Opening a coffee shop can be a daunting prospect. There’s a lot to get right, and a lot at stake if it all goes wrong.
When you start up a cafe, as with any business, the first few months are likely to be difficult. At first, the hours can be long, the work hard, and the rewards small. But persist, and you’ll be on your way to creating something great.
However, there are a few things that you can work on getting right before the doors open. Nailing these basics will make everything go more smoothly, and help you make the most of those opening months.
Knowledge is power
Before you open your doors, before you put a lick of the paint on the walls, before you plumb in the espresso machine, before you make a business plan, you need to know what you’re doing inside out.
That doesn’t just mean having a handle on the coffee shop’s finances — although that certainly helps — but also what you’re serving and how it’s served. This means that as well as being manager, you have to be head barista also.
Great coffee doesn’t just happen magically, and nor does a great coffee shop. A coffee shop isn’t just a place where coffee happens, and great coffee isn’t just something that appears when you have the ingredients.
You can have the best coffee beans known to man, but they’re no good unless you know what you’re doing.
So, what to do?
Get yourself trained.
The Speciality Coffee Association — an agglomeration of the Speciality Coffee Association of America and the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe — offers training courses and accreditation for baristas, with programmes pitched both at coffee novices and caffeine gurus.
The SCA offers six different training courses, Introduction to Coffee, Barista Skills, Brewing, Green Coffee, Sensory Skills, and Roasting, each of which has a Foundation, an Intermediate, and an Advanced track, which count differently towards earning the SCA Coffee Skills Diploma.
In the UK, the London School of Coffee is a popular training provider. They run both SCA-accredited courses, as well as their own sessions, including the two-day How to Start a Coffee Shop course.
These courses will give you the knowledge and hands-on experience you need to get stuck in, as well as to train up other members of staff, saving you from sending new staff on pricey training courses.
Getting to know coffee inside-out may seem like an obvious first step, but it’s one that is all-too easy to overlook in the hubbub of activity that surrounds setting up a new cafe. It also helps you to keep what really matters in sight — the delicious drinks you’re serving your customers.
As well as knowing how to pull the perfect shot of espresso, you also need to know what kind of shop you’re going to serve it in. This doesn’t just mean knowing where your shop is going to be, or what it’s going to look like, although decor and aesthetics play a large role in defining your business’s concept.
Rather, concept refers to how you are different from the rest, to your niche. It’s the kind of place you want your cafe to be.
Increasingly, customers are seeking not just a place to get a quick jolt of caffeine, but a unique experience. They want something that they can remember, something they can connect with, and something they can recommend to friends. This is something that holds true for high-street cafes as much as it does global mega-brands.
So it’s more important than ever to seek out a unique hook, something that differentiates you from your competitors. It might be the case that the only place to get a cup of coffee in your town is a Starbucks, and you can be different simply by serving up a better cup of joe than them. Or, you might have to go for something a little more, well, distinctive to get noticed in a crowded market.
Whatever concept drives your coffee shop, you need to work out answers to four basic questions first:
- What is your theme? The word “theme” might bring to mind tiki bars serving up brightly coloured cocktails or even Medieval Times, but you don’t need to go to extremes. “Theme” can simply refer to the decor and feel of your cafe — whether you’re going for cozy countryside kitchen or slick city hangout.
- What is your target audience? Who do you want to see filling your seats and buying your coffee? You might be tempted to simply say “anyone,” as everyone has a mouth, and pretty much everyone drinks coffee, but that won’t cut it. Do envisage your shop as one full of students studying and freelancers working, or one where customers dash in on their way to work? Is your shop going to be a cafe with an emphasis on food? A social space for communities to gather? How you answer this question will impact on how you decorate your space and furnish it, and what your priorities are when buying equipment — a coffee shop that markets to commuters rushing in and out will look very different to one that attracts people using it as an office. This links to the next question:
- What kind of service will you provide? Will you mainly cater for grab-and-go guests, with counter service, and limited seating, or will you aim to offer table service for customers who have settled in for the afternoon? How you answer this question ties in with your answer to the previous question, and will determine how you staff your cafe, among other things.
- What mood will you aim for? To answer this question successfully, you really have to answer the other three questions. Your cafe’s mood goes beyond the decor and the music, and incorporates intangible things like the cafe’s buzz, and the people there.
You also need to know what your competition is up to, even if they’re not directly competing with you. It might be the case that you attract a different audience to the big chain cafe on the high street, or the other places in town tend to market towards muddy dog-walkers rather than suited and booted commuters.
