September 17, 2015

5 Ways to Stand Out From the Specialty Coffee Shop Crowd


You’re not going to like me for this statement, but let’s take a step back and get real for a moment: all specialty cafés look the same. Hanging lightbulbs, a metal-and-wood combination finishing, eggs benedict, blackboards, dried flowers in jars, gleaming machines, over-stocked brew bars, an espresso menu with the only options being “black/white”… it’s already sounding dreadfully familiar, isn’t it?

So what can a barista do to break this cookie-cutter mold that café culture has built itself around? Well, here are five innovative but simple things we could be doing to make a beverage menu that stands out from the crowd.

Lee este artículo en español 5 Maneras Para Destacarte Entre Las Tiendas de Café Especial

1. Homemade Specialty Syrups

Why bother with commercial brands that come in unappetising fluorescent colours and artificial flavours, when making your own specialty syrup is as easy as adding sugar to liquid? And yes, I meant that literally.

A couple of vanilla pods left in a jar of simple syrup (equal parts water to sugar), will both save you tons of money and make for a beautiful display. I mean, just look at this cute picture. Don’t you want this in your shop? 

homemade specialty syrups

 Pretty labels on pretty bottles of pretty homemade syrups. Credit:

2. Alternative Milks

As much as you, myself, and every other barista on the entire planet hates working with soy milk, there’s a significant percentage of the specialty café-going population that’s lactose intolerant. But why are we still struggling to steam when soy milk isn’t the only option?

From nuts to grains and rice, there’s an incredible range of non-dairy milks in the market today, and in my opinion, they work with coffee a lot better than soy does. Not only are they non-GMO, cheaper, and generally better for you in every possible way, they also taste great and don’t curdle in contact with coffee—so you can pour latte art with them! (Cheers heard in the distance.)

Making your own specialty nut milk is also ridiculously easy; all you need is a blender and a cloth bag.

At my own café, Dapper Coffee, we serve almond, cashew, hazelnut, and coconut milk instead of soy. They are all completely delicious and steam like a dream.

SEE ALSO: Design 101: 6 Ways to Make Customers Return to Your Coffee Shop

Alternative milks

Puns ahoy! Credit:

3. Decaf

Speaking of members of the specialty café-going population with additional needs, what about decaffeinated beverage options? I know we all want to roll our eyes when someone orders a decaf double espresso (Why would you even want something that only vaguely tastes like coffee but without caffeine? Why isn’t a hot chocolate good enough for you, goddamnit?) but actually, it’s a fair request.

In a short survey I conducted a couple of years ago (out of sheer curiosity/frustration), I learned that the majority of people who ordered decaf were doing so because they actually couldn’t consume caffeine (allergies/pregnancy/medical condition). However, because they hadn’t abstained from coffee for their entire lives, they simply wanted to be able to take part in familiar rituals within their medical limits. Most of them were aware that decaf coffee doesn’t taste as good as the real stuff, but that wasn’t what mattered to them. What mattered was the smell and the appearance. And let’s face it, if someone turned round to you today and said you couldn’t drink coffee, wouldn’t you accept anything that even halfway approximated the taste and smell of it as a substitute?

So enter Red Espresso (aka rooibos), South Africa’s best kept secret. Very finely ground rooibos tea is packed into a portafilter and pulled the same way you would an espresso. It produces a brick-red, syrupy liquid that looks like an espresso but is 100% caffeine free. It’s also aromatic, delicious, and versatile. Why rooibos isn’t already a worldwide phenomenon is beyond me.

Decaf alternative Rooibos in a portafilter, rooibos shot, rooibos cappuccino

Rooibos in a portafilter, rooibos shot, rooibos cappuccino. Credit:

4. Signature Drinks

Here’s where a barista can really run wild and free—and it’s probably the most important thing you can do to bring your café menu to the next level.

In any WBC routine, the category which always has people on their toes is the signature drink component. Why? Because it’s exciting and it’s all about creating a unique product that perfectly marries the coffee to the skills of the barista. But why limit this experience only to competitions? Why not actually serve a range of carefully thought-out signature drinks in your store?

Still not convinced? Imagine the reaction of your customers when you present them with specialty drinks suitable for a world-class judge to enjoy. Not only would they feel like they have experienced something completely unique and wonderful, but being able to understand why the coffee was presented in a fashion to highlight the best parts of it might make them want to delve into the world of speciality coffee even more.

5. Personalised Service

When all’s said and done, the one thing that could be improved across the board at any food and beverage outlet is its quality of service. I’m not talking about folding napkins into swans or pouring water with a twist of a wrist—I’m talking about having a genuine passion for serving people and making friends.

Being the pretentious barista that scoffs at anyone who doesn’t absolutely love your obscure single-origin is easy, but it also leads to inevitable frustration. You might have cried out at some point in your life, “Why don’t these people drink coffee the way I want them to drink it?!” Well, part of the answer is your relationship with them.

(For another perspective on this issue, go here.)

Try adopting a unique approach to customers: treat them as your friend. So many times, service staff build up a wall between themselves and the consumer by calling them “Sir” or “Ma’am”, but all it does is make that wall bigger. Could you honestly be friends with someone who calls you “Sir”? No!

If you treat customers casually, most of the time they will respond in an equally friendly manner. This leads to them being both more forgiving and more open to your suggestions, because you’ve built up a trust between you. Nothing turns a customer off more than listening to an obviously rehearsed sell-speech (think telemarketers), but a recommendation from a friend? Well, why wouldn’t they try it?

So the next time someone makes a parody video on YouTube of a hipster café, you’d be proudly able to say that you break the stereotype.

What are some ways you think we could elevate the cafe scene even more? Let us know your opinion in the comments and on social media.

Feature Photo Credit: Joel Smedley

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