July 7, 2017

Should Your Café Offer Table Service or Counter Service?


Service can’t be an afterthought in third wave coffee shops. You’re serving high-quality products to a small group of consumers, which means you want to both signal quality and attract loyal customers.

Yet the café environment isn’t always suited to quality service. With customers queuing up to order their drinks, it can feel more like a fast food restaurant than a specialty industry.

So we reached out to Ben Turiano, Co-Owner and Green Bean Buyer of Joe Bean, Kathy Turiano, a Partner, and Dena Jones, the company’s Operations Manager, to find out about table service in coffee shops. The Rochester, New York café has recently made this transition, and they agreed to share their advice with us.

Spanish Version: En tu Cafe, ¿Deberías Ofrecer Servicio en Mesa o en Barra?

Counter service in a US coffee shop

Counter service is the norm in North America. Credit: Marshall Steeves

Why Turn to Table Service?

Table service is a common sight in Australia and parts of Europe, but in North America counter service has always been the norm. Some cafés, however, are making the transition.

Ben Turiano tells me that Joe Bean’s move to table service began with the simple desire to engage the people drinking at the bar more. “This idea came out from the barista competitions, in which baristas take the time to prepare their drinks and to explain why they are making it.”

However, the customers became so interested in the drinks that they stopped ordering coffee to-go. Instead, they stayed to talk about their beverages with the baristas. The company decided to embrace it and switch to sit-down service, giving customers information about the coffee at the table instead.

“Lack of engagement lowers the quality of a product,” Ben tells me. And what better way to signal quality than by treating coffee like fine dining?

Kathy adds, “I believe it’s also helped to build the environment and ‘feel’ of Joe Bean to have our baristas come out from behind the counter. [It’s] something that many of our customers have really enjoyed.”

But like all business decisions, the choice of service model needs to take multiple factors into account.

Customer looking at menu on a table

A customer considers a coffee shop menu while sat at the table. Credit: Joe Bean

Speed vs Service

Counter service focuses on speed. Your baristas need to take orders, serve the coffee, and move onto the next person in line as quickly as possible. Taking the time to chat to customers can be considered bad service, especially when the queue is building.

With table service, however, the focus isn’t on speed. It’s on, well, service. This creates a different atmosphere: one that’s more welcoming, hospitable, and relaxing. After all, is there anything more annoying than waiting in line while someone decides between the lemon muffin and the blueberry one?

However, service and profits are two different things.

Are your baristas also trained in table service? Credit: Joe Bean

Can Table Service Lead to More Profits?

On first thought, you might consider counter service to be more profitable. There’s less work for your staff to do and, with an emphasis on speed, money may come in quicker.

Dena disagrees. She tells me that the table service model can be more effective since it gives you more chances to sell. And she’s not the only person to have made this argument.

Kathy tells me, “I do believe having a Joe Bean staff member there just to navigate someone through that experience not only helps the customer, but does impact that bottom line. Many of our customers come in for coffee, but choose to add to their order other things such as food, beer, or even retail (equipment, bags of coffee).”

A simple “Would you like anything else?” invites the customer to order a second latte, or the bagel they’ve been contemplating, much better than a long queue ever will.

The server can also make recommendations, which will equate to both better service and better profits. Joe Bean was actually able to expand their food and alcohol menu by switching to table service, giving them opportunities for increased sales.

“As a roaster,” Kathy adds, “I think table service has helped translate the customer experience to more of a discovery time. In other words, they are more willing to ‘try’ new things since they now come in with a different expectation… They no longer see our place as just a place to study or have a meeting, it can also be (and most often is) a place to discover new beverages (coffee, beer), and try new foods.

“All of this has also helped drive up bag sales since many of our customers are taking more time to enjoy their coffee, which means they also want to recreate that experience at home by bringing home a bag.”

Of course, there are also other elements to consider: staffing, to-go orders, location… All of these can also affect profits. Let’s take a look at those now.

Does Table Service Mean More Staff?

