In every fiercely competitive industry that exists in the world today, the absence of regulation or industry oversight can create an environment ripe for the emergence of bad actors. Without governing bodies to enforce ethical standards, some participants may resort to unethical, or even illegal, practices in pursuit of competitive advantages. They exploit this regulatory vacuum to cut corners, deceive consumers, or compromise product quality.
The result can be detrimental for both the industry’s reputation and consumers who may fall victim to deceitful practices.
Let’s be honest. The Barista Mafia is not going away. Not any time soon. If at all. The question is not “how do you get rid of the Barista Mafia?” The question is, “how do you survive despite the Barista Mafia?”
Nightjar has been around since 2017. In that time it has grown a very loyal following. I’ve never visited at a time I’ve not needed to wait for a table to become available. Google “best coffeeshops in Dubai” and Nightjar always pops up. And they’re expanding. There are now branches in City Walk and Madinat Badr. The photos in this article are of the City Walk venue.
The prevailing narrative is that the Barista Mafia is bad for business. Bad for the industry. Bad for consumers. And it’s a narrative I wholeheartedly agree with. It does make me wonder, though, how do businesses like Nightjar not just survive, but thrive?
I asked Head of Craft at Nightjar, Wayne Oberholzer, that question and many more. These are the learnings I took away from our two hour conversation.
Why the Barista Mafia exists
The Barista Mafia exists for two reasons. Well, it exists for many, but these are, arguably, the leading two.
The first: there is no minimum wage in the UAE. The employer decides what to pay the employee. You could argue that the market dictates what a fair salary is. But the fact is, the base is low. The average salary dictated by the market does not necessarily align to the cost of living. And when you have an immigrant workforce that earns stipends and sends money back home to their families, they pool resources and work together to create a better life for themselves. And do what it takes to get that done.
The second: there are too many specialty coffee businesses and not enough specialty coffee consumers. As someone who used to make a point of visiting every new coffeeshop, I can tell you from experience that new coffeeshops are popping up left, right and centre. It feels like a new one opens every weekend. There was never a lack of content for my instagram page. But the specialty coffee consumer market did not grow at the same pace. Which means coffeeshops were all trying to eat from the same pie. And that pie didn’t grow as fast as the amount of pie eaters. In this highly competitive market, coffee shops aim to steal business from each other, rather than growing the overall coffee consumer base, leading to cutthroat competition.
Faced with this reality, how did Nightjar fight the good fight?
Treat people like people
The first noteworthy observation of Nightjar’s approach to people is this: they hire based on personality and then make the effort to train the areas where there are gaps.
The second: the company offers everyone on their team two days off a week, a practice seldom seen in the industry. It speaks to their commitment to staff well-being, and challenges the norm of long working hours and frequent staff turnover in the food and beverage sector.
And they try very hard to create a positive, encouraging work environment where employees can thrive. Hiring in the UAE is not cheap. Visa costs alone aren’t cheap. Training also costs money. I ask Wayne how they feel about investing so much in an employee who may be poached by a competitor. His answer was refreshingly practical: if they have done a good job of creating an environment where an employee can thrive, on more than just a financial level, they’ll choose to stay.
And stay they did. In the 3 years I’ve been visiting Nightjar, I always see the same faces.
It’s not about coffee
Nightjar have always understood that coffeeshops are not only about coffee.
Instead, they are a blend of various elements – coffee, baristas, ambiance, food (food is 50% of Nightjar’s revenue, by the way), and more. And in great coffeeshops there’s a symbiosis between the coffee, the baristas, the space, the vibe, the food, and even the music. This intricate interplay is what sets great coffee shops apart and makes them more than just places to grab a quick drink.
Coffeeshops have evolved into social hubs where customers seek not only exceptional coffee but a holistic experience. Cafes are expected to be more exciting and unique, offering not just coffee but additional features (Nightjar has a DJ) and a culinary experience. Those elements make a customer feel comfortable and ensure they spend more time in the shop.
It’s an insight that’s especially important when one understands consumers are not well-educated about coffee. And that the average consumer may not actively seek out specific coffee brands based on taste. Instead, they tend to choose a coffee shop based on the overall experience, which includes factors like ambiance, menu options, and the vibe.
So, creating a successful coffee shop goes beyond buying expensive equipment. It’s about crafting an overall experience that resonates with customers. History is littered with the ashes of shops that had an excessive focus on equipment and exclusivity over the understanding and execution of a great coffee shop experience.
There are no overnight success stories in coffee
In his 15 years of experience in the specialty coffee industry, in various roles from sales to roasting to drink development, in multiple countries, the most important lesson Wayne’s taken away is that the coffee business is not for the faint of heart. Owning a coffee shop requires dedication, hard work, and a willingness to confront the many challenges that arise. Success in the F&B industry doesn’t happen overnight. It requires resilience and tenacity to thrive.
Truth be told, the reason he’s been in the industry for so long is that, for Wayne, coffee is more than just a business; it’s a passion. And it’s that passion that’s sustained him and made him willing to adapt and pivot in response to challenges. That adaptability and resilience have been integral to his survival.
And most people who enter the industry today are not willing to make that kind of psychological investment. Or are even aware that it’s required. So they outsource the management. And by deafult the decision-making. And that’s where bad actors capitalise.
So what do we do going forward?
There is not a quick fix to the Barista Mafia problem. But the fix starts with a profound and multifaceted approach to resolve the issues of market saturation and fierce competition. For the industry to evolve, change should go beyond upskilling and involve promoting values and redefining the coffee culture as a whole.
The Barista Mafia is not a problem. It is a wake-up call. For the coffee community to rally together and ensure a brighter, more sustainable future for the industry..
So the real question is this: what will it take for the coffee community to come together?