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Owning your own business, for many, is the American dream. Kim Dixon, owner and operator of Saugatuck Coffee Company, a Chicago, Ill.-based coffee shop and café, is an example of one person living that dream despite today's unpredictable economy.
After opening in 2006 in the artsy vacation town of Saugatuck, Mich., Dixon moved her store to the city many of her summer customers already called home: Chicago. She took a moment to share with CareerBuilder her thoughts on being independent, finding others who share her dream, and the eternal popularity of coffee.
CareerBuilder: In an industry saturated by chain coffee shops, how do you distinguish yours?
Kim Dixon: We are a small local independent shop that seeks to do business with other local independent entrepreneurs. We strive to offer healthy food choices to our customers. The majority of our savory/sweet selections are made in-house. We go out of our way to make customers feel at home, we want them to be comfortable, we take special care with lighting, music, seating, etc. ... we make a point of having multiple outlets and strip cord outlets to accommodate all customers.
When designing floor space, we purposely included a row of tables down the hallway for those who wanted more privacy and fewer distractions. Another adjustment we made after our move from Saugatuck was to increase the size of the tabletops. Back in Saugatuck we catered to mostly tourists, where in Chicago we've found our clientele to be mostly students and professionals, therefore they typically need more space for books, laptops, etc.
CB: What kind of liberties do you have being an independent cafe owner that you might not have if you went the route of franchising a well-known store?
KD: Being independent we have the flexibility to change and adapt quickly to the needs of our customers. For example, we've been able accommodate music nights and movie nights, rather if we were a chain chances are we would need to adhere to rules/regulations and have a more difficult time adapting to the needs of our customers. We also look to our customers for suggestions and ways to improve the shop which, being independent, we can quickly implement without waiting for approval from a corporate office.
CB: In 2009 you relocated from the resort town of Saugatuck, Mich., to the urban landscape of Chicago, Ill. What challenges did this present, and how did you overcome them?
KD: The immediate challenge was closing and reopening within a month. Of course I had to replace a lot of vendors, but with trial and error was able to find a great selection of independent vendors who had the same dream as I in having their own business. The Lakeview neighborhood [of Chicago] has been extremely accepting of my coffee shop as have the neighboring businesses. Everyone has gone out of their way to welcome the shop and assist me with suggestions and information.
CB: Does advertising play much of a role in how you attract or retain customers?
KD: I have found word of mouth has been my best advertising; I have wonderful loyal customers and they go out of their way to spread the word. They all want to insure my success and understand how important it is to let their friends, colleagues, etc., know about the shop.
CB: When it comes to hiring employees, what are your top three turn-ons in a candidate?
KD: First impressions are always important: do they have a positive attitude, do they enjoy interacting with people, are they honest and caring? I want someone who enjoys conversing with other people and is sincere. Our shop is a small part of my customers' routine each day; I want to make a difference and add a smile to their day. As far as the mechanics of running the shop, they are pretty elementary so I feel most people can quickly adapt. Attitude and personality are most important -- you can't learn those.
CB: The American coffee craze has been going strong for over a decade now. Any worries that it still might be a fad?
KD: Coffee has been around since the beginning of time. Howard Schultz of Starbucks brought over the "craze" from Italy in the early '70s and thus far the "craze" has not abated. Coffee shops have become a part of our culture, more than just a place to get a cup of caffeine but a place to socialize. ... Additionally, coffee shops are less expensive and more accommodating than restaurants, allowing patrons to leisurely spend several hours at the establishment.
CB: What is your favorite thing about what you do?
KD: My favorite thing is interacting with my customers each day. I love being a part of their day and bringing a smile to their face. It makes me feel wonderful to read the positive feedback my customers leave via Yelp reviews. These reviews reinforce I'm doing the right thing.
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