Libby: Welcome to today’s episode of Social Media and Me, where I talk to real life business owners about issues that they’ve had in their business in the last year and how to overcome them and how social media has helped in that particular journey. Today I’m going to be talking to Mark from Cafe Allez.
One of the reasons that I was looking forward to talking you today and wanted you to come on and chat with me and everyone else is because it’s been a bit rubbish, really the last 12 months, hasn’t it, for people in the hospitality industry. You’ve done some good stuff with your social media over the last 12 months and your spirit has remained, which is admirable. I know that you’re a member of my my online programme when we’ve been talking about various things, things you can do with your social media and what not to do and all of that. So that’s the reason that it’s really cool to have you here. Do you want to do a proper introduction to your business?
Mark: My name’s Mark with my partner Clare and with our team, we run Cafe Allez. I guess you could say there’s two strands to that. We’ve got Café Allez at Beaver Castle, which is a coffee shop up near the castle, as the name implies, which is right on the on the edge of the ground that just before you go into the castle itself, just across the road from the engine yard retail villager Beaver. Then we’ve started was with Van Enry. We’ve got a classic Citroen van with a coffee machine in and that kind of thing so we can take coffee and cakes and our standards basically to events, to corporate clients and that kind of thing is as a mobile premium coffee shop.
Libby: I think we met three years ago, five years ago, I can’t remember. But we first met when you were just about to take Enry off on the road. And because you came on one of the workshops that I ran over in Melton Mowbray that time. I remember thinking what a cool idea it was, because you had a corporate career, didn’t you? You had both given up to do this, which it’s the stuff of dreams, really. Is it not?
Mark: It’s not always felt that way this year, but we’ll probably come onto that. It is the stuff, the dreams. I guess I’d just got to a point in my career with Mars and I had been with Mars for many years, it was time to try to make the next move with them or doing something different and it felt like the right time. When I met you first it was at that point we probably come up with the concept and the brand. I don’t know if I’d even bought Enry at that point, but that was the start of it all. I think Claire gave up her career in finance, what would have been probably eighteen months afterwards, and joined the business full-time on that as well. We’ve been full tilt ever since really – never looked back.
Libby: I think it’s great. I gave up a really good career, with a pension and paid annual leave. Remember, those things right! One day just gave up to work for myself and I’ve been quite proud of taking that leap, really. When everybody else does it, or is thinking about it, I’m like do it, do it, do it. Even though it’s hard being self-employed, there’s no two ways about that, particularly in certain industries. This last year’s been horrible, but overall, the control that you have over everything in your own life and how you construct your business and you can think, oh, let’s have a van, or let’s get some premises – you can just do that. It’s just the kind of freedom of that is the best feeling in the world.
Mark: It is. It’s a great feeling. We’ve made some bad decisions but there are decisions and as long as we learn from them, then that’s fine. It’s not being beholden to too many other people, is a great feeling – especially if you like it. We’ve got a powerful passion for what we do it’s what we wanted to do for a long time. I end up, well Clare as well, we ended up working crazy hours. But I said to Joe on the team the other day, it doesn’t feel like work. It’s what we want to do anyway, so it’s fine, it’s got a different feel to it, very different.
Libby: But if you work out your hourly rate, then possibly not quite the same as you used to get but satisfaction, I think.
Mark: Never do that.
Libby: No, never work that out. It’s a lifestyle choice, isn’t it really? To do something, to have a café, to do catering, that kind of thing. It’s definitely a different kind of kind of lifestyle. Tell me about this last year then. How has this year changed your business – dare I ask?
