're not in control, you're not really sure what's happening, but the contrary, like, God, it felt good to leave the cafe and be like, “My baristas have it. They can make a decision. The milk delivery is late? They know who to call. They're fine.”
David: That frees me up to support them, right?
Ashley: Exactly, to do bigger and better things. It gives me time to go talk to my boss and be like, “Hey, you should pay this person more money,” or think critically about what it means to give someone a raise. And it makes everybody's job easier.
David: Right. But it takes work in the beginning to do that. Absolutely.
Ashley: Absolutely. And I think that that's really interesting to talk about too—I feel like I keep saying the words, “That's interesting,” but it is! It’s almost obvious, but yet not something that a lot of people do to really plan ahead and think, “This is what I need to do to be successful. I need to have an idea of what I need these people to be able to do. I need to be able to tell them, ‘I'm gonna pay you this much.’ And then I have to be sure that I have that money to do so.” And that's really cool that you went in with a game plan.
David: Right. I do think—I'm going to almost shoot myself in the foot saying this—but I think the specialty coffee industry really forgets or talks too much about the equipment or the technicalities. That's all good knowledge. And I'm not trying to discredit that, but the conversations that we constantly have about, “Oh, we can get the best coffee if we use this equipment or if we dial it in this way,” where you have all these numbers—we start to create this dialogue of, “Oh, as long as I have these things that are tangible, calculable data, this equipment, I can have a successful coffee shop.”
And we forget because there's so much of that, right? There's so much data and there's so much knowledge. Then we start to forget that all of this is predicated on human beings being happy in your place of work.
Like none of your La Marzocco machines or your pour overs or your grinders are going to work if nobody is there. So, to me, to chase after all the equipment, the hardware, without remembering the people, I think that's where a lot of people stumble. They just jump right in. And I spent most of my time thinking about the human side, the people side, because once I figured that out, equipment stuff, you can always have somebody fix that. You can always have somebody get better at it, but if you can't fix personal issues, you're not building a good foundation. You're just trying to make your house look great. And then you said, “Oh, skip over the foundation.” If you don't have a good foundation, it doesn't matter how good your house looks.
David: And that's one thing I told my baristas, I said, “I built a really nice shop. It's a very fancy space, but it means nothing without you guys.” And I absolutely believe that. And I said that right off the bat, it doesn't mean anything. It was just a space.
Ashley: Were there ever any moments of tension or were there moments where you … it seems like you have a really good game plan, but I imagine there are lessons along the way that you learned. So what was it like actually realizing some of these values? And did you have to adjust anything as you moved along?
David: Yeah, there was one instance—well, not one instance, but a period of time of several weeks near the beginning of our operations where I felt like the baristas were not pushing themselves as much as I wanted them to. And the team, to their credit, got together and said, “Dave, we want to sit down with you and we want to talk to you about something.”
And they were very honest with me. They talked together, like they should, as a team, they discussed it. And they had one representative—everybody who worked there was present, but they had one spokesperson—and that spokesperson told me what the team felt I was saying and what they felt I should not be doing. And that I was not being fair to them. It was a very big gut punch.
And I said, “Thank you for saying that. I am processing it right now. And I need a moment.” And I literally stepped out of the shop.
I think it was just me going like, “Wow, I did not realize that that's what's happening.” And I took maybe 10 minutes to collect myself and come back and say, “I'm really sorry I did that. I did not realize I was doing that.”
I think that all stemmed from what I said about developing them to be confident, I pushed that too far. I got to a point where I was thinking that, “Oh, I'm doing this for you. And therefore you should do this and this and this and this. And now you're not meeting my expectations.” That was very, very wrong of me to do that. And I did not realize I was doing that.
But in retrospect, I think I was very, very grateful for the fact that again, I built a team that trusted each other that got together and told me collectively, because I think that's so important. It's just like, that's proof that this has to work this way. Because if I did not build a team that loved each other, that did not support each other, this thing would not have shown up, right?
This problem would not have been told to me. And I would not have known that I was doing something wrong. So I think that foundation again—it's just so much more important. I think owners also should be more open—not more open. They should just be absolutely as open as possible to understanding where baristas are coming from and to build in the structure or the platform so that they feel that they can be together collected as a group and tell me that.
It's very, very difficult when, as an employee to go, “Oh, I have this problem that's bothering me, but it seems like nobody else is being bothered,” but actually everybody's hiding.
David: Everybody's hiding it. And nobody's willing to share it because they're like, “Oh, I don't know if that person's going to tell on me,” or “I don't know, blah, blah, blah.”
And I said, “No, just tell me, tell me where I'm wrong.”
I said that in the very beginning—I didn't realize they were going to tell me that was wrong at that point on that topic—but that was very, very important to set up in the very, very beginning that they can tell me where I'm wrong, any time. I will never hold it against any one person, because I will assume that if something is wrong with that one person, I am doing the same thing in the wrong way to someone else, if not the whole team.
That's what it means to support your baristas. That's literally my job. I don't do anything else except to support my baristas. And understanding that on a fundamental level allows them to open up.
