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Serving Happiness: Building a Business on Customer Feedback

Season 2: Episode 37


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Most people open their own business with a solid plan and a firm idea of what that business offers. Tomeka Wallace opened Happy Cafe with exactly that, but her ability to learn as she goes, pivot when needed, and “just roll with it,” as she says, led to many changes to her menu and her operating hours. Listening to her customers and reviewers gave her new ideas, has expanded her offerings, and is one of the keys to the success of her beach town sandwich shop.

On the Yelp Blog: Dive into the mind of a reviewer and discover three questions a Yelp Elite asks when choosing a local business.

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Behind the Review features conversations with business owners and customers who wrote one of their Yelp reviews. In our discussions, we talk about lessons they’ve learned that can be used by other small businesses to improve their own reviews and their bottom line.

This week, we’re heading to our Yelp Elite reviewer Odester H’s happy place—Happy Cafe, in Virginia Beach. Owner Tomeka Wallace opened Happy Cafe in 2016 and serves sandwiches, homemade bread pudding, and gourmet mac and cheese. Her motto is—don’t worry, eat happy.

And that’s just what Odester did on her first visit—and she was eating for two, at the time.

ODESTER: I was pregnant, this was right after my baby shower. I was tired. I was like, I need a really good brunch spot where I can just relax, eat good, sit good. My stomach feels good. It’ll just be a vibe. I did research on Instagram and then also I went to the Yelp app and I just was going through brunches, brunches, brunches, and I found Happy Cafe.

It popped up and what caught my eye was that it was like 10 minutes from my apartment, so I was like, oh, this is perfect because my feet are swollen, I’m tired, I’m not trying to do too much. I confirmed the time, made sure they were open and I went on over there for brunch. That was my first experience. The day after my baby shower.

We got to Happy Cafe, you walk in, the music’s going, the customer service – it was just a welcome home type of energy. And the menu, which it blew me away, because it’s like soulful. But then on top of that, their execution is just amazing. I got the shrimp and grits, their hash browns and just like a soda. I’ve been stuck to them ever since.

EMILY: I just love when you find a place that’s close to you, that you enjoy! And even better when it’s a place with great food. Happy Cafe not only has great food – it serves brunch, lunch and even some dinner items, so customers like Odester can keep coming back and get a different experience.

No matter what time of day you dine with them though, Happy Cafe will blow you away with their vibe and aesthetic.

ODESTER: So the outside is super unassuming. It’s in a small shopping center, you see the Happy Cafe sign, and you’re not expecting what you see when you walk in. And so, okay, this is cute. And then you walk in and you’re like, wow, they got the couches in the front, so you can just while you’re waiting to get seated, nice plush couches. You see the kitchen right there when you first walk in – it’s open, it’s wide, you see all the employees. They’re communicating. They’re getting the food out. They’re talking. They’re engaging with the customers.

And then when you get to the dining area, it’s this beautiful environment. They have the green wall that they put together. There’s an area for a stage. So they got the DJ or they have a live band, and then you have all the different chairs. You got the bar in the back. It’s super beautiful.

EMILY: Those can be some of the best places—hidden gems that feel like your own secret dining spot. But if you’re a Yelp Elite like Odester, you know places like that don’t stay secret for very long. Let’s give her review a listen – and just a little note : her review is from another time that she dined at the business for dinner. Not the time she went for brunch when she was carrying her little one.

ODESTER: One of my favorite restaurants in the 757. If y’all haven’t checked them out, you are missing out on a delicious, local, Black, Woman-owned restaurant. I went with a friend for dinner and everything was delicious.

We started with the cloud nine appetizer, smoky hot wings, sauteed shrimp, and potatoes. The wings were fried perfectly, the sauce had great flavor, the shrimp was nice, plump, and juicy, and the potatoes were so crispy. (I need to go back.) For my main course, I had the BLT with spicy mustard and a side of the baked macaroni and cheese. Their BLT is what all places should strive for. Nice thick bacon, juicy tomato, good lettuce, perfect amount of mayo, and lovely thick bread toasted with butter. The baked mac and cheese was creamy. You can’t stop eating it till it’s gone. We also tried the special they had, which was the grilled cheese seafood sandwich. You could taste the fresh seafood. The cheese was melted perfectly.

