My writing group have come together to farewell one of our ‘tribe’ at the popular haunt, West Juliett, in Sydney’s inner west.
Owner Stan Loupos is as calm as a sentry amidst his fully packed cafe this Saturday morning. Even though he doesn’t look it, he is busy – vigilantly watching over his 130 customers and 16 staff.
Stan is also grinning, in his element, despite his 2am start to shop at the markets. This is his 20th café. He’s been in the food business for over 30 years.
He imparts these facts while escorting me to my table. This is how I meet Stan for the first time, amid the chatter ricocheting off the concrete floor and walls. I’m intrigued by this person who appears very relaxed, despite his small army of staff and 2 rooms full of people waiting to be fed.
I have also owned a café, for 4 years, and am way-too-familiar with the 12 hour days, staff problems, council issues, unreliable suppliers, demanding customers (one even tried to sue my business – another story). And on top of that, keeping my head above water and hoping that people keep walking through the door.
So why does Stan do it, again and again?
I return for a chat when he is not so busy, over one of his excellent coffees:
What drew you to hospitality?
I need to be around people. Work has to be fun. The scenery changes with my customers. Someone said to me once: If you enjoy what you do, you will never work a day in your life.
Where did it all start? – What did you do after you left school?
My parents were in the café business. We had one in West Wyalong (467 km west of Sydney) for 9 years, when I was growing up. I worked there every day before and after school, and on weekends.
I bought my first café in West Wyalong too. My parents were partners.
What is the most important choice for starting a café – location?
Look out for something that’s been neglected if possible. Do your homework and get the right professional advice. Before I bought this business, I went through all the reviews, including the bad ones. If you can fix the bad ones, you are laughing.
You also need to be honest about your own strengths. For example, social media is not my thing. So I have engaged a company that specialises in this. They update my website and regularly post on Instagram and Facebook (people eat off their screens these days; you need to keep up with them).
How do you keep your staff in a notoriously high staff turnover industry?
I have a Head Chef but my staff are treated equally. I brainstorm new menus with everyone. The entire team are part of the decision making process.
A team leader looks after front of house. My wife Christina does the rostering from home, but staff members are allowed to swap shifts amongst themselves. We never roster them for the whole weekend – they get alternate Saturdays and Sundays off.
All my staff share the tips. I stay away from that, let them sort it out themselves.
We employ people via word of mouth mostly. The ‘gap fillers’ come and go, but the core staff stay.
After a frantic Saturday or Sunday – when we may have fed 500 customers – we go to one of the nearby hotels. I buy them a few drinks and something to eat. Then I leave them to it.
I trust my staff to the point where the kitchen hand took the takings home with him one night and brought them back the next day for me.
I’m not into hierarchy. It took 3 days for a new staff member to find out that I was the owner, after she advised me that I had better look busy in case the boss saw me! (Another staff member eventually blew my cover).
I keep a tight rein, but also try to keep it fun.
What is the secret to café success – a great chef and accountant?
My wife and my sister Cindy are my secret weapons. The males in my family are not good at the details. Cindy runs the till and looks after the takings.
We also change the menu regularly, promote what’s in season, such as mangoes at the moment.
I think it’s important to offer something different to your customers. At West Juliett, it is our homemade baked goods. We are also about to start selling our own Kombucha. Plus we do events in our adjoining room, ‘Little Juliett’ – christenings, corporate presentations, book launches.
You need to know how to read your customers and have systems in place.
There is a cultural difference between kitchen and floor staff; you have to know how to treat both, and be across their roles so that you can jump in if there is a problem.
Remember to have a laugh with your staff, make sure your customers are ok, then the rest flows on.
And if you try to please everyone, you end up failing.
Every day has its high notes!
A staff member hurt her shoulder once, resulting in a workers’ compensation claim. We had the matter investigated. The insurer produced photos of her swimming, playing tennis, at a night club. They went ahead and paid her, citing that this was the less complicated option. My insurance premium went up the next year as a result.
What about lifestyle. When do you get to see your family, take holidays, have down time?
We are open 6am – 4pm most days, so it’s an early start, but it means that I can be home at a reasonable hour every night. I only take holidays when I sell a business. I unwind by watching TV – with headphones on so I can’t hear my kids fighting (Peter 13, and Georgia, 11).
Coming to work 7 days a week is easier than dealing with teenagers at home!
It is a very demanding industry but I’m lucky – when I’m out of here I’m out of here.
At 5 minutes to 4 I have already shut down mentally. It’s ‘beer o’clock’.
Biggest selling item?
The coffee sells itself. I have one dedicated barista, though 3 of us can make coffee. Here, we do not have the same turnover of product as I have experienced in my other cafes in the city. We were doing 220kg of coffee beans a week at one location alone.
It depends on the day with the food menu. We can’t make enough waffles on the weekends. Weekdays it’s the ‘green bowls’ that sell the most. This is a concoction of Kale, snow peas, avocado, wakame seaweed, edamame beans and poached salmon.
What’s next – another café?
It’s what I do.
It’s what I know.
When I get up to leave at the end of our chat, Stan’s wife calls to check if he has put the signs up for tomorrow. They are shutting the doors so that a major bank can occupy the entire venue for the day to shoot an advertisement.
It will be Stan’s first official day off since the day he took over West Juliett on the 23rd March. I wonder on the drive home what he will do with his time off….