For the nine decades between 1899, when the first Adventist health food store and café opened in Maitland NSW, and the late 1980s when our stores across the land had all but sold their last Rediburger patty, Adventist cafés were often popular and profitable. They were a front-line ministry where people received hope and healing, but as we moved towards the twenty-first century, enthusiasm waned and most cafés were closed.
Now that healthy lifestyles, vegan menus and plant-based diets are as mainstream as smashed avo on toast, many church members are asking whether there might be an opportunity to revitalize this proven outreach method.
Two progressive leaders who have put their energies into this health-centred field of relationship evangelism, and also happen to be accomplished chefs and business operators, are Jeremy Dixon of Revive Cafés in New Zealand and Bryce Wegener of Manna Haven Café in Byron Bay.
Julian Archer recently spoke with both men in an attempt to glean some of their hard-won wisdom and to better understand the essentials of their café success. Here’s what he discovered:
Track Record: From anecdotal evidence, more than 95% of Adventist church-run retail health food outlets survive less than five years. It’s a sad reality, caused by a multitude of reasons, but it doesn’t need to be that way.
Simplify Simplify: Cafés and restaurants are a complicated business model. The hours are tricky, nearly all the produce has a short shelf life, there’s lots of competition, staff can be difficult and consumers can be fickle. All these things highlight that absolute simplicity is essential. Simple recipes. Simple menu. Simple staffing system.
Crawl B4U Walk: Consider starting simply with a juice bar, smoothie bar, baked potato stand or salad bar to test your systems and your team. Try your recipes and systems in a small way at Sunday markets or in pop-up-café locations where you don’t need to make a huge investment right up front.
Feast of Flavour: All food and drinks sold must be outstandingly tasty, affordable, and look incredible. Having a simple but attractive variety of savouries, sweets and drinks is also essential. Check out Jeremy’s (revive.co.nz) and Bryce’s (mannahaven.com.au) websites to get an idea of the high standard required.
Bright is Beautiful: Auntie Mabel’s flat, brown gluten steaks just aren’t the foundation of a sustainable café this side of Y2K. Again, check out the websites above to see the importance of colour and presentation—and remember that bright colour is often an indicator of health-giving nutrients too.
Save the Planet: Gone are the days when vegan burgers could be sold in plastic packaging. All aspects of your café must be environmentally friendly, from your light bulbs to your recycling bins. You’ll be amazed at the quirky environmental causes that your customers support so do your research and show them that you love the planet too.
Costly Caffeine: It’s no secret that cafés make serious profits from coffee and alcohol. Not selling coffee, alcohol, soft drinks and meat are potential ‘weaknesses’ from a purely business perspective. You’ll need to get creative and turn your weaknesses into strengths.
Sabbath Sales: Friday nights and Saturdays are a big deal for restaurants and cafés. Be prepared to step out in faith and find ways to use your ‘Closed Saturdays’ sign as a witnessing tool. Let your customers know that your team believes deeply in giving yourselves and the planet a rest one day each week.
Location Location: The location of your café or juice bar must be a shop front in an ‘eat street’ area with very high foot traffic. Do not compromise on this. If your building isn’t on a main street in the middle of the retail stores and other cafés then lease a location that is.
Great Commission: Running a healthy café can make you feel like you’re doing great things for Jesus. But remember, Jesus didn’t just commission us to “Go and sell healthy meals to people.” The café must be a mission-focused centre of spiritual influence where seekers can receive spiritual healing too.
Profit Priority: Yes, reaching souls is your number one priority but if the café doesn’t cover its costs then it will join many other failed food outlets and it won’t have any witness at all. It must be run as a for-profit business for the business and ministry to be sustainable. No business = no ministry. Make the business work.
Relationships Rule: Be open about the faith-based roots of the café but clients mustn’t feel like you’re trying to convert them with every mouthful. Have very carefully selected literature available, for free or for sale, and spiritual quotes on the walls, but remember that it’s 100% about personal relationships. Structure your staff workload and systems to allow them time to mingle with the customers and build relationships.
It’s a Heart Thing: The most difficult challenge will be finding and keeping experienced, efficient, super-friendly, mission-minded staff who love Jesus and all people. Prayerfully create a small, dedicated, spiritual team and do all you can to keep them long term.
Too Few Cooks: Finding and keeping an experienced Adventist chef with solid business and people management skills is essential, but can be very difficult. One place trying to do something about this lack is VegChef near Stockholm, Sweden. (vegchef.se)
Paid or Voluntary?: Pay all in-house staff and wherever possible find mission-minded competent volunteers to manage the website and social media, marketing and PR, book keeping and other roles that aren’t necessarily in-house. If you can pay everyone, fantastic, but that may take some time to achieve.
Jump Start: Start with at least two months’ wages in reserve and enough key ingredients in stock for several weeks. It will take time for your shop to be known and the first months can be very lean.
Lunch Rules: The simplest meal of the day to staff, prepare and sell in a retail café is lunch. And remember, you won’t be selling coffee so don’t open for breakfast unless you plan to make the best acai bowls and breakfast smoothies on the planet.
Reality Bites: Running a successful café is hard, constant, tiring work. Don’t think that it’s just a lot of fun cooking with friends. Yes, it certainly can be fun but it’s also paperwork, ordering, cleaning, mediation, certification and more.
Team Works: At the end of the day, the most important factor of success is your team. Prayerfully and carefully select people who are loving and loveable. People who love people. You’re running a healthy, vibrant, caring café and your staff must be a full reflection of all three.
Having been very open about all of the above hard realities, healthy cafés are still one of the best ways to meet people in order to serve their physical, relational and spiritual needs and to lead them to fullness of life in Christ.
Thank you Jeremy and Bryce for being so open and generous with your wisdom and experience. We wish you all the best as you run sustainable, outreach-focused businesses for the kingdom—may your cafés continue to be award-winning and soul-winning.
If you would like to take this conversation further please contact the NNSW Conference Project Manager Julian Archer at firstname.lastname@example.org