The Coworker: Could Crew’s Café be the blueprint for expansion?

Crew Cafe

The Coworker is a new weekly series by MTLinTECH that spotlights one Montreal coworking space every Tuesday.

Mikael Cho didn’t really know if the Crew Collective & Café

would be successful after six months. Of course, he hoped so.

The idea to open a two-thirds coworking space and one-third café in a historic building with incredibly high rent was gutsy to say the least.

But not even six months have passed and the Crew Collective & Café is bustling with activity. A sold-out members-only section sits in the back portion of the space and a steady flow of regulars sipping coffee and munching on delicious treats sit in the front café portion. The space lies inside the historic Royal Bank Tower at 360 Saint-Jacques Street.

“There was a lot of uncertainty when we opened it,” Cho told MTLinTECH. “Our café makes up a third of our space. Is it going to drive enough revenue? Old Montreal is the most expensive part of the city, so will this generate enough to sustain itself?”

Fortunately for Cho and his team at Crew, the café has done so well that many of those prior concerns are vanishing. Cho sold out all 25 memberships before the space opened its doors and the café is already generating enough money to cover most of the rent.

“For it to be happening now was wishful thinking,” Cho said.

Crew Cafe

Crew Cafe

Photo by Crew

Crew Cafe

Crew CafeBut really, the entrepreneur knew all along that he wanted to create something great. Cho is the cerebral, soft-spoken founder of Crew, a Montreal-born startup that offers a curated platform connecting about 400 designers and developers with vetted clients.

Cho said the idea came to life after Crew raised its $10 million series A round in July, 2015. At first, Crew wanted a bigger office to meet the needs of its team, now at 25. From there it became a vision to offer a public office space, especially since Crew has always been keen on hosting events.

Having also found success with their free photography site, Unsplash, Cho approached his investors with enough street cred to open the Crew Collective & Café in late 2015. From the beginning he did things a little differently, whether it was hiring away one of Fljin Cafe‘s well-known barristas, eliminating tips and paying everyone a wage of $15-16 per hour, or designing the space specifically for people to get work done.

“This is not just a café. We’ve talked about that to the whole team,” said Cho. “The purpose of the café is connecting it to Crew and the notion that this is a brand and a lifestyle in a new way of working. The type of service that you give needs to focus on that, so it’s not just making a coffee for someone.”

Crew CafeCrew Cafe

Crew CafeCrew CafeTo encourage people to work at the café, Cho installed powerbars under every table, something that typically wouldn’t be offered by modern coffee chains. Their main concern is to increase the in-out flow of customers rather than encourage people to stay for as long as they want. Cho said his team specifically designed the space for people to get work done.

“It doesn’t make sense for most cafés to do it, whereas for us this is not our core business,” said Cho. “We can let people stay here forever because we want something digitally to happen.”

A desk in Crew’s coworking space ranges from $425-500 per month, but interested parties might have to settle for a waiting list for now.

Along with the café and the coworking space, Crew will start a Friday-morning radio show podcast from one of its conference room booths. It will also look to throw about 20 events a year. For Cho, the investment in the space was akin to content marketing. From Crew to Unsplash, everything he’s done in some way helped further Crew’s brand, leaving him with a strong track-record to try something as large and daunting as the new space.

“It was scary. It’s still scary,” he said. “But people don’t pay attention to stuff that’s not different or impactful. If we would have just done a normal office space and turned it into a café, we’d just be fighting everyday to be noticed.”

“Sometimes you have to trail-blaze. You have to go against somebody who has been through a lot of stuff and you look up to, who says it’s not going to work, and you have to say it’s going to work.”

But Cho seems convinced that if San Francisco-based coffee shops Blue Bottle raised $70 million, why can’t he turn his java-pouring enterprise into a fortune? He feels that is reasonable to think Crew could do this again at a larger scale.

Indeed, the founder did admit that looking into creating a similar space in other cities. It would certainly be hard to find another architectural gem like the Royal Bank Tower in Montreal’s Old Port (not to mention expensive).

“We know that finding spaces like this space is a big key to that. And its gonna be really expensive, so that’s why we need to prove it out. We’d only do it if we were going to expand there as a team anyways.”

Have you read the rest of The Coworker series?

Mile Ex’s peaceful 6cent1 is a one of a kind – June 9

Gameplay Space has gaming startups feeling like pros – June 2

Halte 24-7 puts design at the forefront – May 31


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