The spirit of my beloved coffee shop was dead. There was no heartbeat or voice that I recognized. The walls felt painfully hollow and lifeless. Almost as though a funeral was imminent.
Nearly every morning for the better part of the previous year, I’d ambled down my street with my dog for a latte and breakfast. In the summer months, I’d passed a row of lush trees, wooden fences and a sunflower garden. As the temperature cooled, I shivered under my sweater and admired the turning leaves. I watched my neighbors rush to their cars for work and moms usher their kids onto the school bus. After a five-minute trek, I came upon a modest 1000-square-foot charcoal building where my dog, Lucy, and I stepped inside. The fragrance of espresso, buttery confections, and warm breakfast sandwiches filled the air. Billie Holiday classics cooed softly through the speaker.
There were typically three or four staff members on rotation at any given day but regardless of who was there, I was always met with gladness. When I announced my pregnancy, the claps and squeals poured out. There were chats while frothing the milk for my latte and warming my bread. Giggles and questions about my latest hormonally-drenched cravings. And every eye behind the counter lit up when I announced I was carrying a girl.
We exchanged soulful glimpses of our lives during those mornings–swapping our favorite books and documentaries and music playlists. I followed their wedding, Halloween and Christmas plans and they followed my work travels and waxing baby bump. It was my own neighborhood cocoon–ordinary in appearance, but luxurious in spirit. I always felt as though I’d stepped into grandma’s house for a visit. “Pretty soon, we’ll see you pushing a stroller through that door,” Anna, the petite, chestnut-haired barista who always kneeled down to give Lucy a scrap of bacon from the kitchen, said to me one day, beaming.
But not long after that conversation, something erupted between two of the staff members and the business owner. The employees believed they were underpaid and unappreciated, and had been sliced by his harsh tongue one too many times. Within weeks, two of the full-time staff members were gone—their smiling faces vanishing like vapors from behind the counter. As though to spark a revolt, a few others began entertaining the idea of seeking employment elsewhere. One by one, the original staff disappeared. 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.
Over the holidays, my husband and I traveled for two weeks visiting family. On the morning of my return, it was the dawn of a new year, and an entirely new staff had been hired. Two new bodies surrounded the coffee machine–both reeking of annoyance and overwhelm. I moved cautiously toward the counter, searching for a recognizable face. The energy felt disconcertingly void; it certainly wasn’t grandma’s house anymore.
I scanned the room, noticing that none of the furniture or decor had changed. The same potted plant lay centered on the end table by the door and the foggy gold-trimmed mirror hung above the broken fireplace. Brioche and donuts were arranged in the display cases, just as they had always been. Yet I felt as though I were standing in a place I’d never been before. Almost as though I were trying to greet an old friend who had become a stranger—staring through me as though they’d forgotten every tender moment that meant so much. I placed my order and swiped my card, but there was no eye contact or warm conversation to be found. It was time to face it: I’d need to find a new coffee shop.
I returned a few more times over a period of a month or so, hoping the new staff members would find their groove and infuse me with the same cozy feeling I’d relished for so long. I never felt it, though. And after taking notice of the absence of familiar faces in my neighborhood, it was clear I wasn’t alone in my feelings. Subsequently, I fell into a new routine and moved on, but I’ll never forget the powerful lesson I took away from it: the people behind a brand or a business directly create the spirit of that brand or 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 attractor. It transcended mere customer service; I was either lured in or pushed away by the collective spirit encompassing whatever space.“Always make sure your energy is irreplaceable.” – @thelaceyjohnson
When one is working to grow their brand, it’s often tempting to hyper-focus on styling, market strategy and online presence. All of these efforts are key pieces to the puzzle, as there are thousands of examples of a new logo or emotionally-charged promotional campaign served to revive a dying brand. Still, staff 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 bleeds over into 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. They will damage mindsets and hinder 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 magazine story. 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 captivated by 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 to my mood each day. It pitched me a feeling I grabbed ahold of and was happy to pour my money into. So, the takeaway here is simple: We must always make sure that our energy is irreplaceable, and that the energy we infuse into our brand is in absolute service of it. Because the energy of the people invited into your venture will either lure the right circumstances in and demand that they stay or drive them away forever.