No matter whether you see them as the direct competition or as complementing you, it’s important to know how the other coffee shops in town work — or don’t work.
Location, location, location
As important as your coffee shop’s concept is its location, for reasons both practical and otherwise. Location matters: that’s a fact. You need to be sure that the area you’re setting up in has the market base to support your coffee shop, at the very least. That’s a non-negotiable. If you can’t be sure of this, then you can’t be sure of your coffee shop’s viability: not its success — that’s a whole different ball game — but its survival.
A good yardstick for an area’s viability is the presence of other coffee shops. If they can make it, then you can. You shouldn’t be worried about the competition — if anything, you should be energised by it. Gabe Shohet, founder of Black Sheep Coffee said in an interview with the Guardian that he loves to open branches “right next to big, long-established players,” because his chain’s focus on brewing top-notch coffee plays well to customers who “[care] about the quality of what’s in the cup, the expertise of the barista, and consciously [avoid] large chains that are unable to deliver the same attention to detail and quality.”
The upshot of this is that the presence of a Starbucks or a Costa or whatever shouldn’t deter you: rather, if you’re doing the right things then you’ll be peeling customers off of them.
As well as this, you’ll want to think carefully about your location on a practical basis — what is access like for lorries and vans? And what is footfall like?
If you’re near a school, for instance, then your foot traffic might be consistently high every morning and afternoon, but suppliers may find it difficult to make early-morning deliveries. Most likely, you’ll need to check out a wide variety of spaces before you find somewhere you’re happy with.
And the location you pick will largely determine the type of customer you get: if you want to run a coffee shop that focuses largely on takeaway coffee, setting up shop near a university will mean that you run into difficulties as students tend to want somewhere to study and socialise.
But equally you might find the perfect postage stamp-sized spot right near the station, to catch commuting workers as they go to work — it doesn’t have to be large, as you’re purely catering for to-go customers, and you’re saving money on rent by taking a tiny place.
Similarly, if you’re opening up a decidedly upscale venue with pricey smoothies and expensive boxed salads in a run-down shopping precinct in a residential area between a laundrette and a bookies, you might not succeed. But, by the same token, a friendly neighbourhood cafe is unlikely to work in the heart of a big city’s commercial district.
Rent is likely to be one of your biggest fixed costs, so it’s important to make sure that you’re getting bang for your buck.
Fit-out and equipment
There’s an absolutely vast array of equipment you’ll need to fit out your shiny new coffee shop. Picking your kit is a major step in opening your cafe, and although there are a few non-negotiables, the equipment you buy will shape how your cafe runs.
Easily the biggest-ticket item you’ll buy is an espresso machine. While there are models on the market that can cost more than a small family car — and with significantly more chrome plating — price isn’t necessarily everything. If you’re running a small shop with room for a single barista and a few covers, splashing out on a vast model capable of making eight drinks at a time isn’t the best use of space or money, no matter how impressive it looks.
Many of these require plumbing in, and run on a higher voltage than standard mains electricity, so you’ll need to carefully consider your space and its requirements.
Drip and filter coffees are still more popular in the US than in Europe, where espresso-based drinks tend to predominate, but they’re gaining rapidly. Drip has suffered from a bad image in Europe, but the recent rise of lighter roasts and brewing techniques like the V60 and Aeropress have made filter coffee somewhat of a tastier prospect.
You’ll also need to buy a powerful coffee grinder that’s powerful enough to stand up to near-constant use. Ground beans lose their flavour even after ten minutes, so it’s important that you can rely on your grinder to work day-in day-out. And worse, cheap blade grinders just chop up your beans, meaning that you don’t get a uniform particle size, leading to inconsistent coffee — not what you want in a commercial environment. Although they’re pricier, burr grinders actually grind the beans, leading to a better taste and a more consistent grind, meaning they’re easily the superior option.
You’re likely to need more than one grinder, as well. This will mean that you’re able to make more coffee, faster, and will allow you to make different types of coffee: espresso requires a much finer grind than filter and cold-brew coffee does.
As well as all this, you’ll need refrigeration units. You’re definitely going to need a fridge behind the counter for milk and the like, and possibly a larger one for food ingredients, and you may need an open fridge unit out front for customers to grab sandwiches and salads. If you’re serving coffee at volume, then a dishwasher will be invaluable.