I had the lemon drop as my drink. And it was mixed correctly, the proper way to do a lemon drop. The customer service is top tier. The owner is so kind and the entire atmosphere has you coming back.

EMILY: I often talk to owners about how their small businesses get started, and the most common reason is to fill a gap they’ve found in their community. That’s a really great way to find your niche. As a consumer, you know there’s something missing, so why not be the entrepreneur who fills that space up and start your own business?

TOMEKA: Happy Cafe was established in 2016 in my hometown in Blackstone, Virginia. I wanted to go back to my hometown, which is a very small town. Population’s about 3,700 people. Very, very small, but we have a big military base there.

When I would go home, it was never anywhere to get coffee to my taste, or just a nice place to be. I must say my home is like 50/50 black and white, and you have a little bit of others. But it wasn’t very diverse.

So, me going back, I’ve always done some type of business there. I had a clothing store there. So I talked to the owners and I said, well, I want to do a coffee shop. And he was like, well, do the coffee shop. But I was like, Hmm. So I talked about it and I said, well, I’m not Starbucks.

So we’re not going to make a lot of money on coffee in a small town. So being that I had a little bit of food recipes and things, because I started catering in 2012, I said, well, let me start off with that. But I wanted it to be simple, something like sandwiches. The building that we had, we were right across the street from a gym. So I said we’ll do smoothies, salads, sandwiches.

No sodas. None of that. That didn’t work. That didn’t work. We had people come in and say, “You don’t have any soda.? You don’t have homemade sweet tea? You don’t have fries?” We said no. The concept of being healthy didn’t last long, as far as like not having soda, those things.

I wanted to do it in my hometown because we needed that place where everyone could go. I went there with just a thought that I could do something different with coffee. Some sandwiches, we only had five sandwiches at the time.

And then it just constantly grew. It just constantly grew into something that I think about sometimes when I’m having a conversation with my fiancé, who’s been backing me the whole time, I’m like, “How did we do this?” How did we go from no soda to, we had Gatorade, we had smoothies, five sandwiches, to now we have over 60 signature sandwiches (we don’t present them all)—to doing brunch. We’ve done a lot. We’ve done a lot.

EMILY: It’s kind of crazy to think that Tomeka built and changed her business not necessarily based on a plan, but on what the customers said they wanted. A lot of business owners say they want to get customer feedback, but implementing it can be really scary. That’s a lot of change in a relatively short period of time.

There’s a couple of things have served Tomeka well as her business grows and changes. First, she’s been able to figure out what suggestions are good for the business, and what suggestions might just leave her spinning her wheels. Second, she’s able to step outside of herself and pivot based on what her customers want and need, and not be chained too tightly to her original vision.

Those skills come through trial and error.

TOMEKA: Initially going to Blackstone, my aunt, who had 20 years experience at a restaurant down the street, was supposed to manage, run, be my chef and everything. So when she couldn’t do it because she had to take her ill father in, we had to just learn.

I had to resign from my job. I had to learn. And so in that process of not having experience, not knowing what, and I had customers coming in and they wanted sweet tea. So we had to have sweet tea. They wanted a burger, so I had to come up with my version of a burger. They wanted fries, we had to present them with roasted potatoes. Because even when you open anything new, people are going to gravitate and come because they want to see what it’s like. But what I had to learn was we got to give the people what they want. We have to be consistent in what we’re doing, but it also has to make sense.

Those things were not really taken away. They were actually adding more revenue because this is what people wanted. So for me, I listen to my customers, always have, still do.

Some things I cannot do because they may not make sense, but some of the things that actually make sense and they are doable. We’ll go ahead and give it a try and then if it doesn’t work, we can always go back. You know like the whole dinner thing. So we used to be open in Blackstone till 8 o’clock every night. Did we get business? No, because people were looking at us as breakfast sandwiches and lunch. So in the evening we struggled, but we still stayed open just in-case a few people came in. But we only seated 25 people there.

This location in Virginia Beach, we seat about 55 to 60 people. So when we initially opened in 2019, we were open from 7am to 8pm. Insane. Once the pandemic happened, of course we changed. We’ve had several shift changes, like cutting our times. It’s because we were doing Friday nights,4-7, but going into the summer, we were dry. There was nothing going on.

