SCI Sara Interview
Alexandra Mosher: [00:00:00] Sara Parish, one of the founders of Torch Coffee in Seville, Spain, tells the Sustainable Coffee Institute about her experience blazing a trail for specialty coffee in the classic Spanish city. Sara and her sister Vicki experienced the burden of opening a shop in a country with high expenses and bureaucratic burdens while also being new to specialty coffee and business.
After years of exhaustive work, the sisters saw breakthrough when they gained clarity on the culture of their business; their vision, mission, and values, and allowed this clarity to dictate their strategy and tactics. Sara shares their story here with SCI's Samuel Gurel.
Samuel Gurel: [00:00:43] Sara, you kind of know our story. You were with us in China when we were at Greenhouse. And then after selling Greenhouse there was really a desire to take what we learned through that and help people through all of the SCI, develop some coffee shop classes, like how to start a coffee shop. And you remember when I was in Spain, we talked to one class there, so you kind of have some kind of overview of that.
Well, I've spent most of the last couple years in China working on that. And then in 2018, my very last year in China, kind of finish the end of that project was getting into the nitty-gritty of coffee shop managers. Like, what should coffee shop managers be doing? How do owners and managers work together? What sorts of questions and understandings and stuff should happen between them? What is the role of the coffee shop manager and how you train someone to do that? And so that kind of finished out from a training perspective, everything we wanted to do. And then I got busy moving back here to the US and have, quite frankly, we just had to learn how to be Americans again: get our kids in school and all the weird American things that we have to figure out. But now we've been back in the States almost two years and we've gotten in a groove, God's really helped us settle in nicely. It's allowed me to come back to this kind of work of passion I've had, which is around helping business owners. And so it has less than me do about coffee, less to do about even making the coffee shops successful.
My heart is to create a community, create some empathy, create support, encouragement, and tools for the actual owners. For them to know how to build a culture around their company that allows them to run a coffee shop and stay sane at the same time. You know, it's kind of the goal. Forget being profitable, staying sane is… so that's kind of the heart.
I felt like we should write a book about
So the idea is we're writing a book.. It's going to be a kind of a fable based on real experiences, but written with made up characters. I don't know if you've read any of Patrick Lencioni's books, but he has like The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and The Ideal Team Player, but they're all written in a fable kind of form where these fictional characters who are going through these things and he kind of details and he teaches the business principles, through their story.
Sara Parish: [00:03:54] That sounds great.
Samuel Gurel: [00:03:54] So, yeah, so we have some characters. We already kind of started with the beginning and we're transitioning into this: the girl she opened the cafe isn't going too well.
And honestly, that story I've heard 200 times from different people. So it's not at all a made up story. It's just that the character is made up. But just to tell you, our entire - and you may remember this from my time there in Spain teaching this class - my entire idea is that there's layers of what makes a coffee shop successful.
On the outside, what people see is location, remodel, brand, cool coffee cups, cute boy behind the counter, service, whatever those things are. That's the surface level stuff that they see. But underneath that, there's all kinds of management practices and systems and processes that actually ensure that the big stuff is out on time and looks good that the coffee's good. It's not happening by itself. There's an underlying system in place at really successful coffee shops. Now, unsuccessful coffee shops there isn't a system and whatever happens that day is just literally left up to chance on how Pedro feels when he wakes up and whatever circumstances just happen, but in successful coffee shop there are systems and processes to make sure that happens.
But then underneath that, there's actually a more foundational layer that most coffee shops never get to, which is really digging into their vision, mission, values, which really becomes a nucleus in the soul of the company and actually is what provides the durability, sustainability, resilience. I remember there was a season, a couple of years in that you and Vicki were like, "Hey, we're done. We haven't paid ourselves, we’re working 80 hours a week. Like we're just done with that." And I think - my guess is - the only thing that gave you guys strength and encouragement to continue was that there was, there was something more to why you're doing the coffee shop. There was more to your motivation than just, "oh, would it be really cute and cool to run a coffee shop."
There was something more like, "we want to do this to have positive influence on Seville," or there's some deeper meaning and you guys have found a lot of purpose and your team and your interactions with your team and the relationships that were built there. And that was some of what was motivating to keep going through what was a difficult time.
And that's what I call the soul of the business or the culture of the business. And so that's our entire theory is that there are all these exterior things that people think makes coffee shops successful, but that's simplistic. There's really these systems and processes beneath that and beneath those systems and processes and managers, there's a culture. And if you go all the way down to the culture level, you're going to be way more successful. You're going to be way more happy and you're business is going to be way more resilient to pandemics and economic upheaval and difficulty.
