Goodbye from Cafe Luwak
Right before Thanksgiving Forrest and I sat down and discussed what to do with the café, and with tears in our eyes, we decided it was finally time to close our doors. It was an extremely hard decision to make. When we looked at the numbers our sales were up about 25% over last year. Our new Taco Bar and Soup Bar were doing really well and the breakfast menu was finally taking off. So with everything going well, why would we close? Well the final straw ended up being internal theft. From the time our last manager left in August to the end of November, employees had stolen over twenty thousand dollars in cash and inventory. It isn’t unusual for us to get really tight as the end of ice cream season hits, but with this much theft, there was no way we could get out of the hole we were in without closing and selling the assets to pay off our debts. It was an incredibly sad decision to make. My goal was always to turn this business over to Forrest and let him run it. He truly loved the café and we put our hearts and souls into. All it took was a couple of greedy employees with no conscience to ruin our dream and destroy six years of hard work.
There is no doubt that the main thing we will miss about the café is our customers. We really have had the best customers a business could have. In all our years there, the one thing I have noticed is how few irrational customers we have encountered. Having someone get upset and angry about anything at the café is such a rare occurrence, that it really is a novelty when it happens. Our regulars have supported us through thick and thin, and Forrest and I have made so many friends through the café. Even when a customer would get bad service, I would usually get an email that would explaining the problem and making suggestions. I never got any that said they wouldn’t come back. It was always people trying to help and give constructive comments. I can’t imagine a community anywhere like the one we have in Ypsilanti. Every year we have local people putting in efforts to get people to shop local and help the independent businesses. With community support like that, it makes running a business so much more satisfying. Forrest and I are going to miss sitting in the dining room having conversations with customers and friends. The café has been such a great place to hang out. We really want to thank all of our customers and friends for their support over the years. You have made our live so rich.
For almost six years Forrest and I ran this café, and we have had a lot of good employees, and our fair share of ones that weren’t. We have never shown a profit, and after the sale we will have lost over a quarter million dollars. Our first four years were almost impossible because we bought equipment from the Operations Manager of Washtenaw Dairy that was supposed to be installed in the summer of 2006 that he never installed. Instead after three years of hearing promise after promise to install the equipment, I ended up having to pay for the installation again through other sources. This killed us financially and made it impossible to make the changes we needed to our business. When we finally got all of the equipment installed in September of 2009, the day we announced our new menu and hung a fancy banner on the front awning, the Thompson Block burned and traffic into Depot Town was blocked off until late in the spring. When our lease was up in February 2010, we almost threw in the towel, but everyone in the neighborhood begged us to stay, so we decided we would give it one more year. It seemed like everything that could go wrong already had, so we were determined to make this our year.
This summer we changed our format. We switched to table service adding servers and cooks to our staff. This change allowed us to cut our labor costs and improve customer service all at the same time. By the time the fall came, our lunch business had increased significantly. Then we added our taco bar and soup bar which both have done well. Our weekend breakfast buffet has always been a hit, and when Forrest took over as the cook, it improved even more. If you had asked me in August how things were going, I would have told you were are on the right track and this is definitely going to be our year, finally.
In August we lost our manager because she moved out of state, and for the next three months we tried to find a replacement, but we couldn’t find anyone we could trust. With me working another job in Detroit and Forrest going back to high school, the employees were left to manage themselves on the busiest shift during the week. We tried making people team leaders, but none of them took on the responsibility. Soon after, we started seeing shortages in the registers on a daily bases. Then inventory started disappearing out the back door. At one point we had almost $500 in coffee disappear, along with cases of other food items. We had three slabs of corned beef stolen after they were cooked and left cooling in the walk-in. When the day shift came in the next day, we were out of corned beef to slice. Then there was all the waste that we started going through. Everyday people would burn trays of cookies. Some cooks would put turkey or roast beef in the oven just to leave at the end of their shift without telling anyone, and I would come in from Detroit to close and find almost of hundred dollars worth of meat smoldering in the oven.
Throughout our years in business, we have always had week staff members, and we have had thefts before, but they were usually twenty dollars here and twenty dollars there, not hundreds of dollars a day. And when we did have a bad apple, we had enough good staff that would point it out and we could get them out pretty quickly. Over the years I have had some really amazing employees, and there are a number of them that I think about and miss on a daily basis. Our original staff from our first year in business was incredible, and this core group stayed with us for several years until finally they had all graduated and moved away. We still had generations of employees after the first group that were great. When we had a solid core, they looked out for us and made sure other employees didn’t take advantage of us because they loved the business and wanted it to succeed. We all had fun working at the café and when it was busy, we were happy because it meant we were doing things right. Forrest and I both have a soft spot in our hearts for a large number of our previous staff and will remember them fondly. When we had a solid staff combined with great customers, there was no place I would rather be than at the café.