Like we will advertise happy hour from 4-7, and we did dinner items. We had a very good dinner selection, but you’re in the beach area, right? When it’s the summertime, people want to go to the beach. And we said, “Yeah, it’s not making sense.” We would have a full staff, but we may only have five or six tables. So that wasn’t making sense.

Although it hurt me because we did have people that come all the time it just had to make sense for us on a level of financially you got staff you’re not making the money. So we just had to change it. Maybe one day we’ll go back, but right now we try to do some of our dinner items during the day because we open from 10 to 3. So we try to incorporate things like that in the daytime.

EMILY: I think being able to be flexible is something a lot of entrepreneurs can relate to. It’s almost not optional—If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, you have to be flexible. But I think what Tomeka has been doing is not throwing out any ideas until she gives it a shot. And if it’s not technically possible, she’s come up with a way to make it her own and work for her cafe.

Odester mentioned making Happy Cafe her regular spot, and Tomeka has built a great relationship with her, and her other repeat customers. That has to extend to the staff as well. As a business owner you can’t be everywhere all at once. That culture always comes from the top down, no matter the business.

TOMEKA: I am very big on service. I’ve done customer service stuff for a long, long time. I have a motto that with no experience in this industry, when I opened in Blackstone, I had a lady come to me. She was an older lady. And she told me, she said, if you’re not consistent, you won’t last. And I think about that all the time. People hear the name Happy Cafe, they come out, because of the name Happy Cafe, but they may have heard, well, they got good food, but food is last.

It’s three things. People come in for the ambiance. That’s first. Service. And food is always last. So, if we nail it with the service, but say there’s something on the floor, that’s where your ambiance is, or it’s not, a table may not be clean. They’ll still come back, because the service was good. If we mess up an order, that’s number three, food. But if the food was messed up but the service was good, they’re gonna come back. They’re gonna give us another chance. So, service is everything.

I’m not always able to touch tables. That’s something that we’re working on for me to be free because I’m actually working the line every day. I’m working the line, making the food. If I’m not doing that, if I’m stepping away, I’m preparing a recipe. So it’s very hard for me to actually touch the table, but because we have an open kitchen concept, when people come in the door, we say hello. Welcome to Happy Cafe. So you’re greeted as soon as you come in, we have a good serving team, they make sure that customer service, And then on the weekend my mom does come in and she’s like our server mascot, she goes around, touches the tables for us, makes sure everyone’s seated and greeted.

And they all love her. Some people say, well you all have it so comfortable and homey. I mean you want people to feel comfortable when they’re coming to an establishment and spending their money. Because they could have went anywhere else. But they heard about Happy Cafe and they chose to come to see.

So we have to make sure that we’re standing up to the standards of being happy. Because everyone deserves to be happy. Everyone wants to be happy. Regardless of what life may throw at us.

EMILY: It is true that if you put “happy” in the name of your business, it should be a happy place.

I thought it was pretty interesting that of the three things Tomeka mentioned, she put quality of food last on the list. You’d think it would be top of mind for a restaurant. Notice she didn’t say the food could be bad, just that customer service and ambiance need to be front and center.

It makes sense though—and it was customer service that kept Odester coming back.

ODESTER: Their customer service is top tier. It’s amazing. You can tell from the leadership with Tomeka all the way down to all of her employees. And it’s a family business.

So she has her mom. She has her daughter. She has cousins, nephews and then friends. Everyone is invested in the success of Happy Cafe. And you can tell that they take customer service very seriously and they want you to have a good experience.

They know me when they see me. So they’re always just like, Hey, how are you doing? and it doesn’t even matter if you’re new, a regular customer, they’re always going to talk to you, see how you’re doing. How’s your day going? Making it easier for you. I know because sometimes I’ve had my son with me and so they’ll make sure they’ll sit me somewhere where I can move around with him, close to the bathroom if I need to get him there.

So they’re making sure that they’re taking care of you overall. They’re just not there to, “what do you need? What do you want?” and get you out. Like they’re fine if you would you stay in an hour, two hours, three hours. They just want you to have a great experience. But definitely, I know with Tameka, the owner, she walks the floor, she talks to the guests, she talks to the customer, she’s making sure they’re doing well, if you need more of something, she’s also tapping in, “what did you think about this? How did it taste? And so you can really tell that she’s, that they really want to hear the feedback.