So anyway, that's to give you context, that's our idea and what I really hope happens today - we just want to hear what it was like, if you can go back all the way to what you did to prepare, to open a coffee shop, what were some of the challenges of finding a space and build out and finances and hiring staff and just like, what was it really like, try to paint a picture for people. What was it like? And then how did that affect you guys emotionally? I know that sometimes it be hard to share that vulnerability, what the feelings going on inside were, but I think that's what people need to hear. Our goal is they would hear this and go, "Oh my gosh. That's how I felt. I didn't know anyone else felt that way. I just thought I was really emotional. I thought there's something wrong with me," but we want them to feel like, "Oh my gosh, it wasn't just me." That's the whole goal is that people can feel empathy by your story.
Samuel Gurel: [00:42:17] Sara, the way we think about culture is in terms of like - Simon Sinek had this idea of Start With Why. His idea is like, people care more about why you're doing what you're doing and what you're doing. So, can you talk about some of the why behind opening the coffee shop in terms of what kind of difference did you want to make in the world - that's another way to think of Why, what kind of difference do you want to make in the world - or even better: what kind of difference do you want to make in Seville through opening this coffee shop?
Sara Parish: [00:42:48] Even though we didn't understand specialty coffee, and we didn't understand how the prices were to better quality, higher prices - like even if we didn't understand that we saw the conditions of the coffee farmers. And so I think for us, it was, in one way or another, we wanted to work in the coffee industry just to see how we could make an impact. And that... we didn't fully grasp how to do that until later on, until we went to China and started seeing specialty coffee.
I think that was one aspect of working with a product that was from our home. And working with farmers and that kind of stuff. But I think on a level here in Seville, I think a big motivating factor for us was the way we run business. Seville is known for being, within the hospitality industry, extremely corrupt.
They treat their staff horribly. They make them work long hours, not paid over time, paying really bad salaries. So there's a lot of just like under the table kind of things going on within hospitality here in Seville. So one of the big factors for us is just to show people as well, that you can run a successful business and treat your staff really well and have a really great culture within your business, do things correctly, and you can still make it work. Like you have that alternative. You don't have to do things unethically just cause you feel like you have to, that you do have that alternative of... there're sacrifices to be made, of course, but in the long run it totally pays off. It totally pays off to do business that way. [SG1]
Samuel Gurel: [00:44:20] That's cool. So, another way I like to think about culture is like, what are you wanting to accomplish. I guess I’m curious, did you guys ever explicitly state, like, "Oh, we'd kind of like to be the most popular shop in Seville or maybe even Southern Spain?" Did that just kind of happen or was that a goal?
Sara Parish: [00:44:41] I think in a sense it was the goal, but it was more of a motivating factor of doing things with excellence and doing things really well. We knew that in order to get the recognition that we wanted to within the coffee community or becoming well-known as a coffee shop, we had to do things a certain way.
And so we're very, very, very intentional about doing things with a lot of excellence.
Samuel Gurel: [00:45:04] So it was more about the process than the end goal, more than like, "Oh, we want to be number one and we'll do whatever we can to get there.” It's more about, “we want to do things the right way.” Yeah. I mean, I just can kind of remember going through that process and like, you guys started like bumping your way up on TripAdvisor and Yelp and people started recognizing what you were doing.
But I want to go back. So part of culture is people's core values. I prefer to call it behavior. You started talking about that in the work environment. So talk to me more about: were there things that... were behaviors or values [part of] of how you guys operated internally as a team? What were the things that were so important? Like, "Hey, you just have to do it this way. And if you don't do it this way, you just can't work here." This is kind of a, this is kind of a line that you can't cross. To me, those are core values or core behaviors, where they're not optional. These are not just good sounding ideas, like some core values are like "excellence" or whatever, but it's to the point where no, we at Torch, we do it this way. And if you’re not willing to do it this way, you're going to have to find somewhere else to work.
Sara Parish: [00:46:18] I think for us, it was having a good attitude and respecting one another and communicating properly. We had a couple of people that weren't working 100% with an excellence. Like their work was a little sloppy, but that can be worked on, like the way you prepare coffee or your latte art or that all stuff can, can be worked on. But someone having a good attitude being respectful, communicating properly, that was something that either you have it and work within our culture that way, or it's just not going to work out. So I think that was interesting for us is we had a couple of people that made great coffee had tons of knowledge, super good baristas, but didn't have that and it didn't work out.
