Young & In BusinessApril 13, 2013
Story by Claire Moorman
Photos by Rachel Mummey
Anna Steckler is calm.
For someone in charge of satisfying 30 hard-working men and women looking for a little Thursday evening fun and a lot of good food, she seems downright relaxed. But inside, she is nervous, stressed out, exhausted as she lines up neat little bowls of soup on a counter, squirts whipped cream onto brownies and roots through the mess of half-empty liquor bottles, beer caps and garnishes on her shelves for just the right combination to sate an expectant customer’s thirst.
For the 23-year-old Huntingburg native, there are no wild college parties, no laid-back vacations with friends, no lazy mornings following late nights. For the past 10 months, the young Anna has been the sole owner of Cool Beans, a coffee shop on Fourth Street.
On a sunny afternoon in late March, she found the time to cuddle with her sick nephew in a booth while chatting about that night’s dinner plans — quesadillas and salsa — with cook Carol Steffe. But things at the shop aren’t always so easy, and Anna doesn’t always have time to rest her young, but still tired, feet.
On that Thursday night in February, 30 employees from technology company Matrix Integration in Jasper filled her tiny shop, having been promised a place to unwind and chow down thanks to Anna’s diligent service. With a cook working over a stove in the too-small kitchen, a waitress running food from oven to table and her mother, Colette, washing dish after dish, Anna was the only one available to take orders and serve drinks.
She’s used to this bustle by now, but Anna nearly didn’t make it through the first day.
In fact, her first workday after signing the papers to take official ownership of the store was so exhausting, she didn’t know if she could continue. When she closed the cafÃ© after a long day of serving customers, she turned around to find every table in the place covered in dirty dishes, and she already was too tired to even begin the cleaning process.
“I sat down, and I called (my mom). I was like, ”˜Can you please come in? I can’t do all this right now. I’m overwhelmed,’” she said. Her mother rushed into the shop, cracked open a beer with her daughter to calm their nerves and helped wash the dishes until the place was presentable again.
“Day One,” Anna said, laughing. “Check that one off.”
Her journey to business ownership began during a summer off from college when she took a job as a waitress at Cool Beans. Anna had been studying tourism and event management at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis and had even spent a semester abroad in the Virgin Islands to get her foot in the door to planning beach weddings before realizing she was too far from home. The summer job turned into a management position at the coffee shop when then-owner Becky Menke began tossing around the idea of selling the place.
The news sparked Anna’s interest since she had been looking for an opportunity to launch a small organic foods business, but her lack of a commercial kitchen to work in was holding her back. When she brought up the idea of buying the cafÃ© to her mom and dad, Mark, they were supportive.
“I was scared at first. It was kind of overwhelming,” Colette said. “She’s very stubborn. If you tell her not to do something, she digs her heels in and does it anyway. She’s not afraid to try.”
Anna hadn’t accumulated much credit by the time she needed to apply for a loan, but her parents offered their financial history as insurance to the bank that the bills would be paid. Anna owns the business and her father, a custom home builder, owns the old building, which is in need of some minor repairs.
Anna’s first step as owner was to make some changes to the business so it better suited her personal philosophy. She changed the store’s opening time from 8 a.m. to 6 a.m. on weekdays, to capitalize on the morning coffee crowd. She also changed the store’s traditional expensive Friday night dinners to cheaper, Thursday evening affairs. The shop is open for dinner only one night per week.
“We would do prime rib, $20 dinners in here. That’s not really up my alley. One of the changes that I made, even with the bar drinks, is to make the prices more reasonable for people (my) age,” she said. “It’s a nice place for kind of a younger crowd too. It can appeal to the older crowd still, but we weren’t tapping into this age group at all.”
To further reach the young, liberal crowd and achieve her dream of working with organic food, Anna plans to soon introduce more healthy options to her menu and recently bought a load of supplies to create new, fresh fruit smoothies for the summer.
