From banker to barista: When coffee calls

Entrepreneur and innovator Tungamirai Musungwa, founder of Zimbarista (front) and one of his staff members Simbarashe (back) next to one of his mobile coffee trucks. PHOTO/COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • Tungamirai Musungwa, a 43-year-old innovator/barista has helped reimagine what it means to grab and enjoy a cup of coffee on the go in Harare, with his mobile coffee business, Zimbarista.
     

It is shortly after 8am on a Tuesday, and there is a constant stream of gym-goers and commuters making their way towards a mobile coffee truck parked at a service station in Rolf Valley, an upmarket suburb in Harare. 

The unit’s barista, Simbarashe, greets the customers with a smile and, for some, prompts their orders as they approach the truck. One woman drops off a metal flask, asking that it be filled with her “usual.”

This energy and culture are replicated in nine other locations in Harare, where Zimbarista coffee units operate, a culture instilled by Tungamirai Musungwa, founder and owner of the business. 

The dream  

About two decades ago, life looked a lot different for the entrepreneur, now 43, who then worked a comfortable “nine-to-five” job as a branch manager for a bank.

However, celebrating a colleague’s work anniversary made him rethink his life’s trajectory.

“We had just celebrated one of my colleague’s 35th anniversary with the bank, and at the time, I was about 27. And I thought to myself, ‘wow, how is it he has been here longer than I have been alive?” Musungwa, who had by then worked for the bank for nine years, recalled. “This could become my life too.’

That was the moment, Musungwa realised he did not want a 10-year anniversary at the bank.

Owning a home and a car by the age of 23, Musungwa’s life was certainly nothing to sneer at. 

And yet he feared that the “rat race” would swallow him and that one day, he would look back at his life and not have much to show for it. 

How he started 

So he started taking steps to transition from life in the bank. First, off, he embarked on a hunt for a contingency plan. 

He scouted for business opportunities, looking for a gap in the market that he could fill.
With a one-year-old baby in the home in 2007 - a year of economic devastation - and no baby items on the shelves in Harare, Musungwa already had a taste for trade.

“Twice a month, on a Friday, after work at 4pm, I would get on a bus to South Africa. I would get there on Saturday morning, go to the shops, be back at the bus stop by about 2pm. By Sunday morning, I am back in Harare,” he said.

“I would bring baby food, diapers, certain milk for lactose intolerant children, and things like that,” he continued. 

Before long, Musungwa had accumulated a relatively decent number of people looking for a product on a daily and weekly basis.

However, he realised that as the economy improved, the demand for supplies brought over the border would dwindle and could not sustain him, full-time. It was at this point that he ventured into the construction business - which is how he came to coffee.

Inspiration 

While interacting with the owners of a landscape business at one of the construction sites, Musungwa was presented with an opportunity to buy a coffee shop.

“They said if you know someone looking to buy a coffee shop, we are selling one at the place we operate from, and I said ‘let me come and see it’, ” he said. 

In 2009, after a conversation with his wife, Musungwa and his family bought the shop and officially became coffee business owners, despite knowing nothing about coffee.

“I am in the place of trying things, so I’m not going to know anything if I do not try anything,” Musungwa explained. 
“We sold a stand (property) that we had in Chishawasha Hills and bought the place,” he continued.

Musungwa ran the business for two years before deciding to take on another challenge, this time in farming. 

But before he could get going, a group of friends approached him with a different proposal. 

His friends were looking to start a coffee shop and were looking for someone with knowledge of running a coffee shop to partner with.

“In my mind, I was like, ‘coffee again?’ At the same time, I thought, ‘I am coming out of this situation, so I guess I could just help them in the meantime,’ ” he said.

On job training 

Musungwa was asked to attend an on-the-job training with Seattle Coffee Company in Johannesburg. There, he experienced another life-defining moment.

“I get into Hyde Park Seattle, one of their bigger branches, and my mind was blown,” Musungwa recalls.

“The coffee culture in Zimbabwe is the one that is like “ hey, let us meet up for coffee, it is a relaxed environment,” he explained.

“This was so different from the culture in South Africa, which was “I need my fix, and I have got to get back on the road.”   

“There were long queues of people, and the coffee had to be done fast - in the shortest time possible,” Musungwa continued.