Samuel Gurel: [00:47:02] Okay. So we talked about the different layers of coffee shops and what really makes them successful. And we said that, I mean, you guys had kick-ass coffee and kick-ass pastries and cute boys. You guys kind of had the trifecta of everything you want in a coffee shop, you know, muscley shoulders behind the counters and everything... I went there and the guy works out more time per week and he's actually at work and, you know, and I'm like...
So my question is: were there ever systems in place? At what point did you guys start going from you and Vicki having to be the symphony director, orchestrating everything, to actually having systems in place where people knew there were standards and procedures and systems to make sure things were happening on a daily basis.
At what point did you start putting in systems?
Sara Parish: [00:48:18] I think both Vicki and I were very intentional trying to establish systems right off the bat, at the very beginning, even if it was just her and I working because we knew long-term we didn't want to be behind the bar. We knew the only way to get to the point where we wouldn't have to be behind the bar is to have it to where we could easily train someone in and they can just flow into the workspace the way we were working. So I think we were pretty intentional right off the bat that we were wanting to establish systems, but I don't think it wasn't until maybe within two and a half years, going into the third year that we're really trying to like focus in, like, we got to get the systems in place and everyone working the same way. So I would say it was probably between year two and three that we really focused in on it.
Samuel Gurel: [00:49:02] Can you think of a specific example of, there was something that was not working, disorganized you weren't getting the results you wanted and you built a system. What was one of the systems that you put in place that made life better when you're like, "Oh my gosh, I'm so glad we did this." Can you think of a system that really worked?
Sara Parish: [00:49:53] I think everything that we established was pretty important. Like how you’re saying, putting the kettle back in the same place, putting the rag in the same place. But I think the two that really changed the whole dynamic of work was, how we communicated through the tickets and we had this whole system set up of like who's on register. They're able to communicate everything that needs to be known through the ticket and they pass it onto the barista. And there's a whole system of like, who pulls what, how we communicate that someone's already pulled it. I could go behind the bar at any moment and grab a ticket that was in line, it was just, we put them up in line. I could look at a ticket and know exactly where they're at. It got to the point where literally, I could just pick up a ticket and I knew, okay, this desert's already been pulled. It's ready to be pulled and they're working on the coffee and it goes to this table. And if there's any notes on it, it's like all the communications are through tickets and it flowed perfectly. There was never confusion, everything got to the table on time. As long as they follow the system.
Samuel Gurel: [00:50:52] Okay, so you have a system, you're going to get results. How did that change the way you felt? Like how did you feel pre-system when there was a lot of confusion, things are going wrong, and then how do you feel post-system?
Sara Parish: [00:51:04] Pre-systems, there was more confusion. Customers were unhappy cause there was a lot of missed orders or the dessert got to the wrong table, or we would forget something or it would be taken at different times. So customers were happier after we got the system in place because they were being served better. There was a lot less tension between the staff because now there's better communication. Everyone knows what they're supposed to be doing. They understand how things are done. And then I was a lot less stressed out because I didn't have to worry about, "did the dessert get to the table," or… I knew everything was getting done because the system was now in place.
Samuel Gurel: [00:51:39] How many different improvements on that system? My guess is you didn't just one day come up with a system and it worked flawlessly. How many times do you think you'd tweak the system to get it from, "Hey, we're trying to communicate with tickets," to "it's actually working every time smoothly." How many different times did you change the system?
Sara Parish: [00:51:57] I wouldn't be able to tell you. I think it was just when we saw an issue [that] would come up constantly or there would be a problem that happened, like we started seeing that it was like not a one-time thing, we're like, "okay, we got to figure this out."
Samuel Gurel: [00:52:08] Do you think you tweaked that system less than 10 [times] or more than 10 [times]?
Sara Parish: [00:52:12] Probably more than 10.
Samuel Gurel: [00:52:13]
Sara Parish: [00:52:15] We tried different things like, okay, well the table numbers, or like little things that we would add to it or change or, “would this be better?” But I think that the good thing is, me and Vicki, were pretty intentional about trying to establish the systems while we were working behind the bar. Then we were the Guinea pigs because that would have caused a lot of confusion and a lot of frustration in the staff of like constantly, "now we have to do that as well?" Or "why are we changing this again?" We'd keep trying it to see if it worked. And then we kind of adapted it while we were behind the bar. So once we started hiring staff on, then the system was already in place and they were being trained right off the bat of the way it was supposed to be done instead of constantly changing and adapting cause that would have been very confusing and very frustrating I think for staff members.
