So, it’s time: you’ve secured the funding, you’ve made the business plan, and you’re ready to take the leap into opening your very own specialty coffee shop.
But how do you get started? What should you take into account for your café layout? When do issues like infrastructure, capacity, costs, and menus come into play? How much equipment and stock should you buy?
I spoke to Richard Sandlin, General Manager at The Crown: Royal Coffee Lab & Tasting Room, as well as Brandon Lowder, Development Project Manager of Blue Bottle, to gain some industry-specific insights into opening a café. Here’s what I discovered.
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Blue Bottle café. Credit: Suzanna Scott
So, you might have a concept of your future café. But how do you translate this into reality?
Collaborators & Contractors
No matter your budget, you can’t do this alone. From electricians to equipment manufacturers, you will have to work with external companies. Richard stresses the importance of having the right people on your team. It’s important to consider not just their qualifications but also if they get your ethos.
As General Manager of The Crown, Royal’s upcoming 2,800 sq. ft. coffee laboratory, education center, event space, and tasting room in Oakland, California, he’s recently had to work on this very task himself. In addition to courses, presentations, and more, The Crown will allow the general public to learn about coffee in a café-inspired setting, right down to the baristas serving up their brews.
For him, based in the San Francisco Bay area, the idea of “open-source coffee” was critical. “To our south, we have Facebook, Google, Apple, San Francisco, Twitter…” he says. “We’re surrounded by this concept of the tech industry: the idea that you don’t own your information or your knowledge, but you exist in the world to make it better. And that’s a huge part of what we want to do with The Crown.”
He sought out professionals with a strong knowledge of open-source culture to work with. Since they understood the goal so well, they were better able to work together to build the right space.
So, ask yourself what you want to create, what philosophies matter to you, and then seek out the partners who can help you build this.
The Crown: Royal Coffee Lab & Tasting Room under construction. Credit: Evan Gilman
Café Size & Location
How big should your business be? How many options should there be on the menu? And how much equipment and stock will you really need? To work out the answer to these questions, you need to consider your business model, your overheads, and what you can realistically afford to do.
And often, that comes down to location.
Richard tells me, “Property value drives everything. What your monthly rent is going to be is going to dictate the number of cups you have to provide and what your program needs to be. Do you supplement, for example, a slower turnover with egg sandwiches?”
This is where the concept of you café will tie in. Brandon says, “Recognizing the neighborhood you’re in is key. Is this going to be a large grand space where people are going to come and sit and enjoy their coffee? Is it a central business district kind of locale, where people are moving quickly?
“There’s a give and take there: the bigger space you have, the harder your staff has to work on maintaining that space.”
In fact, Brandon tells me his biggest piece of advice for soon-to-be café owners is to do research into the neighborhood. “Do your homework. Go and spend a day walking around that neighborhood yourself…
“I’ve worked with people who have said: ‘go do this, go figure this out.’ But I would do my own homework on the back end and then, in parallel, talk with those people that were hired to help me out with setting a new place up.”
The Crown: Royal Coffee Lab & Tasting Room under construction. Credit: Evan Gilman
The Café Space
Once you have your partners and your café location, it’s time to start planning the layout. But while everything should support your vision, the tiny details are often more mundane in nature. Let’s take a look at some of the practical points to consider:
Infrastructure and Utilities
“These four things, plumbing, drainage, gas, and electrical… they are the single most important thing that will dictate your design,” says Richard.
Basic utilities impact everything, from plotting where your entrance and exit will be to where the espresso machine sits. Take a piece of paper and start mapping out these things.
As you do it, you’ll find yourself planning where seating is going to go, where light fixtures are needed and tracing the power fittings for your lighting, where your power sockets are going to be positioned, where the toilet is and how the plumbing will run through the premises…
And then, you can consider how this works with your café concept.
“So, our focus was how you enter first, and that dictates everything,” Richard says. “That dictates where the register went, that dictates what kind of espresso machine we used, the bar flow, etc., etc.
