In Singapore and Taiwan, restaurants and cafes find it hard to hire young staff. But a Taiwanese cafe owner is able to buck the trend.
Long working hours, lack of prospects, and low pay are common reasons why people shun working in the food and beverage industry.
Matt Chen, 35, the owner of Great Start Breakfast Cafe (好初早餐) chain in Taipei, has no problem attracting the millenials to work for him.
He has over 30 staff at two breakfast cafes and a dessert cafe. Most of them are in their early 20s.
His first cafe was started six years ago, and three staff have been working at the cafe for over four years. Many of his staff started out as part-timer before turning full-time.
How was Matt able to attract young people to work for him? How did he keep them motivated?
I sat down with Matt at his hipster-themed cafe earlier this year to find out.
I got to know about his cafe when China’s Got Talent show finalist Yoyo Yang and his wife brought Charmaine and I there for breakfast.
It was full-house despite the early morning hours. Not surprising as the cafe served a unique, delectable mix of western burgers and toasts with traditional Taiwanese dishes.
Matt started the cafe by chance.
After graduating from Tam Kang University with a transportation management degree, Matt chose to work as an interior designer. All was well until recession hit his company hard in 2008.
He told his boss: “There’s hardly any business for the company, and it’s going to cost you money to keep me. Tell you what, I’ll go for a working holiday in Australia.”
Off he went to Australia to join his girlfriend, now wife. In the midst of travelling, he had a brain wave — why not start a breakfast cafe in Taiwan?
There were numerous breakfast eateries in Taiwan, but most if not all serve standard fares like bacon and egg toast, and ham and cheese toast.
“I have been eating the same old stuffs for the last 20 or 30 years. Nothing wrong but I felt that I could offer something different,” he said.
“What I saw in Australia was an eye opener, people were having a wide variety of food for breakfast. Why should Taiwanese keep eating the same old stuffs?”
The couple returned to Taiwan in 2009, and began studying recipe books and trying out breakfast at various eateries and cafes.
After half a year of experimentation, they came up with a winning menu that combined flavours from the east and the west. For example, western burger with stir fried salted pork (a Hakka dish).
“We asked ourselves what are the familiar Taiwan tastes that we have never had for breakfast? Can we infuse local Taiwan flavours into western burgers and toasts?”
Creating the recipes and starting the cafe were not difficult for Matt. His greatest challenge was managing people.
“Learning to work with your team, empowering them to work together happily and having the same vision — this is the greatest challenge,” he said.
He recalled an unpleasant incident that took place in the early years.
“My staff had free breakfast meal as part of their welfare but there was this guy who ordered a cup of latte and a dish that was difficult to prepare on a busy, public holiday.
“We were all swarmed with orders from the customers and yet he wanted me to prepare a latte for him? Couldn’t he have some common sense to have something simpler on a busy day?
“I learnt an important lesson here: The best way to work with new staff who has a different mindset, is to come up with a set of standard operating procedures.
“Nowadays I tell my staff to have breakfast outside before coming for work during busy period.”
From then on, Matt began putting in efforts to create a conducive working environment.
“I don’t just want to build a great cafe; I spend a lot of time thinking of how to enable my staff to enjoy their work and hang out as good friends,” he said.
“Working in the food and beverage industry is tough and harsh but all of us want to be happy in our work, to be friends with one another.”
Eight initiatives that Matt carried out to create a conducive working environment:
1. Set up a lounge for staff
I run my cafe like a club or society. I set up a lounge in the building down the street so that my staff can hang out after work to play games, have dinner together, and hold movie screenings.
2. Set sustainable revenue target, don’t make staff overwork
I have a breakeven target and profit target every month. I aim to hit the profit target each month, but what I’m chasing is not the highest possible target. Instead I am looking for ‘healthy target’.
There was a period of time where business was so good that it’s painful for me. We were so busy and unhappy because there were simply too many customers. Each customer had to wait up to three hours.
We were not happy and customers were not happy. There were no winners here. That’s why having a healthy profit target is the best.
3. Support their dreams
Many of my staff, especially the part-timers, came to work here while they think about what to do in the next stage of their lives. I help to support their dreams.
One of my staff take really great photographs so I provided some money for her to print her work and hold an exhibition in the cafe.
Another fellow just drew a portrait for our customer in the cafe. Why not? He’s good at it and our customer appreciates the fun.
I have all sorts of people here: teacher, actor, guitarist and drummer. One was a dancer with Cloudgate Dance theatre, a premier dance group in Taiwan.
4. Empower staff to take on responsibilities and have fun
Every Thursday is ‘prank’ day, we play pranks on our customers. On special occasions like April’s Fool Day or Christmas, we plan for special activities.
Last year’s April Fools’ day, Matt’s staff installed a fake ‘door opening’ button at the entrance door to fool the customers.
Fergie Lian, the lead organiser, recalled: “We spent the whole day watching our customers foolishly pressing the button. We had fun laughing, and wished them Happy April Fools’ Day!”
“We enjoy working here as it’s fun. Matt is just like our friend, a playful, mischievous person,” added the 27-year-old.
The staff discuss among themselves, plan and delegate duties. After each event, they conduct an evaluation, and document the SOPs as well as suggestions for improvement. Staff can refer to past years’ reports to find out what was done last year. That’s how we do better and better each year.
