Coffee & Capital: An SBO Story

Dana Lowie at Coffee Underground

Coffee shops. They’re a place to escape the masses, a place to think, a place to hold a meeting, a place for solicitude, or a chance to meet with old friends. They’re a communal meeting ground, and they’re often run by Small Business Owners just like Dana Lowie.

Dana is the owner of Coffee Underground, and has officially been killing the coffee game since 1991 when she (and then boyfriend) Steve Taylor, had the idea to open up their own shop after vacationing in Seattle. What began as an experimental outdoor coffee cart called Pony Espresso quickly evolved into a funky, underground coffee shop.

This shop is unique to say the least. You might miss it from the street if you aren’t paying attention, but once you walk down the street-front staircase and enter the cozy shop filled with cushy armchairs and get a whiff of that fresh coffee aroma, it’s no surprise they’ve got customers who keep coming back. The place is an experience, as Dana intended.

Eager to learn more about her and her business, we sat down (with lattes in hand, of course) and asked her a couple of questions.

Q: What are some of your biggest day-to-day challenges as a Small Business Owner?

Dana: Staff—by far the biggest challenge. Hiring is challenging because you never really know. People put on their best face for an interview and can seem enthusiastic, and then they can end up being a total piece of work. It’s really hard to tell. Finding and retaining the good employees…that’s a challenge for me.

Q: What do you believe to be the biggest misconception people have about SBOs?

Dana: They think I’m rich. They see how busy I am and immediately think I must be loaded. A coffee shop or café is not necessarily as profitable as running a bar for example. At $4 a cup, I’m not exactly making a fortune, but it’s not about that. Most people don’t realize when running my own business I’m working around the clock—even when I’m not here. I could be at a restaurant out to eat and I will find myself looking at the bottom of a mug, wondering where they got them. It really bothers my husband!

Q: When brands or vendors are trying to sell to you, what is your preferred method of communication?

Dana: E-mail. With PDF files! I lose everything. I’m all over the place at shift change, trying to cater to the morning and evening staff… A lot of vendors tend to just drop something off at the door, but I don’t have time to keep track of paperwork and it will more than likely get lost. That’s the biggest thing—I never feel like there’s enough time to really talk to the customers and some days I cant even run to the bathroom there’s so much going on. So, yes, e-mail is appreciated.

Q: What would you consider the biggest asset to your business?

Dana: Being that we are a coffee shop underground, our location and atmosphere definitely sets us apart from anyone else around. When we previously had a second location, it just wasn’t the same. Staff is an asset. My husband is an asset. That new espresso machine—it’s less than a year old—that is most definitely an asset.

Q: How would you define success for your business?

Dana: It may sound cheesy, but I would say my goal is to serve love. I harp on my employees all the time. I tell them, “Don’t look at what you are serving as a drink.” That’s a feeling. And you’ve got to put into it what you want them to get out of it. Of course, success for us is to retain employees and make money. But I believe that if we are serving love, not only will we sell more coffee, but retain loyal customers that keep coming back.

What can we learn?

Well, aside from the coffee being out of this world, we got the sense that Dana, like every other SBO, is wearing a lot of hats. She’s looking for employees who make her life a little easier and vendors who get that she doesn’t have time in her day to listen to their pitches. She’d prefer to look at her e-mail, when she’s got the time to really make decisions for her business.

Dana’s shop is about much more than churning out cups of coffee. She realizes she isn’t the only coffee shop on the block, which is why selling something more than a cup of coffee is how she’ll keep her doors open. She’s selling an idea—an idea filled with love and community and the rich 20-year history of a business very close to her heart. She’s loyal to that idea and wants to work with others who share that sense of loyalty.