Truth be told, the interview you’re about to read is the second time I sat down with Sophie.
Our first chat took place during peak heatwave season in summer. The sun was shining, business was rosy and everything for then thirty-three-year-old Sophie, was going to plan. But alas, about a month later that interview fell victim to loo-gate…
Aka. that time I dropped my phone down the toilet a few months back and forgot to back up four of the interviews that I’d saved on there… Not my finest moment admittedly but you live and you learn girls!
The interview you’re about to read therefore proves how quickly the tide can turn in business.
Battling the relentless list of daily challenges that present themselves in business at the time, along with the struggles of running two companies when she was dealing with difficult news in her personal life; take two of our recording unveiled the more gruelling side of being your own boss along with (thankfully) the many benefits it can bring on those stressful days in equal measure…
SC.SD. So how have things been since we last spoke?!
SW. I’m ok… it’s been a difficult month if I’m being honest! I’m feeling better this week but I felt like shit last week!
SC.SD. It can be a real rollercoaster can’t it?
SW. Yeh hugely. I hadn’t had a tough time in a while but then four things went wrong at once last week and I just thought, ‘oh my god, someone’s out to get me!’ I’ve sorted through some of the shit now though so I’m feeling a bit more positive. I’m aware that I could be a lot more negative today than when we first met…!
SC.SD. This can be the reality check interview?!
SW.` Absolutely! I’ve definitely had a reality check recently!
SC.SD. Right, let’s start with what Café Miami is all about in your own words?
SW. So Café Miami is an art deco style café in Clapton, East London and it’ll be two years old in November. I’d always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to open a café one day but I don’t think I ever thought I’d actually do it until I saw the place available, applied for it and just made happen. It was never something I’d strategized! I just saw the opportunity and went for it because I was unhappy in my old job.
SC.SD. When you say you “saw the opportunity” and “made it happen”, what did that involve and look like in reality?!
SW. Well I’d moved into this amazing art deco building in Clapton that’s literally around the corner from the café…
To set the scene, I had a quick tour of Sophie’s flat around the corner from the café pre-interview in summer and can confirm that her building is nothing short of amazing. After stepping through baby blue and pastel pink gates, I was immediately transported from the streets of Hackney, into an oasis of palm trees, fountains and pastel pink everything…
SW. It’s like a Miami themed old people’s home! Anyway, it was winter, I was really miserable, I hated my job and just felt like I needed to make a change. I’d had that, ‘fuck it, I’m going to quit my job and open a café’ feeling a few times but all of a sudden it became, ‘no, I’ve been saying this for ages, I really need to now!’ Anyway, I mentioned it to a friend, then the next day, came downstairs, and noticed that there was a sign in the café window saying, ‘closed until further notice.’
After being advised by a friend who works in commercial property to reach out to the café’s neighbours to find out if they know who the landlord is, Sophie called up the charity next door and found out at once.
SW. They said, “oh actually it’s ours, we’re looking for someone to take it over” and I said, “ok, how do I apply?” and they didn’t know, so I said, “well I live upstairs, can I come and look at it? I’m free right now!” and she was like, “erm, I’m in the middle of something now but I’m free at 3pm today!” So I dragged one of my friends downstairs with me, we looked at it and I asked how much!
Despite asking to rent it straight away however, the process to get the keys, unbeknown to Sophie at the time, wasn’t so straightforward. After waiting a few weeks for the charity to respond, Sophie was then asked to put forward a proposal to the council outlining her plans for the space.
SW. It was an unusual situation. It wasn’t like I had to make a proper business plan, apply for a loan or do anything too grown up! It was more fluffy! I had to say what I’d do with the space, what it would bring to the community, what I’d change in the space and send a sample of a menu… It was a bit like a school project! ‘If you were going to open a café, what would it look like?!’ Anyway, I sent them a mood board and a menu with all of my favourite foods, they put it to the board which took ages and eventually I found out I won!
Ten months after viewing the space, in autumn 2016 Sophie finally got the keys.