“They are paying top dollar for it; I saw latte art being drawn with milk, freehand, and I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know what I was doing for the last two years,’ it was a total mind shift,” he explained.

Breakthrough 

After three years, in 2010, Musungwa returned to Zimbabwe with his newfound knowledge and co-founded a coffee business, Freshly Ground, determined to do things differently.

“We did extremely well, and the business grew; we ended up opening one or two other outlets,” Musungwa said.

“I managed Freshly Ground for about four and a half years before I finally left.” Musungwa was up for the next challenge, now confident that he was onto something with coffee.

“There had already been things on the horizon that I had begun to see. Things like the emergence of international brands coming in,” Musungwa explained.

“I just thought, with the pressure of all these coffee shops opening up, and with people having options of where to go, your market share will eventually suffer; I thought, ‘how do you stay ahead of that? Convenience came up,” he said.

Fruiting mushrooms in Charlotte Mutodi’s backyard. PHOTO/BIRD EYE

According to Musungwa, people are leaning more toward convenience, in a world where people order online and things arrive at their doorstep. 

“How about we make the coffee more mobile, rather than waiting for people to come to us? How about finding out where people are already meeting and interacting - and occupying those spaces?”

To answer these questions, Musungwa founded Zimbarista, a mobile coffee business serving teas and a variety of espresso-based coffees (90 per cent of which are cappuccinos and lattes) and quickly identified schools as a market where parents and guardians gather for school drop-off, as well as at corporate events. The business started to grow.

“Slowly but surely, we began to open more and more outlets,” he explained. 

Expansion 

At its peak, Zimbarista had up to 12 outlets and a vintage shop in a VW bus. 
“The bus was brilliant because of its vintage feel; it lends itself to many weddings. It’s got a whimsical sort of feel to it,” Musungwa said.

However, due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, Musungwa was forced to cut down to 10 outlets, with four operating as mobile units and the rest as fixed outlets serving coffee within another business.

Training has also become a big part of the work of Zimbarista, with the company hosting monthly barista training sessions.

“We offer various training programmes from entry level barista training to those who want to operate more out of a coffee shop, and that includes putting them in the units we operate for hands-on experience,” added Musungwa.

Musungwa has now trained about 53 baristas, including Janie Duffy, a customer who took the course to enhance her own business.

“The best part of the course was practising the process of making coffee - from grinding the beans, calibrating the coffee machine, creating the right temperature and texture of milk to pouring a pattern on top of the coffee,” says Duffy.

“I am confident to serve a good coffee and supervise and monitor my baristas at Ultimate Fun, the popular family activity center in Eastlea,” she added.

In the future, Musungwa hopes to include more training sessions, open Zimbarista branches across Zimbabwe and roast and sell his own coffee beans. 

Coffee remains a key passion.

“I love talking about coffee, I love teaching it, and I love seeing people go from not knowing and understanding to now making it, doing it themselves in the same way I was trained at Seattle,” Musungwa said.

“I love to see people get it, and suddenly they are soaring with it, and now they’ve found something they can go ‘hey, that’s a passion for me’,” he added happily.

Tips for starting coffee shop 

Opening a coffee shop can be extremely profitable if you do it right. Pass by any busy specialty coffee shop and it will likely be full of customers enjoying coffee, espresso, lattes, teas, and a variety of pastries and other goodies. 
Wi-Fi and other work-friendly features have become commonplace as well, as coffee shops frequently serve as meeting hubs.

Serving quality coffees and snacks in a trendy, relaxing atmosphere can be a hugely successful endeavor—a business model pioneered by Starbucks, which as of 2021 has grown to nearly 33,000 coffeehouse locations around the world.1
If you love coffee and are looking for a business opportunity, this is your guide to starting a coffee shop and making it a success.

Purchase a franchise. To jump in with a built-in business model, you might consider a franchise, where most of the major business decisions will be made for you. For a fee, you will be provided with a turnkey business in a location selected by the provider of the franchise.
Buy an existing business. Investing in a shop that is for sale or in need of a revamp is another way to acquire a turnkey operation. However, finding a profitable business for sale is no easy task.
Start from scratch. Starting your own business from the ground up requires the most effort, but it also offers the most flexibility and the best potential to maximise profits.

