The UP Lab Café Team: David Ly Khim, Kendrick Wang, Jennifer Pinai, Jesse Oduro, Justin Ho.
By David Ly Khim
Many of you reading this post may be UCI students and may have heard about The UP Lab Café. Here are the reasons for why we did it and a recap of our struggles, successes, and what we learned through the experience.
If you don’t know what The UP Lab Café is, we opened up a coffee shop out of my [David’s] apartment during final exams. We set up equipment to brew coffee and tea. This included two Melitta pour overs, an Aeropress, some measuring cups, many water boilers, a load of Portola Coffee Lab coffee beans (which we had to restock three times), and tea. We used a form made via Google Drive to take orders and delivered drinks to students around campus.
The idea of delivering homemade drinks was inspired by Cora Chong, a recent UCI graduate. During the final exams week of fall quarter in 2012, Cora opened up “Cora’s Caffeine Crunch” with her friends out of her own apartment and sold various coffee and tea drinks and baked goods. After obtaining Cora’s permission, I opened up “David’s Pop-Up Coffee Shop” the following winter quarter with a similar menu to Cora’s shop. During the previous quarter, with the launch of The UP Lab the week before exams, Justin and I decided to take the coffee shop to a larger scale by having a team and reaching out to more people. The result was The UP Lab Café team (pictured above).
It’s slightly random pairing beverage deliveries with the mission of The UP Lab, but it makes plenty of sense.
Personally, I’ve found that when my friends and I are extremely focused on our studies, the last thing we want to do is leave our seat to do something else. At The UP Lab, we understand that some students actually study very hard and it may not be convenient for some to go to a coffee shop because of distance and time. Think about it. When you go out to buy coffee, you have to consider the travel time to get to the coffee shop, the wait in line to order, the wait for your drink, the journey back to your study location, and the time it takes to refocus on what you’re studying. That’s at least thirty minutes–maybe even an hour.
Although students had to pay for the drinks, we provided a convenience by delivering. Students did not have to leave their studies. I supported the studies of students and wanted to make their study experience as enjoyable (or less painful) as possible. We believed that convenience was worth the cost for students and it was worth our time to provide it.
It also proved to be great opportunity for us to spread the idea of The UP Lab. We had ordered our stamp and it came in just in time for the opening of the café. Each cup was stamped with our logo with displayed the URL to our page. Along with the café, we released a post with study tips to help students prepare for their exams. The post was seen by over a thousand viewers (some were international!) and we were able to reach a larger audience than we had initially expected. The amount of support for The UP Lab was also unbelievable. We were contacted with comments of excitement and support and questions of how individuals could contribute to the project.
However, with an informal café and a lack of experience in managing such an operation, there were a few bumps in the road.
1. We had moments when we were confused about which orders were being taken care of, which were going to be delivered, and who was delivering. There was a lack of communication. I would be making a drink and Justin would start on another drink. It would turn out we were taking care of the same order. It became frustrating. We all made it clear that we had to communicate better with each other. It was comforting to know that we could be clear and slightly blunt about what we could do better without anyone taking anything personally. That level of comfort comes with a good team.
2. An unexpected and overwhelmingly large volume of pre-orders were submitted on the second night and we struggled to keep up with it. We took pre-orders, which meant that any orders submitted before opening (8pm) were pre-orders and would be made before other orders. The large amount of pre-orders meant we could not get to the regular orders that were submitted when we opened. This put us behind schedule the entire night. To top it off, we ran out of coffee. We closed early that night. We re-grouped to discuss the situation and how to handle such situations in the future. We decided to no longer take pre-orders.
3. It was difficult for us to deal with less-than-understanding customers. Due to the nature of scaling up, we ended up having many customers we didn’t know. This meant they would be more critical of our quality and delivery time—we did not expect delays to be taken lightly. We experienced quite a few unsatisfied customers during our rush night. Additional stress came with the thought that customers would be strangers.
However, we learned from our mistakes and experiences and quite a few good things came out of the café.
1. We learned. A lot. We learned how to brew coffee on a larger scale—not in large batches, but in large volumes. We learned how to work with disappointed and unsatisfied customers. We learned about marketing via social networks and the use of promotions. We learned to communicate better. Each person on the team had a moment during which s/he had to take the initiative and lead the team. We all gained experience in managing a team. We learned from and about each other through random conversation during deliveries and downtime. Through this, friendships became stronger, team communication improved, chemistry was better, and we worked together almost seamlessly.
2. Quality customer service was always priority despite difficult situations. The customer service that was delivered was due to a team that worked together efficiently and seamlessly. We also dressed semi-formally during our deliveries. I believe this contributed to the customer’s experience. It’s much nicer to receive a delivery from someone who is decently dressed than from someone who looked like they just got back from the gym. It’s as if you’re receiving a fancy, UP-scale product (get it?). It was also fun dressing up.
However, apologies go to customers who ordered during our bad night. Although you may have been disappointed, we did as much as we could to make it up to you. We learned quite a few lessons at the expense of a few unsatisfied customers.
3. The idea of The UP Lab was spread to a large audience. We simply want to help people achieve their goals in life and become successful in whatever manner they define that term. We want to help others find happiness in what they are passionate about and let them know that there are people who support their aspirations. I think it’s safe to say that the ideas of The UP Lab were sufficiently shared with the community, or at least the UCI campus.
On the last night, we re-stocked on supplies and made large batches of coffee and tea and set up shop at an on-campus study lounge to give out free drinks. We posted our location on Facebook and walked around the study lounge with a sign directing students to our location. It worked. We ran out of drinks in a matter of minutes and got to chat with a few people who were curious about what we were doing through The UP Lab.
It all started with the idea of wanting to help students and, with that idea, the appreciation of coffee and the dream of someday running a coffee shop. We wanted to help students by making and delivering drinks to them personally so they wouldn’t have to waste time going out on their own. We wanted to spread the idea of an UnParalleled lifestyle of putting in work to achieve your goals. We wanted to support students through one of many rough weeks of their college careers with caffeinated drinks as well as verbal and written encouragement.
Although the road was bumpy, resulting in a few unsatisfied customers, we believe that The UP Lab did manage to help some students get through their final exams.
I’d like to leave you with a personal message:
No one on The UP Lab Café Team really knew what they were getting themselves into. They volunteered to be a part of the project because they believed in the cause. They knew that they would learn from a new experience. I, on the other hand, had an idea of what to expect because I had some experience. However, I knew it would be completely different—and it was. Was I scared of the possible outcomes? Yes. Was I hesitant? Oh yes. Were we occasionally stressed and frustrated? No doubt. But we still did it. We knew that although failure was possible, but success was also possible. We knew that, in any case, we would be helping students and it would be a learning experience for us and we would come out as better people with more developed skills.
If you have an idea—no matter how crazy it is—do it. If you don’t think you can do it alone, talk to someone about it. Like Kendrick said, find someone who supports you and believes in your idea, then collaborate to make it happen! I promise that you’ll learn something new and a lot of good will come out of it.
Thank you all so much for your support and contributions toward The UP Lab! The encouraging words have motivated us to continue spreading the idea of positivity and passion and perseverance.
Photo source: Jennifer Pinai, Justin Ho