Musette Caffe: Building a Branded Community

By Bruce Nickson

Defining Success: It’s About the Vision

When we think of success in business and especially in marketing, we usually celebrate scale. Big marketing equals big success. Especially in the current time of the Super Bowl and the Olympics. Big spend equals big results. And then there’s the rest of us.

Successful business people and marketers come in many flavours. Some are corporate, constantly anxious, and driven by fundamentally bottom-line values. And then you have those who define success by following their vision.IMG_2529 Thomas Eleizegui and Anthony Bain, owner and partner at Musette Caffè, fall into the later category.

Thomas and Anthony look like many of the guys without any visible means of support who populate Vancouver’s hipper places. You know, jeans, beardy, toques, weird- looking windbreakers, and a laid-back, don’t-care/don’t-bother-me stance. That’s what you might think, until they begin to talk: Anthony and Thomas don’t do random.

I became aware of Musette Caffè because of a passion for road cycling, and a need for a meeting place that wasn’t a Starbucks, a Blenz or an Artigiano. As hard as those places try, they’re all basically the same. OK, Artigiano staff is more aloof than the others, but that’s their sole differentiator. I wanted a place that was more “me”, however weirdly I may self-define. I needed my own little clubhouse.

Thomas Eleizegui and Anthony Bain of Musette Caffè

Thomas Eleizegui and Anthony Bain of Musette Caffè

When I sat down to talk to Thomas and Anthony, one of the first things that came out was just that: the vision, and then the reality, of a clubhouse. As long-standing friends, the pair had been discussing a “place” for 20 years. They came at the project from different angles – Tony from the food and beverage world, and Thomas from men’s fashion retailing. And then there was the cycling connection. Mountain biking was a unifying factor, and then road cycling. An idea was born.

Marketing, is a strange and complex beast. It is sometimes difficult to define where it begins and ends. For example, does turning a café into a cycling museum IMG_2498constitute marketing? Is starting a branded cycling team that emphasizes women’s participation considered marketing? Does creating community around a hard-to-find location count as marketing?

What we really have are two guys with really great jobs that allow them to dress the way they want, to do whatever they want, and to have a growing business,  which almost unconsciously results in being superlative marketers. It’s part of the Musette DNA.

There are two elements to this: the first is consistency and doing what they say they’re going to do. “We put in the hours to make sure that a high degree of consistency is maintained in the locations. We’re tough about that.”

The second is the branding. Thomas explains: “I’m so f**king anal. I know what’s in my head. IMG_2531We’re designing a kit for the women’s team right now. There’s a certain way I want the kit to look. So when Jon (Jonathan Wood, Musette’s graphics person) sends me stuff, I have to tell him, ‘Please let me know when you’re tired of me saying “No”.’ There’s a certain way I want it to look and if it doesn’t look that way, then it won’t happen. And it’s not just with team kit, but with everything.”

The big gamble Thomas took in the very beginning was ordering $20,000 in team kit – without a team to kit out. It paid off with the creation of a Cat 2 and Cat 3 team, turning amateur athletes into rolling billboards. The average person may not notice, but those who are in the know definitely know. “The woman’s team is doing really well, 16 racers, I think. And these girls are tough. It’s really refreshing versus the guys, because the girls aren’t so testosterone driven. But they’re tough – they train in below zero temperatures. Canadian girls are tough.”

IMG_2490What about the famous Bianci green (a copyrighted Pantone #332 colour) that seems to be an essential part of the Musette palette? “We love that colour but, obviously, we had to back off from using #332. We did some playing around with colours and came up with a similar colour that’s our own.”

“It’s all deliberate, it’s planned. There will be, as we expand, the same key things in all locations. But at the same time, we want each location to reflect the neighbourhood.”

To say Musette is a hipster place would be completely missing the point, unless you define lawyers riding $10,000 bikes as hipsters. Or creative kids with their Apples urgently brainstorming business meetings. Or messy extended families with kids playing foosball. Musette makes a point of being inclusive. And that makes it cool.

Ripley and Christine of Musette Caffè

Ripley and Christine of Musette Caffè

I said, “Marketers spend a fortune chasing cool. Where are you guys with that?” This caused a three-way musing on the nature of “cool”. The answer was: if you think you’re cool, then you’re not. “We don’t hire cool people. We hire people we want to hang around with. It probably costs us money in HR costs, but that actually is our criteria. It helps if they have food and beverage experience.” Staffing is a marketing decision in the world of food & beverage, especially at the front-of-house level.

The Chinatown location is about investing in a neighbourhood that is really growing, Anthony says, “Being located next to Rennie Marketing helps a lot. There are a hundred or so folks working out of there. And then there’s the film school across the street. So there’s volume business in a ‘recovering’ neighbourhood.”

This led me to growth. “So you started like three years ago,IMG_2505 with zero money, you went to the banks…” Thomas replied, “Yeah, that was an experience, I mean cafés fail fast and frequently. I even had my house as collateral, and the banks refused to accept it. But it took one young guy who was into coffee from the Royal who had the confidence to go to his bosses. He “got” us. We had the marketing and business plan, so he had the tools, but really, he made it a bit easier.

Thomas openly admits he’s not looking for investors. “I keep getting calls from all kinds of people”. To which Anthony responds, “You’ve got to stop entertaining those guys.” To which I ask, “Is it OK if I write this?” “Yeah, go ahead,” Thomas answers. There are plans afoot, however, to expand. Thomas mentioned the West Coast (Seattle, for one) and California in vague terms. But not for a while. There are certain things they have to achieve. “We keep our head down, and focus on one thing at a time. We’re in year three, so we’re looking down the road at year five. Then we’ll see. We have to live and work our passion.”

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