March 12, 2020

Serving Food in Specialty Coffee Shops


Introducing new customers to specialty coffee or converting coffee enthusiasts to new origins and exotic varieties is one of the great things about operating a specialty coffee shop. You get to purchase popular and less well known coffees from roasters, serve it to happy customers – and make money at the same time. 

It can be a profitable endeavour, but serving customers coffee and cultivating an inviting space for them to enjoy it in can get expensive. Adding food to your menu could help here, but will require you to consider various factors including regional differences, and whether you’d like to produce your food in-house, or outsource it. 

Exploring the relationship between specialty coffee shops and food is your first step to creating a menu that best suits your particular establishment.

Lee este artículo en español Cómo Incluir Comida en el Menú de tu Tienda de Café Especial

Signage advertising various beverages on offer at a coffee shop. Credit: Neil Soque

Take Into Account Regional Differences

For some coffee shops, serving food is something that’s been taking place for years. Sandra Wolter, Owner of Sweet Science Coffee in Washington, DC says, “We create part of our pastry menu in alignment with the seasonal coffees we source. I always brainstorm flavor combinations with our pastry chef that go with Slow Bar and/or Slow Drip offers… Small bites [also] work well though.” This is why it’s important to know what your market’s preferences are.

Cultural and religious preferences are important here, such as if your coffee shop is in a country which has a large Muslim or Jewish population. As of 2018, the world’s Halaal food market was worth US $1.6 trillion, with the global Kosher food market expected to reach US$ 60 billion in five year’s time. Having Kosher and Halaal options (and avoiding pork products) could be essential. This would also involve you taking care with disclosing your ingredients, and possibly investing in identifying labelling 

Other less obvious regional differences also need to be taken into account. While globalisation has resulted in people being exposed to foods from other cultures, many will prefer certain flavours and textures they are accustomed to. For example, cheese isn’t a staple in most Chinese diets – although this might change in the future. It’s also common for countries like Japan and Singapore to enjoy savoury breakfasts usually associated with lunch or dinner. On the other hand, countries like Italy, Portugal, and Germany often feature pastries or bread on their morning menus.

If you’re unsure how to find out what foods your customers want (or what lifestyles they live), social media can provide a wealth of information. Many platforms allow you to find out more about the people who follow you on social media, such as what products they like or places they frequent. According to marketing website HubSpot, over 70% of customers are influenced into a purchasing decision by what they see on social media. When targeting content at this market, how you present your food will be critical, as the popularity of ‘Instagrammable’ foods means that social media photos of your menu are often consulted long before your actual menu is.

You may also like How to Create a Coffee Shop Food Menu That Minimises Waste

Brownies displayed in a glass serving container, ready for purchase. Credit: Neil Soque

Look Out For Food Trends

Trends play an undeniable part in creating a menu for customers. This ties into the popularity of ‘Instagrammable’ food, with meals offering a unique visual appeal showing up on posts across social media platforms. As it’s well established that millennials are a driving force in the specialty coffee scene, their food preferences should be taken into account. 

The rise of plant-based alternatives will continue to increase in popularity, with vegetarian sausages and even burger patties that look and taste like meat but contain none of it set to feature more on menus – with more realistic replicas of chicken and meat likely to join these items in the future.

Another trend will be eating more locally and seasonally, as customers take into account the high carbon footprint that out-of-season food imports and transportation has on the planet. This will see a shift towards menus that take into account what’s available each season, in close proximity to where it will be served.

Food waste will also come under the spotlight, with zero-waste cooking and preparation becoming important to consumers. This could involve finding innovative ways to reuse scraps that are typically discarded by repurposing them into other foods or drinks – helping reduce costs at the same time.

Ice cream paired with fresh espresso, ready to be served. Credit: Neil Soque

Consider Creating Specialty Pairings 

Specialty coffee is all about offering customers a high-quality product, each of which will have unique attributes. It has this in common with several other specialty foods which are gaining popularity on the market, such as craft chocolate, as well as other artisanal and small-batch premium goods. Coffee shops could increase both their specialty coffee sales and food sales by creating tasting courses or pairing menus. 

The simplest way this can be achieved is by pairing chocolate with coffee, as this will require the least amount of preparation and is a pairing most are familiar with. Here, dozens of possible combinations are possible, depending on what coffee you have in stock.

For example, a Colombian or Brazilian espresso could be paired with a 70% dark chocolate. The chocolate’s dark flavours will pair well with the coffee’s nuttiness, while its fruitiness will counter the coffee’s acidity. A spicy and bold coffee like a Sumatran can pair with a 53% bittersweet chocolate, and a floral, citrusy coffee like an Ethiopian could work with a 35% cocoa chocolate, which is sweeter and more acidic.

A selection of roast coffee displayed for sale in a coffee shop. Credit: Neil Soque

Doing It In-house Versus Finding Partners

An important consideration is whether you’d like to prepare food from scratch in your establishment, or potentially partner with an existing supplier who’d be willing to offer their food in your space. This will depend largely on your capacity in terms of staff, space, and resources.

Preparing your own food might require permits or certifications from a health and safety body, as well as specialised equipment, and food safety and preparation training for the staff members who’ll need to prepare it. This will impact the type of foods you serve. Victoria Nomusa Madevu, Owner of Umhle Coffee in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe has chosen this option, and offers her customers sandwiches, wraps, and burgers. She says that with this option she doesn’t have to “invest in a lot of equipment, human resources and machinery… The food costing is also simple. Most of the sandwiches and wraps use the same fillings. So hygiene [and] cross-contamination is easier to control.”

Brice Young is the Owner of Precision Pours Coffee House and bakery in Colorado, USA. He says that all their products are made in-house, “but didn’t start that way. [We] did it because no one locally [offered] sourdough… We couldn’t order enough for most people’s minimums, so we started making our own.”

This option might not suit all coffee shops. It might be better to partner with a business that prepares and packages food to the required specifications but lacks a retail space to promote and sell it. This will be advantageous if your business doesn’t want to invest in the equipment and licensing needed to make products in-house.

Rosario Juan is the owner of Commune, a coffee shop in the Philippines. She says that they prepare hot and savoury meals in-house, and outsource their pastries. She explains that “baking is not my expertise. That would entail hiring bakers and setting up equipment. Admittedly, pastries pull costs up but at least we don’t deal with it operationally.” 

Chrissy Nilsen, the owner of Riize Coffee Company in Colorado, USA, says, “We source it all… I enjoy working with local bakeries who take pride in their products. We focus on coffee, they focus on food. This also keeps our licensing costs down since we do not prepare food in-store. Our customers love the variety we are able to offer, and I love the relationships it fosters.”

A salad and sandwich served with a cup of takeaway coffee. Credit: Neil Soque

It’s impossible to calculate the number of coffee shops in the world, with dozens opening and closing each day. It’s estimated that there are over 20 000 coffee shops in Australia alone and that the European coffee shop market will grow at about 4.8% every year until 2023. This means that in most areas, competition between coffee shops could be somewhat high.

Before you consider adding food to your menu, you’ll need to calculate if it would be financially feasible to do so. How you price your food will depend on various factors, including how much customers are willing to spend for each item, how much it costs to make, as well as what your closest competitors are charging.

In the end, your specialty coffee shop’s goal is to make its customers happy and earn an income at the same time. By adding food to your menu, you’ll be able to add even more value to your customer’s lives and improve your bottom line at the same time.

Enjoyed this? Then Read How to Create a Coffee Menu: A Guide for Restaurants & Bakeries

Written by Janice Kanniah. Featured photo caption: A selection of attractively displayed filled cookies. Featured photo credit: Sebastian Franzén

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