Frontlines / Christians at Work : The Coffee Shop Owner

For this edition of Frontlines, Gavin Matthews spoke to the owner of “Pots of Coffee”, Mark Davis.

Solas: Hi Mark, thankyou for speaking to us for Frontlines. Tell us a little about your job..

MD: Well, we have a coffee shop, with a gifts and gardening shop which we have been running for 23 years. The gardening shop came first and lots of people said to us, “wouldn’t it be great if you had a wee coffee shop in here too!” We prayed a lot about it, because it was a big investment for a family business and all kinds of circumstances came together to make it possible. One of those was that we would need an experienced coffee shop manager, then a good friend at church called Stephen told us he was selling his coffee shop for family reasons, but was available. The amount we could afford to pay him, was exactly the amount he needed to keep his family. So everything fell into place. We had been praying, Stephen and his wife had been praying and it was lovely to see the way God dovetailed the two situations. We didn’t set out with aim of running a coffee shop, but we’ve been lead in this direction and have seen how God has massively blessed us in it and our community through it. We started with 35 seats but the coffee shop has grown and grown and is now 120 seats as the need for social space is so great.

It’s a small business with 13 staff so everybody has to be a ‘jack of all trades’! My wife, Rosemary is an accountant but she also does the cooking. I am mainly front of house, although I do a bit of cooking as well. In truth, my wife Rosemary is the real engine room of the business, she works very hard – and we do work very long days; 12-16 hr days are normal for us.

Solas: What’s the best part of your job?

MD: Without any doubt the best thing is people and conversation! I’m a Biochemist by training but if there was ever anyone totally unsuited to being a biochemist it was me! I am really just a people-person. In hindsight I can see how God shut several doors to me, in order to move me in the right direction. We all want to know what God wants us to do with our lives, and I think that God has made me and wired me for people and so this role that he has placed me in has been such a blessing. I love seeing people coming in through the door, hospitality is a very Christ-like thing, and so I love being in the hospitality ‘industry’. I love welcoming people in – and allowing them to open up about whatever is going on in their lives. Obviously all that is within the context of having to do a day’s work too!

Solas: What are some of the challenges that you face at work – and how does your faith in Christ help you to navigate those?

MD: One of things about entrepreneurs is that we are never satisfied. We set out targets for productivity, income, and social-things and then when those targets are met, we set news ones. We never rest on our laurels, because our attitude is ‘if you’re not moving forward you’re not moving at all’. Now that is hard to reconcile with what Paul writes in the Bible, “for I have learned to be content in all circumstances”. We have a very successful business, with 400+ people a day through our coffee shop. So the challenge is to learn contentment! Lockdown obviously helped with that a bit – because not every change I wanted to make was possible, and I had to learn to rest in the situation we were in! So that’s a challenge for me because I’m a wee bit hyper! Rosemary and I have two children, but the business has felt like a third child at times and it’s been hard to make sure that priorities have been right around those three.

Not opening the shop on Sundays has been absolutely vital for this too. There is a huge pressure to do so as Sundays would be the busiest day of the week for us if we opened. A lot of our Christian customers respect the fact that we don’t open on a Sunday, and support us. And that’s good because there is a temptation to compromise our values and pursue the most profit. Instead, the coffee shop gets used for Alpha courses and church youth groups then.

Solas: Does being a Christian make a difference to the way you approach work?

MD: Colossians 3:23 is our motto – which we wear on our uniforms and is on the wall in the shop. It says, “In all things, whatsoever you do, do it as if for The Lord and not for man.” So when we recruit we make that clear to all of our staff that that is how we try to live our lives. So customer service is massive for us. If The Lord walked in the door, how would we treat him? That’s how we aim to treat all people who come in, regardless of how much they might spend, they all deserve the very best treatment. For some people the only refuge they have in a day is the time they spend here in this coffee shop. We have all the big coffee shop chains locally – but we want our customers to have a very different experience than that. Something different, and more personal, and we want people to ask why it is different and what drives us.

Solas: Do people you work with know that you are a Christian? How do they react to that?

MD: Yes, they do and so do the customers. Along with the Bible reference on our uniforms, we have posters on the walls with quotes on them. Many of them are secular quotes, but there are some Bible verses amongst them too. Then we play secular and Christian music in the shop – and all these things are a talking point for people. We talk openly about our faith and reactions have been by in large – fantastic! There are loads of coffee shops in our town so people have plenty of choice and if they don’t like our coffee, our Christian music or our cakes or our ethos, there are plenty of other places to choose from! In twenty-three years we have had four complaints about our faith. A member of the gay community went on a vitriolic rant on social media because they disagreed with a Bible verse on our wall. Then someone wrote a review which complained that although the food was lovely ‘we had to sit under a Bible verse looking down upon us’. Then one lady complained that the people at the table next to her were discussing the Bible – and that I should stop them! Two young lads had come in and were doing a Bible-study, so I said to her that I had no control over what customers talk about, be it the weather, the football or their faith. She said, “Well, I’ll never be back here again”. Then someone complained about Christian music – but really it’s my shop, and my choice on the sound-system!!