If something isn’t great, why not? What can we do? So they are open to that feedback and Tameka definitely, she’s amazing. She’s so kind. And her mom, they have a drink named after her mom. I forget what it’s called, but it’s a purple matcha cocktail. It’s amazing.

You’re getting that healthy piece, but then you’re getting that bubbly at the same time. When their mom’s there, she’s walking through the floor and she’s like, “Hey, how are you guys doing? How’s the baby doing? What’s going on? Have a good time. Please let us, you know, give us some time. We’re busy.” They’re just letting you know what’s going on. They’re very engaging and I really appreciate that because customer service is super necessary for the longevity of any business, especially in the restaurant industry.

People are going to come back when the customer service is good, they’re going to come back all the time and they have a following because their customer service is amazing. And it just really speaks to just who they are as people. And I really appreciate that.

EMILY: When I interview our business owners, I always tell them that when it comes to reviews, they should be honest. So I believe it when I keep hearing some of the same things across all of our businesses: use the reviews to make improvements to your business, and respond to all of your reviews. Those two things can make a big impact on the bottom line.

TOMEKA: I personally don’t review anyone, because I feel like it’s a personal preference. I do appreciate my customers that do leave us a review, whether it’s a positive or a negative. I try to tune into all. Both the positive and the negative. I can learn from the negative, if it’s something that we actually did.

From the positive, it gives me more motivation to stay on top of myself and my team. Hey, we gotta keep getting this right. Because in this day and time, everything is online. People go online. Online can make you or break you, whether it’s Yelp, Google, Facebook, Instagram, wherever they can leave their feedback, it can make or break your business.

But I am in control of the Yelp, so I do have to make sure that I go back and respond, and a lot of times if I’ve been able to walk away, I can maybe see the customer or remember, it’s been situations where I can’t remember their order because I’m making it. And so I can comment on that part.

And I’ve had some that were like one star, which to me, that hurts me. Because for me, I try to make everything right. I’m a people pleaser because I’m in business. So for business ethics for me, I want to make it right. Some people I haven’t been able to make it right, but in my review, I’m like, hey, I’ll address it.

And then if it’s a situation where it’s something with the staff, we’ll have a meeting and we’ll talk about it. And that’s how I learn. I learn from the reviews. I learn where it’s something that I may not look at or may not think that it’s looked at.

And when the customer leaves a review about it, “okay, hey, we gotta change this, we gotta change this. Maybe we need to add that.” That’s how we’ve added some items on a menu, during the week versus on a Saturday. Because at one time, we only did pancakes, french toast, and waffles on Saturdays. Because we’re a sandwich shop! And then we had customers say, well, I would like to see this during the week. So we added it. So I listen.

I do respond to the reviews and I just try to put that personal touch to it. Social media, that’s the beast in itself. That’s a whole nother job. At one point we had someone doing our social media, but I would respond. Now it’s solely up to me until I find someone else to do it. So I still make sure that I respond. But I can’t do a lot of posting because it’s just time consuming, but when I can, Yelp, Google, Facebook, Instagram, I try to go on and chime in and I can’t respond to everything on those platforms because it’s so many.

But I try to tune in, but it’s important for me to get back. Whether it’s a week or two later. I try my best to get back to everyone.

ODESTER:  For me, when an owner, especially when Tameka responded, I think that was one of my probably like first two or three where an owner replied. And so when she replied, I was like, okay, thank you! It made me feel appreciated, because once you spend your money, the transaction is done. But the fact that she takes the time to go on Yelp and she reviews them, I know she goes on her other social media platforms as well.

And she will engage with you up there too. But definitely on Yelp, with her just saying, Hey, thank you so much. It definitely makes you feel valued. And it’s like, okay, they care about you and they want you to come back. I definitely think it’s important when the owner does, cause I haven’t had too many responses from owners.

So when they do do it, it also is like, okay, I’m definitely going to come back. And it’s interesting enough, the ones that have responded are the locally owned businesses. But it definitely makes me feel like, okay, you value me more than just a dollar. So I definitely appreciate it.

EMILY: Social media is a real pain point for some business owners. It’s just tough. It’s not just about getting people to come through the door and eat. Some if it is about building a following of people who might not even be near your restaurant. How much time and money should a business owner spend on social media, especially in an owner-operated business like Happy Cafe?