Ashley: Were you secretly—or maybe not secretly—but I imagine getting that feedback must've been difficult. But at the same time also a very proud moment to be like, “Wow, they came up to me and they told me this, and now we can actually move forward and be constructive.”
David: That was a proud moment probably later on, because to be honest, when they told me, it was a gut punch and I took offense to it—but I realized I was taking offense to it. So that's why I said, “Give me 10 minutes.” And I walked out of the store.
I think I cried a little bit because it hurt so much. But I think the hurt was not so much that I felt I was being disrespected. It was more like, “Oh my God, I didn't realize I was doing this.” It just took time to process it. And I came back and I sat down and I said, “I'm really sorry. I don't know what to do. That is a gut punch. And I'm just going to be honest and say that was a gut punch. But I hope you know that I don't mean that. But I understand why it feels that way, and it's my fault for making you feel that way.”
Over the following weeks, I still felt the guilt. I still felt like I had to keep a little bit of a distance. And to be honest, it took maybe like a month before I got back to the same level as it was before that. And that's just human nature, right? That's just me having to process that.
Ashley: Right. But it's so powerful that you didn't hold it against them. I can imagine 800 different scenarios that every barista has had where they either feel fearful to speak up about something that's bothering them or when they do speak up, they're retaliated against or told that they're wrong, or even subject to the anger that their manager might feel against them. “Oh, you made me feel this way. Now I'm going to make you feel.” That's such a common…
David: You can't…
Ashley: You can't do that!
David: You can't do that. We say you can’t do that—you and me are talking about, we can't do that because it sounds logical. What I think is really, really important is the owner has to feel that way. They truly, fundamentally have to feel that in the deepest part of their gut that that's the value.
I had to tell myself that before I hired anybody, I've figured it out on paper, that this is what I needed to be. I needed to be someone who supported my baristas, and that was on paper. But then I asked myself, “Could I do that day in and day out? Do I believe in that? Do I actually believe in that? And when somebody tells me they have a problem with me, how am I going to react?”
I had to do a lot of—it sounds a little bit clichéd—but I had to do a lot of soul-searching because I wasn't sure that I was that type of person. Then I spent time almost brainwashing myself and telling myself, “No, I have to be that person. I have to be someone who supports the baristas. I have to be someone who understands criticisms and absorbs it and tries to get better from it and not take that personally.”
Once I received criticism and I processed the emotions, my first task is to go back and fix that problem because I can't just be moody for the next three months. I can't just go like, “Oh, you hurt my feelings and I'm not going to retaliate, but I'm going to ignore you for the next three months.” That's not fair.
Running through that scenario in my mind was probably more important than anything else—understanding who I am and what kind of role I truly am taking on and the kind of responsibility that I'm taking on—because if I don't believe it, the person I hire and then I promote to be manager, they're not going to believe that either, right?
Eventually there's going to be some layer of hierarchy where there's going to be a shop manager and that manager is going to oversee someone else. And that person is going to feel fearful of bringing up that thing to that manager. So if I don't believe it, I can't tell my manager to believe it. And if my manager doesn't believe it or see me do it, they're not going to show that graciousness or that humility to that next person.
Ashley: Gosh, there's so many good things in everything you just said. But I want to shift a little bit because the way that I learned about your coffee shop was through Instagram and the fact that you're a designer makes a lot of sense. But you really utilized Instagram and social media in this way that I don't think any other coffee shop has ever utilized it. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you thought about using your social media presence and just your public persona in general.
David: There wasn't a plan to be honest. It really stemmed from my habit of being a designer. In design school, we were always taught to document what you do, no matter how mundane it seems. It's just a good record-keeping habit. So that's what I started off with.
I knew that Instagram was popular. I didn't really know how to use it. I took pictures of the construction. I started out with a sentence or two, then it became more long-form. But just showing respect for the people who built it. The very first “personal stories” I shared were of the contractors who came and built the space, put in the plumbing, put in the electrical lines, did the demolition and all those things and constructed the physical space.
It's a learning journey. I'm sure the writing has gotten better. The photography has gotten better, but I didn't really have a plan except to just say, “I'm going to document this.”
I didn't show that I was the owner until maybe late or middle of August. I always intended my social media presence to be a showcase for what my baristas did. I didn't actually show who I am until much, much later on. So that part was intentional, but in terms of what content I put on there, it was good seeing that people responded well, especially baristas, who seem to like my stories and my content seem to resonate with them. And I felt, “Oh, okay, well, it sounds like this is really helping someone. I should probably write more.” And just being .. I don't know. I want to say I'm courageous about it, but just kind of being honest and saying, “Hey, this is what I'm thinking about. This is what I think, this is why I appreciate what my baristas do.” That to me is just been an organic kind of growth, growing from there.
Ashley: You mentioned that you've gotten a lot of responses from baristas, and through my social network, that's generally the people that I see the most, but I wonder: Have other business owners interacted with you? Have you seen other business owners react differently towards you? I wonder what that process has been like.