SW. The waiting was the worst part. Because they were a charity, their teams only worked one and a half days a week so everything was so drawn out and there was so much back and forth. I was desperate to open in the summer so I could take advantage of summer trading but June came, July came, I was getting more and more pissed off (!) and then I just realised that it’s going to take as long as it takes and me getting stressed isn’t going to help me get the keys any sooner.
I’d quit my job and was freelancing in that time so was ok financially but you know when you have what you want in sight?! It made the freelancing and waiting that bit harder. I remember just thinking, ‘fuck doing this job that I hate! I just want to get out!’ but I used that time wisely. I did so much research, lots of baking and recipe trial and error, I sourced all the furniture… I basically got everything in place so that when I got the keys, I could press play and it’d all fall into place.
SC.SD. Do you think, in hindsight, the wait was a blessing in disguise then?
SW. Maybe! As soon as I had the keys, I remember thinking, ‘holy fuck, I don’t have an excuse anymore, I’ve actually got to make this happen now!’ I think it had dragged on for so long that I’d lost sight of what it was about but we turned the place around in five weeks in the end which was absolute mayhem!
In those five weeks, Sophie called on her friends for support and after a lot of late nights painting and decorating together, the café was fully refurbished in time for its opening on her birthday in November.
SW. I don’t know why I thought that was a good idea in hindsight! Actually I do..! I have this weird thing where I set myself goals each year. When my birthday comes around, I like to look back at the year and see that I’ve progressed, so I figured if I open on my birthday, I’d really know that in that year I would’ve really changed my life and achieved something.
SC.SD. What was it about your life at that time that you wanted to change so much?
Having worked her way up in the fashion industry for twelve years prior to launching Café Miami (and “hated” six of them), Sophie’s former career though successful, provided no fulfilment.
SW. Even if I got to go to lots of cool places, there was way too much travel for me. Everyone always loves the idea of travelling for work but the reality is that you spend so much time alone, a lot of time away from home and friends, a lot of time with no routine, eating out constantly – and I love eating out so for me to say I got bored of it is a big statement! There were days where I thought, ‘I just can’t face another business meal out. I just want to go home, sit on my sofa and eat cereal’ but I’d go for three weeks without going home once and its hard.
SC.SD. I remember wining and dining some of my speakers when I was away on trips in my old job and it’s all fun and games until business comes up and you have to talk about foreign exchange all night..!
SW. That’s the thing! Wherever I was in the world, I never felt like I was settled and my time didn’t belong to me anymore. No matter what was going on in my life, I had to go to New York next week whether I had plans or not and often the trips were so last minute. It’d be 2pm and someone would call a meeting in Milan the next day at 10am which meant getting up at 4am for the airport and cancelling my plans that night. And then when I was home, I put so much pressure on myself and those around me that it had to be perfect. ‘I only have three days at home this month so they have to be the best ever’ and you end up so stressed that you can’t enjoy them. “YOU CAN’T CANCEL ON OUR PLANS BECAUSE NOW I WON’T SEE YOU FOR TWO MONTHS!” No one wants to be friends with that person.!
SC.SD. She sounds slightly intense…!
SW. Intense and so annoying! Now I’m a lot more flexible… Well, I’m trying to be! Some of my friends will probably tell you I’m still a pain in the ass! I think I was just exhausted that I couldn’t live the way that I wanted to live. It got to the point where I think I was being paid and congratulated for being an aggressive bitch and I didn’t want to be that person. It’s not fun when you’re being rewarded for being the better bitch… and it all comes down to clothes?! No! That’s not what life should be about.
SC.SD. It’s funny how you’ve jumped from that to running a café where the importance of customer service and being nice to people is what your business now relies on..!
SW. Exactly! I have to be nice to people now and I feel like that’s so much better for me! Being around other people that want to be surrounded by that positive energy is so nice. Like I said earlier, the past few weeks have been tough but it’s so good to come to the café, smile, be real and when I see a customer is having a bad day, I’m allowed to say, “me too! Tell me!”
SC.SD. If you hated it for six years though, why suddenly leave?
SW. I’d been building up to it in terms of my career for ages. I remember thinking with the last job that I took on, ‘this is my last attempt in this industry’ but I eventually realised I’d been sold so many ideas and so much, “there won’t be nearly as much travel as you’re doing now, the hours here are very reasonable” and of course it was just as much, if not more, every time.
