10 Tips for Running a Successful Coffee Shop

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.”
  7. 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…
  8. 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.
  9. 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.)
  10. 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.

  • Anonymous

    I would like to add that another good tip for running a successful coffee shop is through social media. It doesn’t necessary to have a website for this. Creating a fan page and a company twitter account will be fine. Through social media you can know what are the comments and suggestions of your clients.

  • Anonymous

    I would like to add that another good tip for running a successful coffee shop is through social media. It doesn’t necessary to have a website for this. Creating a fan page and a company twitter account will be fine. Through social media you can know what are the comments and suggestions of your clients.

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  • http://reallybigpeach.com Katrina Miller

    I need to send this to EVERY single coffee shot in Salt Lake city. That said, I also have to mention:

    Tables. You should have them. And they should NOT be those TINY, rickety round cafe-style tables. They should hold a coffee AND a laptop comfortably, at least.

    Lighting. This is not Walmart. I don’t really want overly bright, awful florescent lights blaring down on me while I enjoy my coffee, create, or meet with clients.

  • http://www.twitter.com/bsierakowski Brian

    I’m not a huge coffeeshopista, but last night I needed a place to go to grab a quick bite, do some email, watch some podcasts, and generally wait out the horrendous traffic. The three biggest criteria I had were 1) Quality of food, 2) Availability of comfortable seating, and 3) Sound Quality.

    Number one is a given, two refers both to if they have nice couches and chairs to sit on divided by how crowded its going to be, and three is a function of me being a bit of an audio snob, I have a hard time enjoying myself in places where they’re pumping loud or bad music.

    A bit more general, but I’m sure there’s something in there for coffee shops.

  • Emilie Starr

    Great points. I work at a resort in VT and we’re opening our first coffee shop. I’ve passed on the link to some key people here – considering that the closest thing to a “real” coffee shop is over an hour away, it’ll help. What are your thoughts on chalk boards?

  • http://www.justinkownacki.com Justin

    Brian: Which cafe wound up meeting your criteria last night? One World Cafe sounds like it might fit the bill, although seating can be their Achilles heel.

    Emilie: Chalkboards in what regard? As a means of displaying menu items and prices? Sure. As an alternative to a community bulletin board? Why not? As exterior signage to announce daily specials? Makes sense to me. But if your tables were to be made of chalkboards, or if each table had a chalkboard hanging on the wall beside it, THAT would be cool…

  • Caroline Sober

    Fun post, Justin. My favorite spot, hands-down, is Alterra in Milwaukee (though I’m from Madison). Their Ethiopia Harar is an amazing bean, too. A couple ideas to add:

    Music – keep it at an appropriate volume, unobtrusive and harmonious with the environment. A lot of people will be listening to their own music, anyways. Jazz is always a pretty safe bet. Stay away from pop. I don’t want to hear Miley Cyrus as I’m settling in to that nice chair by the window with my steaming hot Americano.

    Furniture – Along with the ubiquitous cafe tables (as Katrina said, spacious & non-tippy is appreciated), a couple nice (hmmm, maybe leather?) chairs next to a little gas fireplace makes a nice alternate seating spot. Don’t put anything bigger than a loveseat in, though. That’s just creepy.

    Paint – Go bold. That oxblood red or mustard yellow you’d be too scaredypants to use in your house absolutely rocks the party in a coffee shop.

    Signage – Legibly handwritten is preferable to printed any day. I can’t tell you why, it just is.

    Merch – You don’t need a ton, but make it distinctive and awesome. See Alterra.

    Caroline / @wildwend

  • http://andreadisaster.com Andrea

    Great list. The only thing I would add is the importance of appropriate music to fit with the image the shop is trying to convey. I understand different baristas have different tastes, but a local, independent shop blasting Top 40 or pop country would definitely be something I’d notice.

  • http://austinbaker.me Austin Baker

    I presented a very similar list a while ago for Ignite PHX. I agree with all of your points except for the one about food. Coffee shops should NEVER carry food except for the most basic of essentials.