David: Mostly positive. I guess I'm lucky in that way. I don't think I've had any other business owner who said anything negative. If anybody reached out to me, they said they really like what I stand for, that they see that their baristas resonate really well or at least like my content. And so they see that there's value in it.
A couple of them have reached out to me to sit down in person and say like, “How can I think this way? Or how can I approach it this way? Do you have any advice for me?” But the majority of my interaction is really with baristas. Supplementing my social media presence, I do go out to New York and attend coffee events where people do recognize me and I put my face out there. If I have an opportunity to talk one-on-one with baristas, they often have questions and I will spend like 30, 40 minutes—I get lost in talking. I love that interaction, and they follow me and a couple of posts here and there really resonated with people, which I'm happy to see. But yeah, it's half social media, half just putting my face out there in the coffee scene.
Ashley: There's no way to have this conversation without talking about the arc of your business. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the fact that you've closed, which feels very awkward for me to ask, but at the same time, it's part of the process. It's part of the journey that you're on.
David: I was very fortunate to have met other entrepreneurs many months back and one of the common refrains was, “You will not find your success until you’ve failed many, many, many times.”
So that kind of mentally prepped me. When I first started the shop, I knew that I'm going all in. If I lost all my money, that will be fine. It sounds really weird to have that be a throwaway phrase, but it's true. But coming to that realization of having to close, it was a decision that my baristas and I came to an agreement with. It was literally the fact that not enough people were coming in to sustain the business, and I had almost run out of money.
Everything has been financed by me. So there is a limit to how much money I have. And that was very much at the near end. So our summer months didn't pick up. You can dissect all the factors for why we closed, but the easy answer is not enough people came in.
For me to process the closing was tough. I did feel like I did want to tell myself that there's still legs. I could still keep going. I could go to the end of the year. But when that reality hit and I sat down with my baristas and they shared with me their thoughts on it. I took two weeks to process it on my own. I stepped away from the shop. I went to New York, went to see different shops. I drove around to just let it kind of settle in my mind. And after two weeks I realized it was a good decision. It was the right decision.
Then it kicks in: “What's the process like?” or “How are we going to close the shop? What are the logistics?” But the emotional roller coaster is still there because it's been kind of like a baby to me, it's been something that I pour my heart and soul into, but I also keep reminding myself: This is something that the baristas poured their hearts and souls into probably more than I could ever have, because this is something that they love doing. One of the things that really touched me was my team collectively told me they would not want to work for anyone else because of how happy they are. So I try to emphasize what a disappointment it is when the community doesn't support it in the way that they wanted it to.
That this good thing has to come to an end, that they now have to move on to the next phase of their lives. So if I keep thinking about what they must go through, not that I could 100% understand, that puts my emotion, my personal emotions, in perspective. I am at a point in my life where I know what I'm going to do. I can figure it out. I have that confidence. They may not be because they're early on in their careers and their lives, and they thought this was going to be a long-running thing. For that to end—it's more important for me now to support them instead of keep wallowing in that. Not to say it isn't hurtful, not to say it isn't disappointing, but I think having that perspective really helps me process that.
Ashley: Is there anything about closing that makes you think that you should have done anything differently, or does it shake any of your values at all?
I am very proud of the fact that I started the shop, built a shop, built this team, did it the way I did it. If anything, the lesson is, I wish I had more money to do this—not to burn, but if I had another opportunity to do another shop, I certainly would have just done it exactly the same way. Maybe logistically it will be different for different markets, different demographics, but my value system of supporting the baristas, that has not changed. It has to be that way because I'm closing on my own terms. I'm closing, and my baristas have felt like that was the best job that they ever had. To me, the only failure that I had was I did not have enough people come through the door. I was successful in everything else.
It’s almost like … I guess if I put together like a, you know, how an artist puts together an album and says, “Well, it didn't do well in the market, but artistically or value-wise, that's who that person is.” Everybody who poured their heart into it understands that's the right way to express that art. That's the way we have to live our lives. We just put our values out there on the table. We put everything on the table. I do not regret any bit of that. Whether or not it performed well on the market, that's business-person talk.
I'm still very, very grateful. I'm not homeless. Nobody else is homeless. This is just a matter of money. Life is telling me that my success was not in the coffee shop. My success is inspiring baristas, my successes is baristas feeling like somebody is looking out for them. Maybe they don't know me, but somebody is putting that value out there on social media and saying, “Hey, I know you don't do this, but look at The Peccary. The Peccary did it. And these are the baristas who came out of it and they're successful in their own careers. And they're confident who they are.”
And that's just an example, right? If I had spent all that money to just prove out and set examples for other people, it was well worth it. I don't even care. I just don't care. I just believe that money can always be made. That is not my motivator. So closing the business is just the end of a chapter. And now I am going to focus on what's the next chapter. What is the thing that I could figure out so that I solve this riddle, because I solved so many other riddles, so many other problems. So I'm successful in that. I just happened to be a failure in this. So I don't have any issues with that.
Ashley: Thank you so much for being on my show. I really appreciate it.
David: No, thank you for inviting me. This has been really, really great.
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