Mark: It’s a business of two halves. The van side of things almost stopped. You know, if you think of our business has been 50% almost events and corporate work with the van that’s almost stopped we had a little flicker of life in September right at the end of the season. Then everything was clamped down again, ready for Christmas and that was it. I think there was a space of a week in March where pretty much all of our bookings for the year, just as soon phone rang, I knew it was going to be. It was just a string of people cancelling events and bookings – we’re not unique with that. There’s a lot – it’s a very friendly industry, you know, so you’d think it would be a bit cutthroat. But we’ve got a lot of friends in the industry and you kind of swap notes and they’re going through it all at the same time. But the coffee shop we closed in March, the first lockdown, we were closed for the next six weeks and there was a day of grieving, you know, because if you recall that time around, it was really sudden – we just shut. A week previously that would have been unthinkable. But we shut the doors and we shut the doors for six weeks. After a day of shock and grieving we just thought, well, what’s next? You know, what do we do? We used that time to really remodel the whole way. We worked, we changed the whole business model to take-out pure and simple. Nobody can come in the shop now, unfortunately. But, we built an online ordering platform. We designed a lot of safe ways of work. We really, really thought about it, looked at it as a couple of people who had done it brilliantly in the States. We use them as a bit of an example because we couldn’t find anyone who’d done it really well in this country and fired it up six weeks afterwards. We actually had a really, really good year. I think people got what we were doing. They loved it. They were looking for a bit of normality and just to walk out to somewhere beautiful. The Vale of Beaver, we’ve got a very, very blessed with our view. Then if people want to come up and walk the dog and just have something decent and a nice welcome.
Libby: Will you go back to having a sit-down café? Or will you stay as takeout forever, do you think, because this has this changed your business model on that side of the business forever?
Mark: That’s a great question. It’s forced us to do things we didn’t think we’d do. Very early on, Claire and I were debating, before we even open the doors, do we have crockery? Because that’s a hassle that is clunky and that kind of thing. But no, we want to be premium, people expect that. Well, of course, now that haven’t people haven’t had crockery for a year, I don’t think anybody misses it. Our building is very small as well so as long as social distancing is in place, I can’t see us reopening the doors. I’m honestly not sure how many people miss it. Do you know what I mean? Now, when cafes springing up around us and they can offer sitting and the weather turns terrible, then we might have a different debate on our hands. But I honestly think we just park that until autumn, winter, you know, revisit then and see how things are going. But we may never go back. That might be all right.
Libby: I think you’re right, really. Even though we’ve been told from the 21st of June, possibly all restrictions might be lifted. It seems soon to me that and hopefully the summer will be all right. If it was me, if I was you, I would probably do exactly the same and think, well, let’s just think in the autumn – let’s see where everybody is. Also, we’ve got used to being like this. And like you say, we’re almost wary of walking into a busy cafe. Just not sure that I want to do that. Whereas a well, structured takeout, that’s all right. I think perhaps it’s changed our way of thinking and our behaviours as well, actually. It’s good that you’ve been able to adapt to that. I think you’re probably right to stay as you are for a while and see what happens. If people are coming. But your primary audience or the majority of your customers are cyclists, aren’t they?
Mark: Well, sort of we do get a lot of cyclists and we love cyclists. It’s sort of a nod to cycling in our theme. Café Allez – there a little bike chain in the logo and that kind of thing. We love cyclist. I’m a cyclist, but no, actually probably they’re probably only 20 percent or so of our customers, I’d say, because from day one Libby, we’ve tried to be a café for local people because that’s what’s going to sustain us when the weather’s bad, people aren’t cycling or when the castle shuts so we can’t rely on castle visitors, do know what I mean? We’ve always tried to be a welcoming space for local people then if the cyclists come, brilliant and we love to see them and if the castle is open, then that’s a bonus. But we can’t build a business around that necessarily.
Libby: No, there is another café, on the other side of the vale I suppose to you, more Melton side, which is not dissimilar in that it’s on a cycle routes. You’re absolutely right, though, that you’ve got to be careful that you spread your basket really of people that come in because otherwise you either get too themed don’t you or if something happens to that audience, that customer group, then you can lose everything. I think structure like that is good. That’s so you made, various changes and business has been alright when business has been allowed to open and presumably ready for next week. All guns blazing ready for Monday, right? We’re actually allowed to go for a coffee with somebody else.
