Chaleur, a local coffee shop in the heart of the canopied neighborhoods in midtown Mobile, Ala., opened on a thread of hope — to bring something simple, pure and of quality to a new market.
Courtney and Christian Hilley, the shop’s owners, spun their dream into a staple of the community by growing Chaleur into a multifaceted business that included a bakery and coffee roastery.
“I’d always heard that a small business is like a baby in the beginning,” said Courtney. “But eventually it becomes something of its own and you have to let it grow into its own.”
And years of hustling and growth passed when the couple came to the harsh realization of how stress can manifest in the body. Their business had surpassed all of their expectations, their work with a local not-for-profit magazine was piling up, Christian had plenty of freelance design work and the couple was spread thin to the point of mental health decline.
The minds of entrepreneurs like the Hilleys are typically set on growth and creation. What idea comes next? When is the next deadline to crush? What opportunity hasn’t yet surfaced? But, when is the right time to cut ties on a business, downsize or reallocate hours to other ventures when every creation is like a child you’ve raised?
“It’s the million-dollar question,” said Christian.
Since the coronavirus pandemic started, small businesses across the South, like the Hilleys’, have shuffled their businesses around and even shut their doors. An estimated 163,735 businesses have closed in the U.S. since March 1 — an increase of 23 percent since July 10, according to the Yelp Economic Impact study. Timing for the South Alabama business was perplexing — just as the couple mulled the idea of changing things up for their own mental and physical health, COVID-19 struck.
The Hilleys represent the thousands of business owners who had to make tough choices during the pandemic to pivot away from their core business, experiment with new products, or shutter their businesses for good. Now, running their business became a case study, similar to many other small business owners’ experiences, in running a healthy business — literally and figuratively, they said.
To protect their employees and consumers, they tried curbside sales in the beginning. They made ramen for a virtual hug in a bowl amid the troubles of the pandemic. And when it was time to let adaptability take control and change their business in a huge way, they took the step.
Today, Chaleur Coffee is a roastery operating two days a week. “Christian and I were daily saddling and holding the reins of a six-headed horse, and we’ve cut off five of the heads,” Courtney wrote to her Instagram audience days after they made the adjustment.
The reassuring part of changing things up in a market filled with people who’ve dedicated their time, money and lives to your business, she said, is knowing that you’ve built a customer base who cares about you in addition to the product.
“If you are trying to evaluate all of the plates that you have spinning, take the time you need to do so,” Christian said. “There is a lot of talk toward people our age about the hustle and the grind. I haven’t heard a lot of people say that the hustle is supposed to be a season. It shouldn’t be your life.”
This realization, if late to the business building table, can have serious consequences on your health and quality of life, they said. Over the course of building your business, Christian said, if it is healthy your plate should get smaller and smaller. Ask yourself if there is a way to make running your business healthy, he said, and don’t sacrifice that health if it’s not possible.
“I wouldn’t have made a different decision,” Courtney said.
And since making that decision, Courtney has pivoted once more. She launched Courtney Hilley Clothing in August 2020, sustainable linen and silk clothing line created with the Deep South’s coastal heat in mind. This venture, like many of the world’s most prominent, started as the exact opposite of the coffee shop: A personal endeavor to make clothing suitable for strenuous summers and humid falls.
“I get a lot of new ideas. I make myself sit on it for at least six months,” Courtney said. “That may seem like a long time, but it really isn’t. Then, I ask myself if I still want to do it, and I jump in.”
She didn’t want second-guess things for the rest of her life, but waiting to be sure that the passion is strong enough to withstand being transitioned into a job keeps her steady in her ventures, she said. Think longevity, Christian said, and research what you want to accomplish and provide.
Being an entrepreneur looks different for everyone, Christian said, and that’s rarely acknowledged. When Chaleur was in its second year, Courtney said, everyone told them that they should be working more than they thought they would, but in reality, they were tripling the work expected of them.
It was a hard lesson to learn, she said, and one she’s proudly carrying into her new business.
“Don’t listen to the guilt,” Christian said. “Stop listening to career coaches who shame people into overworking. You need to notice when you are taking in that influence. It may seem encouraging at the time, but it might not be what you need to be the entrepreneur you want to be.”