Although her new ideas have been successful, owning the business is still a learning process for Anna. Her three-way liquor license was expensive, her first tax season was confusing, and her menu and coffee prices seem to always be in flux as she does more research.
“This tax season thing is making me so nervous. I’m 23! I’m used to getting my W-2s together and handing them to my tax guy. This is not quite the same thing,” she said. “My dad has owned his own business ... for years and years. Obviously, his business is nothing like mine, but there are certain things that he can give me good advice on.”
Anna said the store has turned a profit each month since she bought it, and it is doing better now than it was last year. She credits the success to the shop’s dedicated regular customers who come in each morning for a caffeine jolt and every afternoon for a tasty lunch. Even while she makes changes to the menu, prices and decor — she and her father repainted the walls orange, covered the booths with new fabric and created a new display with tree branches for the front window — she is learning how to properly cater to her usual crowd and keep the customers coming.
“If you’re closed when you’re supposed to be open, and you have a customer come up to the door and see that, for some people that’s enough not to come back,” Anna said. “That’s one thing that I try to keep in mind.”
For Anna, keeping regular hours often means eschewing sick days and putting in 80 hours of labor per week. With the store hours and planning time for weekly dinners and occasional events, including bridal showers and the Matrix dinner, she barely has time for a social life. She even moved into an apartment above the shop, so she is never more than a few steps away.
“I think one of the first times I missed school — because I was never a school type; I was good enough at it, but I just never applied myself — was Christmas break when I was working extra and I was like, ”˜Everybody’s home. They’re on break for a month and this is one of our busiest times,’” she said. “If I go run to the bank for change and come back, and I’ve been gone for 10 or 15 minutes, 10 people will have come in (saying), ”˜I need Anna.’”
At times, working so much can be a real burden, especially for someone so young. A series of long days sends Anna into a fit of yawning while holding her sick nephew, and even though during her time at the shop she has learned to like drinking coffee, it is still easy to see her eyes drooping.
“(Cool Beans) is forcing me to learn things about myself that I didn’t really want to know. I’m not good at delegating. I’ve kind of finally realized that I can’t do everything,” she said. “I’m a hard-headed German about a lot of things. I finally realized it’s OK to let other people do some stuff.”
Lucky for her, when things get busy, so does her mom. Colette bakes pastries for Cool Beans’ breakfast customers a couple of times a week, comes in daily to help wash dishes and makes weekly runs to Evansville for supplies that can’t be purchased in Huntingburg or Jasper.
At the end of March, when the cafÃ© had two epic weeks of business, Colette made two trips to Evansville in two days to keep the store stocked. Because storage space is limited, the Stecklers cannot buy much in bulk to avoid these trips.
“We’re always running out of something. Our grocery list doesn’t stay empty for very long ever,” Anna said.
Colette, a mother of six and a new empty-nester, says she enjoys making herself available 24/7 to Anna and the store.
“When we went into this, (Mark and I) agreed we were going to do what it took this first year and help her out. I told her, on the days I don’t come in here, which are few, I miss it,” Colette said.
“People like Anna. She gets along with people. I’m really proud of her. I think she’ll be doing it (running the business) for a while yet.”
That is precisely what Anna told a group of 10 Girl Scouts from Holland when they came to Cool Beans to talk to her about entrepreneurship last month. As a former Girl Scout herself, Anna said she wanted to help impart some wisdom in case any of the younger girls decide to pursue a career in business someday.
“You just have to know that it’s going to take a lot of time. Sometimes, I don’t get to do some of the same things that kids my age get to do. I don’t get to see my friends that often, but that just kind of comes with it,” Anna told the girls as they stood attentively in the back of the shop with their notebooks ready. “It really does pay off, though. If I have an idea about something, I get to go with it. The worst that could happen is people don’t like it and I try something different. I’m not saying it’s for everybody, and I don’t know if I’m always going to be doing it, but for right now, I definitely think it’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Contact Claire Moorman at email@example.com.
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