Mark: We are. We’ve had time to plan and we know what we’re doing this time. That’s the difference. We’re not starting from scratch. We’ve got some of the team in tomorrow starting to sort the deep-clean and bringing all the kit back to life and drinking many coffees and making sure that the machines are still alright as that’s vital.
Libby: How to work all the machinery. Remember how to do little flowers on the top.
Mark: You’ve got it. We are worried that we’re a little bit rusty. It’s only been a few weeks, but you do get a little bit worried. But I think it will come flooding back.
Libby: Honestly, I think people will just be so happy to be able to be out, even if it’s still just a couple of miles down the road or whatever we are allowed to do. But it’s just going to be so good to see you and to be able to be there that if it takes time to make the drink, no one’s going to care. I think one thing that’s come out of this last year, actually, is that people are, generally speaking, a little bit more kind of tolerant and nice and kind to each other. That’s that seems to be the way because everybody’s going through their own tough times in their businesses or personal life. And it seems to have brought out the niceness in society, I kind of think.
Mark: I think you’re spot on. I think we all appreciate the smaller the smaller pleasures more. Yeah, I think you’re right. We just appreciate them more, especially if we’ve been denied them for a little while, then we just realise how important they were and how much we’re grateful when they come back.
Absolutely. How have you used social media to communicate all the changes that you’ve been doing or to keep in touch with people? What have you been doing on that side of things? Because we first met when you came to a social media workshop that I was running – I know you’ve always been, like pupil number one and everything that I’ve taught you, you’ve immediately gone away and done – it’s like yay need more of you.
What have you been doing this this last year that’s perhaps different? You’ve ramped up or stopped.
Mark: Yeah, that’s a great question, because, you know me Libby and I was a little bit of a laggard as far as social media was concerned. I remember proudly telling you that I’d set up a Facebook account a couple of years. But you were like, welcome to 2007, I think was your comment, which is…
Libby: Always supportive me.
Mark: If I think about it, I genuinely don’t know what we’d have done without social media throughout this, because we’ve used it in a number of ways. Almost the minute we shut, we could use it to communicate to our customers and our friends and our followers, why we shut what our thinking was. Often we thought, well, we’re not at the shop, how do we stay in touch with customers? What can we share with them? How can we talk to them, how can we keep people engaged and frankly, as much for us as for them? Because we miss our customers and we miss our team. In the first lockdown and now we’ve done a good deal of social media to stay in touch, I found it really interesting that I thought, I wonder what the big boys are doing. I wonder what Costa and Starbucks are doing and honestly, when the first lockdown came, it was radio silence. I just thought that was unforgivable. I was thinking, well, don’t you care enough about your customers to actually want to talk to them? There’s things you can say. So we did that very promptly. But then conversely, when we came back, it was brilliant because I thought, well, there’s going to be a lot of nervousness around, how are we going to do this safely and that kind of thing. We literally got a friend of ours up, Simon, who’s brilliant with a video camera, and he just videoed us saying, if you come to Cafe Allez when we open next week, here’s what you’re going to see. Here’s where you can queue. Here’s where you can go and that kind of thing. It was so we could almost break the ice with people before they came up. We did a little instructional video about our new online ordering system and put that on social media as well. But between those times, we would share recipes, we would do some coffee making videos, we did a meet our supplies sessions. We went up to the engine yard and had a tour of them so people could sort of get to know our suppliers a bit as well as us. We’ll carry on doing that. Claire did some baking demonstrations. It’s just lovely to stay in touch.
