September 7, 2022

Are specialty coffee shops becoming more common in airports?


Among many other food and beverage outlets, coffee shops are a common sight in airports around the world. They provide travellers with a space to relax and enjoy a beverage before taking a flight.

In general, most coffee shops in airports are operated by larger chains, such as Starbucks, Costa Coffee, and Dunkin’. However, over the past decade or so, more and more specialty coffee roasters and brands have opened locations in airports to serve high-quality coffee to international travellers.

So, how can this change the consumer experience in airports? And what do specialty coffee businesses need to consider when entering this market?

To find out more, I spoke with two coffee professionals who operate businesses in airports. Read on to learn what they had to say.

You may also like our article on whether airlines are starting to offer better coffee.

a black and white picture of an airport coffee shop

Opening a coffee shop in an airport

In many airports around the world, you’re most likely to come across a multinational coffee chain shop – especially a Starbucks.

The company is particularly prominent in US airports because of a long-term exclusivity agreement between the coffee chain and HMSHost, one of the major food and beverage operators in the country’s airports.

However, in 2020, both Starbucks and HMSHost decided to end the agreement. The concessionary announced that it would open more local coffee shops in US airports, as it says airport operators are requesting more specialty coffee brands.

As such, we have seen a rise in the number of third wave coffee shops and roasters in US airports – including Stumptown and Intelligentsia. 

But this trend isn’t just popular in North America; more specialty coffee shops are opening in Europe and Latin America, too.

One such example is Café Pergamino, a specialty roaster in Colombia. The company operates a location in José María Córdova International Airport in Medellín.  

Pedro Echavarría is the general manager of Café Pergamino. He tells me: “We’re also going to open our second location in the main hall of the airport in the coming months.”

Yiannis Taloumis is the CEO and Head of Quality at Taf Coffee in Greece, which operates an airport location in Athens.

“The Taf Retail Shop in Athens International Airport was open from December 2021 until May 2022,” he says. “In May 2022, we opened the Cultivos Coffee airport location, which is a concept inspired by Taf [focusing on higher-quality coffee].

“We partnered with Select Service Partner to open Cultivos Coffee in Athens International Airport,” he adds. “The shop serves high-quality espresso blends and single origins sourced from the Taf Direct Relationship Programme.”

How is the customer experience affected?

The concept of a coffee shop as a “third place” in society has been prevalent since the late 1980s. While home is the first place and work is the second place, third places are more relaxed public spaces where people can interact in a range of different ways.  

As most airports are busy places, convenience plays an important role in the consumer experience. Naturally, this means coffee shops in airports are rarely used as a third place and more so as a means of quickly purchasing a coffee to go.

“You have to focus on your takeaway service because fewer people are going to sit in and drink their coffee,” Pedro advises. This is largely because customers in airport locations are more likely to purchase takeaway coffee so they can have more time to navigate through the airport.

Not only does this mean roasters and coffee shops need to focus on their takeaway options, they also need to find ways to streamline service. This way, customers can receive their orders quickly, but also to a high level of quality – as is expected from specialty coffee shops.

However, Pedro tells me that achieving this can be challenging.

“Airport locations can be good for high-volume sales, but they can also limit the customer experience,” he says. “There needs to be a balance.

“Managing a coffee shop in an airport is different to a more traditional location,” he adds. “Our average location size is about 150m2, whereas our airport location is around 20m2, so space is one of the main constraints.”

To overcome these difficulties, specialty coffee shops in airports should provide some seating for customers who prefer to stay in. Although this can be tricky – especially if space is more limited – giving people the option to sit down with their coffee could be one of many ways to enhance the customer experience.

Customers order at Cultivos Coffee in Athens International Airport

What about menu items?

Specialty coffee shops in airports need to consider their value proposition for customers at airport locations, as well as how much equipment they are able to install.

As part of this, coffee shops should factor in what beverages to include in their menus. For the most part, espresso-based drinks are suitable because of quicker turnaround times, whereas other drinks which take longer to prepare may not be appropriate for airport locations.

“We don’t have pour overs at our airport shop,” Pedro tells me. “There isn’t enough time to prepare them as people want their coffees quickly.

“Pour overs are one of the top-selling beverages in our more traditional locations, so we try to compensate by having different filter coffees available [on batch brew],” he adds.

As well as beverages, coffee shops should also think about their retail products, such as whole bean coffee, merchandise, and brewing equipment.

“A big percentage of our sales is retail bags of coffee,” Pedro explains. “For an airport location, this can have a huge impact as your brand can reach a much wider consumer base.”

Ultimately, these factors will also influence staff training and store layout – especially with significantly smaller floor and counter space.

“One of the challenges for baristas at Cultivos Coffee is to quickly provide all of the necessary information to customers, [such as origin, variety, roast profile, and flavour notes],” Yiannis tells me. “It’s key to find a balance between informing the consumer and respecting their limited amount of time to spend in-store.”

People standing at the front of the Klatch Coffee shop at the terminal 7 of the Los Angeles international airport LAX

Broader considerations for airport locations

While an airport might not be number-one on the list for coffee brands looking to expand, Yiannis explains the benefits of doing so.

“Having a specialty coffee shop in an airport can open your doors to a much wider range of people,” he tells me. “It can give your brand a chance to shift consumers’ perceptions of specialty coffee.

“You can introduce more people to higher-quality coffee, too,” he adds.

However, airport locations can certainly have their unique challenges.

Barista workflow is especially important as we have to keep in mind that customers are travellers and therefore are likely to be in a hurry,” Yiannis says. “But at the same time, we have to effectively communicate our values, such as the Taf Direct Relationship Programme, in a much shorter period of time.”

Another essential element of opening an airport coffee shop is making the decision between remaining as an independent business or starting a franchise store.

Pedro explains the latter is becoming increasingly popular.

“Most airports are trying to franchise stores to be run by major food and beverage operators,” he says. “Café Pergamino has been able to remain independent because we opened our airport location prior to the rising demand for franchising.”

As the specialty coffee market continues to grow, opening an airport location could be a viable way for some growing coffee brands to expand.

However, it’s clear that these locations may not be the most suitable for every business. As such, when expanding into this market, brands should consider the various challenges associated with operating an airport coffee shop – as well as making sure their operational approach is different to a regular city or town store location.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on understanding the self-serve coffee machine market.

Photo credits: Taf Coffee

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