The Communal Approach: San Diego Shop Owner Shares Lessons Learned

From day one, Communal Coffee in San Diego has been busy. Owner Jen Byard shares her tips for success and how she built a high-volume cafe.

Photos courtesy of Communal Coffee

In May 2016, San Diego cafe Communal Coffee—located in the North Park neighborhood—opened its doors to the outcome most cafe owners dream of: instant success. Eager customers formed block-long lines at the cafe from day one, giving the shop the fortunate challenge of needing to immediately adapt to high volume.

Communal Coffee has been busy since day one, with a line out the door on opening day.

For Communal Coffee owner Jen Byard, achieving this ideal scenario did not happen by accident. Jen has had a diverse career in which she has accrued management experience in the nonprofit and arts communities; for Communal, she drew on her past to assemble a successful business. “I feel like this shop is the culmination of all the things I’ve learned out of all the different jobs I’ve done,” Jen says.

Here Jen shares some of the key lessons from her past—as well as a few tips she has picked up at the shop so far—that she thinks are crucial to Communal’s success and may be of interest to the greater specialty-coffee community.

Jen says the bar seats at Communal Coffee are among the most coveted spots in the cafe.

Locate for success

San Diego’s specialty-coffee culture is thriving, which made it clear to Jen that the city could support another cafe. “Coffee in the last five years in San Diego has really taken off,” she says. “We went from having maybe 10 good options to over 40.” What Jen feared, however, was over-saturation in the coffee market—and so she decided to take a risk on a more undeveloped area of town on the outskirts of the North Park neighborhood. “We’re between North Park, where all the coffee and restaurants are, and Hillcrest, which is another restaurant community,” Jen says. “There’s this one-mile stretch there that has nothing really, so we chose to go in at a major intersection in that part of town.” While it may have been a risk to open there, the gamble has paid off in grand fashion: Not only has the shop been busy, but it has helped to revitalize the neighborhood. “These neighbors didn’t really have anything to walk to,” Jen says, “so they were ready for us. “It’s been really exciting to be able to contribute in that way.”

The growth of specialty coffee in San Diego along with the right neighborhood helped Communal become a destination for residents.

Build anticipation

A few months before opening, Communal Coffee faced the difficult experience of being mired in bureaucracy, waiting for city permits that prohibited them from continuing their build-out. Rather than wallowing in frustration, Jen and her team created a marketing opportunity out of the delay. She commissioned an artist to paint a large “Coffee + Flowers” sign on the outside of the building to tease the arrival of Communal Coffee. “That wall really created a buzz in the neighborhood,” Jen says. “People were so excited to have coffee in the area, so having that sign built the excitement, and then they were ready for us when we opened.”

Before they opened, Communal’s “Coffee + Flowers” sign helped build anticipation.

Create something unique

Because of San Diego’s glut of cafes, Jen knew she wanted to do something different to help her cafe stand out in the marketplace. She achieved that differentiation by co-locating with Native Poppy, a “floral studio” that approaches flower arrangements with a craft not dissimilar to making specialty-coffee beverages. “I wanted something that was unique and fresh and not being done already around here,” Jen says. “And it’s a very welcoming aspect of the shop—flowers help create a beautiful atmosphere that I think has been a huge part of our success.”

Communal shares its space with Native Poppy, a floral studio, which brings news customers in and creates a beautiful, light space.

Make dazzling visuals

Another way Communal Coffee drove anticipation before opening was through social media, where Jen gradually cultivated a devoted following. Perhaps the most vital channel to Communal’s social-media success has been Instagram, where Jen has been able to draw on her artistic background to post stylish photos of Communal’s chic interior. Jen says this is no accident: She wants the shop to be represented properly, and so she invests in artists who can help her achieve that goal. “One of the places I’m willing to spend a lot of money is on photography, and that’s why it looks so nice,” she says. “I have different photographers come in, at least one a month. There’s an agreed-upon price, they shoot for an hour or two, and then they give me 50 to 60 pictures that I can use. I just spread those out to try to create this vibrant Instagram feed.”

Jen brings in photographers to take beautiful pictures of the cafe to use for Communal’s Instagram account.

Hire the right people

Staffing her shop is another place where Jen was able to draw on her past work experiences. “Having some HR experience and some team-building experience was really helpful on the hiring end,” she says. Jen says she read that baristas typically stay with a shop for an average of six months; at Communal, almost the entire opening staff is still intact, nearly one year in. “We’ve been able to build a community here, and that’s been key to our shop being successful,” she says. “Our staff is strong not just in their skills, but in how they treat each other and have each other’s back.”

The staff at Communal feel supported and happy to be at work—most have been around since the shop’s opening last May.

Find the right partners

Jen says she shopped around to find the right roaster partner for Communal Coffee, traveling through Seattle (which happens to be her hometown), Portland, Ore., and San Francisco. It was this last town where she found her eventual roaster, Sightglass Coffee, which dazzled her with its quality and customer service. It turns out this partnership has had the added benefit of making Communal a destination for San Francisco ex-pats. “There are a ton of people from the Bay Area who live here,” she says. “We’re Sightglass’ first and so far only wholesale client down here; people sometimes drive all the way across town to get it.”

Communal works with Sightglass Coffee based in San Francisco, and were the first wholesale account of theirs in San Diego.

Ask for help

Finally, Communal has found success in part because Jen and her team aren’t afraid to ask for help. While the San Diego community’s immediate patronage of the shop was a good thing, Jen found that there was room for improvement in dealing with the steady stream of customers. “I got to the point where I felt like we weren’t handling our volume in the best way that we could, and I didn’t know how to fix that problem,” she says. “And so I hired a coffee consultant to come in a couple days a week to help us improve our speed and quality.” Since then, Jen reports, the issues have been mitigated and the shop is humming along nicely. For Communal Coffee, it has been another lesson learned in an auspicious start for the business.

About Chris Ryan 261 Articles
Chris Ryan (he/him) is Barista Magazine's online copy editor and a freelance writer and editor with a background in the specialty coffee industry. He has been content director of Sustainable Harvest and the editor of Fresh Cup Magazine.