7 Tips on how to run events in a cafe successfully

I’m going to start ‘7 Tips on how to run events in a cafe successfully’ with a summary of the content. It’s turned out to be quite a long one, some might prefer to avoid the longer read.

Here are my 7 Tips on how to run events in a cafe successfully:

1.Track the Costs. Track the costs of all elements – specifically staff, marketing and food. All three of these elements can quickly exceed what you were planning and turn a successful event into a failure.

2. Set a Budget for Marketing. Set a budget for marketing effort. If you can market an event and get enough people there organically via your social media feeds then that’s great. There are lots of ways this can be achieved, use the ones that work for you. Don’t become complacent if you get a good attendance for the first event, keep promoting.

3. Know your target market. Carefully design and market your event for the effect you want to achieve. Ask yourself:

‘How am I going to generate enough revenue for my business and any potential partners?’

Food and especially alcoholic drinks can play an important role.

4. Launch with a Series of Events. You are unlikely to go from a standing start to hugely busy events so launch with a programme of events. This will also help your guests to plan in advance. As small business owners we can sometimes forget that people have busy lives. A couple of weeks notice for an event only on a single night is insufficient for many people. This also allows you to gain momentum.

5. Consider Dietary Requirements. Inclusivity in terms of menus is something that is important to us at Baltzersen’s. We did tie ourselves up in knots delivering vegan and gluten free options at some of the events. That said, the vegan community generally show up when know they are being catered for! On occasion we went to huge effort/expense to provide gluten-free options for only one or two people to order them.

6. Look outside your own team. Consider outsourcing the event. Running your own event offers greater potential rewards but also comes with the associated risks. One option is to partner with another business that might be keen to use your space. You may also provide access to your guests. The partner take on the delivery of the event and give you a smaller but guaranteed return. If this partner is already established they may be able to drive new guests to your business.

7. Be conscious of the overall experience. Bear in mind the quality of the overall experience you (or a partner) are delivering to your guests. You may deliver something very different in terms of food and service style compared to your usual offer. If you execute something that doesn’t deliver in terms of the value you usually provide that is a problem. You may be eroding trust and loyalty in your own guest base. No event is worth damaging your relationship with regular guests.

Background

Once you have control over the day-to-day running of your cafe it is natural to look at driving additional revenue. Your space itself is a resource. You are paying for it 24hrs a day, 365 days per year so can it be used more efficiently?

I reached this conclusion and had the idea to open a restaurant in the space and operate in the evenings. We operated our restaurant Norse at Baltzersen’s for 3 years from 2014 – 2017. After that period I felt that it was time to try and relocate the restaurant to it’s own site. The restaurant subsequently failed in that location with wide-ranging consequences for me and investors. Being a director with a liquidation on my record is difficult.

Having a separate operation running alongside your primary business in the same space is tough. It can add a lot of pressure and conflict behind the scenes as the different teams interact. Once the restaurant moved out of the cafe space we gave ourselves some time to recover before embarking on new ideas.

In March 2018 we launched a series of monthly evening events that we called ‘FredagsTaco’. These events tapped into the modern Scandinavian tradition of eating tacos on Friday nights. You can read more on the Baltzersen’s blog here.

Launching a New Event

A leaflet with Mexican illustrations and motifs advertising the first FredagsTaco event at Baltzersen's in March 2018. Part of the post on how to run events in a cafe.
Launch poster for FredagsTaco

This launch was something we took pretty seriously because we knew it was going to be a series of events. We had posters/leaflets professionally designed (by Oslo Agency in Leeds). We repurposed the design work as menus, GIFs and other content for social media.

Local photographer Matthew Lloyd was brought in for an initial photoshoot to generate imagery for social media. We had a subsequent shoot a couple of months later.

I don’t want to talk about the prices charged by the other businesses we used. I can say the cost of promoting this series of events over the 6 month period was in excess of £1000. When you have an existing business for which you operate with a certain level of quality in terms of your brand it’s important to build on that with events rather than impact in negatively.

