Every human has a story. I have lots. And my best ones involve plenty of risk. I have a story of how I said yes to my husband’s proposal when I was just twenty-two and we hadn’t even held hands yet. Or the story of when I moved to France from small-town Montana to live with a host family for eleven months because I didn’t want to live with my mom and new stepdad (both of whom are wonderful!). I was only fifteen and couldn’t even speak French. But this isn’t about either of those stories. This is the story of the time when I decided to start a beautiful cafe in the Fenway even though I had three children under the age of five and had never been to business school.
Seven years ago, the Peterborough strip, affectionately known by locals as Restaurant Row, sat empty after a fire had burnt down the entire row. I would play at the park across the street with my three little people who were then around four, two, and barely one. Having worked in coffee at Starbucks the first few years of our marriage, and having known the neighborhood well from living in the Fenway the previous ten years, I would stare at the row from the playground and wonder why someone wasn’t putting in a really good independent coffee shop. Meanwhile, I loved being a mom, but also really enjoyed connecting with people and missed the days of college where there were endless opportunities to make new friends.
One weekend, it came to me like a vision - I could open a coffee shop where people could have an exceptional cup of coffee and meet their neighbors in a meaningful way. But could I really do it? I told my husband my idea. He thought I was crazy. But he loved me for my quality of always wanting to jump. He, being more practical and having been to business school, instead of just squelching my dream right away, he said, ‘write a business plan, get a team, and see if it’s viable.’
A business plan? I googled it. Then I started to work using a template I’d found online and stayed up many late nights to write an executive summary. A friend of a friend who had graduated with a master’s in business and couldn’t find a job yet, wanted to know if she could help me so she could put it on her resume if I ever opened. I told her "Sure, sounds great." She sent me a template for a business plan. This turned into more late nights putting the kids to bed, working until 1:30AM or so, going to bed just to wake up with them again at 5:30AM. Maintaining the priority to be an intentional thoughtful mom. Saturday morning, soccer practice! My husband would take the kids and leave me two whole day-time hours to work on my dream. ‘Would it be financially viable? How long would it take before we could open? How much would it cost? And most importantly, where would we source our coffee?’ I began to research and fill in the questions.
Meanwhile, whenever we ate at El Pelon, which had gallantly reopened, I’d walk around the patio of the empty storefront two doors down and pray God would hold the spot for me. Outlining the space I wanted to call our coffee shop with my feet, I would ask Him to let no one else take it until I had a plan.
Who was already running a coffee shop that would sit down with me? Quite a few people actually: the man who founded the Haley House, the owner of Cafe Nation in Brighton, the man who owns Athan’s bakery, my old boss at Starbucks. They were all kind. And so I found time to meet with them and keep researching.
But would coffee be enough? My husband said, ‘why don’t you do crepes?’ He thought on a hunch that people loved crepes and there weren’t many creperies nearby. Crepes resonated with me. Remember my study abroad? We ate delicious crepes that year in my host's home. I emailed my host family. Would they pass me their recipe? I converted it from litres to cups, and made them in my own home to test it out with family crepe night. Delicious. And so I ran the numbers for crepe ingredients and wrote it into my business plan.
Now, I had gotten to the point where I needed a lawyer to follow up with information about incorporating, taxes, insurance. I had a friend who lived down the hall who was a lawyer at one of the best firms in Boston. She wasn’t supposed to help us out without billing us, and we didn’t have any extra money, even for cheap lawyers, but she told me how to contact this place called the Center for Women and Enterprise that helps women start their own businesses. Her company gave community hours to them for $25/hour enabling me to see her or one of her colleagues foregoing the $350 to $500/hr rate. I could pay $25 once or twice, so I called them. Thank you, Center for Women and Enterprise!
It turned out that they had other services too. One was a person who could review business plans. They would be glad to set me up with a man whose name was Hank Greenburgh. He was a rich 86 year old Jewish man, still sharp as a tack, who had started and owned multiple successful businesses in his earlier days, most notably a furniture store. He also had been in the military. Something I too was doing. At the time, I was an intelligence officer, a captain in the Air Force reserves. Hank was retired and would come to the center, always in a suit, to help people like me.
So, like Hank, I dressed up too, rode a Hubway bike downtown and brought him my business plan. He ripped it to pieces. ‘This is terrible,’ he said. ‘Too fluffy, too sentimental.’ People don’t want to invest in a place to meet. They want to invest in something that makes money. He drew all over it. Told me to rewrite it and come back in a month. So I did. Again and again. Each month he helped me make more improvements and as he did, we talked about his kids, his furniture store, his time in service. And as we did, I felt joy because the coffee shop was already fulfilling its purpose and we hadn’t even opened. Finally, about six months later, we finished a meeting and he said there was nothing left to change. He told me that I should take it to a lender.
I had to think about that. We had $30,000 to our name, maybe $35,000. Was I supposed to give up the back-seat dream of owning a home and instead invest it all in the front-seat dream of a small business in the Fenway? Maybe I’d lose it all. Maybe I would destroy my sweet growing family. More prayer. We asked my husband’s parents what they thought. They sent me to New Hampshire to meet with one of their friends from years ago when they were all at Dartmouth together- a kind, hard-working, astute man who was also very wealthy and successful in starting, running, and growing a business. I set up an appointment, drove to NH and brought him my business plan, well mine and Hank’s really.