The staff like the Christian ethos. It’s not threatening, everything we do is very ‘soft-touch’. In fact we know that a lot of people who are not even churchgoers apply for work here because they like the ethos and feel it’s safe here for them. Quite a few folks like that ask if we have jobs for their teenage kids, because they want them to work in a place where the employer cares about the staff.

Solas: Have you ever had opportunities to share your faith with people you know through work? What things have helped you to have good conversations about faith? Did you deliberately set about to have these conversations, or did they occur naturally?

DM: All of the above! As I mentioned we’re often able to use the coffee shop for church youth events and Alpha courses on Sundays when it’s closed. So we have this wonderful space available in the town centre, which we can use in a non-profit way on a Sunday to serve – so that I suppose is a deliberate and planned way of sharing the gospel here.

But spontaneous conversations are huge and they occur everyday and usually start with a sincere, “How are you today?” We celebrate birthdays, we commiserate losses – all of life. One day I looked down the shop and could see eight tables and there was someone on every one of those tables who was going through a tragedy. A divorce on the first table, a bereavement on the second, a motor-neurone disease diagnosis, someone who had lost a child on the next and so on. I’d spent time talking to all of those people, and a member of my staff said to me, “How do you cope with speaking to all those people?” And I said, “That’s part of what we do here, and I have the privilege of sharing what God means to me – into all of those people’s lives.” She said, “What do mean by that?!” I said that each of us meets tragedy and joy in the journey of life, and that God has helped me through the joys and tragedies I have experienced. The next day she came into work and said, “What you said about God yesterday – how would that relate to me?” Which meant we could continue the conversation.

One customer comes in every day. He’s been bereaved, and he chats to me for half an hour every morning, about his late wife and about life. He wants to talk about things such as what happens when we die and if there is a better place. I said that I believe there are wonderful promises about the future when we trust The Lord. So he asked what it meant to trust The Lord and it was a lovely opportunity to share that with him. But I never, ever, force conversations – it has to be natural. And of course when you have regular customers for many years, they also see you live your life, and trust you as a person too; so relationship usually comes first.

Solas: How do people react when you talk about your faith in Jesus? Interested? Angry? Apathetic? Do they ever raise objections…. What were they and how did you respond?

MD: Some people want to know more, others aren’t so happy. I was chatting to an older Christian gentleman who was had lost his daughter and was really suffering. In the conversation we talked about our great hope and joy being that when we pass from this life we enter something which is perfect, complete and the way it was meant to be. As I walked away from the table, a man on the next table said to me, “you know that’s a load of claptrap don’t you – I suppose you believe in creation too?” I told him that I do believe that God made the universe. I was a biochemist – so we were able to have really good chat about abiogenesis – and the origins of life. I gently challenged his claim that the big bang came out of nothing, created everything; and that that was a more intellectually sustainable argument than my argument that God had created everything. It was a really busy day in the coffee shop and I only had about three or four minutes to chat, but he came back another day to talk more.

Solas: Why do you want to talk to colleagues and friends about Jesus?

MD: Really because of my own experiences, and my experience of being a dad – of knowing the difference that God has made in my life and in my kids lives too. There is also a sense that ‘there but by the grace of God go I’. I could be one of the folks that don’t know Christ yet. It has been a huge privilege that He opened my eyes and I now have the promise of an eternal future in him – and so sharing that is a natural thing. If you were a doctor and had a cure, why would you not want everyone to have it too? I’ve been granted the privilege of having a forum in which to do that. Who else gets the privilege of seeing maybe 400 people a day? I get to share in their lives, and their journey. People need hope today more than ever and there is no greater hope than in Christ.

Solas: What advice would you give a young Christian entering your field of work who wants to be faithful to Christ there?

MD: The verse that we hold so dear, Colossians 3:23 has stuck with me through all we have done over the years, and is the key to hospitality. If you can treat people as you would wish to be treated yourself; and if you can do everything as if you were doing it for The Lord then everything else follows. You have to have a passion for people, but if you are doing everything for the Lord, then even on days when it all goes pear-shaped, you won’t feel defeated – but you will try to improve. Finally remember that you are not in this alone. You may have many members of staff but you also have someone more important present. He’s your counsellor, your helper and your sustainer and the person who provides the opportunities for you to have an opening into peoples’ lives.

Solas: Thankyou so much for speaking to us Mark!