Nickolas Neibauer's friendliness at Caffé Strada seemed out of place at first in Amman. With his warm toothy smile, and American accent, I assumed he was an ex-pat waiting tables. His direct "Good morning, ma'am," stood out in Amman's aloof restaurant culture, where many waiters have perfected the art of looking just past your waving hand at help needed on the horizon.
But Neibauer might just be the most earnest person working on Rainbow Street. Since he and two Jordanian co-founders launched the friendly café in January this year, it’s quickly become a Rainbow street hotspot for writers and entrepreneurs; every time I visit, I see at least one tech entrepreneur plugging away on a laptop.
The sleek space is a touch more high-end than competitor Turtle Green, which displays a local art installations, a chalkboard, and a tank with two actual turtles. Strada (which means "street" in Italian) has more space to work, and its food- warm toasted paninis, and full-bodied salads- is better. It sources Italian meats and cheeses through a supplier that also serves the Four Seasons, serves Attibassi, an Italian brand of coffee. After working in restaurants in Italy and managing Italian restaurants in Seattle, Neibauer has taught his employees at Strada to perfect the art of the latte.
One of his co-founders is a tea fanatic. “He knows almost too much about tea,” smiles Neibauer. “He printed a 100-page manual on our tea, and has our employees take it home.” The result is that Strada makes a mean jasmine iced green tea, from loose leaf Jing tea.
Although his approach was tailored for the savvy Ammani customer, Strada has thus far attracted a crowd that’s 60-70% expatriate, says Neibauer. “We were not expecting this.” The non-smoking rule may have something to do with that.
Keeping Employees Loyal
It turns out that the man I initially thought was the owner, the ever-present Malak Hanna, was working at an ice cream store in the mall when Neibauer first approached him. “We just really liked the way that he was handling customers,” Neibauer says. They convinced Hanna, originally from Egypt, to work at Strada on his days off. Now he’s fulltime and Strada is investing in his English classes.
Their other employees tend to be younger Jordanians who want to work in a coffeeshop during the summer or while in school. But Caffé Strada is serious about keeping its employees on board. “We pay around 60-70% more than comparable cafés,” Neibauer says. As long as employees can get enthusiastic about the nuances of tea and coffee. “And when someone walks in, they get a smile and a hello,” says Neibauer, something some would joke is rare in Jordan.
Strada is so vigiliant about training employees in customer service and beverage making that training the staff of five-star restaurants in coffee and tea is another potential revenue stream for the café as it scales.
Paying Fees to Secure a Space
The biggest challenge to date of getting set up in Jordan has been, as many will attest, being able to afford the right space. In Jordan, business owners must pay khlou, or a flat fee to the owner of a commercial space, simply to free it up for use. Especially on popular Rainbow Street, spaces can go unoccupied for months or years thanks to an exorbitant khlou price. The antiquated rule is deadly for young entrepreneurs.
Neibauer didn’t reveal the amount of khlou that Strada, which is steps off of Rainbow, had to pay, but an informal poll placed the typical khlou range in the neighborhood somewhere between US $25,000 and the $100,000 that a new Armenian restaurant was rumored to have paid for space on the main street. While Strada would have paid significantly less two blocks further away, the owners knew that their spot, across from the Rainbow Theatre, was perfect.
“The khlou was daunting at first,” says Neibauer. But the three owners pooled together their startup capital, formed a managing company for Strada, and issued shares from for friends and family who also chipped in.
The red tape was frustrating, but fortunately Neibauer’s wife, who is Jordanian, helped Neibauer navigate the labyrinthine offices and paperwork. “This is certainly an area where Jordan could improve when it comes to entrepreneurship,” he says. “Or least the hallway could be a bit more organized so that you only have to go to one guy for approval,” he says politely.
(Neibauer’s wife is clearly a supportive part of the equation. They also had a daughter just one week before Strada launched. "She brings the baby in once a week while I work, and that helps keep us grounded,” he says.)
Neibauer's advice to food and beverage entrepreneurs looking to build something lasting in Jordan? “Research, research, research, and specialize.” Some of the hottest new restaurants, like Fatty Dabs Burger Shack, are really focusing on doing one thing well, he says.
“People are tired of the same old thing, and they’re less tolerant of the status quo. Entrepreneurs should find the best suppliers and ingredients, and make it local and fresh. Find something that no one else is doing, and do it 100%.”