Libby: It is. You’ve made some really interesting points there, actually. You said that the big guys just shut down and the reason for that will be because their marketing teams will get furloughed so there was no one to do it. I guess when you’ve got High Street reputation like that, you’re still there people know the brand and all of this. But it does all boil down to this customer care. It’s huge what you’ve just said. It’s not just about selling your wares or promoting your business. It’s about finding out what people think, showing empathy for how people are feeling, making everybody know that you’re human, staying visible and all of these things because they all kind of credits in people’s minds. People are more likely to come back to you because of all those positive things that you’ve done. You’ve just disappeared like Costa did or whoever without well, I’m walking past anyway. When I go to Sainsbury’s, people will forget or assume that you don’t care or they just shut down. It’s really important and those instructional videos, things like that. That reassurance promo stuff that you did is it’s huge. It’s really huge. Yes, it’s the empathy I think that that makes the difference that you’ve been able to put out there.
Mark: I hope you’re right. Well, you are right. It’s back to the point about we genuinely want to be part of the community. I live in the Vale of Beaver. I’m bloody proud to live in the Vale of Beaver. I love it. So, you know, I’m part of the community as well. That was a time when we genuinely had nothing to sell. We just had nothing to sell. You might be able to buy a coffee cup from us or something online. But, you know, we thought about everything. We thought about do we open up as a village shop, do we go and deliver coffee to people? But fundamentally, there’s people who specialise in those things, doing it better. We do what we truly do well, we just couldn’t do for a period of weeks, so it’s better to sort of sit back, take stock, but definitely stay in touch.
Libby: What’s been the biggest change overall, you’d say, in the last year to the way that you do your marketing?
Mark: The biggest change. OK, I think two things, really. One is we like video more and more. I think when you start working with video, it’s really nerve-wracking, actually. And things can go wrong.
Libby: Even things like this, I put a post out about it yesterday, just imagine that you’re Face Timing with a friend and don’t worry about anybody else watching it, because that is a confidence thing to get over it. Once you realise that actually people don’t want shiny polished, they just want the facts or the silly stuff or the practical stuff or whatever it is that properly represents you, then it does make it much easier. But yeah, that first one.
Mark: Yeah, well you’re right. I remember saying to my friend Simon, he’s really good on the video camera. He came and did our instructional videos and I treated it like a movie. I’d say, oh, I’ve fluffed that Simon, should we go for another take? He was like, well, if we do, you’ll get that bit right and fluff another bit. But have you conveyed the message? And have you been genuine – that’s enough.
Libby Absolutely. It does really just take practise and it just takes one person to say, wow, that was very helpful, thank you and you think boom nailed it. That’s good. Yeah. We’ll just do more of those. So you’re going to continue doing videos then? That’s part of your ongoing marketing strategy now?
Mark: Without a shadow of doubt, we’re going to do more videos and I’ve realised, there’s a lot of intrigue almost as to what goes on at a coffee shop. You know, we’ve got a brilliant team. They’re coming up with ideas the whole time. If you can’t tell a compelling story about a coffee shop, then there’s something wrong, isn’t there? We plan to do that very much. I think the other thing we’re conscious of which you’ve really got through to me, Libby, is frequency of posting, because I think early on I was just worried about bombarding people. But then you realise people have got really busy lives. You might put out a hundred things, but one individual might just see two of them, you know, so like, the frequency is you know, otherwise you’re just you’ll vanish. Not that we can. Certainly. I think we as a team have got a commitment to maybe at least once today. I think the other thing will be using stories more, you know, for the informal stuff that you can just get away with being a little less polished – it’s got a very short shelf life. But you can just share something in the moment. We’re going to do more of that.
Libby: You know what you should. Looking back to when I first met, you were joking about you set up a Facebook page. If you listen to what you’re saying now, you should be incredibly proud of the journey that you’ve taken in terms of your social media marketing and just, even saying, oh, yeah, we’re going to do more stories. It’s absolutely wonderful that you are now thinking like this and the progress you’ve made – it’s kind of become second nature to you it’s brilliant. The fact that you get results from it is obviously even more important. But you fully embraced it from zero. It’s absolutely superb. I do hope that you take a moment to just think I’m doing really bloody well here, because you should be absolutely blessed.