I’d just come out of a really long term relationship with someone that I’d been with since I was a teenager too though, which obviously had a massive effect on my life. It made me look at everything differently and I guess I had to learn to deal with things on my own that I’d never had to as an adult. I’d always been very physically independent, but being emotionally independent was something completely different. Then when I saw the café had become available, one of my best friend’s had just moved to Australia – also after leaving a really stressful job – and that inspired me too. I remember thinking, ‘if she’s been brave enough to change her life, I’m going to be brave and change mine.’
I couldn’t afford to be unhappy about my job anymore because I no longer had those two emotional crutches around in the same way. Yes, I was unhappy in my job but I needed the two big changes in my personal life to really realise it was time to make a change.
SC.SD. Obviously Café Miami has such a distinct look and feel so let’s talk about the thought process behind the brand…
SW. Well my flat upstairs really is like Miami! There’re palm trees everywhere, everything is pastel coloured… I spent a lot of my savings on renovating my flat to match the building and really noticed how uplifted friends were when they came to visit. You’re in fucking Hackney and then you walk through the gates and there’s a pink staircase and fountains and palm trees; you can’t help but feel positive! I just knew it would be the perfect theme for a café so the idea was to renovate the space in the exact same way as I did with my flat. I wanted the people that live in the building to have an extension of where we live to hang out too.
SC.SD. I’m guessing the renovation wasn’t cheap?
SW. Yeh, I did spend a lot of money. Somewhere between £20 and £30k all in. I could have opened it on a tighter budget as there was a lot in the café already that I could’ve worked with but when I do something, I do it properly and wanted to nail the brand straight away. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable opening something basic looking, and just seeing how we got on. That’s not me,
SC.SD. Start as you mean to go on…
SW. Exactly! From the decoration, to the menu, to the music that we play that creates the right vibe, every detail was so important to me. I didn’t have the budget to open anywhere as fancy as The Palomar which would be my dream (!) but I could get as close to that as possible on my own budget.
SC.SD. Who designed the logo?
SW. One of my best friends, Matthew Mumford. He helped with the overall art direction of the space too, right down to the little details of which cups and saucers to choose! I was super lucky in that sense as I had great contacts from the fashion world who I roped in! My friends Adam and Naomi (From AI PR) helped with PR so we organised a launch event, they did the guest list, we got lots of great people here in the first week and then great press off the back of that…
SC.SD. Did you have a good idea about who you wanted at that press launch or did Adam and Naomi have a free reign?
SW. Obviously I wanted the foodies here (!) but they were great at getting cool fashion East London influencers in too!
The thing is before I opened the café, I didn’t use Instagram so I had no idea about how Instagram and influencers and food blogs worked! I really didn’t open the café with Instagram in mind but I was lucky because Liv Purvis came in on our second week of opening. I had no idea who she was, she posted a couple of photos and suddenly we had hundreds of followers and the next weekend we were full of girls who’d come from all across London for brunch. I messaged Liv like, “thank you SO much! People are coming here because of you!” She must have been like, ‘errr… durrr!’
SC.SD. That’s why I get paid to post love…!
SW. Exactly! It was revolutionary to me! So yes, word of mouth and word of Instagram has helped spread the word. Having said that, I did get frustrated that magazines started branding us as an ‘Instagram café’. Just because it’s beautiful and art deco and pretty doesn’t mean I made it for Instagram. Art deco existed long before Instagram!
SC.SD. I love that though because so many cafes have Instagram at the forefront of their minds when decorating nowadays…
SW. It just wasn’t my mindset. A lot of the ideas in here come from the building or from nostalgia from my childhood. The heart shaped sugar cubes for instance – those are the sugar cubes that my family have had in my house since I was born! That was never done for Instagram! My Mum used to write cookery books so she has just always put a lot of effort into making sure everything was delicious but also as aesthetically pleasing as possible!
