UPDATE: Due to the popularity of this post, which is just my own POV as a cafe customer, I sought out business advice from actual cafe owners and wrote a follow-up, Tips for Running a Profitable Coffee Shop.
ALSO: To learn how NOT to run a coffee shop, watch my web series, The Baristas.
People who know me well soon learn that I have a soft spot for coffee shops. Long ago, before I ever blogged, I would write all night at Eat ‘n Park, a 24-hour diner chain in Pittsburgh (think Denny’s minus the oppression). And before I blogged about social media, I started Cafe Witness as a fly-on-the-wall peek inside cafe culture — a habit that’s since been continued through the occasional OH (aka “overheard”) posts on my Twitter feed.
As a freelancer, I prefer to split time between working from home (where I can focus) and working from cafes (where I can people-watch and feel like I’m not a social misanthrope). Having worked from dozens of coffee shops over the years, I’ve seen my fair share of successful ones and those whose management defies all logic. I’ve also seen a few go out of business, and many more whose failure seems inevitable.
So what follows are my 10 suggestions for running a successful cafe, at least from the perspective of someone who spends an inordinate amount of time in them.
NOTE: The following list presumes two things: that the cafe in question is a shop rather than a kiosk, and that it’s not a corporate chain whose decisions are made by committee.
- Have good coffee. You’d be surprised how many cafes — even successful ones — fail at this. If your coffee is lousy, you’ll have to overcome it with a variety of value-adds. But if your coffee is at least drinkable, you’ll attract regulars. And the better your coffee tastes (relative to price), the more willing someone will be to go out of his way to obtain it.
- A cafe is all about its culture. Starbucks ruled the world in part because its growth was tied to the way people felt about its stores — they were clean and cozy bastions of seemingly-cosmopolitan relaxation, which triggered reward responses in the brain. Your corner cafe can’t compete with that system of stylized psychology, so win where you can: with personalization. Every local cafe is a product of its neighborhood, and the employees AND customers contribute to its day-to-day culture. Cultivate a pleasant and / or interesting atmosphere and the people who respect those traits will return. Embrace localism, celebrate individuality, and make your cafe the kind of place you would want to spend time in.
- Hire good people. I’m less concerned about the efficiency or appearance of coffee shop employees than I am about their attitude. I would think by now that there would be an unspoken understanding between cafe employees and customers, which says, “This shop exists as a response to the needs of the community AND as opposition to the corporate alternative. To succeed, we have to respect each other. And that means we value your contribution.” In both directions. Your employees don’t have to kill me with kindness, and they don’t even have to be “nice.” Some of my favorite baristas are curmudgeonly fucks. But they’re friendly when they need to be, they make their customers feel wanted, and they know how to say “thank you” and “see you later.” Give me that, and you can take an extra five minutes for that smoke break.
- Be attentive. Yes, your cafe is probably run by a shoestring staff of underpaid amateurs. If you have to draw them a diagram outlining their priorities, the top of the list should be “taking care of customers,” followed by “keeping the place clean,” and then “answering the phone.” These three points of engagement are what separate the cafes I frequent from the cafes I avoid. Everything else, I can let slide.
- Be open. In Pittsburgh, most cafes stayed open at least until 9 PM, and several until midnight. Here in Baltimore, you have to search high and low to find one that stays open until 10 (and two of the ones we’ve found are Starbucks). It’s hard to develop a dedicated culture of regulars when you’re not open during the times that culture happens.
- Man cannot live on scones alone. Do I like pastries? Absolutely. But if I have to leave your coffee shop in order to obtain an actual meal, it’s hard for me to justify making two or three stops in one day. Carrying even a cursory sampling of wraps, paninis or bagelwiches is the difference between “making a day of it” and “going somewhere else.”
- My kingdom for a wall outlet. And wi-fi, though that should go without saying. These days, cafes are synonymous with “places people go to do things online,” and they can’t do those things when you have spotty wi-fi and one plug for 40 chairs. Throw them a bone and they’ll come back. However…
- Make the squatters pay up. I get that you don’t want people to sit there all day, taking up valuable table space playing WoW on their laptops while nursing the same 4-hour old cup of coffee. If business is slow, it’s less of a concern, but you don’t want laptop tablehoggers cockblocking your lunch rush. So post a minimum purchase limit for key “busy” times of day. Or sell the kind of wifi that requires a new purchase every 2 hours in order to stay connected. People want to be regulars, and they want to spend time in place where they’re comfortable. But regular customers also appreciate the service your cafe provides, and they understand that you can’t stay in business if they’re screwing you out of new clientele by squatting across every chair. Give them the opportunity and they’ll pay their way.
- Frequent drinker cards are surprisingly effective. Given the choice between a cafe that stamps a “Buy X, Get 1 Free” card and one that doesn’t, I’m inclined to pick the first one for two reasons: the existence of the card implies that you want me to come back, rather than simply presuming your cafe is amazing enough that I will anyway; and, quite obviously, getting a free reward never gets old. (Plus, yes, if I get a coffee for free, I’ll probably buy a brownie that day, so you still win.)
- Advertise. Holy cow, does this never happen. In all seriousness, if you don’t have a built-in, steady supply of regular walk-in traffic at all hours of the day, you only have one recourse: remind people that you exist (and get them to come in). If you don’t, your cafe’s days are numbered. And yet despite this, I’ve seen countless owners try everything but advertising their cafe, for whatever reason (“I can’t afford it,” “No one goes out of their way to come here,” “We’ll be okay if we can just get a catering gig,” etc.). If these owners applied half the time they spend complaining, panicking or wrestling with crossword puzzles to crafting affordable advertising or using free web tools (Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Yelp, etc.), they’d be able to attract those missing customers whose absence keeps their cafe’s financial future in perpetual turmoil.
I’m sure I’m missing a few useful tips. I’m even more certain that there are hundreds of cafe owners and customers alike whose experiences could improve this list. So if you have a tip, either as a customer, an employee or an owner of a coffee shop, please add it to the comments. Maybe together we can help a few struggling independent cafe owners figure out what they’re doing wrong and how to fix it.