At a glance
Type of Business: Tea, Coffee, Brunch & Curry.
Business name: Cha Lounge
Key Learning Points:
- Stay flexible
Planning and execution don’t always line up perfectly when starting your new business – adapting to compromises is all part of building a business.
- Minimise the amount of tasks you have during the first few months
Mandeep advises new business owners to allow for a comfortable period of time to train staff effectively. The first few months of running an active business are busy enough without having the added stress of training your staff at the same time.
- The importance of a company manual
Having this ready before staff start and managing staff expectations of roles and responsibilities from day 1 makes everything much easier. It’s a lot simpler to change behaviours earlier then it is further down the line.
- Find a business partner who can take the heat
Mandeep assures us that bouts of disagreements are par the course when starting a business with someone. When deciding to partner up, it’s important to make sure that your relationship can survive stresses and strains to be able to get back to work the next day. If you have that, the benefits of having a second person to bounce ideas from and receive feedback are huge for morale and the continual development of the business.
- Cha Lounge’s most useful toolEposnow – Mandeep took about 0.2 seconds to decide which her most useful tool in running Cha Lounge was. For a new retail business, imagine a tool which not only processes transactions, takes food orders, prints kitchen tickets but can also provide you with detailed statistics for items sold and even tell you how many pints are left in your keg of beer. Sounds good right? Click the link above to read all about Eposnow.
Listen, let’s just get one thing out of the way first alright? I’m a MASSIVE fanboy for this cafè. There’s no denying it – I’ve literally gotten behind the counter to serve drinks and take orders on a night when I’ve heard they were short-staffed after I finished work. And why? Did I do it so I could get a free curry? No….well yeah partly, but also no.
The reason why is because I’m fully in love with the place. It’s because…like have you ever sat and tried to work in a Starbucks? Starbucks is the kind of place which looks like it should be a good place to work but then you get there and it’s kinda impossible to get either fully comfortable, or relax and concentrate. Know what I mean? Cha Lounge is like the polar opposite of that.
From the beautiful decor to the chilled out tunes, it’s just incredibly easy to feel right at home. It’s exactly the kind of off-the-city-centre-high-street independent cafe you hope you’d find in a big city but have never quite managed to. ALSO Starbucks doesn’t sell beer, so that’s 2 points to Cha Lounge.
It was no surprise then to find that a place with such charm of has an owner to match – maybe the warmest, friendliest person on planet Earth, it’s wonderful co-owner and acting manager Mandeep. Beloved by the regular Cha Lounge crowd, as we sit down to talk at a table by the window you can’t help but admire the almost village-like community feel she’s created as she receives regular smiles and waves by passers-by.
Speaking to her, it’s also hard not to be inspired by her can-do attitude which has resulted in an enviable body of experience and a career which has taken her all over the world!
So the first thing I wanted to cover off with you is what your background was before you started Cha Lounge, because as I understand it, you weren’t self-employed to start off with…
Mandeep: No so, I was a qualified science teacher.
I had no idea, that’s so cool!
No, I was a qualified science teacher. I did my BSc (Hons) at The University of Liverpool and then a PGCE at York. After that I taught in Manchester for a year before heading to Phuket to the British International School. I also taught in Bolivia.
After that I reevaluated, and I was saying to my mum ‘I like teaching but I’m a bit bored. I want to do something to do with business‘. Then me and my brother have always thought about going into business together, toyed with the idea starting a kind of education consultancy firm or supply agency.
Best of both worlds! So after that, how come you didn’t go for making the supply agency?
My mum asked ‘why don’t you do an MBA?’ So I was looked into it and saw an advert in the Yorkshire Post for an open day at University of Leeds.
It looked really good, it covered every aspect of business and I thought ‘I’m ready to go back to education’.
doing an MBA at Leeds Uni was one of the best things I’ve ever done
I loved the course and the people that were on it with me as well. It was just amazing – all international students and all mature – I learned so much from everyone.
There was a lot of group work involved and a lot of big projects with companies like Marks and Spencer’s, trips to Germany and Shanghai, as well as working with small charities and social enterprises like Slate, the Furniture Store in Leeds.
I was also voted to be the MBA rep for the year which meant that I was in charge of doing all the events on the social side, as well as the Regatta down in Port Solent.
That sounds awesome!
It was really good. I really enjoyed the events side and I ended up getting a job in London after the course, organising corporate events.
I’m presuming there must be difficult parts to it, like negotiating costs and but otherwise it sounds like such an amazing job; someone coming up to you and saying ‘can you organise some cool sh*t for us to do?’ And you’re like ‘hell yeah!’
