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How the Happiest Cafe in Virginia Beach Fosters Charm and Community This family-run business grew from a small coffeehouse into a staple Virginia Beach destination.

By Emily Washcovick

Key Takeaways

  • Being open to trying new things — from products to business hours to staffing — will help you on your entrepreneurial journey.
  • Reviewers generally want to help you make the best business possible.
  • Adjust and adapt social media to your needs.
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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Courtesy of Happy Cafe

When Tomeka Wallace opened Happy Cafe in Virginia Beach, Virginia, she wanted to fill a coffee void. With nowhere in her hometown to get a cup of coffee up to her standards, she decided to take action. What began as a small cafe and sandwich shop became a diverse eatery serving breakfast, lunch and dinner in a cozy setting.

The evolution didn't happen overnight and wasn't without some growing pains. Wallace's initial focus on healthful items like salads and smoothies proved difficult to sustain, even with a gym across the street.

"We had people come in and say, 'You don't have soda? You don't have homemade sweet tea? You don't have fries?'" she says.

Restaurant hours were another operating decision that Wallace struggled with in the early days. Although Happy Cafe used to stay open until 8 p.m., Wallace moved closing time to 3 p.m. when she realized that the dinner crowd was too small to sustain business operations for 13 hours a day.

Ultimately, through trial and error — and an unwavering commitment to her customers — Wallace found her sweet spot. She taught herself how to navigate the kitchen, cooking up a delicious burger recipe and roasted potatoes to stand in for the fries people asked for. She even added dinner items to her menu to satisfy customers who missed her evening hours. Her tasty menu and friendly service have built a base of loyal customers and reviewers, including Yelp Elite Odester H.

"One of my favorite restaurants in the 757," Odester's review reads. "If y'all haven't checked them out, you are missing out on a delicious, local, Black-owned, woman-owned restaurant. I went with a friend for dinner, and everything was delicious… The customer service is top-tier. The owner is so kind, and the entire atmosphere has you coming back."

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Wallace and her mother, who co-manage the restaurant, are huge believers in the power of good customer service. With an open kitchen, Wallace can greet customers from behind the grill as they walk in. Her mother is Happy Cafe's "server mascot," drifting from table to table to make sure everyone is comfortable as they settle in.

"There's three things. People come in for the ambiance [and] service. And food is always last," Wallace says. "If we nail it with the service, but say there's something on the floor or a table may not be clean, they'll still come back because the service was good. If the food was messed up but the service was good, they're gonna come back. So service is everything."

The welcoming community that Wallace and her mother have built keeps Odester coming back to Happy Cafe meal after meal. She appreciates that the owners know her personally and always take the time to ask how she and her son are doing.

"They're not just there to say, 'What do you need? What do you want?' They're fine if you're [there] for an hour, two hours, three hours. They want you to have a great experience."

Wallace also brings this hospitality into her online presence. Even if it takes her a week or two to get to everything, she is determined to respond to all Yelp reviews and "make it right" with customers, whether that requires a staff meeting to discuss a mishap or adding a new menu item.

These efforts don't go unnoticed. Customers like Odester value the personal touches Wallace adds to her reviews.

"Once you spend your money, the transaction is done. But the fact that she takes the time to go on Yelp, just saying, 'Hey, thank you so much,' it definitely makes you feel valued," Odester says. "I haven't had too many responses from owners, so when they do [respond], I'm definitely going to come back. It makes me feel like, 'Okay, you value me [as] more than just a dollar.'"

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Wallace likes to invest her limited time outside the kitchen in platforms like Yelp rather than social media, finding that review engagement is a productive way to draw in customers who are ready to spend.

"I look at some places, and they have 50,000 followers, but do you have 50,000 people coming to your establishment within 30 days or within six months? If I'm doing things to get a big audience on [social] platforms, is that coming in monetarily? Say if we did an ad with Yelp, or I post that we're open, we get people coming in. That's where it matters to me."

Online platforms are a great way for businesses to advertise what makes them unique. Like many reviewers, Odester is eager to invest in local, minority-owned businesses, and she appreciated that Happy Cafe conveyed its status as a Black-owned and woman-owned business via Yelp attributes. By searching for these attributes on Yelp, she's able to not only find places like Happy Cafe but also share them with friends, family and like-minded reviewers.

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"When my friends come into town, they already know we're going to Happy Cafe," Odester says. "And from me doing that, my friends now go on their own. I see them posting on Yelp, and they're at Happy Cafe, and I'm like, 'Why didn't you tell me you were going to Happy Cafe? I would've come!' Sharing businesses [lets] folks know that they're here and they're here to stay. So let's breathe life into them and do what we can do to make sure that [Happy Cafe] is here for 50, 60, 100-plus years."

Along with friendly and hands-on customer service, Happy Cafe believes in:

  • Staying flexible. Don't be afraid to try new things and scale back on changes as you figure out what works best for you, your staff and your customers.
  • Responding to reviews. Engaging with customers online can improve your business operations and customer retention, helping customers feel like they are more than just a dollar sign.
  • Develop a digital presence. Encourage people to support you by sharing your story online, and invest your time in platforms that give you the best return.

Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Wallace and Odester, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.

Available on: Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pandora and Soundcloud.

Editorial contributions by Callie Morgan and Kristi Lindahl

Related: This Mom and Pop Ice Cream Shop's Success Comes Down to This Simple Phrase

Emily Washcovick

Small Business Expert at Yelp

As Yelp’s Small Business Expert, Emily is meticulously focused on helping local business owners succeed and grow. Her expertise lies in customer engagement, reputation management, and all things digital marketing. Through speaking engagements and thought leadership, Emily shares industry insights that entrepreneurs in any business category can leverage for the growth and well-being of their businesses. She is also the host of Behind the Review, a podcast from Yelp and Entrepreneur Media, where each episode features conversations with a business owner and a reviewer about the story and lessons behind their interactions.

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