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Two months into a global pandemic may not have seemed like the best time to start a business, but for Christian Ritter and Maricar Lagura, it was the perfect time.
The pandemic has been difficult for business owners across the board, and after months of planning, setbacks, and construction, Ritter and Lagura couldn’t believe that they were faced with another setback. But, sometimes, things happen serendipitously and in their case a neighborhood that was somewhat resistant to a new coffee shop rallied around their opening and welcomed them as a pillar in the community.
Noe Cafe, located in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco, was an immediate success. That wasn’t an accident, it was through community support, investment, dedication, and resilience that the grand opening came with a line around the corner that hasn’t let up since, and that was a year ago.
The journey to the opening of Noe Cafe wasn’t a linear one. Lagura’s first business inhabited the space under the name of Spin City. To supplement the laundromat business, she dedicated a corner of the business to selling coffee to customers of the laundromat and passersby. As this area of the business started to thrive and as the machinery in the laundromat started giving Lagura trouble, it became increasingly clear that the coffee side of the business was the more profitable one.
After meeting Ritter, Lagura made the ultimate decision to transform the laundromat into a full-time cafe. For both, this felt like the thing they were always meant to do.
“We really wanted to create a coffee shop, but we didn’t have the money to do it, so it was a far-fetched dream,” says Christian Ritter, co-owner of Noe Cafe. “But we’re big dreamers,” adds Maricar.
So what was their winning formula?
Before anything, build a business plan
Before they put anything into motion, Ritter and Lagura knew they needed a plan. They put pen to paper and drafted a phased approach for transforming the laundromat into a coffee shop. “To phase it where we were going to take out a set of laundry machines, then another set of laundry machines, then another, and we started to execute on phase one where we took out a bunch of laundry machines over there. And then that kind of helped the business a little bit, but it was still just, like, dying,” says Ritter. But they stuck with the plan and turned their attention toward financing for the right time to start construction on the full transformation and bringing their dream to life.
“Ten years ago Christian and I would talk about what we wanted if this was our place. So it’s like a dream come true really,” says Lagura. “Just two people that really love good coffee. And we would just talk for hours about the best technique, how to really spoil the customer, what we would like, what we would like to see for ourselves when we come into a cafe.”
Don’t shy away from capital loans, both unconventional and traditional
One of the biggest things that prevents business owners from starting or expanding their business is money. And that’s a valid concern. When they first started out, Ritter and Lagura fundraised amongst family and friends to kickstart the funding they needed to open their business. “We used the friends and family approach and we were able to raise a little bit of money, but that process took two years,” says Ritter. Although they had to be patient, their dream of opening a coffee shop was worth the wait, and by thinking outside of the box they were ultimately able to start taking action.
Invest in your staff
Christian and Lagura know the importance of treating your staff well. They take training very seriously so that their staff can be set up for success, and above all, they respect and take care of their team. “It’s a very flexible environment,” says Ritter. “We offer health benefits and a whole package [of other perks].”
Lagura adds “We make sure our employees are having a good time because a happy employee will always give the best service.” They know that the best way to create a good customer experience starts with their employees. “The focal point [for the cafe] is for you to come in and expect that you’re going to get a really good espresso experience or a pastry experience — above all a really great experience with our employees.”
Build a foundation with the community
Lagura and Ritter knew they were up for a challenge when they decided to open Noe Cafe, but they didn’t expect to be tested in the ways they were. The first challenge they faced was getting the permits they needed to build out the cafe. “Getting the permits here was a huge hurdle. We had to file a change of use from a laundromat to a limited restaurant, and then from a limited restaurant to a full restaurant. So it was a three-stage process just to get a permit,” says Ritter. “And then we had the neighborhood fight.”
Laura and Ritter were faced with significant setbacks when getting approval for their permits because of neighborhood objections to the change. For small business owners, this is not an uncommon experience, and in San Francisco, where they’re located, the neighborhood can object to anything from the color of the paint on your building to the amount of parking outside.
“We had a lot of support,” says Lagura. “But it just takes one or two very vocal people to set you back. For us, we had a very tight timeline for our budget, and even being delayed a week could be catastrophic to us.”
Eventually they were able to get the support they needed to move ahead with the process. Their best advice for permits? Hire someone to manage them for you. “It’s worth every single penny because they know all the processes of the city. And, like, you’re going to try to beat your head against the wall, ‘cause you’re like, oh didn’t know how to do that.”
Once they finally got over the permit battle and the small, but mighty portion of community pushback, they thought they were home free. And that’s when they were faced with a challenge that all business owners were hit with at the same time — the pandemic.
But that didn’t stop them. Six months after they closed their doors for construction, they reopened — in the height of the pandemic — and were immediately greeted by the community with a line around the block.
It might seem like Noe Cafe was an overnight success, but for Maricar and Lagura this was a long time coming. And ten years after talking about their dream, Lagura and Ritter can see it in action every day. The process wasn’t easy, and they faced their fair share of challenges, but their resilience and dedication to their staff and the customers that come through their doors are principles that many business owners can relate to.