    Coffee shops have a tendency to lose the cafe culture when you turn it into a restaurant. You can only do one thing well and people are more likely to frequent a place if they know what to expect. The biggest mistake any business owner can make is trying to provide all things to all people. All of the best coffee shops i have been to around the country have the most basic menus and they are always packed. 5 drinks max will require expertise.

    Coffee will suffer when you have baristas spreading mayo on a croissant while trying to steam microfoam for a cappuccino.

    Providing sandwiches is the fastest way to lose focus and thereby lose customers.

  • Rick H.

    One of my favorite coffee shops in Pittsburgh serves great sandwiches and soups. My visits there are frequently extended due to the availability of pb&j on wheat or a bowl of minestrone.

    Another of my favorites has been serving basically the same assortment of desserts and baked goods for at least the past 16 years and has never ventured into soups or sandwiches.

    Thank goodness they all don’t follow the same rules.

  • http://bestcoffeeclubs.com/blog/ Coffee of the Month Clubs

    I would like to add that another good tip for running a successful coffee shop is through social media. It doesn't necessary to have a website for this. Creating a fan page and a company twitter account will be fine. Through social media you can know what are the comments and suggestions of your clients.

  • Coffee of the Month Clubs

    I would like to add that another good tip for running a successful coffee shop is through social media. It doesn’t necessary to have a website for this. Creating a fan page and a company twitter account will be fine. Through social media you can know what are the comments and suggestions of your clients.

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  • RenoSue

    Thank you for this article (the 10 Steps for running a Successful coffee shop). I have just started my Coffee/Tea shop business plan and your article provides good food (coffee?) for thought!

  • http://twitter.com/rebelliousflaw Missfit

    I’m glad to see that I have adhered to most of these things. Although there are a couple that are presently out of my control (i.e. hours).  It was great seeing you at PCPgh this weekend too.  (You sure you don’t want to come back? LOL)

  • http://justinkownacki.com/ Justin Kownacki

    Always great to see you. You’re all doing a great job with the event, and I’m proud of what it’s become. I’m just a lifelong tinkerer, so I’m always nudging things in other directions. As for moving back, probably not right now, but in the future? Never say never…… ;)

  • David_keenan

    Hey just in case anyone’s looking for a web-site for their coffee shop, you can create one here: http://www.cafebarwebdesign.com for £2.99 a month (with the first month free).

  • http://justinkownacki.com/ Justin Kownacki

    David: the website that link leads to appears to be broken.

  • Rojanneglim

    this is very helpful to make my successful coffee shop

  • Tacopizzaguy

    I totally agree because my favorite coffee shop went fron making strictly coffee and desserts (cookies and such) to a full service restaurant and because of this, their coffee (which used to be phenomenal) is now probably the last thing on their list of things to make.

  • Tori G.

    Okay, love the advice! But, here’s the thing: I want to own a cafe with lots of snack choices…Can someone please post something on the subject? Please, I’m begging here! Oh yeah, great idea with the WiFi. I really understand that problem.

  • http://justinkownacki.com/ Justin Kownacki

    The problem I usually hear re: offering a variety of snack choices is in managing the inventory. Why stock 20 items if only 5 ever sell consistently? And if you’re making those snacks yourself, you may get stuck paying for leftover ingredients that never get used. As a first-time patron, I like variety, but as a recurring customer, I hope the options I actually like are there consistently — and if they are, I’m less likely to try the other items anyway.

    Personally, my advice would be to start with a limited variety of snack options, and then rotate in new ideas on a regular basis. If you have [for example] 4 best-sellers, they should always be available, but you can have another 2 unusual options for the people who like taking chances; those should rotate at least weekly, so there’s always something new for the casual regulars.