Mark: I mean, you know, mutual appreciation but I’ve had a bloody good teacher. But more to the point, it’s actually genuinely fun. It’s really good fun. It doesn’t need a lot of thought because it’s you’re just talking about what you love to do anyway. It’s fun to come up with new ideas. I think that the big challenge for us is just keeping it up when we are busy, because if you’re serving for eight to ten hours, like Claire and I, we’re very hands on – we’re not at home watching the team from afar. We’re part of the team. So now it will be about incorporating that into our daily routine. It becomes part of the ways of working not something we try and fit in when we get home, you know?
Libby: Absolutely. That’s where video is so easy, actually, because you could do a live like this. Just say, oh, look, you know, here’s so-and-so making a coffee and putting the thing on the top. That’s kind of all you need to create. But it’s it is absolutely maintaining the habits and the consistency of sharing the content, definitely, because that’s what people always say. That’s one of the number one things that people will say to me well I’m too busy to do it. OK, what about when you’re not busy, you know? It can’t just suddenly be an onslaught of communication and it’s about consistency. It’s about keeping doing it. Obviously, you can batch create your content and all of this, but yeah, the videos, particularly if you do them live, they’ll be the things that are easiest for you to do and access and probably get you the most kind of publicity along the way, too. Keep the videos up. Would you say that you found this last year stressful? You found it fun. Have you found a combination of the both?
Mark: It’s been a terrible time from a personal point of view and everything else, we’ve all had just unimaginable things to deal with every single one of us and we’ve dealt with it. Business wise, honestly, it’s been fun. It’s been very sad to watch what’s happened with Enry on the mobile side. But that’ll come back. It’s given us a licence to try things with the business and at such speed that we probably would never have tried before. That’s been really good fun. I’ve loved building the online ordering system. Claire and I’ve loved reconfiguring how we do the business. More importantly, it’s super satisfying when you experiment a little bit and fine-tune it and it clicks and it works for your customers. I’d say it is definitely forced us to do uncomfortable things quickly that have actually worked.
Libby: You’re not alone in that, because almost everybody that I’ve spoken to on these interviews that I’ve been doing has said more or less the same thing – yeah, it’s been really hard. The beauty clinics and salons that have been closed for eight months or something ridiculous. But the same sort of ethos as you’ve had is that, well, I’ve been able to reconfigure the clinic and do this marketing and learn how to do this and actually that brings a certain amount of joy to it. I think for all of us, you know, my business included, we’ve had more headspace or time in life to be able to step back and think, well, do you know, what actually do I want to do? How do I want this to work? What about if we changed all of this and that wouldn’t none of us would have been able to do that, actually, because you never can take that step back from life. One just doesn’t. So because the fact is forced on us, I think we can all take positives from that no matter the trauma it’s also caused. I agree with you – that’s kind of a positive. We can look at it as a positive, but the fun side being able to yeah, let’s just do this and see what happens is great, right?
Mark: Yeah, it is. It’s actually back to your point about small business as well. We haven’t got to go through some massive corporate decision-making process to just go with the team, obviously. But to just go, well, let’s try that, you know, and it doesn’t work we’ll try something else. That’s a brilliant thing about being a small business. You can be so reactive when the others are just kind of, you know, waiting for the corporate direction for weeks before they move.
Libby: I remember it’s ten year this year since I left, but I remember my public sector and we genuinely as part of the senior management team at the FE college I worked, we genuinely used to have meetings to decide on an agenda for a meeting. You could tell we weren’t having to earn the money. I mean, it’s just nonsense, isn’t it? Not having to do any of that is kind of refreshing. And the novelty never wears off. Ten years down the line down the novelty never wears off. Being able to just go I’m going to change all that because that’s what I’m going to do today. What would you say is the biggest thing that you’ve learnt this year about the way you use social media or the way you run your business that you think could be really useful to another business owner?
