Peter Godhard, Owner of Merriweather Coffee + Kitchen
Stop + Start is New Library's interview series on people who quit one career to go in a completely opposite direction. How'd they do it? What steps did they take to prepare for the big pivot? Let's explore....
Interview & Photos by Nick West
While most career transitions and pivots have an inherent risk-factor built in, there's usually some implied knowledge, or level of domain expertise that a person utilizes in order to hedge that risk. Like when someone starts their own design consultancy after having been a designer at a top firm for the past decade. They've built a framework for bringing on new clients, their network is usually strong, and their name already has a certain level of cachet in said industry.
These are logical jumps. Peter Godhard of Merriweather Coffee + Kitchen's career transition is not one of those jumps.
As a securities attorney at a top 10 law firm in NYC, Peter up and quit to learn the coffee business, aspiring to launch his own Australian-vibed out cafe in NYC with his wife, a designer, as his creative partner.
In understanding how deep a passion must be to jump into the sharky waters of New York City hospitality, here are some fun facts:
2014: 162 Restaurants Opened, 80 Closed (Food Republic)
2015: 119 Opened, 53 Closed (Food Republic)
70% of Restaurants that make it past their first year, close within 3-5 years (AZ Central)
Expected profit margins for a restaurant hover at around 10% (NYTimes)
Rather than displaying a feat of hubris by immediately searching for his dream cafe location and quickly becoming a statistic, he started from the bottom, nabbing a job as a barista at Blue Bottle Coffee to learn the nuts and bolts of running and leading a coffee shop & restaurant.
Fast-foward two plus years after the start of his time at Blue Bottle and he's now the owner of a line-out-the-door cafe that has become a neighborhood hub in the West Village, frequented by laptop wielding entrepreneurs, busy parents, and the frequent major celebrity.
We spoke to Peter about it what it took to go from buttoned up lawyer, to cafe entrepreneur....
Practicing as an attorney is seen as a long-term, stable career path. How early on in your career did you know you wanted to start your own business, and what was the final thought you had or motivator that eventually helped you make the jump into learning the coffee business?
The idea of starting my own business was more of a slow transformation. Starting as a lawyer in a large corporate law firm was initially just so intense and such a steep learning curve that it took me a few years to really understand the way the corporate world worked and what a lawyer's role was within these massive transactions I was involved in. I was a securities attorney at a top 10 New York firm, working on huge bond and stock offerings for large corporates. Eventually when I felt I had enough experience to really understand what life as a high end corporate service provider was like, I knew being a service provider was not the right fit for my personality. The unpredictable and intense hours, the huge amounts of technical reading and writing and the long hours in an office by myself were not things I was willing to do for another 40 years. Not only did I think the work I was doing was insanely complicated and dry paper pushing, but it felt like I was doing all the heavy lifting to execute on other people's dreams. Once I figured out than any corporate legal role would put me in that same position, I really felt like the only way I could be happy was to get out of law entirely and start my own business. And for me, coffee and cafes were my real passion, and I had a lot of friends who were unbelievably encouraging and helpful to push me in that direction.
The thing that really pushed me over the line to do a career change was seeing other lawyers who had successfully made the transition out of law into the food and bev industry, and also having friends in the cafe/bar industry who were a huge success. One of my good friends owns Mothers Ruin in Nolita, and he had really made a great lifestyle and business out of that one bar. Also another Australian lawyer in New York
How, if at all did your background as a lawyer help in turning your dream into a reality?
It helped with a few things. As a lawyer I carry with me some general skills such as what professionalism really means, what can be achieved if you really push yourself and how to drive process. From a more practical point of view, it was helpful in saving me some legal costs on negotiating the lease and setting up contracts with all the vendors, contractors and my employees. And the legal training makes me think through potential consequences and risks more than the average food and beverage entrepreneur, which I think has also played to my advantage when setting up the business. But now the business is up and running, I would say I rarely use any of the skills I learned during all of those years as a lawyer!
Do you think your time at Blue Bottle was vital to your current success, or if you could do it again, would you have gone straight from the legal world into opening your own shop?
Although occasionally people try, I can't see how anyone could go straight from being a lawyer to running a successful cafe or restaurant. I guess there are two ways to create a business like mine: (i) become an expert in the field by putting your time in and learning the entire business or (ii) finding and paying an expert in the field and create the business with them and trust their advice and follow their leadership. That second option was not appealing to me because I wanted to really run the business myself, and be hands on with every decision, so gaining a lot of experience with Blue Bottle was vital. I didn't want to just be the guy who put up the capital but didn't really have the experience to justify making the decisions that need to be made. Cafes and restaurants are exceptionally difficult and competitive businesses to run, so my view is there needs to be a leader behind the business who understands every aspect of it, and that can only be gained by putting the time in.
For aspiring entrepreneurs, would you recommend first taking this "apprentice-like" approach before starting a new venture?
I think it depends on the type of business. But for cafes and restaurants, I think it is absolutely necessary to gain some real industry experience, otherwise you would have to effectively outsource your business to someone who does have those real industry chops.
What was the biggest obstacle or challenge that you didn't foresee while opening the business?
I think coming from a corporate law background, you are used to people working at all hours to be as quick and responsive as possible. But in the Manhattan real estate and construction industry, as a small start up business you are the last priority for everyone, so it is common not to hear back from people for weeks at a time even if you pester them each day. So the main obstacle for me was realizing how much of the process to open a cafe in New York is out of my control. You may be paying rent so under a huge amount of time pressure, but people just won't hustle for you like they do when you are working on big corporate deals, no matter how responsive, persistent and efficient you are.
Outside of simply having great coffee and food, how important is creating a good experience (the design, the music, your employees) for your patrons?
For cafes, as opposed to bars or even restaurants, I think interior design is hugely important. Cafes have become places for people to have a sense of community, to work out of and socialize in, and in a small way your cafe can represent who you are or who you aspire to be. So creating a space with a clear vision can really be key to a cafe's success.
What design or experience principles were you focused on ensuring you brought to the Merriweather customer?
I wanted to bring a modern and trendy vibe to a part of the West Village which really only had old bars and fancy restaurants. We looked at cafe designs from across the world (via pinterest!) to come up with a clear vision. We wanted to incorporate the modern beachy vibes of Australia where I am from, so took a lot of inspiration from cafe design in Sydney too.
If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice from the lessons you've acquired while opening and running Merriweather, with the intention of saving yourself mistakes, what would it be?
Well, in hindsight I wish I could tell myself to trust my decisions more because it will all work out! Doing one of these businesses for the first time without a partner is so nerve racking as you really are flying blind during the process. So there were just so many unnecessary sleepless nights. I wish I could tell myself to trust that I could pull it off and to relax a little more and enjoy it!
For someone also looking to "stop & start" in their career, what would be one piece of advice for making the transition and eventually starting their own business?
The key to my success (so far) during this career change is that I really did my diligence and put in the time to make my new career work. I gave myself the time after leaving law to crystalize a vision for this business and really think through the details. I worked in the industry, spoke to lots of entrepreneurs in the cafe space, read all the industry blogs and attended trade shows, and I grew my network across all aspects of the industry including owners, baristas, roasters, chefs, designers, vendors and contractors. For lots of reasons, including obviously financially, that was not easy to take that time, but for me that was essential to having a successful cafe on my first attempt.
Major thank you to Pete for somehow finding the time to thoughtfully answer our questions while continuing to run Merriweather like a well-oiled machine.