Spreading the love – and profit

Jennifer Stern

There’s never a dull moment at Vida e Caffe. Never a quiet one, either. This trendy coffee chain is characterised by big smiles, loud laughter and rapidly shouted orders as the perfectly brewed espressos and giant muffins move over the counter at a rapid pace. On the other side of the stream of delicacies patrons enjoy a quick espresso with friends or linger for ages over a double mucho cappuccino while penning that bestseller on their laptops.

It’s been accused by devotees and detractors alike of being too trendy by far, but there really is more to this runaway marketing and business success story than the beautiful life and clichéd European-style sidewalk coffee culture.

Started in 2001 in Cape Town’s trendy Kloof Street, Vida e Caffe was an instant success. With a simple formula of really good coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice and a range of huge and delicious sweet and savoury muffins, Vida hit the spot. While the queues are seldom unbearably long, it is almost unheard of to walk up to the counter and find yourself first in line.

Room for improvement

In 2005, Grant Dutton, William Dutton and Shaun Bond joined Vida as joint venture partners in three new stores. Before the year was out they had bought the company, all five-and-a-half stores (the Green Point store was still being built). Today, there are 36 Vida stores across South Africa.

They had bought a successful business built on serious marketing savvy and clever strategic relations, but there is always room for improvement. And the one place they decided they could make some real improvements was in their staff. They figured that happy staff meant happy customers so they work hard to keep those guys in the hip Levis jeans and funky T-shirts smiling.

Almost all their workers live in the townships and struggled to get to work at 5:30am to start baking those yummy muffins. So the first thing they did was buy a few of houses – one close to each store – that could operate a bit like a student digs with staff members going back to their families on their days off.

While almost every aspect of the staff relations in this chain is – well – just a little different, it’s the training that really sets it apart. Every staff member – absolutely every staff member – starts off clearing tables and mopping the floor. Yes, potential marketing managers – and even shareholders – start off doing what they call “meze,” which is Portuguese for “table”.

Each new staff member will have a “buddy” who guides him through the learning curve. Before we continue it’s probably a good idea to explain the apparently sexist language. There are virtually no female employees at the shop-front at Vida – quite a few in head office, but none in the stores. The few that started only lasted a couple of weeks so any female job applicants are encouraged to work at their sister store (no pun intended) O Sumo. O Sumo is a new brand focusing on healthy wraps, salads and soups with fresh juices and smoothies. And the staff at O Sumo is exclusively female.  It may sound a bit weird, but it works for the staff in both stores.

Back to the training. Each new staff member starts off cleaning the floors and clearing tables and eventually moves on to washing dishes, baking, making coffee and running the till. And every step of the way he is supported by his buddy, who is often an old friend, brother or cousin. Yes, that’s the other interesting thing. Most new employees are friends of existing ones – another way of keeping that happy family going. With the pace of work, the frenetic high energy and the constant need to be friendly and to smile, there is just no place for personality clashes, petty jealousies or rivalries.

It takes about three months, on average, to get someone trained up as a barista and to a point that they can handle the till, do the baking and generally put a hand in wherever it’s needed. The good thing about this is that if there is a staff shortage in one store, they can call on staff from another and they will slot in effortlessly.

The mystery shopper

But let’s be honest, most people don’t go to work in the morning because they get on with their colleagues. The motivation is usually far more pragmatic, and Vida employees are paid better than average. And there’s also a good bonus scheme. If they keep waste to a minimum, they get a bonus and – this is a sneaky little one – if they pass the “mystery shopper” test, they get another bonus. A mystery shopper that no-one (not even management) knows visits each shop once a month and, if every aspect of customer service is in place – voila – a bonus for the guys.

But, of course – regardless of how much fun it is – an ambitious lad does not want to stay a barista for ever. So, another way of keeping the staff happy and working hard is to make it clear from the beginning that the sky is the limit. Every trainee who comes in at the bottom cleaning the floors can see people who’ve been there a year or so working their way into management positions.

Papa Charles Masara is just one such person. Having emigrated to South Africa from Zimbabwe some time back, he started working at Vida three years ago. He did the whole progression from meze to baker, barista, cashier, assistant manager and store manager. But he didn’t stop there, and is now a senior regional manager overseeing 18 stores in the Cape Town area. Once he was financially secure, he brought his family out of Zimbabwe and then – spotting a good gap, helped them to set up a business doing laundry for Vida e Caffe, as well as other clients.

Global expansion

Most of Vida’s 36 stores are in Cape Town and Johannesburg, with a few in Durban, one in Pretoria, one in Bloemfontein and one in Knysna.  “We’ll never go above 45,” says marketing director Shaun Bond. Then he smiles and adds, “Never say never.” But they do intend to stay small and manageable. “We don’t want to be Starbucks,” Bond says, laughing. “But we are in the process of opening our first two stores in London – one in Regent Street, and one just off Carnaby Street.

“It will be a great opportunity for the guys,” he adds, saying that they will take 12 baristas to London for between six months and a year to work in their UK stores. They’ll have all their transport and accommodation paid for and they will get to earn pounds, some of which Vida will insist they deposit in a bank account back in South Africa. It seems like a great opportunity to see some of the world and, if they exercise some fiscal discipline, they can come home with quite a nice little nest egg.

So, next time you need a quick caffeine fix and you head for the bright red Vida e Caffe logo, you’ll know why your service comes with a smile. Some good news for anyone flying out of OR Tambo International is that Vida e Caffe is opening a branch in domestic departures beyond the security barriers, so you can get a coffee and muffin served with a smile and take advantage of Vida’s free Wi-Fi while you wait for your flight.

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