There’s also a plethora of other bits and bobs that will find constant use, from coffee tampers and jugs for frothing milk in, to napkins and cutlery. WebrestaurantStore.com has a pretty exhaustive list with all this and more.
The upshot: all this kit allows you to make better coffee, faster, and to do your job better, and keep your customers satisfied.
Decor and design
This is probably the bit you’re most excited about. The decor and design you choose for your coffee shop is what makes it distinctive, what makes it yours.
How you lay out your coffee shop is as important as how it looks, if not more. This goes for both behind and in front of the espresso bar — you need to ensure that your guests have enough room to sit comfortably and move about easily, while giving your staff enough room to do their jobs efficiently and safely.
Understanding how customers use your shop’s space is key to designing a successful cafe. This means taking into account every step of their journey, from the pavement to the couch. To do this successfully, you need to put yourself into their shoes, and ask where your eyes are drawn, and what feels natural as a customer. As John Barnett and Anna Burles put it in an article for SCA News, “The coffee shop experience should always be built around the customer and the design tailored to fit him or her, culturally, socially and geographically, like a glove.”
You don’t necessarily need to be an architect or an interior designer to lay out your space — simple tools like FloorPlanner and Room Sketcher that allow you to sketch out your coffee shop, create floor plans and lay out furniture.
Once you’ve worked out how to make the most of your space, you can get onto decorating and furnishing it. This is how you express your cafe’s concept so it’s worth thinking about how you see yourself and how you want to be seen. It’s also a great opportunity to get creative and design a unique space that will get tongues wagging.
And taking the time to make sure that you get your cafe’s design right before you open is time well-spent: if you find that you run into problems, then rectifying them could mean that you need to shut up shop, losing you valuable trading time.
You know when you run out of milk at home? And you have to dash down the road to pick some up?
Annoying, isn’t it?
Well, when you run a coffee shop, running out of milk can be more than annoying: it can be harmful.
Not only does running out of something stop you from making anything with that in, with the amount you get through in a day, the amount of product you’ll get through in a day makes just nipping out for some impractical.
And the same goes for pretty much anything you use in the course of a normal working day — run out of milk and you can’t make lattes or flat whites or cappuccinos; run out of bread and you can’t make sandwiches; run out of coffee and you’re pretty much stuffed.
That’s why finding the right supplier is so important.
When you’re setting up, you’ll find that you’re making a lot of one-time purchases — your coffee machine and your grinder and your dishwasher, for instance. It’s tempting here to look for the cheapest deal, but a saving here might cost you further down the line if (or, indeed, when) something breaks.
Instead, you want to look for a supplier with a sterling reputation and a solid warranty, even if it does mean spending more. A penny saved isn’t always a penny earned.
Food and perishables, on the other hand, are things that you will need to purchase on a regular basis, weekly or even daily.
Choosing a great coffee supplier is a non-negotiable. Not only is the black stuff the lifeblood of your cafe, but opting to work with a well-known local roastery can act as a draw for customers: London-based Ozone and Nude both act as roasters and wholesale suppliers, while others are popping up around the UK.
A good roaster will offer you “cupping” sessions, where you can taste their product in their roastery. They may offer you more than coffee, as well — depending on who you go with, they might offer to supply equipment, train baristas, or provide you with business support and advice. The relationship between you and your coffee suppliers is the most important relationship your cafe will have, so it’s important to get it right.
No matter what your cafe’s focus is, there are a few things you want from your supplier:
You need transparency about what they offer throughout the year — it’s natural that your suppliers’ prices and choices will fluctuate over the course of a year, but suppliers need to be upfront about it, and need to be able to produce a catalogue that will detail those changes so that you can make proper projections.
You need to be able to depend on them to deliver on time. In hospitality, every moment matters, and you need to be sure that any suppliers will make their deliveries on schedule, and communicate clearly about their hours and are willing to commit beforehand.
Following on from that, you need your suppliers to clearly and consistently communicate with you. They need to be on it when it comes to invoicing and receipts, and open about spoilages and substitutions.
One of the best ways they can do this is to provide you with robust metrics. This means that you should have access to your purchase history and account ledgers, as well as any standing orders and credits you may have. It’s likely that you will end up with lots of different suppliers, so it’s important that the suppliers you work with help you to keep on top of your data.
When you open a new coffee shop — whether it’s your first or your fiftieth — there’s a lot to keep track of. But remember to nail these six things, and you’ll be on your way to success.