It’s not easy being a hipster. The whole enterprise is fraught with contradiction. A general disdain for mainstream pop culture is requirement number one, but staying ahead of the trends is a close second. If any obscure thing loved by the hipster finds its way to mass appeal, the hipster either has to disavow that thing entirely, or at least remind people that he was into it “before it was cool.” And now that being a hipster is cool, what’s a first generation skinny jean aficionado to do? How are they supposed to stand out in a sea of people who look just like them? Changing their appearance and taste preferences is out of the question: that’s just another side of the same conformity coin. No, the best thing a hipster can do—and this is what they’re doing—is to wax that moustache up real pretty and become a businessman. Or, trade the Buddy Holly glasses for Cat-Eye frames and become a businesswoman.
One of the most common hipster businesses is the cafe. What better way to express individuality than through food and drink? But starting a cafe isn’t easy, let alone starting one that aims for a demographic predisposed to reject anything that looks like crass consumerism. Fear not, sweet hipsters: I am here to help. You see, I’ve spent the better part of the last few years making fun of you, with your barbershop quartet hats and vintage carry-on luggage that won’t fit in the overhead bin. But I also know firsthand what it’s like to want to do the opposite of whatever the general populace is into. I was contrarian before it was cool. So, I’ve assembled this list of handy tips, sprung from my observations about your charming subculture, that should help you create the next trendy place that nobody goes to anymore.
- As with hospitality business, location is key. But here’s where having the audience you’re looking for helps you out because you definitely don’t want to be right in the middle of everything. There’s nothing hip about opening a coffee shop on a busy street or in a shopping plaza. Plus, it’s spendy to be on a main drag. The hipster cafe should be an out of the way place, preferably in an old industrial building that’s being repurposed for retail space. You’re looking at lower rental costs for the less-than-desirable location, and the space likely already has the kind of aesthetic you’re going for. If you can’t get off the beaten path—maybe you’re in a city where all the paths are well and truly beaten—then try and put yourself as out of the way as possible. Underground locations are ideal in this regard, and you can even go a step further and minimise signage. You want to maintain the air of an exclusive club or a well-kept secret. Kounta-favorite Uncle Ming’s is a great example of this.
- Create a community around your cafe. Despite wearing a protective cloak of ironic detachment from the world around them, hipsters (and millennials in general) are looking for more than a consumer experience when shopping or dining out. Within your space, having one or two large communal tables encourages people to keep their heads out of their devices, and is becoming a pretty popular option for cafes. Another way to foster an inclusive vibe is something like a game night, but choose carefully. Trivia Night has been done a thousand times over. I bet you’d get a huge crowd for something like a Hungry, Hungry Hippos tournament.
- Have some kind of central theme. Mostly, these themes start and end with the food, some kind of specialty of the house, the dish or ingredient that is your bread and butter. If you have a cafe dedicated to toast, for example, your bread and butter would be actual bread and butter. In New South Wales, Bruce Leaves started with the idea of salad and then ran with it. In other cases, the food is, while not exactly secondary, not the theme of the place, either. Atelier de Velo in Sydney is serving up great coffee, but the place is all about bikes. Like, there’s a full-on sales and service bike shop in the cafe. Or there’s a cafe in the full-on sales and service bike shop. Probably both are true, depending on who you ask.
- Tell the stories behind the restaurant that highlight its themes/your passion. Because hipsterism is first defined as a perspective in opposition to the mainstream, doing something square like starting a business almost seems out of character. But everyone’s got something they’re passionate about, and for a hipster cafe that passion is what drove the business in the first place. If you’re brewing single origin coffee one Chemex pot at a time, tell your customers what all that means. Why is it better? Why is it important to you? Getting a little personal on the menu or marketing materials helps customers connect with you, while flashing your knowledge of the food and prep techniques establishes the cafe as a labor of love rather than a business—that and a good meal will breed loyalty.
- Break the rules and be different. Very Different. Some people will love you for it, some will hate you, but when you reject convention in favor of doing your own thing you’ll get very few people will be able to remain indifferent. A great example of this is the UK’s Cereal Killer Cafe. The menu is basically just store bought cereal, poured from the box and served to customers at a premium. You can add toppings and select from a variety of milks, or partake in a “cereal cocktail,” a mixture of different brands paired with just the right extras. Either way, you’re paying more for a bowl of cereal than you would for an entire box at the grocery. People love it so much that a second cafe opened less than a year after the first. People also hate it so much that the cafe was vandalised by an angry mob wearing pig masks and carrying pitchforks. That might sound horrible, but it’s also free publicity for the cost of scrubbing the word “scum” off their windows.