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Café owner pours lessons learned into second time around

When Lisah Smith purchased her first café, it was a spur-of-the moment decision that happened on Christmas Eve, 2004.

Armed with the belief that she could improve the café's operation – despite having no experience in the business – Ms. Smith threw herself into it. In the process, she ignored much of the advice she had been given, particularly about the need to hire enough people and keep good financial records.

After three years of being too much of a "control freak," working every day and getting burned out, Ms. Smith sold the Crofton, B.C.-based business. In her mind, it was time to move on to new and different projects.

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Time and geography have a funny way, however, of changing the best of plans. After Ms. Smith moved to Toronto in 2009, she met a woman who wanted her help to start a café. Figuring it was an interesting project, Ms. Smith got involved, only to see her friend back away from the idea.

By that time, however, Ms. Smith had caught the café bug again. With the support of her partner, Cyrus Lotfi, she discovered a potential, if not unconventional, location, tucked in a downtown neighbourhood. At the time, it had been a run-down convenience store but she was intrigued by the opportunity to start a café in an area with little competition and a community that appeared to need such a venture.

Last July, after the landlord, Aaron Letki, had renovated the space, Ms. Smith and Mr. Lotfi opened Hub Coffee House and Locavorium to immediate success. Offering good coffee and food, free Wi-Fi and a comfortable vibe, Hub has become popular with patrons ranging from students and stay-at-home parents to home-based business owners and local business workers.

Ms. Smith said the surprising part is that Hub has done no marketing. Instead, word-of-mouth has fuelled business – and it's no doubt helped that CBC Radio host Matt Galloway, who lives a few doors down the street, has mentioned the café on his morning show.

Ms. Smith said the key differences between her café in Crofton and Hub has been a change in attitude and business practices.

"I have great employees and I am not such a control freak," she said while serving customers recently. "Having a partner, Cyrus, helps me. He's an entrepreneur himself and loves the idea of getting into new businesses and ideas, so it's a good idea for both of us."

Ms. Smith said that having good employees has also let her spend more time exploring different areas, such as catering, as well as being able to enjoy cooking, as opposed to just serving customers all the time.

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Another major change is having a business plan. Ms. Smith said she and Mr. Lotfi created a very detailed plan that has served the business well over the past seven months.

With business rolling along, Ms. Smith said it has been rewarding to have created a hub where people from the community have been able to gather and enjoy coffee and food – much of it sourced locally.

"The goal for us is being creative and inspiring while bringing locally produced foods and locally roasted coffee as close to the community as possible," she said.

"Hub doesn't just mean a singular place to gather but also the centre of a wheel – a wheel of sustainability. The constant cyclical movement of producer to supplier to consumer to supplier to producer, while keeping our carbon footprint to a bare minimum, this what is important to us."

Special to The Globe and Mail

Mark Evans is a principal with ME Consulting , a content and social media strategic and tactical consultancy that creates and delivers 'stories' for companies looking to capture the attention of customers, bloggers, the media, business partners, employees and investors. Mark has worked with three start-ups – Blanketware, b5Media and PlanetEye – so he understands how they operate and what they need to do to be successful. He was a technology reporter for more than a decade with The Globe and Mail, Bloomberg News and the Financial Post. Mark is also one of the co-organizers of the mesh, meshUniversity and meshmarketing conferences.

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About the Author
Content/Communications Strategist

Mark Evans is the principal with ME Consulting, a strategic communications and content consultancy that works with start-ups and fast-growing companies looking to drive their marketing, communications and content activities. More

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