  • sandwich lady =)

    Hello, your advice are awesome! I’m stuck with what to do…I am currently a food court sandwich shop owner, been on for 6 months, feedback is great but not enough volume…see it as an office cafeteria,if you will…I am looking to open up a real cafe (serving food and coffee, not a true restaurant), offers the same stuff and coffee…I do agree with the limited variety of snack options and 1-2 of new ideas in rotation…it’s really helpful! I really need your help:

    a) advertisements–other than social media, would community newspapers work?
    b) How many front servers would be ideal if service area is around 600 sq feet? Would it be too little for a cafe?

    c) square or circle tables? padded chairs?

    d) How many types of coffee would be good for a cafe?

    Something to add… Currently, I let customers sample soups (free, of course), just a sip of it and people do buy it…it’s my way of advertising instead of printed flyers

  • http://justinkownacki.com/ Justin Kownacki

    My advice is entirely based on speculation and personal experience as a customer, not an owner (though I am friends with several). But, since you asked…

    * Cafes tend to live and die based on repeat traffic from local customers, so community papers might work. And social media. And flyers and menus in fellow businesses. And a loyalty card (buy 4 coffees, get 1 free). And anything else that gives the people who are already within walking distance of your business a reason (or reminder) to walk in. (Don’t advertise too far outside your local area unless you offer something so original that it becomes an experience worth driving there for; otherwise, you’re advertising to people who have their own, closer, local options.)

    * Depends on how busy the serving area gets during peak times. When it’s slow, you only need 1 or 2 servers, max. If you have 10 tables that routinely fill up at lunchtime, you may need 3 or 4 servers to meet your customers’ needs fast enough that those customers will see your efficiency as a reason to return. But honestly? I’ll forgive an understaffed location if their servers are friendly and help set my expectations (“be with you in a minute.” “that sandwich should take about 10 minutes,” etc.) than a well-staffed cafe with bad, impersonal, uncaring servers. I’d rather reward workers I like.

    * If people aren’t sitting there all day, seat comfort matters less. More important to know is square footage of service area vs. # of tables that could be taken up by solo customers. If you bring in six 4-tops but they’re each taken up by a freelancer with laptops, cords and books, that’s a lot of wasted space and missed opportunities.

    * Most cafes can get by with 3 coffee options: light, dark, decaf. You can rotate the blends, you can offer a 4th “flavored” or “holiday” choice, or you can skip the decaf altogether and just make Americanos for anyone who asks. But offer a light and a dark at least.

    Hope that helps! (And if other readers have other ideas, please offer up.)

  • sandwich lady =)

    It did help! I need the perspective of a customer more than anything!

    I have no clue of what it’d be like during peak times, because the place I’m aiming for used to be a fancy grocery store and they are willing to pay for quality…but I’ve done enough research and I feel the vibe of the place…I guess I need to give it my… I’m willing to give quality…hope it’d work!

    I’m working with a limited budget so the interior is not going to be fancy…just comfortable, clean, at home…would that attract anyone here?

  • http://www.buraq-technologies.com/ ambreen11

    Amazing article with good tips for running a successful coffee shop. Great ideas you have here. Thanks

  • http://www.facebook.com/honeysingh.singh.965 Honeysingh Singh

    Thank you for this article, I totally agree
    Coffee shops have a tendency to lose the cafe culture when you turn it into a restaurant. You can only do one thing well and people are more likely to frequent a place if they know what to expect.

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  • Glenn Leese

    I would tend to agree with Austin, and only because I have been doing this for a few years… It’s dangerous to cross over from theme to theme in the same place… You will need more extra staff than you can imagine and you need them to be good at what they are doing… I am currently running a place with 3 or 4 very different themes in an airport and when it gets busy it is a nightmare. I might be the manager, but there is no way in hell I would ever set my place up like that.

    Just my 2 cents :-) Otherwise a good article, but it’s only a fraction of the picture as most of the stuff that goes on is hidden from the customer. Yes it would be great if you could just do these 10 things and everything else just magically worked in the background haha. Would be the best cafe to run, coz it would be running itself :-)