I turned my disastrous experience of opening a cafe into a novel.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Aug. 4 2009 1:26 PM

Make That a Double Shot

I turned my disastrous experience of opening a cafe into a novel.

Also in Slate, Nathan Heller  rates the coffees made by the three big chains: Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, and McDonald's.

After this piece ran, I received no fewer than 500 e-mails. Most readers had their own entrepreneurial disasters to share—some safely in the past, some still unfolding. One letter was from a photographer whose dreams of a professional studio gradually mutated into a "Santa photo concession" at a shopping mall; another, from a couple stuck running the only English-language bookstore in Vietnam. Yet another, about the perils of running a shop with one's spouse, ended with something like "I dream of divorce every day. … Oh Christ, here comes my husband, gotta—." At least one letter has become retroactively upbeat. It had come from an antsy student running a startup out of his dorm room. Before writing this, I went back to check on the name of that startup and let out a little gasp.

Ground Upis a novel, not a memoir, and it's inspired less by my own real-life bumbling than by what you might call the spiritual sum of these letters. Everyone in it is staggering after a dream, both the precious Cafe Kolschitzky and its corporate nemesis Jumpy Joe's Java. Even Mark and Nina, the bourgeois couple obsessed with amassing bohemian cred, have some stunningly wrongheaded ideas—but, like every other victim of the cafe dream, mean well. (They simply can't fathom why the world won't reward their selflessness with love and money.) Today, when small businesses on the Lower East Side and elsewhere are taking as much of a beating as the big ones, I hope both the article and the book read as a little salute to those still ready to take the plunge. Plus, now you can get a much better deal on rent. Buyer's market and all. In fact … let me run the figures here. … Oh my God, Lily, we can totally do this!

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You know that charming little cafe on New York's Lower East Side that just closed after a mere six months in business—where coffee was served on silver trays with a glass of water and a little chocolate cookie? The one that, as you calmly and correctly observed, was doomed from its inception because it was too precious and too offbeat? The one you still kind of fell for, the way one falls for a tubercular maiden? Yeah, that one was mine.

The scary part is that you think you can do better.

I never realized how ubiquitous the dream of opening a small coffeehouse was until I fell under its spell myself. Friends' eyes misted over when my wife and I would excitedly recite our concept ("Vienna roast from Vienna! It's lighter and sweeter than bitter Italian espresso—no need to drown it in milk!"). It seemed that just about every boho-professional couple had indulged in this fantasy at some point or another.

The dream of running a small cafe has nothing to do with the excitement of entrepreneurship or the joys of being one's own boss—none of us would ever consider opening a Laundromat or a stationery store, and even the most delusional can see that an independent bookshop is a bad idea these days. The small cafe connects to the fantasy of throwing a perpetual dinner party, and it cuts deeper—all the way to Barbie tea sets—than any other capitalist urge. To a couple in the throes of the cafe dream, money is almost an afterthought. Which is good, because they're going to lose a lot of it.

The failure of a small cafe is not a question of competence. It is a sad given. The logistics of a food establishment that seats between 20 and 25 people (which roughly corresponds to the definition of "cozy") are such that the place will stay afloat—barely—as long as its owners spend all of their time on the job. There is a golden rule, long cherished by restaurateurs, for determining whether a business is viable. Rent should take up no more than 25 percent of your revenue, another 25 percent should go toward payroll, and 35 percent should go toward the product. The remaining 15 percent is what you take home. There's an even more elegant version of that rule: Make your rent in four days to be profitable, a week to break even. If you haven't hit the latter mark in a month, close.

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