He loved it. I remember specifically he said, “not only do I think it will make money, I think you can do it.” Turned out he was also willing to give me $20,000 of coffee equipment he had sitting in a warehouse from someone he had tried to help finance who went under.
“You can just have it,” he said. ‘If someone else has a dream someday and you have $6,000 sitting around to give to them, great. That’s how much I bought it back for from the bank when the business went under. But if you never pass it on, I’m giving it to you without strings if you want it.” He then coached me through how to to finance a start-up and the importance of how to figure out a rough estimate of how much money you were making off every dollar. He gave me more than a couple crash courses in business start-ups in less than 90 minutes and sent me on my way.
I drove home in awe. My husband and I sat down and decided to go for it. We decided it was time I asked a bank for a loan. I remember driving to that meeting in my fancy plum colored shirt- the one I wore on Wheel of Fortune- but that’s another story. It was a maternity shirt, and I wasn’t pregnant, but I decided it was lucky and looked nice. I also decided to forgo the Hubway bike that day- and so while driving downtown to the meeting of a life shaping day, I passed a Paris Creperie Truck. I realized I had no idea how many crepes we expected to sell. So I swerved over, doubled parked downtown and sprinted to the driver asking him how many crepes he sold each day while the cars behind me laid on the horn. I also vividly remember the awe and relief I felt when I fielded the Vice President’s question of how many crepes I thought we could sell. I had picked the lender on the SBA bank list that gave away the least amount of money but still had a female VP because I thought it would be good to practice on someone before I pitched it to a more likely candidate. And I thought as a female, she would be more willing to help me succeed the next time around. How stunned I was when I got the phone call that they actually wanted to finance it! They thought I could succeed and offered me the loan at a time when banks were extremely picky. This gave my mom a little more confidence. I told her it was pretty hard to dupe an actuary, but on the inside I wasn’t so sure.
As they said yes, more things began to fall into place. One of my good friends said she would help with the interior design. I had to pay her of course, but it was a special, joyful and personal process from designing the bar to picking the wallpaper. How many selfies have since been taken in front of that perfect toile? A family friend did our build-out. I paid him too, but it was an honor to work with people who knew us. Neighborhoods Coffee and Crepes was coming to a reality.
And now we had the most important choices to make: who would run it? Me, this homeschooling mother of three? I couldn’t give it the time it would need without sinking my family or changing my priorities. My husband encouraged me to find a team. I knew who I wanted on that team. My friend Charlotte. We’d known each other at least five years at that point. She was trustworthy, fun, hard-working, kind, and exuded an enthusiasm for life that embodied what we wanted to give away to others. She was currently working in a cubicle. Would she be willing? I casually asked her one night: if I really opened my shop, would she really run it? She thought. She prayed. She said yes and how she thrived outside of her cubicle.
But what about our coffee? How could I possibly find the right roaster? That’s a different narrative that I can tell you next week about the beauty of finding George Howell. If you have never had a cup of our coffee, it really is amazing - a shameless but accurate plug in this piece. In short, I had found a local man who initiated a way to simultaneously lift the grower’s quality of bean and quality of life before fair trade was ever a buzzword. He was glad to sell us his flavorful beans and train our baristas well.
There is more to the story, I could give you details about our sweet immigration lawyer who missed a deadline, and Charlotte had to go back to Botswana. Details about how she was still stuck there, unapproved, and we were just two weeks out from opening. I could tell you how there were complicated issues with permits and government vacations, challenges with the bank and the builder. There’s a great story about the man with the thick accent and even thicker mustache who worked for the original Mr. Crepe marching in off the street the week we opened, forcefully telling me how to fold our crepes, coming behind the counter and taking the utensils from my hands. Let’s just say that I listened carefully. I could also tell you how in the early days, I routinely had to pull all the money out of the downstairs till to make payroll. But suffice it to say, we opened (with Charlotte present!) and only eighteen months in, we started to see a profit.
We are built on a few things- they were true then and they’re still true now.
Surprisingly Delicious Crepes
Accessible Knowledge of the Coffee Experience
Integrity in Every Process
These are the things our employees embody and pass on to other employees as they come through the ranks and share with our customers. Each one could be its own blog post. Maybe it will someday. But for now, I’ll tell you that I love the reward of risk. It reminds me of the night, after my husband proposed, and he walked me from the Fenway all the way to Somerville in the middle of a cold Boston February rain. We held hands for the first time the whole way. And it’s true that we still hold hands. And that year I went abroad as a fifteen year old and endured language barriers and loneliness? By the end of my year in France, I was fluent and had extraordinary friends. The best stories are of risk rewarded and this story is only half written. Come to Neighborhoods; drink lots of our exceptional fair trade coffee; eat many surprisingly delicious crepes, but be sure while you’re there, to tell me your story so it overlaps with mine and we write meaningful connections into both. I’m always there on Monday morning. See you soon.