Most of the food I make here now derived from her recipes in fact and I’ve either tweaked them or added to them to make them full meals. I still eat like a child and I’ve noticed that everybody loves nostalgia. So many people come in and they’re like, “oh my god I used to love Ribena! Oh my god I used to love fried egg sweets!” and I’m like, “what do you mean you used to love them?! Being a grown up doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to eat those things!” I like injecting that nostalgia and ‘naughtiness’ back into people’s lives.
SC.SD. So many people often think, myself included, “oh wouldn’t it be nice to own a deli” so what does the reality of running a café actually mean for you as boss?
SW. Washing up… and having hands that look and feel like shit! No in all seriousness, a lot of cleaning is the reality but equally I’m in such a nice environment and even on the most stressful day, it’s way more chilled than any job I’ve had before. When it’s stressful it’s because it’s super busy and that’s a good thing. What’s great is that those busy periods now are short lived. A busy period in my old job lasted four months. Here it might be from 10am to 4pm and it’s “aghhh” and then I’m chilled again! That’s a lot easier to handle.
What I do find hard is the not knowing when those busy periods are going to come. In fashion, you know years in advance which months and weeks are going to cause the most stress. Here you don’t know if you’re going to have a busy day or a quiet day and at the beginning that can be really stressful but I’ve learnt to just let it be now. It’s like that for every business so as soon as you learn to control the, ‘oh my god it’s me! No one likes it here!’ on a quiet day, the easier it is. Similarly though, as soon as it’s busy, you can’t let yourself think, ‘I’ve made it! This is how it’ll be from now on forever!’
As well as running Café Miami six days a week, Sophie has a second income stream in the form of managing property on Airbnb…
SC.SD. Running a café six days a week sounds hard enough (!) so how do you manage to juggle the two?
SW. I never split my time evenly! I do both of my jobs all the time. Managing short term lets is something I started doing whilst I was working in fashion and it’s always been my side-line job /hustle that I’d been building up so that I could quit fashion and pay all my mortgage and bills still. I suppose at some stage I thought I’d just take that full time but then the café became available to let and it was too good an opportunity to miss.
I can manage the properties on the go and it never stops. I do it day and night, on my phone, wherever I am in the world…
SC.SD. How did you get into it in the first place?
SW. It started when I was travelling. My brother said he’d heard of a site called Airbnb and told me to try it out on my next trip, so I did and I got £100 a night whilst I was away for a week. I just thought, ‘this is amazing! I’ve just been paid by my company to go away on an all-expenses paid trip and I’ve made £700 on my flat too.’ Then the demand for my flat was so high that I realised that it wasn’t worth me living there as I could make so much money from renting it. I started telling my neighbours about it and said, “let me know if you want me to manage yours too” and I started doing it for the guy below me. He’d had really bad tenants who had trashed his house so I explained the benefits and how it’d make him more money and he said “let’s give it a go!”
SC.SD. And you take a percentage?
SW. Exactly and it was really successful for both of us! Through word of mouth I started managing more and now I have nine properties under management full time.
SC.SD. So you’re running two businesses alongside each other… what are the biggest challenges you’ve had to face since becoming your own boss?
SW. Time or a lack of time (!) and organisation. Luckily, despite being manic, I am actually quite organised but it’s relentless. It never stops. I always feel like wherever I am, there’s always somewhere else I could be so I have to plan each day quite strategically.
It’s like building a house of cards so if someone comes along and changes something in the day, that can then mess up the hundreds of other things I have to do that day. It’s a balancing act and most of the time, I’m used to living like this. I feel like I’ve got my head around it all and all of my friends are used to it too and work around it. It’s when I have new people come into my life that it can be a problem as they can feel really daunted by it. They’re normally like, “whoah, you have too much going on! How does anyone fit into this?” but ultimately, I’m strict when it comes to finding the time for things that I want to do. It just means that I sleep very little..!
SC.SD. How little are we speaking!?
SW. Haha it depends! On average, five hours a night, although saying that I had seven hours last night and it felt so damn good! I’m like a battery though, now I’ve had that seven hours, I’m recharged, and it will keep me going for a few days.
