SMALL BUSINESS OF THE YEAR
It may be a transplant from neighboring Guam, but in the more than two decades it has sated Saipan’s considerable appetite, Shirley’s Coffee Shop has also become Saipan’s de facto restaurant for comfort food. Which is why Saipan Tribune has chosen to name the establishment, which has two locations on Saipan—Susupe and Garapan—as its Small Business of the Year for 2019.
Shirley’s Coffee Shop was founded in Guam in 1983 by the restaurant’s iconic namesake, Shirley Lai. Ten years later, the family-style casual dining restaurant reached Saipan’s shores with the opening of the Chalan Laulau branch in 1993.
Remembering it like it was just yesterday, Shirley’s Coffee Shop part-owner Susan Macario said there was palpable excitement in the air leading up to the time when the restaurant opened on Saipan 26 years ago.
“Right after we put up the sign that says ‘Shirley’s Coffee Shop, Opening Soon,’ Saipan residents would stop by to check on the renovations. [Everyone] were excited to know when the exact opening date will be and that there will finally be a Shirley’s Coffee Shop on Saipan. Some were even taking photos with the ‘Opening Soon’ banner. It gave us a feel of how our opening will be met by the community.”
She said Shirley’s Coffee Shop’s advantage was it already built a very good name and was already known for its good food in the U.S. territory.
“It was not all that difficult convincing them to try out our restaurant on Saipan. In fact, we were well-received even before the store opened and the excitement for the opening was felt. We remember setting up long tables weekly for guests who quickly became repeat customers shortly after opening. Amazingly, people who dined for breakfast will be back for lunch or dinner,” said Macario.
She said fried rice was already a favorite then.
While it’s undoubtedly the go-to-place for what comes closest as Saipan soul food nowadays, Shirley’s Coffee Shop went through a lot of challenges when it started.
“Like any other business, we also had birthing pains during the opening. Even before we served our first meal, there were a thousand details we needed to give attention to,” Macario recalled.
While everyone was on a high during Shirley’s Coffee Shop’s opening, thanks to the community’s warm reception, the nitty-gritty of reality soon hit the pioneering group of five cooks and eight waitstaff and they experienced problems like inventory and supply.
“Our goal has always been to ensure customers are only served freshly-prepared food and ingredients, so it was a big challenge. Operation-wise we had to ensure we live up to the kind of service Guam was known for—to create that perfect family-friendly restaurant people will keep coming back to.”
The first year of Shirley’s Coffee Shop operations could be summed as fruitful and was the year where its special half chicken and short ribs quickly joined fried rice as the restaurant’s staples.
In hindsight, there was really no magic formula to the restaurant’s success, Macario said.
“Shirley’s Coffee Shop is here because of the hard work of the staff, the legacy of Mama Shirley’s that we work so hard to uphold every day and our sincerest desire to offer delicious, home-cooked meals at affordable prices to our guests. As our guests would say from the start, ‘Shirley’s is our kitchen.’”
It helped that they also hired people who have the passion to make customers happy. “I believe that all the preparations that we do in the planning stage, we will not be a success if we do not take care of our employees and give them a healthy working environment,” she added.
Shirley’s Coffee Shop has also become a trailblazer of sorts with decisions like making its restaurants smoke-free, then characterized as risky at the time of implementation.
“Some of what we introduced were unpopular and unheard of at that time. Shirley’s was one of the first to introduce a smoke-free place. That time, customers go to a breakfast place to smoke and drink coffee but it was affecting our customers and employees’ health. Our sales dipped for awhile, but thankfully our loyal customers saw the benefit and started coming back,” said Macario.
Shirley’s Coffee Shop has also become a favorite not only of locals but also of tourists visiting Saipan.
“Over the years Shirley’s Coffee Shop has continued to evolve while keeping what our customers love about us. We understand our island started and continues to be a destination for Koreans and Chinese so slowly, we have introduced food that catered to their tastes. We have also become more visible to that market by advertising in a Korean newspaper,” she said.
Macario thinks the biggest factor in many tourists now choosing to dine at Shirley’s Coffee Shop is the feeling of warmth they receive from the restaurant’s staff and the home-cooked meals prepared for them.
“At Shirley’s, the food might be a bit different from what they have at home, but the warm smiles and friendly service is something you look for anywhere you go,” she said.
Recently, Shirley’s Coffee Shop joined the Department of Public Health’s BIBA Healthy Program, a departure for a restaurant previously known for large portions of tried-and-tested comfort food.
“Joining was a great opportunity for us to offer a healthy selection for our customers. What’s great about the program is that the recipes we proposed were pre-approved by local dieticians. This saves the customer the stress of requesting less mayo, less salt, less this or that. It brought it down to a balance of calories, fat, etc., basically making a healthy choice an easy one,” said Macario.
For the future, Shirley’s Coffee Shop sets its sights in further improving customer service and make better its overall dining experience. “We are also planning to expand Shirley’s Susupe or hopefully open another branch,” she added.