Running this business was never about the money for me. In the end that is was killed us, but that was just because it was so much so fast that was stolen. We have always lost money and as long as I kept my job in Detroit, we were able to keep the doors open. Forrest and I have pretty much lived at the café all these years. We were a part of the community and got to know so many people in town. It has always been so nice to chat with regular customers or neighboring business owners and local politicians. This was more than a business, it was a community meeting place. Forrest grew up here. Just walk through the dining room and you will see the growth marks on the wall from when Forrest was 10 all the way to 16 years old. People in town have called Forrest “Mr. Mayor” for years because he is always around and involved in everything going on in Depot Town and even Downtown. Going back to being just normal residents is going to be quite an adjustment for both of us. I think Forrest is going to have a much harder time adjusting to the change than I will.
Owning the café has definitely been a learning experience as well. I have always worked in corporate settings with knowledge workers. Having a staff of laborers is totally different. There is no doubt that our failure is due to the fact that I cannot manage employees at this level. To be an effective manager in the service industry really means that you have to be a micromanager this is contradictory to the way you manage projects in a technical environment. I am not the type to continually hound employees to get to work or speed things up. I have always wanted employees who were smart enough to do that on their own. That is what I was used to in my background. Forrest is much better at dealing with people than I am. In all the years that I have had employees, I have never had one that could compare to Forrest. I am not sure what he is going to do now, but I know he will do something positive with his life. He has a work ethic that doesn’t exist anymore. He takes pride in his work and always gives 100% when needed. When he took over cooking the breakfast buffet, he gave up getting paid as a waiter. There was no money to pay him out of the business and all my paycheck from Detroit was going to try to cover bills. Forrest showed up at the café every weekend at 5:30am both Saturday and Sunday and made sure the buffet not only got out on time, but looked perfect. His quiches were better than any cook we have ever had before or since. He did all this until we closed without any pay even knowing that we were going to close, he still gave it his all and always took pride in his work. In all the years that we owned the café, Forrest worked more hours with less complaints than did any of the other employees. He would get there at 5:30 in the morning on a Saturday to start the buffet and still be there at 10:00 at night to help close the register, and he did it because he really loved the place. It breaks my heart to see him lose his dream because of a few lowlife employees.
As I sit here writing this goodbye letter, I keep thinking what could we have done differently. Obviously we made mistakes. We knew there were problems with the staff, but we really didn’t have the time to keep hiring, training, firing over and over until we got a solid core again. It costs a lot of money to train new employees and it also has a negative effect on customer service when you are trying to train new people how to do things the right way. We could waste time focusing on the mistakes we made, and I have done a lot of that. No matter what at the end of the day, the failure of the business is my fault. Everything is a result of choices I made either in hiring and firing, trusting certain people over others, not training people enough, etc. I can take the blame for the mistakes because I can also hold my head high and say we never cut corners on quality. I have never ever taken advantage of a customer or cheated anyone in any way. I have treated all my employees fairly, and I have done my best to make working for me as positive an experience as possible. I donated to local charities and events every time they came to the door. When other businesses were hurting, I worked on ideas to bring people to town. I headed events like the “Stuff Your Stocking”, “Depot Town Chili Challenge & Chili Day Bike Ride”, and “The St. Pawdy’s Day Parade” to name a few. If someone didn’t like their meal there was never an argument about it. We would remake it and give them a scoop of ice cream or cookies to make up for our error. I always insisted that the customer be treated the way I wanted to be treated. The food we served was always home cooked. We never used pre-made salads or soups. There were very few items in the store that were served directly. Meaning if you saw a can of something, it was part of a recipe, never the final product. In all the years we were in business, we had very few complaints about the quality of our food, the biggest complaint was that our service was slow, and we finally fixed a lot of that by adding servers. So in the end, I may be a lousy businessman, but I ran a really good business.
This letter really is meant as an explanation of why we closed and a remembrance of what we had. When Forrest and I look back on the years of our life with the café, the past three months will fade and we will be left with a lot of positive memories. There is no doubt that this will be the hardest I have ever worked and probably will never put in this many hours into anything else again. I can’t say whether that will be true for Forrest. At this point he still loves this business and wants to continue in food service. His goal is to go to school for Hotel and Restaurant Management, so he may be doing this for a long time. I definitely loved working with him. I can’t imagine what our life would have been like if we hadn’t been working together. We had great times at the café. Our busiest coffee day every years was Memorial Day. Every Memorial Day we would take over the coffee station because none of the employees could keep up with us making espressos. During the Chili Challenge, Forrest and I would literally be running circles around employees serving chili from the kitchen making jokes at each other as we ran by. No one could ever keep up with either of us scooping ice cream during the Heritage Festival or the Thursday night Cruise Nights. Forrest has always been the face of the business, and I have always been Forrest’s dad. We were always a team and even in the toughest times we worked together to keep the place running. Whenever there was maintenance that had to be done on a Holiday, Forrest was there with me. One Easter the two of us worked from 9am Easter morning straight through till 11am on the following Monday putting a new floor in the kitchen. Last New Year’s we spent the day building a wall around the grill line so we could add a hand sink. I have always loved working with my son and I with treasure the opportunity I have had. Our customers have watched Forrest grow up and me grow older, and we have loved being here.
