By Leslie Youngblood
Nestled in Bad Axe, Michigan, the state’s quiet thumb-area (population of less than 3,000), local favorite Emma’s Coffee House is flourishing like a big city star. In the middle of a pandemic no less.
Sure, everyone’s needed caffeine and comfort food more than ever in 2020, but the cozy stop’s success is due to much more than its delicious goodies. It’s due to owners Brad and Jessi Severance, and their thoughtful, honest, and community-driven approach to entrepreneurship.
Reflecting on the business’s three years Jessi says they would have done “a hundred things” differently.
“It always takes time to learn new things and running a business is something that must be learned. Even if you have experience or majored in business in college you will be learning new things for a long time…”
This modest mindset seems so simple, yet it’s one that many entrepreneurs fail to embrace—to a great detriment. As Jessi explains, “When you are willing to be humble, take ideas or criticisms, and correct mistakes, the people you serve see that as a genuine desire to add something good to their life. They will start to come to you for parties and gifts, they will start to encourage your staff and build them up, and they will refer you to their friends and family. Plus, it is so much fun to be able to serve people that become your friends.”
Read on for more on how Jessi and Brad’s leadership style is helping them thrive in 2020 and beyond.
Why did you want to be a small business owner?
Being a small business owner gives you the opportunity to take all the ideas that are piling up inside your head, and turn them into something tangible. Your business becomes your outlet, your office, your gallery, your school room - you get to create, and learn, and display, and finally serve what you've created. And even better, the final product can bring joy to not only you, but your customers, as well.
Although not everyone becomes a small business owner, it's a path that most people can understand. Whether it's freshly baked pie crust, a bedroom with a fresh coat of paint, or a perfectly wrapped Christmas present, most humans find great satisfaction in being able to step back and look at something that they created from scratch. We think that's how most small business owners look at their work, and a big part of the reason that they put in the work; because the result is satisfying.
Why do you think small businesses are important?
In our experience, small businesses help foster community.
It's nice to go somewhere where you are recognized, where the staff knows your favorite menu items, where the owner asks about your daughter's soccer team. As a shopper, you feel a connection to that place, because you are connected to the people who represent that small business.
Small businesses give visual integrity to a town, a unique shopping or dining experience, and just give us the "warm fuzzies." There's something about sitting in a small business, admiring their choice of decor or merchandise, sipping on one of their frothy drinks or enjoying their delicious house-made salad dressing… You can just feel the personality, the warmth, the thought that went into the atmosphere and the goods. It has a way of eliciting feelings of comfort and welcome differently than a big box store does.
How do you stay connected with your local community?
The quickest and easiest connection that we make to our community is our customers. We see many of them daily or weekly, and we are able to joke, smile, and check in on their family or work.
This is, and will probably always be, our most intimate form of connection with our community because relationships are developed and conversation flourishes. One of the beautiful things about good food and drink is that it automatically fosters a sense of belonging and hospitality, and chit-chat easily becomes genuine conversation in that setting.
Other avenues of connectedness come from donations to local fundraisers and non-profits and serving families and businesses out in our community with our mobile coffee-cart.
We also live less than a mile from our building, so we are easily able to participate and attend events in our town (and when you're a small business owner in a small town, you're sort of always representing your business...your "work life" and your "personal life" are pretty fluid, often morphing into simply "life").
What do you consider the most important business lesson that the pandemic has taught small businesses?
This is a tough one, since the pandemic continues and foresight is always tricky when you're in the middle of change, but the most obvious one to us would be the ability to "embrace a crisis."
The pandemic brought about so much, so suddenly, that many of us were startled, caught off-guard, anxious... everything changed, for everyone, basically over a weekend.
We worked hard, even defying our own feelings, to foster a positive outlook:
1) We looked for the good in the pandemic, setting up a fund for essential workers who were serving, even though so much was unknown regarding their own safety.
2) We built up our staff even though we didn't know what might happen with the finances of our business and got everyone gifts to reassure them of our gratefulness and of their safety as a part of our team.
3) We searched out every avenue that might help our business applying for grants, finding new ways to deliver our products, and changing our way of service to adapt to the limitations put on our industry.
By embracing the crisis, rather than getting stuck in the changes and limitations, our little coffee shop was able to thrive. Our staff felt reassured of their jobs, and many considered work a pleasing place to be because it was a distraction from all of the unknown we were facing; our community saw us trying to adapt, trying to serve them safely, trying to protect our family and our staff, and they responded to that with generous tips for our staff, gift card purchases, and lots of drive-through or takeout orders; and as owners, we saw many of our efforts realized as our business was able to overcome what felt like a very scary time.
What’s your best advice to other small business owners?
Take every opportunity handed to you, and look for many others, until you know what works best for your business. Some of the things we have tried because of customer requests or suggestions have turned into huge parts of our daily business.
Until you know your business well enough to know better, give everything a chance (and even then, you should still be open to taking chances!).
It can be hard to take others ideas or suggestions, because you are already working so hard to realize the ideas that you're creating, but if you're open to the insight of others, your business will flourish, and become bigger than just your ideas— It will become a part of your staff, a part of your customers, and a part of your community.
What’s next for Emma’s Coffee House?
Currently, in Michigan, restaurants are only open to half-capacity of their dine-in. Because of this, we are working to develop and utilize some of our space that would be typically used for seating our customers; we have turned a portion of our interior into a small boutique, featuring goods from small business owners in Michigan and across the nation.
This has allowed us to offer additional services to our customers, utilize space that otherwise was wasted, and increase our revenue in a time where sales are harder to come by.
Our next project is tackling our website and online ordering system. As many restaurants continue to encourage and emphasize contactless ordering and delivery, we want to be able to provide that service to our small town, as well.
We also used our "down-time" during the pandemic to construct a new mobile coffee-cart. We will continue to build that portion of our business as large events resume in the future, and are currently refining it as a tool for intimate, outdoor gatherings.
Want to learn more about Jessi, Brad, and Emma’s Coffee House?
Shop the Emma’s Coffee House website.