Wash Perk is nestled in the middle of the quiet Washington Park neighborhood, on a corner surrounded by residences. The coffee shop is bustling at nine in the morning on a Wednesday and the clientele is just as diverse as the beverage menu.
Men dressed in business attire gather around a table on the patio with laptops out and game faces on. Inside the modestly sized coffee shop, grandmothers are treating their grandchildren to hot chocolate, and friends sit at tables for two, immersed in conversation.
A barista at Wash Perk.
Two perky baristas stand behind the counter ready to take orders as customers fill out their frequent buyer cards held in two large index card containers in front of the cash register. Teri Meehan, one of the owners of Wash Perk, comes into the coffee shop from the adjoining gift store that the landlord owns. As she approaches the counter, nearly every customer that she passes greets her. And she says hello back to all of them using their first name. “I love names,” she says. Given that Wash Perk has been open a little over a year, and Teri knows nearly all of her customers’ names, it’s quite apparent that she loves her customers.
Meehan’s background is not in coffee. Before she owned the coffee shop, she was an oncology nurse and a massage therapist. She did own a small coffee truck in the early 1990s that she used to sell coffee to people at Washington Park, but she never really considered that experience with coffee. Not like the kind of experience she has had opening and running Wash Perk, which she sort of fell into by accident.
She and her partner, Debbi, live about two blocks from the coffee shop and before they owned it, there were two other coffee businesses in the same commercial space, one after the other, that struggled to get off the ground but never really made it. “I happened to be off work [one day], and we walked by it, and Debbi said, ‘The space had been expanded, and it’s so cute, do you ever think about going back into the coffee business?’”
“I knew that we would need more money than I thought, but I didn’t know the timing of when more money would be needed. That was one of the big lessons [I learned].”
Meehan looked at the space and loved it. She felt that the neighborhood really needed a good coffee shop and a good community, something that they are both very passionate about.
“It just sort of happened from there. It was January second when we looked at it, and it was January fifth that I signed a lease. It wasn’t really a business plan, it was all sort of intuition,” she says.
Meehan is learning as she goes, and she has been fortunate enough to find good mentors in two men that own a local roasting company and coffee shop, both called Kaladi Brothers. The pair have helped her with many areas of the business, from selecting the perfect espresso machine to helping train her baristas properly on all the aspects of making coffee.
Brightly colored cups and bowls.
Meehan says she wishes she had learned a little bit more about the finances up front instead of learning them as she goes. “I knew, having had other businesses before, it’s always more than you think initially. So, I knew that we would need more money than I thought, but I didn’t know the timing of when more money would be needed. That was one of the big lessons [I learned]. It’s not so much that you need it all up front, it’s that you need it as you grow.”
She also wishes that she had not decided to lease her equipment, as she did for several of the larger pieces of equipment. The amount of money needed to purchase the products up from was quite hefty, but looking back on it now, Meehan says she would have preferred to purchase the equipment because now she is stuck paying extra every month for the lease terms.
Another large lesson Meehan has learned is the importance of a great staff and proper training. “Right now, I feel like we have the best group that we’ve ever had. I think that there are a lot of illusions about what it’s like to make coffee, and it’s more than being a good barista and making good drinks. It’s making good drinks and providing a comfortable, clean environment. It’s taking care of things ahead of time so we can always be up for the next rush.”
At Wash Perk, they try to hire baristas that have experience working in other coffee shops because they are a small but busy start up, and they don’t necessarily have the time or capacity to train new employees on how to make every single type of coffee drink. “If they’ve had no experience, it’s a much harder learning curve. It’s hard on the business because then you have drinks that aren’t optimal. I would say right now that I lean towards hiring someone who has barista experience.”
“There are a lot of illusions about what it’s like to make coffee, and it’s more than being a good barista and making good drinks. It’s making good drinks and providing a comfortable, clean environment.”
Meehan has become quite popular in her neighborhood and she attributes a lot of her success to the patronage of folks from around the area. However, she has gained a lot of new clientele from areas further away due to a unique practice that she and Debbie have. “We allow a lot of community groups to use our space at night. So they just use the space for free and they bring in people from all over. All of a sudden we were getting people from all over that had heard of us. It wasn’t intended on being marketing. It’s great to have energy in this space all the time, especially when it’s good stuff."
A stand of snacks to sell with coffee.
Meehan has placed ads in the neighborhood paper, but she says the most surprising result was a direct mailer that is sent out to the surrounding area. “That almost always brings in new people,” she says.
When asked what sort of advice she would give to someone considering starting up a coffee shop, Meehan replies, “I would say make sure you work with people that you love. Don’t just go for coffee that is cheap; don’t just go for machines that can be given to you for free. I believe that you have to love the whole package: the roasters, the coffee, and the people. Then the passion just comes out, nothing is forced.”
While Meehan hopes to get back to some of the outdoor hobbies she had before she opened Wash Perk, she knows that the store is still in its infancy and needs her guidance before she can really let it grow and thrive on its own. But with the mentoring from some knowledgeable colleagues and the passion that she has for the shop, it won’t be long before Wash Perk starts thriving the way that Teri Meehan would like it to.