“So, that’s a little bit more than your average coffee shop, but the idea of the starting place was how we wanted people to enter the building, and what do we want them to see first. First impressions are really important.”
A Blue Bottle coffee shop branch. Credit: Suzanna Scott
What equipment will best suit your concept? “[Our company] likes looking for the most innovative piece of equipment that’s out there,” says Brandon. He’s overseen numerous Blue Bottle expansions over the years.
At the same time, it’s not just about innovation for innovation’s sake. “So much of it is about what this… location is going to speak to the customer,” he continues. “Our birthplace café is an example. We wanted that café to kind of have a very streamlined, open kind of look to it. So, we specifically went with low-profile espresso machines just to kind of open up the space.”
Following that, it’s important to consider installation: where it’s going to go, how often it needs to be maintained and if maintenance options are accessible, as well as how it interacts with the space and other equipment on the bar.
“It’s also about functionality and how it will hold up,” stresses Brandon. For a café with a constant influx of customers, the rate of wear and tear is important to keep in mind, as well as replacement and upkeep of technology.
Outfitting The Crown: Royal Coffee Lab & Tasting Room. Credit: Evan Gilman
You can’t afford to overlook storage, be it for your coffee, your stock, or equipment that could otherwise clutter up usable surface areas.
“If you think about the cafés that you love in the cities you live in, versus the ones that you don’t,” Richard says, “my guess is that of course the coffee has to be good, but it might have to do with the fact that there are big, ugly, bulky boxes everywhere.
“And if you have a really brilliant design aesthetic but you can’t hide [the boxes] because you didn’t plan your utilities, that’s kind of a moot point.”
Richard tells me that this was a key consideration for The Crown. “All of that big, bulky equipment is going to be hidden, with the exception of the espresso machine… [and] you won’t be able to see power cords. All the drainage is going under the floor.”
Their coffee bar is made up of five curved sections, each of which is a separate cart. This means the carts can be moved, creating new spaces and new experiences. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be tripping over trailing wires. “Each one of those carts is powered by a twelve-inch-by-twelve-inch sunken floor box into our concrete floor, and that contains our plumbing, our power, our CO2, our N2, and our drainage… That gives us infinite flexibility.”
A Blue Bottle coffee shop branch. Credit: Suzanna Scott
The Customer Experience
Café layout isn’t just about utilities. It’s also about ensuring that customers have the best possible experience.
How will customers navigate your space? Are you providing sufficient signage and clear touchpoints? Is there an obvious direction of flow? Are there any bottlenecks anywhere? Is there sufficient seating or room to stand while waiting for takeaway coffee?
Brandon and the Blue Bottle team take this seriously. “We’ve got a lot of work on studying where the ideal placement of your front entry door is, for example, or your exit,” Brandon says, “and then where is the ideal location for those point of sales, and then on top of that is how people queue with how our pickups are located.”
The Blue Bottle model, he continues, tends to have the point-of-sale in the far left of the rectangular bar, right in front of the entryway, with customers moving clockwise down the line to the middle of the bar where coffee pick-up is located. If the entrance was even a tiny bit to the left of the point-of-sale, bottlenecks could occur that might be hard for customers and staff to navigate around.
“[Things] become a little bit more complicated then,” he says. “Then you have to start thinking about things like, can we place our merchandise here to drive the line? Can we place stanchions [poles and ropes] throughout the line queue?”
Richard also highlights the importance of access for people with disabilities. Based in the US, The Crown complies with the regulations outlined in the American Disability Act, which Richard describes as “a really important set of legislation that drives so much of building code. It dictates accessible seating being a part of, you know, the overall experience.”
While legal requirements will vary from country to country, access is an important consideration. How would someone in a wheelchair navigate your space? How would someone with visual or auditory impairments engage with the menu or know when their coffee order is ready? Will someone with a speech impediment? Learning difficulties? All of these pose different challenges, so it may be worth speaking to specialist advisors to avoid overlooking something.
After all, as Brandon emphasizes, it’s not just about following the law or improving profits. “It’s about doing the right thing,” he says.