I also find the time to go on holiday a lot. I don’t want to paint a picture that all I do is work! When I’m here, I work hard and it’s fucking intense but then I try to go away at least every six weeks for between 2-6 days. Yes, I’m on my phone when I’m out there but I sleep a lot! I take four naps a day and I lie in the sun and chill.
As long as things are going well, I don’t need much sleep. It’s only when I’m struggling or emotionally drained that it becomes a problem.
SC.SD. What else has proved to be a struggle then?
SW. Staff. I’ve had a good six months with super reliable amazing staff and I feel so lucky for that but for about a year before that I had a stint of people who just weren’t committed. They applied for a weekend job but then called in sick every weekend. What’s the point?! That was very stressful to deal with, I had a few difficult personalities in the café and ultimately I had to fire some people.
It’s such a small environment that if there’s any kind of clash, it affects all of us so much and ultimately I can’t afford to be stressed by someone else. This is my space and I opened this space to have a nice life. If you come in and make me feel like shit or come in and make one of the girls in the team who is so helpful and lovely feel like shit, I’m sorry but you’ve got to go! It’s learning to protect what’s good. Someone once said to me that if you hire the wrong person in a team with the wrong energy, it’s like cancer. It spreads, it gets out of hand and you just have to cut it off. I’ve had to learn be quite ruthless with how I manage that.
SC.SD. What does that responsibility feel like? Knowing that ultimately, you’re the boss and it’s down to you to deal with that situation…
SW. Erm, I wouldn’t say comfortable. I didn’t enjoy it at all. Often you find yourself in a situation where you want to fire someone but you also need them because the rest of the team are on holiday which is never ideal (!) and sometimes they take advantage of that but it’s those times where I’ve had to lean on my friends and say, “would you please be able to help out this weekend?!” I’d rather have two people that are helpful and friendly, even if they don’t have a clue how the café runs than someone that knows exactly how everything works but has an awful attitude.
I’ve had people that call in sick fifteen minutes before they’re due to be in on a Saturday or text me at 11pm on a Friday night like “sorry, I’ve got really bad period pain, I won’t be able to make it tomorrow” and I’m like, ‘are you fucking kidding me?! Do you know how bad my period pain is right now?!’ Most people I’ve met in the food industry say the same thing though. Staff is always the biggest issue.
SC.SD. It’s not their baby?
SW. Exactly! They’ll never care as much as I do but I just wish they’d care on a human level sometimes!
SC.SD. How do you switch off from it all at the end of the day?
SW. If I’m honest, I don’t switch off. I have small moments where I do, if I’m out with friends or at a gig but I’m never fully switched off from it all. There’s always a list to do or someone calling asking where the peanut butter cups are or, “we’ve run out of straws” or something’s happened at one of the flats… Even if I go out for brunch with friends, I’m analysing the meal to see what I can learn from it!
At this exact moment, someone walks past the café, calls out her name and Sophie has to explain that she’s mid-interview so can’t chat…
SW. Like that! People want to pop in and chat all the time which is so lovely but I have to be quite rigid at times and say, “no I’m so sorry, I have so much work to do!” With customers it’s different. If I set aside a few hours to do my accounts in here and a customer comes in and needs someone to listen whilst they vent about their love life for two hours, it’s my job to sit here and listen! It’s good to have that balance though but it means there’s no stop time. I’ve learnt to compartmentalise my brain for that reason.
Music is my go-to switch off though if I’m stressed. Or if I need to energise myself, whatever it is, I turn to music.
At the same time though, I just remind myself of why I started this in the first place when I’m stressed. Like last Friday when I had to close the café early, I’d received some really difficult personal news in the morning, then I had two issues with the Airbnbs and I was on my own in the café. I just felt like, ‘I can’t deal with these Airbnb issues and deal with the news I had earlier and manage this café. Something’s gotta give, I’m in control of that and I’m lucky enough that the café isn’t manic today so I’ll wait until the last customer has gone and I’ll close.’ I closed at 3.30pm, crossed town to deal with the properties, then took half an hour to myself to sit and process the news I’d received that morning and then I came back to the café and cleared up for the day with one of my friends. That’s why I did this.