There is no doubt that we have worked a ton of hours at the café, but it hasn’t always been work. We have played a lot in town too. Forrest got into cycling as a result of being a part of the community. He loved riding with Bike Ypsi and made a lot of really good friends through the group. In the summer time it wasn’t uncommon to see the two of us riding our long boards in the back alley during the slow periods. We even got to ride them down Cross St. a couple of times after the Heritage Festival ended and the streets were still closed for cleaning. Many of our customers got to know Forrest at the Corner Brewery. When he was younger we would go there after we closed to wind down, but Forrest enjoyed helping out by picking up glasses and doing dishes. Often on Saturday nights you would see him picking up glasses and rolling through the place on his healies. When the owners of the brewery decided not to allow children after 9:00 pm, the employees specifically asked if that included Forrest, and he was immediately exempted from the rules. It funny to watch Forrest go to the brewery any time they have a new door person and they will stop him at the door, and he will just say, but I am Forrest, then a nod from the bartender gets him in every time. You might think that owning a restaurant, we wouldn’t ever go out to eat, but I can tell you after eating sandwiches for years, we are happy to go out to other places. When we go out, we spend most of our time at other local restaurants, and I am sure that will continue after the close. We love going out to eat together, so you will still see us around town.
So what’s next for Forrest? Well he will be working on getting through high school. I have suggested that the new owners give him a part time job, but I am not sure if that will happen or not. Either way I am sure someone in town will give him a job. I am hoping that we both can spend more time doing cycling events with Bike Ypsi and getting involved in other community projects around town. Next summer we will probably do a lot of summer activities to make up for the past few years. Of course he has also mentioned that maybe we could try opening a skate shop in town. I told him to put together a business plan and we would see what we could come up with.
As for me, I plan to keep working as an Internet Architect in Detroit. My contract there limits me to 32 hours a week, so I think I will take some time enjoying three day weekends and eight hour days for a while. In the past 6 years I have had a total of 18 days off, and this year was the first time I actually had two days in a row one weekend in September, so I think I have earned a break. I have plenty of projects to work on around the house. While we owned the café, we pretty much only came home to sleep, so there has been a lot of neglect and a number of things that need fixing. Eventually I will probably start looking at getting into another business. Since I was 18 I have always been self employed, so being an entrepreneur is kind of in my blood. One of the things that I found while serving on the DDA is that there are a lot of web design companies around that focus on design, but very few that can do custom technical solutions. I might look for some partners to put together a tech company. That is something that I do have the skill set for and with the right balance of partners could probably build a successful IT firm. For now that is on the back burner. I am just going to take some time to relax and enjoy life for a bit. I might even take a real vacation for the first time in six years.
When we decided to sell the business, we really wanted the place to stay something like what it is now. Depot Town really needs a business like ours and I would hate to think of it being turned into something else. The location has been and Ice Cream store of some type for as long as I can remember, so I really wanted to find someone who would be willing to keep it that way. Fortunately I was able to find a couple, Mark and Danielle, who were looking for a place just like mine to buy. Danielle has been in the restaurant industry for over 18 years and she ran a Deli in Detroit for 8 years. Mark actually worked for me right at the end which is how we got together on a deal. Danielle is really interested in the ice cream part of the business and Mark likes the coffee side, so I think a lot things will remain the same. Mark is also vegan, so they will continue having a vegetarian / vegan friendly menu, and they both are concerned with buying locally and using environmentally sustainable products which falls inline with the principles we held in our café. They are probably going to scale back initially why they get their feet wet, and learn the business. I hope our customers will take the time to get to know Mark and Danielle and welcome them to the area. I really believe they have what it takes to take what we started and make it a profitable long lasting business in Depot Town. I am very happy that we were able to come to an agreement so the business doesn’t got vacant. As part of our agreement, they have agreed to honor all the gift certificates that were sold or donated by us.
Closing the café like this is definitely not what we wanted or hoped for. This was the last option we wanted to take, and making this decision really hurt. We were able to sell the assets to the new owners, and it looks like we are going to be able to walk away not owing very much. Still it is hard to think of all the time and money we put into this business just to sell what we built to cover the debts. To go from being optimistic about the year to out of business in just over three months is not something I thought was possible. We will miss being in Depot Town and miss seeing everyone at the café on a daily basis. Thank you to everyone who supported us for the past six years. It really was a great run.
Jim Karnopp – Owner
42 E. Cross St.
Ypsilanti, MI 48198