Considering dietary requirements is one of the 7 tips on how to run events in a cafe.  This photo shows a top down view of some of the dishes and drinks available at the first FredagsTaco event at Baltzersen's.
Great imagery really helps to give guests an idea of what to expect and generates excitement for special events.

FredagsRamen

FredagsTaco was followed by a further two events in October and November 2018. This time we switched cuisine from Mexican to Japanese to make Ramen.

Marketing your event is important and one of my 7 tips on how to run events in a cafe.  This poster was the design we used to advertise our FredagsRamen events in print and across social media.

We followed a similar pattern in terms of promoting the events with bespoke designed posters and digital assets. There was another photoshoot, this time trying to invoke a less formal and warmer atmosphere. We were really happy with the results of this shoot.

We really liked this warmer more relaxed social style of photography for our second set of events

Results

When I started writing this part of the blog I thought it would show some slightly disappointing results. That’s probably about how it turned out.

Revenue

We had quite a large variation in terms of revenue generated by the FredagsTaco and FredagsRamen events. Unfortunately we’ve changed our POS system since FredagsTaco so I can’t get quite the degree of granularity of detail that I’d like to share but in terms of revenue we generated:

I have better information for FredagsRamen so I have split out the revenue in terms of food and drink contribution. Drinks can have a big impact on the revenue you are able to drive at an event.

Costs

I’ve already talked about not having a fully costed normal menu for the Baltzersen’s in place until October 2018 (you can read that post here). It’s unsurprising (yet admittedly silly) that we didn’t fully cost out these one-off menus. I wonder if this is partially a sub-conscious decision to protect myself from the reality that most of the events were going to come in below our normal Gross Profit (GP) target of 80%.

FredagsTaco nights were challenging but fun, with 6 tacos and usually 2 or 3 cocktails on available. Very different to our usual offer.

Our staff levels varied a little between events but not massively. On average I’d say we spent the best part of £800 per event on staff time (if the event were to run without my presence). When you take this into account most of the FredagsTaco events are delivering very limited financial returns.

Even if you allow the combined cost of sales and staff cost to be higher because you aren’t going to be making a contribution to the overhead (because your daytime operation pays this) most of the events are way off. Sales are simply not high enough.

This table shows the results of the whole year:

This is an overview of all the events we held in 2018. I’ve added a figure for staff cost and target GP for each one. As mentioned above I don’t have the information to be certain we hit these GP targets.

*There has been no allowance for the cost and time taken to market the events or other costs outside the scope of those stated.

Once you start adding the cost of marketing across the events plus additional costs for decor, tableware (if required) and chef development time generating a profit is even more challenging.

Challenges

Putting the cost to one side for the minute we can just talk about the experience, and one thing we’ve learned is that events can be really challenging. Here are some of the reasons why:

Different Cuisines

We wanted to use these events as a chance to experiment with different cuisines. We work in a cafe, we’re food and drink people, so doing this kind of research is fun for us. There is though a difference to doing this kind of thing in your kitchen at home and then being able to deliver the kind of food that paying guests will be happy with. On the whole I think we delivered here across the events, but it took some significant research and development time, no shortage of effort and likely came at the expense of our gross profit margin.

Our chefs worked incredibly hard to develop the dishes we served at events, with the ramen in particular a labour of love for Chef Martin. We were very proud of the final dishes we served up as part of these events, this photo is the prawn ramen from our inaugural FredagsRamen,

Service

As difficult as creating and executing the food was the front of house service was as challenging too. We moved to a table service operation which was far less familiar to our team, so if we’re honest enthusiastic amateurs was probably about the best we could hope for.

Sometimes the events were so popular that we were swamped and it led to longer wait times on food, drinks and for tables. We tried our best to learn from each experience but it’s not easy. We’re used to delivering good service to happy guests and sometimes the experience fell below this – when you have people used to operating at a certain level it can be disheartening when things don’t go to plan. Some of our team didn’t want to volunteer after their first experience on events, and this made it harder for the rest of the team.