– and you make it work, yeah! I found it quite easy actually, I enjoy working to deadlines. In this industry, you’ve just got to not get flustered and just make things happen without getting stressed.
You’ve got to have quite a positive can-do attitude because if it’s a challenging event to plan then it can be a complete nightmare and can potentially all go wrong if you don’t dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s!
But I really enjoyed it. I mean we weren’t doing global scale events, but for what we were doing it was good.
My objective was to start my own corporate events company from up here [in Yorkshire] because I really enjoyed the work, from getting the event, to getting to know the client, to the writing the proposal and contacting suppliers. A lot of work went into each one but the end result was satisfying.
I thought, ‘why am I working for someone else, I could just do this on my own!‘
Absolutely fair play!
I’d made great progress getting everything together; I had had the branding done, I had a website being made, had potential clients – and then I took a totally different direction.
One day my brother rang me – I remember this – I was in London shopping on a sunny day and he said; ‘I found a place to do the tea shop’ and I thought ‘oh I don’t want to leave now’ because I was really enjoying my job.
He said; ‘I’ve found this place and it’s perfect’ . We had been discussing opening a tea room for a few years. He always wanted it to be a place that contributes to society and isn’t just about making money.
Sometimes you have to grab opportunities where they arise and have an open mindset.
I thought ‘oh I’ll have loads of time…it’s only a coffee shop, it’s not going to take up that much time‘. *laugh* So that’s just never happened.
So my plan was to open the tea room with my brother and still set up my events company. I was planning to go to London once a week to meet clients and also find new clients up here.
I thought ‘oh I’ll have loads of time…it’s only a tea shop, it’s not going to take up that much time‘. *laugh* So that’s just never happened.
Sometimes you have to grab opportunities where they arise and have an open mindset.
My brother did a lot of the initial planning for the layout. A lot of our furniture was handmade and sourced locally; the benches, bars, doors, tables and chairs were all handmade to order. That all took about two months – we did it really quickly! It was a new, exciting project that we loved working on.
He also introduced the ethos and his passion for being a café that helps the environment and reduces waste, really enthused me to be a part of this movement. I spent quite some time researching ethical products, sustainable and compostable packaging eg take away coffee cups, and renewable energy.
We knew that all these things would put our start up costs way higher than most other café’s, however it was something we did not want to compromise on and we had faith that the public would believe in our ethos too.
You said you sustainably sourced materials, how did you find people to provide them?
I suppose it was word of mouth, contacts and asking people around here and the assistance of Google! Our shopfitters had a lot of industry knowledge so showed us the best materials and suppliers.
There were some aspects that we didn’t think about however, like having a sink front of house, having sensor lights in the toilets and designing the kitchen to suit the menu.
Looking back though, there are a few things we could have done slightly differently.
Firstly, we should have found our staff and a chef who could help us finalise our menu. Initially, our plan was just to sell tea/coffee and cake with a few snacks, so the menu we created was simple. However, after some research we felt that this wouldn’t be enough, so we decided to develop the menu.
We also thought it would be a lot easier to find staff than it is. We thought ‘there’ll be loads of people wanting jobs’ and you can just find staff like that *snaps fingers*.
We should have found all the staff before we opened, planned the opening week, marketed to let people know we were opening. We didn’t do any of that, we just built it and then opened.
Oh I see, so how long before you opened did you start looking for staff?
Probably about a week.
When would you think to get them now, like a couple of months?
Yeah and get them trained up before you opened the doors. We did on-the-job training.
It’s a bit difficult though, I imagine when you’re working on something and you’re passionate about it, but there’s so much to consider – there are bound to be things that you just don’t catch the first time around.
I know, I mean you’d think that’d be an obvious thing but we just didn’t think about it as being a difficult task.
It’s difficult, Leeds is a big city and there are loads of people about, loads of students. You’d assume it’d be quite easy to find people looking for jobs?
Yeah, and there’s so many restaurants and cafes – you’d think you’d just be able to find someone easily.
Definitely. How did you find people in the end? Did you go through a recruiter?
No, actually one of our first members of staff was from the dry-cleaners next door – when we were building, the owner just said ‘oooh my nephew is looking for a job’ and he was our first recruit. He ended up staying for a year, he was really good!
Now that we have experience in recruiting, hiring staff is a lot easier as we know what type of person we are looking for.
It seems like a lot kindof resolved itself even if you didn’t initially plan for it.
Yeah but I would say, for your website, definitely encourage people to find staff before opening – give it a couple of months and train them up before you open.
Also have all your training manuals done; your core values, documents on health and safety, fire training, alcohol training, standard operating procedures, how to use the till, tea making process, how to take an order, disciplinary procedures etc etc. It will take a long time but it is so important to do.
