Opinion: Laila Ghambari on adapting and leading through change

Laila Ghambari’s 15 years in specialty coffee have taken her from barista to store manager, US Barista Champion and Director of Cafés at Stumptown Coffee Roasters – but nothing could have prepared her for the leadership challenges she faced over the last 12 months
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Laila Ghambari, Director of Cafés, Stumptown Coffee Roasters | Photo credits © Stumptown Coffee Roasters



Like businesses everywhere, Covid-19 and social unrest over racial and social inequality have had a profound impact on Stumptown Coffee Roasters over the past year. As Director of Cafés, I wanted to share some of our journey as we embark on a major path of employee and operational development, and how meaningful engagement with our teams has been a powerful tool during these extraordinarily challenging times.

 

Adapting to survive

At the height of much confusion and anxiety among our teams about the emerging Covid-19 situation, on 16 March 2020 we took the decision to temporarily close all of our cafés for the safety of our staff and customers. At the time, we were hopeful that we could reopen our sites two weeks later but, as we have seen, the pandemic continues to present extraordinary long-term challenges for businesses everywhere.

Unfortunately this led to the permanent closure of three of our stores and redundancies in our retail team. These were incredibly difficult decisions to make, but ones we felt necessary to ensure the long-term viability of the business.

As we began reopening some of our cafés in mid-2020, a concept from Simon Sinek’s book, Leaders Eat Last, particularly resonated with me – that authority should be given to those closest to the information.
 

"I wanted to give our teams a degree of authority on the decision making process and make sure they felt comfortable with our plans"


As Director of Cafés, the decisions I make can profoundly affect team members, but my experience of the pandemic is very different from many of my co-workers. I live in a rural farm town outside of Portland, Oregon, that has had relatively few cases of Covid-19. Meanwhile, many of my team live in New York City, where thousands of people were falling ill.
 
If I only looked at the situation from my perspective, I was never going to be able to resonate or connect with my retail team. As we moved to reopen stores, they were the ones that were going to have to interact with customers and each other.

I wanted to give our teams a degree of authority on the decision making process and make sure they felt comfortable with our plans. As we reopened, I took time to understand what was happening across the country and how other businesses were adapting. I gave my team space to critique our recovery plan and provide feedback on what they felt was the safest way to return to work.

To facilitate this process, we created mock-up drawings of our cafés and shared these with the team as examples of our planning. We gave them the opportunity to provide feedback and we revised the designs until we landed on solutions everyone could support.

Initially, we reopened our cafés as walk-up windows, setting up small stands outside rather than allowing customers in-store. Overall, the cost to reopen each store was approximately $700. This included purchasing cleaning and sanitising tools, glass panels to protect our teams, extended counters for social distancing, as well as new menus and signage required to communicate to customers how the new concept was going to operate.

Ultimately, it has been incredibly successful because the leadership team took the time to effectively communicate and collaborate with our team members. As a result, our teams not only felt safe, they felt their opinions were valued and were actually excited to start serving customers again.

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Stumptown Coffee Roasters stores in Brooklyn, Portland and Los Angeles | Photo credits Susie Locklier, Carly Diaz


 

Time for change

It was also around this time that George Floyd became another unarmed black man to be killed by police. The Black Lives Matter movement sparked a lot of conversation about the businesses people visit, the companies they work for and how those companies support black employees and other people of colour. When we listened to our staff and customers, they were not just asking for support, they wanted Stumptown to be an actively anti-racist company.

This has resulted in a major audit of company hiring practices, policies and marketing material, and a renewed drive for transparency. We began rolling out implicit bias training, starting with senior staff members, and established an employee advisory committee to include representation from all departments and levels of the organisation and centred on BIPOC voices, to positively impact the Stumptown culture.
 

The road to recovery

As we reopened, the average ticket rose 10-20%, partly because we brought forward an annual price increase to cover a more expensive operating model. But customers were also ordering multiple items to take back to their family or roommates instead of just for themselves.

We also saw huge growth in our whole bean sales as customers were making coffee at home instead of commuting to workplaces, which also increased the average ticket.

Sales were also hugely impacted by store location. Our business district cafés were down an additional 30%, compared to our neighbourhood locations which bounced back more quickly as customers stayed close to home.
 

"As leaders, I want us to consider our intentions as decision makers and how we can positively impact our teams"


By October 2020 we were hopeful that allowing people physically back in our cafés would generate sales growth – thankfully it did. Sales rose around 13% and our average ticket was up 12%. We saw a 20% increase in whole bean and nearly 80% increase in merchandise sales. By utilising the distribution network of our parent company, Peet’s, Stumptown has become the number one premium-priced whole bean coffee available in the US over the last year.
 

A new beginning

The last 12 months has been the most difficult period of my professional career – but I have grown as a leader more than I ever could have imagined because of the journey I have had with our teams.

As leaders, I want us to consider our intentions as decision makers and how we can positively impact our teams – because the health and happiness of our staff is directly correlated to the health of our business.

Stumptown’s work is by no means complete and this is just the beginning of a long road ahead that will see our business constantly listening, adapting and evolving. I’m in no doubt there will be significant challenges and difficult decisions ahead, but I’m proud to be on this journey with a brand that is striving to be a force for positive change – for all stakeholders across the business.
 

This article was first published in Issue 6 of 5THWAVE magazine.

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