Jo Black is the founder of cafe and Aussie coffee spot, Boundless Plains Espresso. A former lawyer who chose to pursue her love of food, Jo shares what it’s been like to found a business in a male dominated field, the importance of having a mentor, and how to stay true to your dream, even when it gets tough.
Tell us about your business?
Boundless Plains Espresso is an Australian inspired cafe located on Rector Street in the Financial District (FiDi). Our focus is on providing superior quality espresso, delicious and nutritious Australian café style food, all delivered with a smile. FiDi has its fair share of mediocre chain coffee shops, and we really wanted to provide something different. A less transactional-based approach, where customers could come for a chat, a great cup of coffee and delicious, healthy food. In particular, we identified that the area south of the World Trade Center was a really under-serviced part of the city, still undergoing a lot of regeneration since 9/11, and a place where a business like ours could really make a difference in terms of building a neighborhood spot. We love our regular customers and becoming part of their daily routine.
What inspired you to begin?
My husband and I relocated to New York two years ago when he was was offered an opportunity to work in the New York office of his law firm, and we decided that we couldn’t say no. I’m also a lawyer, and my husband sat and passed the New York bar exam last year and, to be honest, the thought of me doing that with two young kids and then starting a new job at a New York law firm wasn’t what we wanted for our family. We’re very involved in our children’s lives and I didn’t want to miss out on the special moments working 14-hour days at someone else’s business.
I had always wanted to do something to use my business skills first hand, and we certainly recognized the lack of decent, community-based and “local” coffee shops in New York, and that there was a definite market for what we wanted to create, especially in FiDi. So, we took the plunge and started to search for spaces.
I also noticed that even though there are numerous examples of Australian coffee shops in New York, very few are run by Australian women. Coffee and hospitality more generally tends to be a male-dominated business and, although that is changing, I really wanted to make a mark as a female entrepreneur. I believe it’s important to set an example for your children about working hard and creating something. Our daughter is certainly proud of her mum’s work and loves to visit the shop and drink endless babycinos!
What has been an ‘Ah Ha’ or ‘I’ve made it in the USA moment’?
I’m still waiting for this one! We’re approaching our one-year anniversary and even though all signs are positive, every day there is a new (and at times very frustrating!) challenge. I’ve learnt so much along the way, especially how to adapt and respond to the crazy and unique challenges of owning this type of business in New York throws at you.
I will say though, that recently I have had some really nice comments from customers about how we have become a real community spot, and have become a really positive place and influence in their lives, which is incredibly rewarding and exactly what we set out to achieve.
What have been the hardest lessons in starting a business?
The hardest lesson has been that, despite my organization, research and implementation skills – and best laid plans – there will always be surprises, delays and setbacks at every turn with a venture like this. In anticipation of opening the business I did so much research and tried to plan for every possible circumstance, and I guess the hardest lesson has been that no matter how much you plan and how much research you do, most of the time you just need to roll with it and adapt.
Where have you been most successful in marketing your business?
Social media is definitely a huge tool these days, but in the early days I think it’s so important to focus on the people immediately surrounding your business and letting them know that you are there, especially when you’re trying to build a community and local spot. One of the reasons I chose our location was because it has a lot of apartment buildings and office buildings around it, and the most successful marketing strategy for me so far has been to get to know their doormen and then offer to do an event in their lobby, with samples of our coffee and food. This gives the residents and tenants an opportunity to both taste what we offer and also to meet me and my staff, which is such an important part of what we are building here. After each of these events I have seen a spike in trade, and we have met and built so many regulars from these events. They then tell their friends and colleagues and hopefully it builds from there.
Do you have any mentors, and how have people been with sharing information and their networks?
Peter Godhard from Merriweather Coffee + Kitchen in the West Village was an enormous help to me when we were opening the shop. Merriweather was my own local cafe and I think he’s done a great job in building that “local spot”, which is what I wanted to do (albeit in a very different neighborhood). Peter answered all my naive and inane questions about equipment, suppliers and staffing, and even allowed me to measure his coffee bar and shop so I could get a real feel for how our space would play out in real life.
What advice would you give someone thinking about starting a business?
Do your research, keep organized and follow-up, follow-up, follow-up! I was like a dog with a bone at every stage of the process prior to opening, and it’s still a lot to keep on top of, even after you open the doors.
It’s also important to set realistic expectations in terms of timing, and to be patient. It took over a year from me seeing the space at Rector Street (which, ironically, was formerly an attorney’s office) to opening the store, but it was worth it and I’m so happy we persevered with the space as the reception from locals has been great.
Lastly, be hands on and treat your team well. In a small business it’s important that you are prepared to do everything in the business, just in case! I know how to make everything on our food menu and love working in the kitchen to create food for our customers. It’s also so important to find a team of people who believe in the project, and treating them well will keep everyone happy, motivated and loyal and allow you to attend to all the little surprises along the way.
Other than yourself, what piece of Australia have you put into your business?
Building a beautiful space was really important to me, and I spent a lot of time thinking about the type of environment and feel I wanted to create. I really wanted to incorporate something unique and personalized, so I commissioned Melbourne artist Caroline Bournon to paint a series of three abstract paintings incorporating the colors we used in our cafe interior (pictured below). Caroline was amazing to work with and her paintings hang above our banquette seating and bring a softness and femininity to the cafe which I absolutely adore, as do our customers. I am also so happy to support Caroline as a female artist and small business owner.
What is next for your business?
Now that we’ve been open almost one year, I’m increasingly focusing on marketing, particularly through social media, and starting to venture into catering and events. I even catered an AWNY event earlier this year with Male Champions for Change. It’s a very competitive market but I do feel like we have created a unique product and experience which our customers value. So it’s onwards and upwards from here!
Tarley has been an AWNY volunteer since 2012. She is award-winning marketer from Sydney (with stops in Brisbane and Rockhampton), who moved to New York after meeting her husband in a typical New York chance encounter. She also blogs at www.tarleyjordan.com
View all posts by Tarley Jordan