Oh wow! That’s so on it, I assumed it would just be when they got there you show them ‘oh this is this machine, use it this way blah blah’
Yes, it has to be a measured learning process, so if you hand them a manual it just shows them exactly what you expect.
Things like health and safety checks, standard operating procedures, daily checklists, your stock and orders lists, fire safety and disciplinary procedures too.
Sh*t you are on it! That’s so good! I honestly would never have thought of all that…I mean that’s actually a whole other area to touch on, like with health and safety how’s that to sort out?
If you have five or less members of staff then you don’t need to include risk assessments.
Is that five who are on site?
On site, yeah.
And do you have to send it off?
You don’t have to send it off for anyone, you just need to have it so if anyone comes by you can show them it.
With food as well, do you have to send something else?
I had to register with the food agency before we opened. That was easy, you just have to fill in some paperwork and hand it in. They’ve got an office near Elland Road and you just have to go into the office and submit it.
Oh really, and then do they send someone over to take a look at it or?
They just come whenever they feel like it.
Oh wow that sounds fun, do they have to give you notice?
Wow, that’s intense *laugh*
So yeah we had to do that before we opened and obviously we had to take our alcohol licence exams…
Yeah you have to sit an exam. Me and my brother did it together, if you have five or less members of staff then you don’t need to include risk assessments.This place had a licence before we took it over and then we thought we should keep it before it expired, as it would have cost a lot more to reapply for the licence.
So is the regulation that if someone’s held a licence on the premise before then you can just transfer it over with an admin fee?
I think you have a certain amount of days yeah. I think you have 30 days, but then obviously someone has to be a premises holder. But once you’ve done the exam then that’s it, you have it forever.
Are there different exams depending on how late you want to open? So if you wanted to stay open until like 5am for example…
Yeah we can if we want, if we want to stay open later, we have to put an application in to the council and say ‘on this day we’re having a party and want to stay open until 5…’ and then they can approve it or not.
So you don’t have to pay for it, they just give you approval or not?
It depends. If its an event then they might charge you for it but there’s some guidance. I can’t remember exactly what it is, you can find it on the council website (and it was, satisfy your curiosity here) or you can call them up and they’ll tell you.
It’s a different set of regulations for food; if you’re serving food after midnight or if you’re having a band, things like that.
Oh really? So do you have to have a special licence to have live music?
Yes you need to get a PRS and PPL licence.
Nice! And then, with suppliers, in terms of finding people to supply the coffee and the food, how was setting that up?
Jagdeep [Mandeep’s brother and business partner] found the coffee and, I don’t exactly know how he found them. It’s Northstar who are just down the road.
They used to be in Meanwood. It was just two of them down in Meanwood and we used to go down to get lessons on the coffee – they’d show us how to roast it. Their ethos totally aligned with ours and Jagdeep fell in love with the product immediately.
I used to go round Leeds and try different coffees and but we always preferred that one.
To do market research and find those sorts of suppliers…like in my head if I was to do that I would just be like ’ok…Google it’ and hope for the best. Are there any better methods that you found yourself?
I think it’s always better just to go around and taste it yourself.
Oh really, so just find a bunch of suppliers and go do the circuit to taste them all yourself?
Yeah. You’ve got to because then you know you’re getting the best product.
..you’re talking like people are gonna have to pay like £10 for a sandwich and no one wants to do that.
And then in terms of costs, is negotiating something you had quite a lot of experience with from your time spent working in events?
Yeah I’m quite good at negotiating, but with a lot of your suppliers, your prices are fixed and because we are a small independent…it’s higher than if we were a big place because of economies of scale.costs are higher than if we were a big place because of economies of scale.
I mean all our suppliers are great but they have their fixed prices like we have our fixed prices and if we are low users of certain things then unfortunately we don’t get cheaper options.
What was really hard when we opened was trying to source where we get our meat and veg from, because I wanted everything to be organic but I didn’t realise how expensive it would be! It pushed costs up so much, it was ridiculous. I mean then you’re talking people having to pay like £10 for a sandwich and no one wants to do that.
I thought we’re just going to have to find a happy medium, so I tried a whole bunch of farms around the area and that was really difficult – that was where I was thinking well where do people get their meat from?
So you went directly to farms?
Well yeah, I Googled them and then rang them but the organic ones were really expensive. So we realised we’re not going to be able to do everything organic, we’ll just have to do what we can and do the rest free range and local.
Did you end up sticking with one of the farms you found initially?
I think it took us about 3 or 4 ones before we Sykes Farm in Weatherby and have stuck with them ever since.
