The spirit of my beloved neighborhood coffee shop was dead. There was no heartbeat, no presence, no voice that I recognized. It felt painfully hollow and lifeless—like I might as well throw a funeral for it.
Nearly every morning for the better part of the previous year, I ventured down my street with my dog to fetch coffee and breakfast. In the summer months, I passed a row of lush trees, and wooden fences and a sunflower garden. As the temperature cooled, I shivered under my sweater and admired the leaves as they turned before eventually falling to the ground. I watched my neighbors rush to their cars and moms usher their kids onto the school bus. After a five-minute trek, I came upon a modest gray building where my dog, Lucy, and I stepped into a domain of contentment. The smell of espresso, buttery confections, and warm breakfast sandwiches filled the air. Billie Holiday classics cooed softly through the speaker. Lucy always lowered her head and wagged her tail, knowing it was only a matter a minutes before one of the employees kneeled down to meet her gaze and feed her a piece of bacon or ham from the kitchen.
There were usually five staff members on rotation, but no matter who was there, I was never not smacked with gladness. When I announced I was pregnant, the claps and squeals commenced. Whoever was preparing my order always turned to chat with me as they frothed my milk—monitoring my belly growth and inquiring about my newest craving, oftentimes laughing at my answer. Every eye lit up when I revealed that I was carrying a girl, and each person offered up their opinions about the names my husband and I were experimenting with.
We exchanged soulful glimpses of our lives during those brief gatherings. I followed their wedding, Halloween and Christmas plans, and we discussed our preferences for everything from travel destinations to Netflix series. It was my neighborhood mecca of coziness—most ordinary in appearance, but possessing a richness I could not get enough of. I was drawn to that 1000-square-foot space like a magnet, infusing me with a feeling of having stopped by my grandma’s house. “Pretty soon, we’ll see you pushing a stroller through that door,” a staff member said to me one day while handing me my half-caffeinated latte, then adding with a wink, “And, before you know it, you’ll have the freedom to drink coffee as strong as you want it, mama.”
But, shortly after that conversation, something went awry between two of the staff members and the business owner. The employees felt they were underpaid and unappreciated, claiming to have been cut by his harsh tongue one too many times. Within weeks, they were gone—their smiling faces vanishing like vapors from behind that counter. Seeming to have sparked a revolt, the remaining others began entertaining the idea of seeking employment elsewhere. As the original staff gradually disappeared over a period of about a month, it was somewhat like watching a friend slip away into a slow and irreversible state of illness. Each time I stepped behind those doors, I could feel that more life had faded from its body. Its breath was slowing, its pulse dropping, its vitality vanishing. I tried to call upon the feeling I had been injected with all of those months prior, but it was flat-lining.
Over the holidays, I traveled to visit with family, and spent my mornings at home eating breakfast with my husband, causing me to not visit the shop for almost two weeks. On the morning of my return, it was a new year, and all of the original staff members had been replaced. I moved toward the counter to order my usual coffee and sandwich, and was stunned by how eerie it felt inside those walls. It certainly wasn’t grandma’s house anymore.
None of the furniture had changed, and was arranged exactly as before. The same fake potted plant lay centered on the end table by the door, and the same foggy vintage mirror hung above the broken fireplace. Brioche and donuts were arranged in the display cases, just as they had always been. The same fruit filled the bowl, and the milk dispenser I’d used a few dozen times before rested upon the coffee station. It looked identical to the way it always had, yet felt so foreign and sad. It was like trying to greet an old friend who had become a stranger—staring through you as though they’ve forgotten all of the tender moments that once meant so much. Or, at worst, like standing over a lifeless body, poking it gently, hoping for one last breath or sigh.
There were two unrecognizable faces behind the counter, both of whom wore masks of annoyance and overwhelm. There was little eye contact, stale conversation and certainly no laughter. In contrast to what I had encountered day after day for almost the stretch of a year, I felt like I was reciting my order to a blank wall. It was time to face it: I would need to forge a new morning ritual.
I returned a few more times over a period of a month or so, hoping the new staff members would find their groove and I could recapture the cozy feeling I had been met with before. I could not find it, though, while also noticing the absence of familiar faces in my neighborhood who had abandoned the place. It was clear I wasn’t alone in my feelings. Subsequently, I fell into a new routine and moved on, but I will never forget the lesson I learned through that experience: People always create the energy of a brand or a business.
Struck with this insight, I began to call upon my favorite dining spots, hang-outs and shopping destinations in various cities I often traveled to—from bookstores and boutiques to sandwich shops and speakeasies. All of the places I loved most varied in style and genre, yet shared a common denominator. I may have been dashed by the space’s decor, or swooned over a particular panini or cocktail, but the energy of the people remained the most impermeable truth. It transcended mere customer service; it was an unspoken feeling that called me back over and over again. I was either lured in and commanded to return or repulsed and pushed away by the collective presence encompassing the space. This offered confirmation that energy cannot be faked.“Always make sure that your energy is irreplaceable.” – @thelaceyjohnson
When one is working to grow their brand, they may hyper-focus on styling its image, streamlining its marketing strategy, and developing its online presence. All of these efforts are key pieces to the puzzle, as there are thousands of examples of how modifications to a logo or the launch of a clever and emotionally-charged promotional campaign served to revive a dying brand. Still, the people create the atmosphere and emotion of the brand’s attractability. The people involved will either breathe life into it, or they will suck life out of it. This is a non-negotiable truth.
In life, the energy we carry around with us—the exchanges of our beliefs, ideas and intentions, which in turn bleed over into our words, facial expressions, and our body language—shapes the mood of the space around us. It serves as the essence of nearly every experience we become a part of co-creating. If a well-intentioned business owner isn’t mindful about plucking the bad apples from his or her staff, those individuals will eventually serve to poison the entire crew with their stench of negativity. They will damage mindsets and suck the spirit from the well of inspiration and momentum. This is because, collectively, the energy of the people who shape and carry a brand will become the culture and personality of it entirely.
A couple of years ago, I interviewed Dr. Josh Axe, bestselling author and co-founder of Ancient Nutrition, whose products are sold in more than 6,000 retail stores, and whose website garners more than 13 million unique visits a month, for a story with The Connect magazine. During our conversation, he discussed his brand’s lightening-fast growth, attributing its success to the collective mindset and intention of his team members. “Everyone we keep on staff wholeheartedly believes in our mission to help people live happier and healthier lives,” he said. “It’s a positive space around here, and we keep each other inspired to reach more and more people.” Susan Salgado, renowned speaker and Founder of Hospitality Quotient and Grason Consulting, who was named one of the Most Creative People of 2016 by Fast Company, seems to share a similar ethos. She once said, “Culture is the promise you make to your employees. Brand is the promise you make to your customers.”
I wasn’t in love with my neighborhood coffee shop because it boasted the most skilled baristas in my city or roasted the freshest beans—not by a long shot. I was in love with it because the energy of its staff was so beautifully medicinal and one-of-a-kind. It pitched me an emotion that I grabbed ahold of and was happy to pour my money into. So, the takeaway here is simple: We must always make sure that not only our personal energy is irreplaceable, but that the energy we infuse into our brand or business is in absolute service of it. It matters—because the energy of the people invited into one’s ventures will either lure the right circumstances in and demand that they stay, or drive them away forever.