In my previous life, if I’d received difficult personal news, you’d have no choice but to carry on. Your boss might say, “take ten minutes” but you don’t have control. Knowing that I can just pull the plug if I need to goes a long way.
SC.SD. And it works both ways doesn’t it? I remember when we first met, you were saying how if your friends invite you to a gig on a night where you’d planned to bake for the café, you’re very good at saying “fuck it” and going to the gig instead!?
SW. Absolutely! I could stay up until 2am and bake all the cakes, do my invoices and miss out on the fun or I could decide that today, for tomorrow, it’s more important for me to go out and have fun with my friends because I’ll function better tomorrow knowing that I had a good time. I definitely don’t make life easy for myself in that sense! Like I said, if I want to do something, I make sure I find the time!
SC.SD. Work hard play hard?!
SW. Yes! I want it all! I’m super greedy in that sense!
SC.SD. Freedom to control your hours aside, what else makes being your own boss and running this café worth it?!
SW. Because I love the day to day environment here! I love having a space that feels like home but isn’t home, I love having an open door, I love being able to feed people food that is super, super yummy.
I’ve always been a really private person and at the beginning it was a challenge for me that I was going to have a shop, people would know where I am and they would be able to find me. It was a daunting concept and I still don’t like it sometimes, but equally it’s the biggest positive. I have a place where no matter what time of day it is, my friends can pop in and find me and that’s so rare! In a normal 9 to 5, you can’t call your best mate and say, “can you come and sit with me today and keep me company?!” but I can! There’s no price you can put on that! We put on music, there’s an endless supply of snacks…
SC.SD. I’d legit get tubs!
SW. I put on a lot of weight when I opened the café! I’m much more aware of how much I eat now, well most of the time!
SC.SD. Rounding up, do you have a favourite quote?!
SW. OH MY GOD I HAVE SO MANY PUFF DADDY QUOTES! I could literally sit here and recite Puff Daddy quotes all night!
SC.SD. I just want one Sophie!
SW. Ok! I guess my favourite life quote is – it’s not actually Puff Daddy, its Nas, my other favourite rapper – “life is what you make it.” I want what I want and I’ll make it happen. I say it to myself ten times a day minimum. My life and how I live it is all down to me.
SC.SD. I love that! And your end goal for Café Miami? Can you see yourself running this place forever?
SW. I can’t imagine ever wanting to close it but at the same time, I can’t imagine being fulfilled running it the way that I do right now, forever. I might change the way that I manage it one day but I also strongly believe in ‘never say never’. I have zero idea how I’ll feel in a few years’ time and the cards I’m dealt with in the future, so I try not to plan too far ahead to avoid disappointment. I do set my annual goals though. I make sure I achieve those.
SC.SD. What’s your goal for this year then?!
SW. Learn to drive and buy a car which I’ve done… and then learn to DJ which I haven’t done yet!
SC.SD. You’ve got two months left Sophie, you can do this!
SW. Check back with me by my birthday! Now I’ve said it out loud, I have to!
What I admire about Sophie is that she lives life to the full and isn’t afraid to admit that she – despite running two very demanding businesses – prioritises fun.
From taking advantage of the freedom that being your own boss can bring and creating a home from home for friends and customers to not just eat but hang out; finding inspiration from her childhood and the nostalgia it brings and stocking the cafés shelves with childhood favourites accordingly; to constantly reminding herself that ‘life is what you make it’ on a daily basis and being steadfast on her path to get what she wants as a result; Sophie is living proof that it’s ok to have fun with your business and allow yourself to set varying rules as you go.
Her refreshing refusal to cave to the pressures of social media is worth noting too.
In an age where we feel the burden to (over) share more about our personal lives on Instagram and what we’re doing behind the scenes at every single moment, Sophie’s flat out refusal to disclose photos of herself online (and the undisturbed success of Café Miami regardless) is welcomed proof that if you channel your energy into creating a strong brand, said strong brand can (and is allowed to) speak for itself.
Charismatic, warm-hearted, with a mischievous glint in her eye, this is one Founder whose created two very different lifestyle businesses for herself and plays by her own rules unremittingly as a result.