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Making Friends

How do we create community?

Words: James Gurr

Today is the 2nd August 2019. In two months, Ozone Coffee will (fingers crossed) open its second location in London, seven and a half years after opening our first. If opening new locations is a measure of growth, then I’m pretty confident this makes us the slowest growing coffee company in the UK.

Up until now, our physical space in the UK has been limited to the four walls of our Leonard Street eatery and roastery. But what truly motivates me daily, is the community that has been created beyond those four walls. As our ecosystem of relationships grows, so do we, as a business and as individuals.

On our wall at Leonard Street, hand-painted 10ft high, are the words MAKING FRIENDS. This is a reflection of a deep held belief in the value of building community around our spaces. What follows here, are some thoughts and ideas about how we’ve approached this.

Great coffee only exists within great hospitality.

I’d love to say that when Ozone Coffee first came to London, growing a vibrant, inspirational community was our intent. But in truth, we were so bogged down by the operational and logistical demands of opening a new business we simply didn’t have the headspace. Entering a new market was something new for us and in retrospect there are many things we would do differently if we had that time over.

But thankfully, in those early days our customers saw a glimmer of something they could relate to. I believe they recognised a level of authenticity, despite our muddling approach, that gave them a sense of connection.

So, the first lesson is this – stay true to who you are and what you believe in and your authenticity will out shine your failings. We believe that great coffee can only exist within great hospitality and this is what we aimed to provide from day one. This philosophy is what we live and breathe. Truly listening to our customers’ needs is the first step to making a connection. Once that connection is established, the delivery of a great product is made that much easier.

In opening a new independent coffee shop you need to be prepared to let your guard down, and show vulnerability – this is true whether you’re opening a 100 seater eatery or a hole-in-the-wall takeaway bar. The beauty of an independent coffee shop is its individuality. By opening your doors, you are letting the world see your interpretation of what a coffee shop can be. Having a clear vision of what you want to represent helps you to be more vulnerable, which allows for deeper and more meaningful connections.

Enlightened Hospitality

We now have the opportunity to reflect on those early days and weeks of Leonard St and bring those learnings to new projects (as well as share them with our community – more on that later). In February of this year we opened an eatery / roastery in the Auckland suburb of Grey Lynn, and I’d like to think that we had a more mindful approach to how we should enter this new market and build a supportive new community around us. The first thing we needed to figure out, was who makes up this new community.

A couple of years ago, Jodie Whitelore (founder of Iris & June in Victoria) introduced me to the book, Setting the Table by Danny Meyer, and as the Ozone team will testify, I have banged on about how important this book is ever since.

One of the concepts presented in the books is the idea of Enlightened Hospitality. Danny Meyer proposes that there are “five primary stakeholders to whom we express our most caring hospitality”. These primary stakeholders, he suggests, should be prioritised in order of: 1. Our employees, 2. Our guests, 3. Our neighbourhood, 4. Our suppliers, 5. Our investors. I believe these five groups make up the fabric of our community. A physical space, like a coffee shop, can be the catalyst for these groups to connect, learn and grow. To the betterment of all.

If you build it they will come (but will they come back?)

As a provincial coffee roaster, based on the wild West Coast of New Zealand’s North Island, setting up shop in Auckland was a daunting prospect. This is a city with possibly the most competitive and established specialty coffee market in the world, a hospitality scene operating at the top of its game, and customers who are super discerning.

The goal for us was to create a space that could be all things for all people without falling into the trap of blandness. Our All Day, Every Day philosophy filters through the design of our space and menu. We want the community to use the space for any number of reasons – as their office, meeting space, post-exercise re-fuel spot, date-night, place of celebration, mid-dog-walk-caffeination-stop. The key challenge for any all-day operation is the seamless transition of space and offer throughout the day and into the night – from the first coffee of the morning to the last dessert of evening service the change has to feel natural. Our customers will let us know very quickly if we don’t live up to this.

Our roastery/ eatery spaces are long-term investments that require an engaged community in order to survive. The all-under-one-roof approach requires a large footprint, so we take sites that are off the beaten track and a little more affordable. By creating a destination space that doesn’t heavily rely on footfall, we have to take confidence that positive word of mouth will spread and people will come. Then it’s about the conversion of a first time visitor to a regular customer. Good PR at the time of opening will provide awareness but it doesn’t build lasting community or friendships – that comes later and only through the consistency and effort from our operational teams.

Getting people to change their daily routine and choose to spend time in our space is a huge undertaking. And I believe the best way for us to be successful in this, is to simply Be Human. That when someone walks through our door, we look to truly listen to their needs and accommodate in the best way we can (another Danny Meyer philosophy). In my opinion, the best hospitality people have equal measures of self-awareness (to understand what they personally bring), empathy (in their interactions with customers and co-workers), and technical ability (the practical skills to do the job). By embodying these three elements, we act in a more human way and open the door for connection, and ultimately community.

We can also act more Human by sharing stories and experiences. If we take the time to come together as a community we can learn and grow collectively – through a simple book recommendation or attendance of a panel discussion on mental health in hospitality. Our hope, is that through our Sustinere programme of events we can help facilitate this coming together. Creating an environment where we can all be humble, open to new perspectives, and ultimately build each other up.

“The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.” – Coretta Scott King

Earlier this year one of our Ozone Family was in need of a helping hand. The response from our community was truly incredible. So many people from around the world reaching out was immensely humbling and I know first-hand how much it meant to those involved.

It’s taken us 20 years to build the community we have today and I continue to derive so much inspiration from those who share our journey – as we in turn share in theirs. We have some ambitious plans for the coming years but I’m confident anything is possible, so long as we put our community first.