Did you make it self serve to save money?
If I added employees I could make more money (9 out 10 people walk out when they see it is self serve) I would also be directly competing with the restaurants and the other coffee shop in town, all fighting for the same slice of the pie. Instead I decided to drop out of the fight before it began. I’m sure that The Vault impacts the other food service businesses in town in a minor way but my long term hope is that the focus on arts and culture will draw more people downtown and bit by bit increase the bottom line of the many Mom and Pop businesses and restaurants in downtown Valley City. Essentially, I hope to gain more of the pie by needing less of it to survive and increasing the size of the slice for everyone. This unusual plan has thus far been working, profits continue to rise with no one else (seemingly) the worse for it.
The economic necessity of a small town makes having a coffee shop open late a financial near-impossibility. Everything in town closes by 6 pm except the bars and restaurants. I have nothing against bars or alcohol but I wanted to provide a family atmosphere that was open late with no pressure to leave, basically a non-alcoholic bar with a well stocked game cabinet. During the day most of our patrons are older adults and (when school is out) teenagers, and sales are pretty good. During the evening our patrons are college students and families with children, they come in talk, study, and play games, sometimes for many hours, but the numbers are fewer and they purchase less goods. If I employed baristas, the loss in the evenings would wipe out the profits made during the day. Without baristias more hours is not a loss, it’s just more.
Why don’t people steal?
We do see theft from teenagers who occasionally need talking to but among adults the rate of theft is nearly zero. This level of honesty only appears extraordinary in a context with weak social ties. Personal wealth is not a factor, some of our customers are very well to do, some of our customers have fallen on hard times. In this community, with deep Protestant and Catholic roots, being financially honest (versus, say, while telling a story about fishing) is assumed. I believe this is more true than not in Midwest small town America.
Would it work elsewhere?
This is a location based business model. I believe it could be replicated elsewhere, but only in tight-knit communities that adopt the establishment as their own, and it really only makes sense in a small community unable to support a late night hangout in a traditional manner.