No matter which coffee shop model you use, staff management is key for efficiency and profits. Seth Eshelman is the founder of design company Staach, and designed Joe Bean’s new sit-down service layout. He explains that understanding how staff will operate is the most critical aspect of switching service models.

How will you divide responsibilities? How many people will be acting as hosts or waiters? How many minutes does it take to carry four coffees to the furthest tables, answer questions, and then return?

Whether this requires more staff depends on how busy your coffee shop is, how many staff you currently have, and what system you use. For example, some coffee shops prefer for the customer to order at the counter but then go straight to a table to wait for their drinks. Others will sit the customer down, leave them with a menu, and return a few minutes later to take their order. Others still will allow the customer to sit down, coming over only to collect the order.

You may also find you want to take on new staff with different skill sets. Kathy says, “Our recent search for staffing has also included looking for people with both barista/coffee experience as well as service/hospitality – I think this is also a real plus for our customers.”

Any extra staff will equate to higher costs. Of course, some coffee shops charge extra for sit-down service – whether you do will depend on your vision for your shop. And if you find you are selling more food and drink, as Dena and Kathy argue, then this could cover the cost of extra staff.

Sit-down service can also lead to better tips for staff: something that won’t affect you, but may improve employee morale. In many countries, customers won’t tip for counter service.

Whichever system you use, it’s important that your staff are aware of their tasks, that they can do them quickly, and that they have been trained in them. This will ensure that your shop is as profitable as possible, and provides the best service possible, regardless of the service model.

Barista running drinks to table

How many coffee cups can your staff carry in one trip? Credit: Punto Cafe

Space & Workflow

“Redesigning our space was a big step to address changing to table service without adding a lot more staffing,” Kathy tells me.

Seth explains that creating the right space for table service can be challenging. There are a number of differences between counter-service and table-service shop layout and customer behaviour.

For a start, with table service, customers will be less inclined to share their tables with other customers.

Secondly, you need to consider your coffee shop flow – something that will also affect staff efficiency. Can you organise your tables to create easy access for your staff? Will you have an area near the door for people to wait to be seated?  

You have to choose the best model for your coffee shop. So evaluate your space before you make a decision.

coffee shop

Table service requires easy routes out of the bar. Credits: Kane

SEE ALSO: When “Have a Nice Day!” Is Bad Customer Service

Customer Wants & Expectations

Both Dena and Seth mention the importance of considering location. If your shop is in a busy area with lots of footfall, counter service might be more effective. However, in a quieter location, customers may be looking for more of an experience.  

Additionally, consider your customer demographic. For example, in a business area, you might find that counter service is popular because people want coffee to-go. However, a sit-down service may be popular for business meetings.

coffee shop

A barista prepares drinks, before serving them to customers at the table. Credit: Joe Bean

Do You Have to Choose?

Given the popularity of coffee to-go, you may feel wary about switching to table service. Can you afford to give up serving your morning commuters?

Some coffee shops offer both table service and coffee to-go. I asked Dena about this, and she tells me that Joe Bean does cross training. This means employees are ready to offer both services to customers.

For her, this isn’t just a way to ensure they don’t lose to-go customers. It also helps Joe Bean – and its customers – to transition from one service model to another. It allows consumers to choose what they are most comfortable with.

Offering both service models comes with its challenges, however. Dena tells me that it requires more staff, and it’s hard to predict which type of service will be most popular on a particular day. Despite this, it can be a viable option for coffee shops – especially those who want to experiment with a new service model before committing.   

coffee shop

Customers drink their coffee at the bar. Credit: Marshall Steeves

Choosing a service model is not an easy decision – especially if you’re contemplating going against the trend in your area. While it could be a valuable point of difference, it also requires new systems, training, and consumer education.

You should research your market, and work out exactly how this change will affect your staff, service time, and profits before making a transition. Ask yourself what your staff will need to learn and how your shop layout could be modified.

But if you are looking to offer better service, signal quality to your customers, and maybe even see larger orders per customer, then table service may be the model for you.

Please note: Joe Bean is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.  

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