Whether you offer table service or counter service, customers should have the chance to consider the menu before they reach the till. This will help prevent congestion.
The menus shouldn’t be wordy or overcomplicated; simple options will help customers make the right choices for them. This doesn’t mean you can’t include details like terroir or processing method. However, it’s best to do it in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the customer. Consider who they are, how much they know, and what your brand is offering them.
For example, in The Crown’s upcoming Tasting Room, Richard has taken a bold move that he knows wouldn’t work for a lot of traditional cafés. Yet it’s the perfect demonstration of what The Crown stands for.
“We are green coffee importers,” he says, “[so] our menu will have the coffee farmers’ names front and center – no drinks. So, you walk into the building… you’ll be greeted by a smiling barista. But there will not be in big letters: espresso, cappuccino, latte, macchiato, anything of the sort. Instead, [the menu] will lift the coffee producers that we’re featuring, and no prices will be listed.
“Then as you approach the reg[ister], there will be that more traditional menu,” he continues. “As green coffee importers who are trying to provide a tasting room to showcase our offerings, we want to re-imagine bringing origin forward.”
Finally, consider other products customers could be purchasing and how you can visually prompt them on their way to the till. “As [they] go towards the first point of sale, they’re encountering merchandise,” Brandon tells me, taking me through the Blue Bottle shop layout. “We position our grab-and-goes and takeaway options adjacent to the point of sale itself.”
The cupping table at a Crown on the Road Event in 2016. Credit: Evan Gilman
It’s important not just to look after the wellbeing of your paying customers, but also the staff that work in your café every single day. HR policies can cover everything from physical and financial welfare to emotional wellbeing and growth within the company – all things that Richard and Brandon tell me should be a top priority.
“Having a safe working place is your most important thing,” Richard says. “Like focusing on barista ergonomics: having Puqpress tampers if you can afford it to help people’s shoulders… It has to do with café design, too. Like, where you put the milk fridge will totally, radically change someone’s physical wellbeing on bar.”
Brandon agrees. “We wanted to make these beautiful, elegant, minimal spaces, but we also want to make them functional for our teams to clean so they’re not running twenty feet out from behind the bar to bus dishes.
“For us, it’s about what makes it the most efficient and most ergonomically sustainable for our baristas to do their job properly to our training standards. We’ve done bars in the past where our baristas literally have to go 15 feet down and then 15 feet back to prepare drinks… It’s not the right way to lay out a workspace.
“It’s taking that feedback, giving that to our design team and rethink[ing] some of this. We’ve even done studies on different types of anti-fatigue floor mats!”
And safety isn’t just about the equipment and workflow. “[Every café] needs a clear sexual harassment policy,” Richard says. “It needs a clear equal employment opportunity policy and it needs a non-discrimination policy.”
Small things can have a big impact. “One of the [other] things that’s been really nice is that question of what someone’s preferred pronoun is,” Richard tells me. “It’s not hard to ask that question; it’s not hard to follow the answer of that. But it might mean a lot to someone and that’s something that we try to employ here.”
Although things like this may seem “common sense”, policies can protect staff, signal to them that you will take safety issues seriously, and help you know to confidently respond if there is ever an issue.
As Brandon says, “Worker safety… is just the ethical and right thing to do. You make sure you’re building your spaces to accommodate everyone. And I think, if you’re really somebody who wants to build a hospitable, welcoming café, you do that anyway. That’s not even a question.”
There’s a lot to consider before opening your coffee shop, but good planning is key to success. After all, it’s a lot easier to build a good café and café policies before you open than try to fix things on day two, month two, or even year two of operations.
For Richard, it all boils down to painstakingly good café design. He says that once that is sorted, everything else naturally falls into place. You want your café to be working with you, not against you. And café design will dictate simple things like how quickly you take orders, how quickly you make coffee, and how quickly you serve your coffee.
“It’s additional labour costs, it’s additional time, it’s less efficient,” Richard says. “I think café design is exquisitely important.”
So, do your research. Plan your layout, equipment, and storage. And consider both your customer and employee experience. Your efforts now will pay off later.
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