Location

Before opening a coffee shop, understand why they are so popular. First of all, coffee shops are great places to socialize and meet up with friends, or to pass the time reading or surfing the web while enjoying a beverage and snack. Coffee shops are also a popular place for informal business meetings, or for students wanting to catch up on schoolwork.

Walk into any popular coffee shop and you are likely to see a realtor reviewing listings with a client, or a group of students collaborating on a school project. When selecting a location, make it close and convenient for the types of customers your coffee shop will draw.

Location vs rent
Note that the most central locations are not necessarily the best for your bottom line. Malls and other high-traffic locations typically have the highest rents and the most competition. Storefronts are excellent locations for coffee shops—they have the highest visibility, the rents are usually lower than in malls, and you can set your own business hours instead of having them dictated for you.

Vehicle traffic and parking

Unless you do locate in a mall or other site with lots of pedestrian traffic, you will need to think carefully about accessibility and parking. If a customer has to make a difficult turn off a busy street to get to your establishment or they have trouble finding available parking, they are likely to take their business elsewhere.

Mature mushrooms in Charlotte Mutodi’s backyard. PHOTO/BIRD 

Ideally, you want a convenient, highly visible location on a busy street, with pedestrian activity, and plenty of parking so customers can easily drop in on their way to or from work or school.

Serve a high-quality product

When opening a coffee shop, consider that gourmet coffee and tea drinkers want more than a mug of ordinary Joe or a teabag in a foam cup. According to a study coffee beverages of the specialty variety overtook standard drip coffee in popularity in 2010 and have been on a steady rise ever since.

In fact, over the last few years, “specialty” coffee has grown in scope from the traditional espresso variations and cold-blended drinks to include new trends such as cold brew, nitro, ready-to-drink (RTD), and with all manner of non-dairy additions. Sustainability is also valued by consumers more than ever, which in the coffee industry means fair trade beans and eco-friendly packaging and practices.

Given the demands of discriminating customers, there is little chance a coffee shop business will attract a regular clientele and thrive unless you can consistently serve quality products, and keep up with growing trends and consumer values.

Customer service
Excellent customer service is crucial to any successful business, especially in the food service industry. Most successful coffee shops utilise counter service. Having customers order and pay up front and calling them when their drinks and snacks are ready minimises your labour costs and enables you to better handle busy periods.

Table service is generally slower, more labour-intensive, and better suited to restaurants where patrons order full meals and spend more time in the establishment, but it’s not out of the question. Offering table service gives more opportunity to upsell and may suit your business model.

Ambiance 

When opening a coffee shop, having the right atmosphere is key to attracting customers. Surveys have shown that most consumers cite comfort, familiarity, and overall atmosphere as the primary attractions for a café. On top of its service model, Starbucks’ relaxing, modern, and cozy atmosphere is one of the major contributors to its success.

Their now infamous “third place” principle established the notion of the coffee shop occupying a special place beyond the home or the office—environment is paramount, while beverages are almost incidental.

Just how important is design? Considering the rising influence of social media advertising, a good-looking space may get lots of attention, and an especially quirky or unique aesthetic may even draw crowds for Instagram credit alone. The ideal atmosphere is clean and bright with plenty of natural light and comfortable seating space. 

Offer a variety of snacks

Another key to success when planning how to start a coffee shop is to realize that, even though coffee and tea have a high mark-up, a coffee shop cannot survive on coffee sales alone. 

Most successful food service and retail establishments know to diversify their offerings. 
Having an assortment of quality snacks on display at the counter will tempt your customers to make an additional purchase. 

Most bakery items pair well with coffee, but to further define your brand and increase sales, you may want to think beyond the typical muffins and pastries. Is there a local bakery or sandwich shop you can partner with? 

Many customers are eager to support small businesses, and baked goods can often be sourced wholesale from local bakeries. Does your coffee shop’s image lend itself to a hallmark treat?

Get behind the bar
As with any customer service-intensive business, when running a coffee shop, the owner should be present and fully engaged with the business as much as possible. 
For many customers, the sign of a good business is seeing the owner front and center taking orders, serving, and conversing with the public.
Having a hands-on presence also helps to motivate staff to perform at their best. This is especially important when you first start your coffee shop. If you are unable to be present, finding a good manager is essential- Additional information source: businesspartnermagazine.com


Source: bird story agency

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