Unfortunately, there’s no real formula that guarantees to ‘make it work’. But business owners have to decide if it’s something they want to try to tackle, or if they want to hire someone or delegate that responsibility to someone on their team.

TOMEKA: I had a young lady who does social media content, so she would come in, get pictures for us. And then she would post and then she would respond. Some things I might respond to before her because we both got the notifications, but I don’t have that anymore. So, we’re in the process of trying to figure that out for 2024.

Me, personally, I feel like as long as I have, I don’t know, I don’t know if, that’s something I’m working on, Emily, to see if social media is really needed for a restaurant. And the reason why I say that, is because I look at some places, they have 50,000 followers, but do you have 50,000 people coming to your establishment within 30 days or within six months?

So, if I’m doing these things to get a big audience on these platforms, is that coming in monetarily? Because you have to pay someone to do your social media. That’s where I’m at. Say if we did an ad with Yelp, or say if I post that we’re open and we get the people coming in, that’s where it matters to me.

EMILY: The truth is, you can’t do everything. You’re running a business, not a social media marketing firm. Restaurant owners are focusing on making food, keeping customers happy, and making sure the place is clean. It’s a lot, and it’s ok for social media to take a bit of a backseat, for a while.

One thing that should be done on social media is identifying who you are, not just what you do. That personal touch resonates with people, and they might be looking for a business run by someone just like them.

ODESTER:  Women, black owned, family ran business. Those are hard in this time, especially with the pandemic and everything. When I read about their start and what they’re doing, I was just like, okay. That was another big thing that brought me to their brunch the first time was because I like to read what you’re about, what are you bringing to the community? What are you trying to do? What’s your goals?

Because, the big chain restaurants are going to always have that but like your local own you want to invest in them and you want to see what they’re bringing to the community as well. I really really feel it’s important especially in Virginia Beach because there are a lot of locally owned restaurants, but in Virginia Beach, there definitely is a need for more Black-owned restaurants, in Virginia Beach specifically.

She gets her shine, but she needs her flowers for what she’s doing. What she’s really bringing to the community and what she’s doing for the people that she employs, how she’s taking care of hiring folks and getting people jobs and all that. But then on top of that just how she really cares about the community. So I think that’s super important.

Because the food is amazing, and the customer service is amazing, when my friends come into town, they already know we’re going to Happy Cafe. You’re going to go at least once while you’re here with me. That’s just what’s happened. So all of my friends know they’re coming, we’re going, we’re supporting. And from me doing that, my friends now they go on their own. I see them posting on Yelp and they’re at Happy Cafe, and I’m like, ‘why didn’t you tell me you were going to Happy Cafe?’ You know, I would’ve came! You know, I’m like 10 minutes around the house. But sharing that business and letting folks know that they’re here and they’re here to stay.

So let’s breathe life into them and do what we can do to make sure that she’s here for 50, 60, 100 plus years.

EMILY: Most of the time, you’ll never know the impact that you or your business might have on your customers. You might just be inspiring someone to become an entrepreneur themselves.

TOMEKA: Must say this first. I never, ever thought that I would be in the food business. This is something that I know that God put me in cause I worked at Nationwide as the office manager for 10 years. Then I branched off, then I went back.

So I was at Nationwide for 13 years. Never thought I would be doing this, but I’ve been cooking for a long time. However, to do the business in my small town, where I said there wasn’t like the diversity dynamic. I am proud that I did start it and I’m proud of my community there because they gave me a lot of support.

And they still drive to Virginia Beach to visit us. I got a message the other day from the mayor. That was the mayor in Blackstone and he also has the newspaper company. So he asked me, when do we leave and all these questions. Unbeknownst to me, I didn’t know that he was going to do a write up on Happy Cafe and me because of the Yelp for us being in the top 25.

So I’m just thankful that what I’ve done, even though sometimes I give myself a lot of backlash, I’m hard on myself, because I don’t feel like I’m at the levels of where I want to be. But it isn’t easy. And it’s something that I love to do. I love doing this, and I’m glad that I’m in the position to do it.

And I hope that it will inspire other people that they can do something that even if they didn’t plan it, just go with God’s plan and it’ll all work out.

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