Great staff are key and one of my 7 tips on how to run events in a cafe.  This photo is a member of Baltzersen's staff holding two tacos in front of a moody grey backdrop.
Our front of house team were really game for working these events, often in very difficult circumstances. Not only that they even got involved with some of the marketing efforts too. Zac in this photo isn’t really this serious about tacos!

The last thing you want to do with events is deliver a poor experience that negatively affects a guest’s opinion of your business. If the financial benefits are marginal it’s simply not worth the risk.

Benefits

Reputation

Our hard work in 2018 across these eight events means we have now created a reputation for delivering decent (not perfect!) events in Harrogate. We have positioned ourselves as a trusted venue to visit to try something a little different that is going to deliver in terms of taste, service and excitement. This reputation is something that we are hoping to leverage in 2019 as we change tack slightly and bring outside organisations into our space.

Keeping the Conversation Going

A regular programme of events with the associated media assets for use in promoting them gives you something to talk about with your guests. You can ask for feedback, opinions on development of the events, idea and generally engage more with your audience.

A New Audience

It is very possible that our events this year brought a new audience into our space. They may have become regular guests. It’s an impossible metric to measure, so one to bear in mind without being able to attribute a value.

Our Plan for 2019

Last year brought limited financial success coupled with extra stress on the team. We have subsequently opened our new coffee shop space too. These factors combined to make me rethink the plan for events in 2019. We don’t want to completely lose momentum, but we do see ourselves taking a different role this year.

We have been aware of Gina Heo, owner and Chef at Onnuri Authentic Korean Food, for a while. In Jan 2019 we decided to get in touch to find out if she’d like to partner up on some events. A partnership allows us to continue talking about and offering interesting events to our guests. We’ve dialled up the authenticity with Gina and our chefs don’t need to get directly involved.

Partnering with other organisations is another tip on how to run events in a cafe.  Pictured is a beef bulgogi bento box served with accompanying sides dishes or 'banchan'.
The Beef Bulgogi bento would prove the most popular dish of the Onnuri pop-up.

We think we offer an attractive proposition for Gina and anyone else we collaborate. They will take total control of delivering the event including taking the money. They won’t need to charge VAT so pricing can be keener and the GP is better for the operator.

We’ve taken the lead on promoting the collaboration with Onnuri via social media and our newsletter audience. We also created printed material for display as posters and leaflets for our menu. Leaflet design was done in-house, so it’s not the best but it keeps the cost down.

This poster was a designed in-house to keep marketing costs lower for the night when we partnered with Onnuri Korean Food. It features two characters in traditional Korean dress.  It is part of the post '7 tips on how to run events in a cafe'.

We felt the event would be well attended as we had record figures on our Facebook event page. The reality was that we struggled with demand despite opening 30 mins early. We were full within a minute and by 7.15pm we had a list of 50+ people on a waitlist and had to turn a further 20 away.

Scarcity has a certain appeal, and it’s kind of exciting to see so many people show up for your events. The flip side is that it’s no fun disappointing guests. This can only go on for so long before people stop showing up at events. With this in mind for the next iteration of Onnuri at Baltzersen’s we’ll be looking at ticketing options.

We have some other ideas for events to put on later this year…..more to follow!

Summary

Your cafe space is an asset, but generating a consistent financial return needs significant planning.

There is something to be said for those less tangible benefits; attracting a different crowd, generating engagement with your guests and providing an experience that isn’t available locally.

There are tonnes of alternatives to holding evening events, clearly this post isn’t an exhaustive list. I hope it brings out some of the challenges you may face, especially if you are planning something food driven.

I’d love to hear about what events you’ve held in the past and whether they have worked for you. Feel free to comment on this post below. Similarly if there are any questions or suggestions let me know.

I hope you enjoyed the post.

Paul.

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