The anxious feeling was gnawing at me again. For four weeks I had felt simultaneously giddy, shameful, sad, and full on panicked. My husband and I were about to kill something we had worked relentlessly for a year to create, because there was no other way to move forward with our lives.
Ten years ago, about a year into our relationship, my husband and I started playing a “what if” scenario every time we’d go out to dinner. We were both seasoned restaurant professionals—he thrived in the heat of the kitchen and I had spent my years on the front lines. It was only natural that a happy couple in the same business would turn their thoughts and dreams to one day opening a space that reflected their experience and their point of view. Over the next nine years, the pattern would repeat over sushi, Italian, some very strange experimental fare, and greasy burgers with excellent beer. The incarnations were varied as we went through moves, marriage, and babies. When the time seemed right to take the risk, it was the latter that affected our viewpoint the most. For the majority of our conversations and scheming, we angled ourselves toward a microbrew pub. Craft beer, while starting to settle a bit in the marketplace, was still a hot commodity and it was something we truly enjoyed. I had worked for a microbrew company as a rep and my husband had been a chef for a well-known craft brewery for several years. We took time out whenever we could to scout real estate and do comparative market research into brewpubs in the area. Somewhere along the way a friend sent some coffee from a favored small roaster in the Keys. That became the springboard for our brand new business. My husband bought a small home roaster, determined that he could make a great roast from great beans. Our smoke detectors were constantly screeching and, due to the din, our poor dog lived under our bed for a couple of months. It really felt like we had something good, a true place to build from. Coffee is a morning brew. Mornings meant no late nights away from our kids. We came to realize that the biggest thing holding us back from opening our own establishment was resolving the required late nights with never seeing our children. It was go time.
Fast forward a couple months and I stumbled across what I then thought was the perfect location. It was in an area that was known for people driving in and out throughout the day and had a high volume of tourists in season. After a couple of failed connections with landlords, we met with someone who loved our idea. He gave us a reasonable rent quote and time to think about it. There were 4 spaces in his strip mall, one occupied by a healthcare office, the one we were interested in, and two additional vacancies. The rent was so good we decided to ignore the other two empty spaces as omens. With a lease in place we got to work on a business plan. I quit my job once we were approved for a small business loan and started working on the furniture that needed to be stripped and refinished. The bank loved our idea, the landlord loved our idea, our friends bolstered us against doubt and fear. It was going to be the best little indie coffee roaster in the area.
The first time I really felt like I was in a free fall was when the medical practice left. We had started work on the inside with the contractors. One day the doctor’s practice was there, the next day there was a big piece of poster board in the window letting us know they had moved. I told myself that it would be fine. We needed artsy things next to us: a yoga studio, a little bakery (we weren’t doing our own yet), a swimsuit shop. I kept my head down, dreaming of the wonderful little community we could anchor. Things moved along at a swift pace and we hosted a friends and family night. We had an awesome staff, our kids loved to run about the place and our loved ones were incredibly happy for us. The next week, our first official week, we were dreadfully slow. I pushed Facebook posts, I created an Instagram account, a Twitter account, and a website. It didn’t help. We poured money into Google Ads and radio ads. It still didn’t help. The small nagging fear was becoming a boiler pot of acid. Memorial Day came and went with a tease of how things could be if we were truly busy! A local paper wrote a wonderful story about the shop and we started baking all of our own pastries. I was in love. My husband and I were able to hammer out a schedule where we could each have two days off and still cover the shop every hour it was open. I was creating delicious things and they were being very well received. We started gaining more and more regulars.
Unfortunately, it just wasn’t enough. Our little boat had too many holes in it. Our location was somewhat difficult to find as the shops are perpendicular to the roadway. There was no foot traffic as we had no neighbors and the little motel in the same parking lot was never to capacity. Our advertising was monstrously expensive without enough return. We did everything we could to shore things up. We cancelled the costly radio ads, gave coupons to the motel guests, pushed grassroots advertising by selling at farmers markets. It still wasn’t enough. Every week the numbers were more and more bleak. My husband spoke in wary tones, saying things like “We can make it through this week if we…” and “Insurance may have to trump food supplies this month.” The gnawing, the boiling, had become a full on depression. I went to work, I came home, fed my kids, stared at analytics on my phone, put them to bed and started over the next morning. I was snappish at my groom, the man who built this with me. Every time he stated reality, I shot back with feelings. “It can’t be that bad. It can’t be over. We’ll be fine.” The truth was apparent when we didn’t have enough for our insanely expensive health insurance. We were barely going to be able to pay our mortgage. One of us had to leave the shop.
We both applied for jobs and I was the first to get an offer. It came with good pay and awesome (much cheaper) health, vision and dental insurance. It was close to the shop and I’d be working for good people. I took it and cried for the next week and a half.
We held on for another month after I took the outside job, working insane hours and pushing the limits of how far money can stretch. My husband was beyond tired and I was in the blackest moods of my life so far. I offered to work a Sunday in place of him in order to get my feet back in the shop, see some regulars and give him a break. By the time I went home that day I was finally able to accept that this was the end. We had failed. There were giant holes in the supplies we needed to run the business. Light bulbs were out, foodstuffs were lean and there weren’t a lot of bodies walking through the door. We talked that night and by the time we went to sleep, we were resigned to the end. The next day I felt a sense of relief. We had both been on edge for months and we were at the point of no return.
Since then, I’ve gone through many of the classic stages of grief. Denial that it’s really over, anger at factors that were out of our control, bargaining with the universe to make things right, depression over the things that we did wrong. I’m struggling with acceptance, as those stages cover the loss of a someone, not of something you’ve built. When you build something public and lose it, there’s the added shame of all the things you missed that may have saved what you made, the embarrassment of telling your friends and family that you failed, and the need to break down and reconstruct every bit of minutiae in an effort to find the one tiny lynch pin that would have held it all together. It’s just not that simple though. Business is a very complicated machine and all the parts need to be running to succeed.
In the life after the shop, I’m creating again. Painting, writing, fashioning objects out of raw materials. I’m trying to put back the framework of who I was before the failure. I’m coming together differently as the pieces have been forever changed by the entire experience. I now have a clearer view of all that I am capable of and all that is outside of my grasp. I am a creator and the things I produce have worth. I am a kind person who wants the people who surround me to be happy and provided for. I cannot make the tough call when there are people I care about involved. I am not a manager of money. I am allowed to show weakness and sadness and cry uncle when things are beyond my abilities alone. I am not a hard nose.
My ability to survive, move on, and find the good is my strength. It is my fortitude.
Amy M. Marcoux is an artist, writer, beta reader, mom, wife, and former coffee shop owner. Her favorite things are peace, love, squishy animals and excellent novels. Her artwork can be found on Facebook.com/quietskydesign, on Instagram as quietskydesign or quietskydesign.com.