Samuel Gurel: [00:53:07] Actually, I don't think you know how smart that is, cause I think that's one of the main places systems fail is when people just try to over delegate that, or even abdicate that to the staff. And they're like, “just come up with a system,” it's like, well, as a business owner, that's kind of, your job is to create the rules of the game, the system, and then the employee's job is to follow those rules and they can give you feedback and they can be a part of the process, but you can't totally abdicate that out unless you just happen to have the exact right employee, which may work.
Do you have any examples of the other end of the spectrum?
Sara Parish: [00:54:17] Well, I can think of two examples. When it comes to the systems we have set up with our tickets, here in Spain, things work, business-wise, totally different. So I've heard it like a lot of our customers – or, a lot of our employees within joking kind of said that I was too rigid, which could be the case, but because they're used to working at coffee shops or at restaurants here where there was no systems in place at all. And so when they came into Torch, we were known for being very organized having systems, and so there was this one girl that was working with us. She was really good, but she had worked at another coffee shop where there was no systems. And she had a really hard time getting onto the system because she felt it as a lack of trust in her.
And so we're like, well, we tried to explain it to her. We showed her how it works, that kind of stuff. And it was actually pretty cool cause it took her a while to get on the systems and to accept the systems. Like she was kind of resisting it a lot, but then one day her old job called her because someone was sick and they just asked her to do one shift and she went and did a shift at her old job and then she came back the next day [and] she's like, "Sara, I now understand." And she was totally grateful for it. And so it took her to go back to working without systems to finally realizing how easy -
Samuel Gurel: [00:55:37] She didn't realize how much she actually was benefiting from it until she didn't have that.
Sara Parish: [00:55:41] Yeah. I think the hardest part was when we tried to establish a system with the daily responsibilities in cleaning. Cause that was actually something we added in later on. Because as me and Vicki were the ones doing it we kind of knew what needed to be done and cleaned. And we would just kind of go cleaning as we needed. But once we started having more staff, we started realizing that there was a lot of conflict of like, well, "I cleaned more" and "this person hasn't done anything" and "who's going to do what?" And like they pick favorite cleaning jobs and leave the ones that are not as enjoyable.
So we had to create a cleaning charts kind of thing for all the responsibilities and we included everything from like making the smoothie bags, making the cold brew, like more barista type responsibilities. And then all the cleaning, like cleaning the windows, all the cleaning of the locale. And it was a lot of work to try to get everybody on board with it. Because it was, it was out in the open, they were being kind of competitive of who did how many chores a day and who did what. But once we got everyone on board with it, then it actually worked really well because I didn't have to tell anyone what they had to do that day. They would go in and would see the list. Then everyone knew what needed to be done. They knew there were consequences if they didn't get it done that week. So in the end, it worked really well, but getting people on it was a lot of work. A lot of work. They were also pretty resistant on that.
Samuel Gurel: [00:57:06] One of the major challenges for a coffee shop owner can be when they bring in a manager. At what point did you guys have a coffee shop manager? How long had you been open before you hired someone to be a manager?
Sara Parish: [00:57:22] I think, we added in a shift leader probably by the two-and-a-half years in just for the shift that was in the afternoon that we weren't always there just to kind of take lead on that shift. So we added a shift leader as soon as we could, but a manager was on, I think our third year. So we had, a store manager during the last year that we were open.
Samuel Gurel: [00:57:43] Honestly, usually the relationship between managers and owners are pretty challenging, and usually the disconnect is the owner doesn't really know what they want and because they're not very active in the coffee shop. Your situation's kind of unique because you had actually been the manager for three years and you'd created all the systems. And so essentially you were able to give this store manager a lot of clarity on exactly what you wanted for them, where most coffee shop owners are like, "Hey, I have a coffee shop. It's not working. It's kind of broken. We have no systems to do to fix it. But you're the manager I'm hiring you to fix it, make my life wonderful." And you can imagine how that works out because they start to try stuff, and the owner is like, "Oh, well you can't do that." You know, "you don't have authority to do that." And that the manager's kind of left there going, well, what authority do I have? What can I actually do? You've you given me a broken mess with no authority to actually change anything and no clarity on even - you don't even know what you want out of this coffee shop. You don't have a strategy and I'm somehow supposed to work in that.
