*In 2020-2021, the Global Entrepreneurship Network collaborated with Hello Alice, KKR, Verizon, eBay, UBS, Mastercard, BGE and Danny Garcia, founder of Seven Bucks Production to administer over $7 million in pandemic emergency funds to 500+ entrepreneurs around the world. Learn more here.
In March 2020, the streets of Dublin, Ireland, went quiet. Zuzana Warner locked the doors to her Montague St. café, expecting to be greeting customers – mostly professionals working in the city center – after the St. Patrick’s Day weekend.
Instead, the café's oven remained cold, its staff – many of whom are international students – left the city and office buildings where customers worked remained empty for months as lockdowns blanketed the country – and much of the world.
“There were times when we thought we would never open again,” said Warner, citing the uncertainty, staff shortages and food supply chain disruptions as threats to the business she co-owns with her husband, Jason.
But the Warners, like the millions of entrepreneurs impacted by the pandemic, are resilient. To make the best out of a challenging situation, the duo adapted their business to the "new normal” and embraced the uncertainty. They also reached out for help – applying for and receiving a $10,000 small business grant from KKR, Hello Alice and the Global Entrepreneurship Network.
In a recent interview with GEN, Warner shared her lessons learned as an entrepreneur during the pandemic, how the small business grant impacted her café, and how she plans to fill a gap in the Dublin-area wine industry.
*This interview has been edited for length and readability.
GEN: Tell us about Green Bench Café. What makes it unique?
Zuzana Warner: Over the nine years we have been around, we have become part of our community. We are on a first-name basis with most of our customers who come in not only for coffee or lunch but for chats and an escape from the daily work routine.
GEN: You say that Green Bench Café is a “product of two people with a love of food and each other.” Tell us about your founding story.
Zuzana Warner: I met my husband and business partner while working at a bar/restaurant, so it was natural for us to start a business together. We worked together as newlyweds, and as a couple with a newborn. It never really occurred to us that it might not work, and our naivety just makes it work. We keep the business – and any problems that come with it – separate from our house and family.
GEN: How has the pandemic impacted your business?
Zuzana Warner: The beginning of the pandemic was scary for everyone. We felt lost, initially, as everything was so uncertain. The plan was to close for the St. Patrick holiday weekend (in 2020) and open as normal, but the situation deteriorated pretty quickly and the whole world shut down. There were times we thought we would never open again. And other times we were like, “let’s just open and see what happens”. We are naturally careful people and didn’t want to put ourselves and others at risk.
The biggest impact was that most of our employees were international students and they went back home, so we were left without the bulk of our workforce. Another challenging side of the pandemic is that most of the food supply chains have been disturbed, making fresh produce harder to come by.
GEN: How have you adapted/pivoted to the “new normal”?
Zuzana Warner: We adapted our menu and old routines to fit with current health guidelines. Green Bench Café is take-away-only, so our space lent itself to be adapted quite easily to outside-only for customers. It works great, especially in the summer months when everyone wants to be outside in fresh air anyway. For the winter we have to reassess and look into solutions that will keep the elements at bay.
We also re-opened with just myself and my partner, not knowing how much business there would be in city center where very few people live. In our area, most offices and coffee shops are closed. Thankfully a few good customers who live in the vicinity have come out to support us.
GEN: What advice would you give to entrepreneurs in the hospitality industry recovering from the pandemic?
Zuzana Warner: That’s a really tough question because everyone has their own bottom line and prerogatives, but one thing comes to mind: try not to cut corners in terms of getting the best fresh and high-quality produce you can. It really does make a difference.
GEN: What advice would you give yourself starting over?
Zuzana Warner: Things will always go wrong when you don't need them to and you will learn to deal with it. Everything usually works out.
GEN: How has the grant from KKR, Hello Alice and Global Entrepreneurship Network impacted your entrepreneurial journey?
Zuzana Warner: The impact the grant made is invaluable. The application process forced us to look at ourselves and the business from different perspectives, and consider how we can make things better for ourselves, our employees, our products and our customers. The financial aspect opened possibilities to upgrade existing equipment and invest in new ones.
It also opened our eyes to the amount of help out there for small businesses like ours and helped us realize the potential we thought we lost.
What’s the biggest lesson that you’ve learned so far as an entrepreneur?
GEN: The biggest lesson I have learned is to trust your instincts, not to exert yourself financially, and that the biggest trouble will always be with staff/ employees. Sometimes, you just can’t control everything and things will happen regardless of your best-laid plans.
GEN: What’s next for you and Green Bench Café?
Zuzana Warner: We love wine and have a huge interest in winemaking and everything around it, especially with old school, natural and biodynamic producers. We are looking into branching out to open a small hole-in-the-wall wine bar in the suburbs. The area outside [of Dublin] lacks a nice, easy-going wine bar with good, affordable options.
GEN: What is your vision for the future?
Zuzana Warner: Our vision is to renew our current lease next year and completely renovate our space to be fresh and modern. We want to continue serving the same delicious fare to our loyal customers and new friends.
Learn more about Zuzana and Green Bench Café at http://www.greenbenchcafe.com/