Leading in a Boutique Enterprise

boutique is much more than a small, quaint retail shop in a historic downtown district. It's a mindset. 

I noticed the new coffee shop was open for business. Upon walking into Cafe La Fortuna in Chicago-Hinsdale, I immediately made a connection with owners Angela and Alejandro Garcia. With genuine smiles and welcoming postures, they made me feel as though I was their most important customer. And moments later, I discovered the most delicious coffee I've ever tasted. 

What Angela and Alejandro have created is magical. They've had a family-operated, environmentally-friendly coffee plantation in Chiapas for over 100 years. They know coffee.

They personally greet each and every customer with heartfelt appreciation. It doesn't take long for them to know the regulars' names and drink preferences. But beyond pleasantries, they ask questions that probe beneath the surface of small talk. They connect customers into meaningful conversation with each other. They know their customers.

And they're succeeding within a stone's throw of a coffee giant's conspicuous (and slightly more conveniently accessed) storefront. With only two local shops, Cafe La Fortuna is safely in the "boutique" category. But it goes beyond just their size; it's their mindset.


News reports continue that big-box stores and online retailers are taking over the business once serviced by small, mom-and-pop restaurants and shops. Big corporations come into small-town America with lower prices, bigger selection, and better hours of availability.

Mega-corps are masters of large-scale. They use automation, digitization, and standardization to keep prices low and consistency high. But the tradeoff is a certain impersonalized service and run-of-the-mill product. Employees, even those in customer service roles, are bound by rigid corporate rules and regulations. Maybe you've heard "I'm sorry, but our store policy...." as a stoic response?

These industry monsters rely upon (and thrive on) mass-production, convenience, volume, and speed. In-and-out, with as much and as quickly as possible. 


A boutique, on the other hand, thrives upon the exact opposite:
  • artisans and craftsmen with lifetimes of study and experience;
  • providing the highest level of quality, service, and product;
  • a customized, attentive experience for the client or customer;
  • an appreciation for the uniqueness of each situation, transaction, and project;
  • a special focus on emotion and relationships between people.
Even in an age of standardization and mass-scale industry, we continue to see small businesses open their doors, whether on Main Street or in the digital space. Those that survive and thrive all understand the above aspects of operating a boutique enterprise.


What happens to small mom-and-pop operations? Well, only a couple of things happen.
  1. They fold. The core values of quality, service, and relationships cannot withstand the competing attraction of the cookie-cutter mega-store down the street.
  2. They grow. And grow. And grow. And before you know it, their logo is identifiable everywhere. The well-intent entrepreneurs design employee handbooks, franchise across the country, and outsource production. They lose sight of the very boutique principles that got them there. They turn into their own faceless corporation - like they rose against years before.
  3. They grow. But only as fast as they can produce leaders and members within their organizations - and instill the concepts, emotion, and vision that started the business. 

So what does it take to lead in such a boutique? Why is leadership so vital to their future?

Running a boutique is more than producing more, more cheaply and more quickly. It's not about increase in scale, or volume, or efficiency. These are issues of management, not leadership

Boutique leadership (and arguably ALL leadership) is about mentoring the foundational beliefs, principles, and values into the next generation of employee, supervisor, or owner. It's instilling the shared vision of the creators - yet still giving the authority for the next generation to shape and adapt to the future. Leaders ask and answer the WHY question....and the HOW question. 

The reality is that not every product or service has an emotional or customizable need; sometimes "low-bid" wins out. My household buys things like baby  diapers, charcoal briquettes, and AA batteries in bulk - from the cheapest or most convenient outlets. But what about the rest? I argue that intangibles and immeasurable such as emotion, relationships, and trust matter. More than we are willing to accept (especially in a time of management philosophies built on spreadsheets and outcomes).

It doesn't matter if your business is a retail store. Or a restaurant. Or a craft brewery. Or a horse saddle maker. Or a web designer. Or a hair stylist. Or a police department. Or financial investor. Or a lawn care service. Or a coffee shop.....some level of boutique-ing is required to survive and thrive.

I contend that, no matter how big or small your company or organization, you will be better off following the boutique model, of both operational business and leadership - maintaining an appreciation for the trust and appreciation of your customers' needs.

Think about how and where you spend your money and time. Where are you willing to drive the extra mile or spend the extra dollar? Then ask why.

The answer is listed above. I'll bet a cup of coffee on it.


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr


Popular posts from this blog

Presentation Hack: Your Last Slide(s)

Presentation Hack: "For those of you who don't know me..."

The Generalist versus The Specialist