So I guess what advice would you give to owners that are hiring a coffee shop manager. Like what are the things that they need to give that manager
Sara Parish: [00:59:24] I think like the, the biggest point is like, where’s the vision going? I think we were pretty clear on that with him. Like, what was it that we wanted long-term. And then within that vision, long-term, we try to give them some liberty to be creative and find ways to do things better. But we were very clear, like all our systems were in place already when he started working. So he actually started working as a barista. He was able to learn all the systems and he started working really well. That's when we promoted him to the store manager. So we were very clear about vision, where we were going as a coffee shop, the systems we had in place, how things are done, how we manage things. We were also very clear, once you became a store manager, on his authority. We didn't want any confusion with the staff of like, well, do I talk to Jesús or do I talk to Sara?
But if Jesús gets onto me for something, is that really authority? Or do I still go to Sara? So we were pretty clear, like if Jesús says something, it's you have to go with what Jesús says. Cause we wanted to make sure that he had full authority. And felt that he had enough liberty to make decisions when we weren't there. And so we're always like, if Jesús says something, then go with what Jesús and if me and Jesús have to talk about it later on afterwards, then we'll go back and like, kind of correct things. Or like, "Hey, maybe next time..." but with the staff, we always made sure that he had enough authority to do his job and get stuff done. And we also gave him a lot of liberty of like, if he saw something that he felt needed to be fixed, that he would still feel that he can do it. The systems were in place, but there was still some stuff, like inventory, products that were being thrown out... like those systems weren't a hundred percent yet. And he worked on what we had established and made it better. So still like kind of establishing clarity on systems we had in place, but also giving him liberty to do his job and make things better.
Samuel Gurel: [01:01:18] What I'm hearing you say is almost more important than having the right systems, you guys had created a culture of system. You had created a culture where people knew when they come to work here it was almost part of your core values, that we do things in a systematized organized way, which is actually a cultural concept that if you want to work here, you almost have to adopt and appreciate the value of systems.
And so that your store manager not only is following a bit, he believes in this concept enough that he's actually building and improving systems themselves. Okay.
What question should we have asked that we didn't ask?
Sara Parish: [01:02:30] I think for me one of the base learning points has been - I'm still trying to do it cause I feel like I have the tendency of wanting to hold on to things for too long, which you've been super helpful with - is like, when is it important to keep going and not let your emotions get in the way? Like thinking through things that are a little bit more logical. Or when is it time to just say, okay, I've done my best, it's not going to go anywhere from here and it's time to move on. If I would have given into my how tired I was and how exhausted I was and how frustrated I was on year two, then I think we would've quit too early now looking back at it. So I think that's super important is kind of learning that it's going to be really tough and it's going to be very hard. It's going to be exhausting, but if you just push through it, then at the end, it's totally worth it. And even if our business, we have to end up closing it because of COVID and that kind of stuff for us, it's been, it's still been totally worth it. Pushing through those harder times, even though it was hard and frustrating of just pushing through.
Samuel Gurel: [01:03:29] How has this entire journey molded your faith? I know you believe in God and you went on this journey. How did this journey affect your relationship with God?
Sara Parish: [01:03:42] I think it's a big mix of things. I think it's being able to see how things have worked out, like the connection with you and then how we were able to find investment and like how just, everything was kind of laid out for us at the beginning to try to get this open, like 100% God. Like, there's no other explanation for that. And then how we paid our bills the first three years! I have no idea we did that. We weren’t making any money. So how was it that we were not making money [and still paid our bills]? We did accumulate some debt, but the amount of debt that we accumulated is not through being a business that was failing for the first three years, basically. How we made it through has helped me grow my faith in God at a whole new level, is now seeing him as like, not just God up there, whatever, but as God that cares of your daily business and interacts with you and helps you figure things out and like that kind of dependency and then knowing God in a totally different new way of as like a business partner. He's in this with us instead of just, God up there and that's it.
But then there's also been moments that have been a struggle. When COVID first hit, it was a huge struggle. And I was really angry at God for a while of like, “well, now you've got us to a good point and now you're have permitted this.” And like, why? Like, I just don't understand why, why things had ended the way it did.
Like, “why did you give me hope in selling the business? And why did you allow me to get to a good point just to get to now basically lose everything again.” But then I understand that like the same way God provided and helped us get through at the beginning, when we first opened, then he can do that again.