Small business survival skills: How one St. Petersburg café became a community haven for local residents

Published · 5 min read

If you happen to be walking down Central Avenue in the Grand Central District of St. Petersburg, Florida, you’ll likely notice Community Café. Set amongst a cluster of brightly-painted local eateries, the café provides a haven of comfort to residents, students, and tourists alike.

Once inside, just walk past the wall-to-wall local art and hand-painted tables through to the back counter where you’ll find the owner, Mandy Keyes, deftly maneuvering the espresso machine. Mandy is an interior designer-turned-café owner, who has managed to survive in a city where small businesses often struggle to reach the 1-year mark.

In 2013 to 2014 there were 2,960 new small businesses (employing less than 20 people) in the hospitality industry in Florida, according to the United States Census Bureau. And 2,840 small hospitality businesses closed shop during that time frame. That’s a net growth of fewer than 100 businesses for the entire state! Survival in such a tumultuous industry seems bleak, but three years after opening, Community Café is alive and thriving. But how?

“It’s really frigging hard, don’t try it,” owner Mandy Keyes laughed and then immediately dismissed her comment. “No, not really.” We talked briefly about her experience as an entrepreneur before a rush of customers walked in and she jumped to take their orders.

Changing the lives of customers

St. Petersburg Florida is generally known as an LGBTQ-friendly area. With a population of just over 200,000 people, last year’s Pride Parade involved over 200,000 attendees. Did 100% of the city attend Pride? Likely not, but the event draws people from all over. Despite the community advocacy, Mandy continues to encounter customers who are drawn to Community Café as a respite from an oft-offending world.

“We love everything on the menu, everything’s delicious. And it’s such a happy atmosphere. It’s unpretentious, it’s welcoming, and it’s just a wonderful place to be,” one of Community Café’s customers declared. Creating an environment that’s welcoming to everyone can be hard to do, but Mandy and her staff have mastered the art.

After the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, Mandy’s partner’s mom, Michelle Kiger, created a beautiful handsewn quilt covered in rainbow hearts and donated it to the Pulse victims as part of an event organized by Modern Quilt Guild. Before sending the quilt, Community Café hosted a quilt-signing event where family, friends, and patrons wrote messages of love and support. The quilt was on display in June 2017 at the Pulse memorial exhibit at the Orange County Regional History Center.

The café also hosts weekly community-action film showings for St Pete for Peace, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that provides peace-oriented activities for the Tampa Bay community. Customers enjoy the free films while they munch on sandwiches and sip their coffee. “They’ve told me that they’re very happy here,” Mandy shared about the group and the film night attendees.

Serving the community what they want

“It’s a place to bring people together,” she said. “It’s a comfy home away from home environment that’s welcoming and accepting to all people. We have coffee, tea, beer, and wine, and sandwiches and wraps with a lot of vegan and vegetarian options, but we serve meat as well.”

The menu features items that cater to alternative-diets like the Stick-it-to-the-Man Wich, a vegan tofu Philly “cheesesteak” sandwich created for the cafe by a local acupuncturist from St. Pete Community Acupuncture.

Customers love to share with Mandy and her staff how much they enjoy the vegan options. You’ll hear stories of how it’s difficult to find quality vegan food in a restaurant where their non-vegan friends want to eat. Vegans and vegetarians are usually stuck eating boring salads in restaurants with their friends, then later stuff their faces with tofu and vegetable-based proteins at home. A rotten dining experience turned into an opportunity for success by Community Café. Said Mandy, “That way everyone can get what they need and the whole community can come together.”

Knowing what you stand for

When asked why the community aspect is so important to her, Mandy shared that she felt like it was her life goal to connect people. “I realized that my passion in life was in my personal life. I would throw theme parties and make people dress up in dorky costumes to break down barriers so people could become friends more easily.”

It’s clear that Community Café found its niche in the social space of peace and love, not just food and drink. And it’s this philosophy that has garnered a lot of support from the community. Just this March, Mandy used an Indiegogo campaign to crowd-fund the replacement of their kitchen grease trap, as mandated by city requirements. The campaign raised $2,000 from friends, customers, and anonymous contributors to cover the expenses. The café had the kitchen grease trap and plumbing replaced promptly on a Monday, the only day the café is closed and were back in business the next day.

“But that’s not something you can do all the time,” Mandy made sure to clarify. “When something big and unexpected comes along, the community can help. […] But we reach out a lot on social media more for sharing and connecting.”

Leveraging social media to solve problems

Mandy eluded to how much work goes into running her business. It’s more than just making coffee and sandwiches. “Staffing in general is probably the hardest thing about running a business. It’s hard to find employees who are dedicated and passionate about the cafe and competent. We’ve finally gotten to a place where—and it’s taken three and a half years—where most of them care. We’re in a good place for the first time.”

“I wonder if the issue is with the restaurant business, as it generally has high turnover?” I asked. “It does, but we’re cooler than most restaurants,” she confidently stated. “We shouldn’t have as high of a turnover as we have had. And I know at least one reason for that—one very difficult employee who was family. It can be really hard to work with family.”

It’s fairly common practice for small-business owners to hire family, as their resource pool may be limited when they first open. Mandy found relief from her staffing issues by reaching out on platforms where like-minded people would find the café. “Facebook is a good place to look for employees and they just added a job section that’s free to use. Basically, it will reach people who already like your page.” She said, “Even just posting a picture to our Facebook page that says “hey, we’re hiring” is more effective because pictures get shared more.”

“Social media got us more employees who are connected and in line with our company vision; we got the employee results that escaped us at first. “

Making memorable experiences

When I asked if she had any advice for entrepreneurs looking to delve into a similar industry, Mandy shared a marketing tip: “We don’t have much of a budget for traditional advertising so we rely a lot on social media. We also have business cards with a free coffee coupon on the back that we hand out in person to people, which is a great way to create loyalty amongst our customers.”

There’s no expiration date on the coupons, so people who were handed a business card years ago may still stroll in for their free coffee. The café honors every coupon. “That extra little bonus gets them to hold on to the card and remember us.”

It’s the personal connection that plants a seed, a warm and friendly smile when they’re handed the business cards at local events, such as the recent Night Market St. Pete. And then that seed sprouts into something real when they walk in the door, as patrons can’t deny the delicious locally-roasted coffee and welcoming environment are the perfectly memorable combination.

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