Mark: I think the biggest thing would be, don’t afraid. Don’t be afraid to try things, especially to use video. Don’t be afraid to share things that you think might be valuable, because I know Claire and I’ve had these discussions around, oh, should we give away that recipe? Do you know what I mean? Because that’s the intellectual property of the business. Do we give away how do we make that coffee? Because a competitor might be copying it. And in the end, you know, just relax, share this stuff. It’s out there if people want to find it, but be generous, share things that are of value because ultimately there’s benefits definitely for your customers, but also for you, your business is able to convey some passion and some expertise. That’s a good thing. So it’s a win win. I think that will be a tip. Don’t be afraid to share things that might actually be a value for other people.
Libby: I think it’s brilliant. That’s all I do online pretty much is a share and tips and how to use and don’t do that kind of stuff in it. Yeah, you’re absolutely right. People might think, well, hang on a minute. I’m giving away all the things that people will pay money for. But it’s in such micro little snippets of information that I have to do an awful lot of work to actually piece it together to copy your entire business model or all the knowledge that’s in your head or your skill and expertise so yeah, you’re absolutely right it’s about letting people in and getting to know the personality of the business a little bit more, because that’s what that’s what we like to see. That’s what builds the trust, which then builds the custom, you know. I think that’s superb advice. That’s something that you think that this year is really kind of taught you then?
Mark: Definitely, because we’re so much more relaxed about it, and then you see the engagement that comes back and it’s just brilliant. You know what you’ve taught me as well, which really sticks with me is the platforms. Now, they’re too clever to mess with. You can’t just bang in a load of key words and get to the top of Google any more. All the platforms do is reward you for doing the right thing. You know, if you put out content that is engaging and it gets engagement, then the next time Facebook will say right. I’ve seen it, Libby, you know, next time Facebook will share that post with more people. It’s a vicious circle, really. I think, don’t try and freak the system. Just put stuff out there that might be worthwhile and, engage in and you’ll be rewarded for it – that’s kind of. But it’s a slow burn, right? It’s not like you put your first post out you’ve got that’s the point about plugging away a little bit, I think, and being persistent, because you’re going to start with very few followers and very little engagement. But it comes. It does come. But you’ve got to keep at it.
Libby: Absolutely. I have taught you well, my friend.
Mark: Well, you have.
Libby: It’s exactly you’re absolutely right. It’s superb what you say. The best thing that fills my heart with the most kind of happiness is that actually you genuinely now believe all of these things. I can tell just in your whole sort of demeanour and tone and everything, that there’s been a kind of light bulb switch in this last year, no matter any the trauma, the fact that you’ve had to close and all of this stuff. Actually, there’s been there’s been a switch and there’s almost this kind of newfound passion for these things that you can do and how you can use tools such as social media just to help you get there and have fun along the way. It’s an absolute joy to see. It’s a real honour to be able to be involved with you and what you on an ongoing basis is great.
Mark: Thanks Libby. I am a convert because I was reflecting this morning, how we would have talked to our customers, without social media. I’ve put a sign on the gate and that says we’ll be open soon, we’ll miss you. But that’s literally as far as I could have gone. I think we’ve had chats with customers it’s just been it’s been as much for us as for the business, and we’ve used Zoom to stay in touch with the team. You know, once a week we have a call with the team how would we have done that before. I was a reluctant convert, but I am 100 percent converted and that’s before you start the marketing side of it, which is a whole other topic. In terms of tools to grow your business through social media, that’s not what we’re about today, but that’s there as well. You know, I think it’s phenomenal.
Libby: Yeah, brilliant. Well let’s end on that high. It’s been an absolute pleasure to have you on today, and not just because you’re so enthusiastic about social media, but because you’ve almost conquered adversity this year. I’m full of admiration for that – long may it, continue. I look forward to being a part of your ongoing journey even more, maybe one day when I’m allowed to actually visit who knows.
Mark: It’s coming. Absolutely. Shout out to all the small businesses out there doing just what you’re doing. Yeah, we’ve overcome amazing things, and that bodes well for all of our futures, I think.
Libby: I think so. I think you’re absolutely right. Thank you ever so much, Mark. It’s been an absolute joy.
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