5. Create a genuine friendly culture
In our cafes, we don’t believe in greeting customers, ‘Welcome!’ or ‘Thank you for coming!’ Why? Because these are not what you would normally say to your friends, right? You’d instead say, ‘Hey, hi!’ or ‘Hey, good morning!’ This should be the right way to treat your customers, to welcome them as real friends.
A breakfast cafe is the first place that people go after they wake up, and before they head off for work. We want to cheer them on so they can start their day well with positivity and energy. If your staff agree with this vision, their service will naturally shine. It’s not some ‘fake’ greetings that your boss orders you to say to your customers.
6. Conduct training for professional or personal development
We hold meetings and sharing sessions in the lounge. For example, if a staff wishes to learn about interior design, I can give a talk to share my experience on how to upgrade yourself in this field. I didn’t have an interior design degree, I studied at night classes. If any staff aspire to work in the cafe management team, I can also conduct training for them.
I’m also thinking of inviting my fashion designer friend to teach the guys how to dress up, how to wear a tie, and more. We put in a lot of work in talking to our staff, find out what they like to do outside of work. They can share about any topics of interests like comics.
The management team also holds a book-sharing session every month on topics related to the industry or management. For example, public speaking. Each person takes about ten minutes to share the key lessons from a book.
7. Instil sense of pride
Over time, our staff realise that this is a special cafe as we’re pretty famous here in New Taipei City. When they tell people that they work here, people would go, ‘Wow! You work at Great Start Breakfast Cafe!’ and not ‘Oh, you’re just working in a cafe’. They feel a sense of pride because this is not an ordinary cafe, and they proudly share on Facebook the crazy and fun stuffs we do together.
8. Pay above market average salary and set big goals
For salary, I pay slightly above the industry average… I never shortchange my staff. We have two breakfast cafes and a dessert cafe now, and we have been thinking about our next step of growth so that our staff will not feel that there is no prospect working for me.
Amazed by Matt’s experience and maturity, and how he balanced play with serious work, I was curious about where and how he learnt all these skills.
Me: Where did you learn how to manage a team?
Matt: I read a lot. Management books on Zappos, Google and Amazon for example. I like the management style in Google and Zappos.
Zappos have a strong and fun culture. Likewise, for our cafe, we have a playful, almost nonsensical culture with a touch of Taiwanese flavour. We do good and have fun. For instance, we have been helping with the neighbourhood cat sterilisation efforts. We design and sell postcards to raise fund for the efforts.
Me: What’s your daily routine?
Matt: I visit each of the three cafes once daily, about half to one hour. I look out for what can be improved. I also conduct monthly meeting with each cafe manager, find out how’s the business and revenue, and set targets for the following month.
We also brainstorm for ways to further improve our service. For example, what’s the best way to lay out the seats and tables so that we maximise our cafe space? How can we minimise the waiting time for our customers? I also personally handle the interior design and other miscellaneous matters.
Each cafe manager also conducts a meeting with their staff once every month. I would be joining in for today’s session as the cafe manager is new. I want to support him, give him a bit of pressure. You know, your boss is here, you better do a thorough preparation. Later tonight, they will gather at our lounge for dinner. We provide funds for dinner gathering each month.
Me: Any advice for people who wants to start their own cafe?
Matt: They have to know ‘numbers’, understand basic accounting. Young people have no lack of dreams or passion, but what they are lacking are the practical stuffs. They don’t know about accounting or the concept of break-even. This is dangerous. You can have dreams but you need to be pragmatic in order to get there. Do you have a good plan? What do you need to do everyday?
Me: What’s your ultimate goal for the cafe?
Matt: It might sound philosophical but I feel that if a person is able to create happiness for two people, it’s a life well-lived. At least, I have been able to create a better life for my wife and my daughter. If I were to look at it from a larger perspective, if I can bring happiness to more people, to more customers, I believe my time in this world is not wasted.
In the near term, I would like to build a bigger team. There are many young people in Taiwan with unique abilities. I want them to know that you can do fun stuffs and make a decent living at the same time. You don’t have to go into insurance or real estate line.
For example, I have a waiter who just drew a caricature painting for a customer… I don’t want you to feel that if you do what you like, you have to take on a low-paying job that you don’t like. Perhaps you can do some fun projects, and we will support you, and you can have a decent living. So we want to do more fun stuffs here, not necessarily within the cafe, perhaps we can open a new outlet, or a comic store, or even hold an expo.
I respect Matt’s brand of leadership. After hearing from him, I feel that being a manager, supervisor or a leader is one of the best jobs around if you want to make an impact in the lives of people. If your staff is happy at work, they can bring their happiness back home at the end of the day. Their families share their joy as they tell their stories of the good things that happened at work.
In contrast, if the boss sets a bad example, or allows office politics and back-stabbing culture to take root, the staff would be mentally tired at the of each workday. They subconsciously bring their anger and pessimism back home, which would affect their family life. Imagine an angry working mother lashing out at her husband or children after a bad day at work.
If you are a CEO, boss, manager, or supervisor, you know what to do after reading this article, right? But whether you are in a leadership position or not, you have the ability to create happiness for the people around you. Start by making a difference to your workplace buddy.
This feature is part of a collaboration with CharmaineWu.com photography. Titled For the Love of It, the project was conceived to inspire a generation of dreamers to act boldly. Through stories of individuals who are wildly successful in pursuing their passion for a living, Charmaine and I hope to inspire more people to dream big and be bold in pursuing their goals.
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