Wow, again – never would have thought of a farm. I honestly would have just gone to Sainsbury’s and been like yeah! These are the prices then I guess!
*laughs* A lot of places like us will go through farms.
How have you found being in a partnership rather than a sole ownership? Are there any benefits which come to your mind or any particularities about the relationship which stand out to you?
It’s much easier, but I wouldn’t go into business with a friend – no way. You need someone that you can really argue with and then be fine the next day. I think if you go into business with a friend then it can more easily go wrong.
I don’t know if its just stress but I just think don’t go into business with a friend. With family, it’s different…for me it is any way, you still have to see them at family meals so it can’t go too wrong *laughs*.
He’s been really good, he’s got experience with management and managing people and so he’s helped me with that side of things.
So you guys work together when it comes to things like training?
Yeah, and he doesn’t have a lot to do with the operations, that’s me but you know I ring him every day and he’ll give me advice.
Did you feel like you fit in with that quite easily? In terms of who was managing what and who was comfortable doing what like how he fell into more of the management side and you take care of the operations?
No I think we kind of fell into it. Well, originally I wasn’t going to be the manager – that was never the plan. It was just gonna be us getting it up and running then we’d hire a manager to run things and I’d focus on the marketing side of things, accounts and my events business.
He was going to focus on the training, management and some of the money side as well because we split that – but then we realised quite quickly that we couldn’t afford a manager, *laughs* so that’s why I was doing it.
Is that still the plan for the future?
We’re looking for one now!
So yeah, definitely better to have a partner then to go in on your own. Like if you’ve had a bad day, you can’t really ring up your mate or tell your partner about it because they don’t really understand.
It’s good to have someone you can talk to, who can give you advice and be able to motivate each other to move forward and say ‘oh what about doing this or that’. Two heads are better than one.
And also it’s good because he doesn’t work here. He’ll come in on a weekend and he’ll spot things that I don’t spot. You know when you’re in something too much and you stop seeing certain things?
Even things to do with service, he’ll just come in on a weekend and he’ll spot things that I don’t spot.
So I was going to ask how was finding the location?
My brother found the location. It doesn’t have high footfall which meant business was tough to get going in year 1. However, we wanted it to be a hidden gem that people travel to, which it is now and we attract lovely customers.
It’s good to have someone you can talk to, who can give you advice and to motivate each other to move forward and say ‘oh what about doing this or that’…two heads are better than one.
What advice would you give to yourself now back when you started?
I suppose if I could turn the clock back I think I would go and work in a café and do the job for 6 months to see how it worked. It’s very easy to open a café and think its easy but it’s not, because we didn’t have enough industry knowledge.
Then, I would have put the training manual together so when staff started they would have known exactly what they were doing, because they didn’t [when we opened]. We spent the first few months trying to train them all when we weren’t trained ourselves.
That was our fault, you know? So the challenge was trying to find the right staff with the right skills but we didn’t really know what we were looking for.
The main challenge was definitely getting the staff right and I think that would be a challenge for anyone starting a business who didn’t have industry knowledge. – so I would definitely say go and work somewhere for 6 months.
And, one of the things that I’m doing as part of the website is to have an accompanying blog that goes over skills and topics that people want to learn about…so is there any skill which you think that someone in your position could learn about?
I think one of them…ok, a skill that I look at now is how to encourage staff and team-building which is really important and staff training which I still look at now.
How to get the best out of your staff because everyone’s so different – the human element is the hardest bit to control. When your staff are happy and motivate at work then it makes the business so much fun for everyone.
And finally, when you were getting starting with Cha Lounge, were there any tools which were particularly useful for you to get things up and running?
Oh the best thing I’ve ever had here is that till *gestures*, it’s amazing. I can sit at home on my day off and see everything in real-time.
That’s so good, so that till prints the tickets for the kitchen as well as takes payments and orders?
Yeah, and, I can see what products sell the most, I can get analytics to see what products are moving when and so I’ve used that over the last 6 months to re-shape the menu. I can analyse results daily, hourly and by product.
What’s it called?
It’s called and eposnow…and it does the stock take too.
Like you can program in your beer barrels of how many pints you can pour from it and every time you sell a pint it goes through the till and then it will tell you things like ‘you’ve got 5 pints left’. I love it!
Mandeep thanks so much for your time, loads of great tips and stories! I can’t wait to drink some North Star roast in a Singapore Cha Lounge one day soon!
You should absolutely head over to Cha Lounge and discover it’s charm for yourself when you get the chance – my advice is to head over on a Thursday and take advantage of the Curry & Jazz night.