What makes a coffee shop, part 2.
In the last ten years, I’ve worked in seven different cafe/bar/restaurant/coffee shop type places, both independent and at branches of the big chains – everything from Caffe Nero, to my own coffee shop and previously, my little coffee van in the UK, to the most recent move to this vegetarian restaurant/coffee house here in Saskatchewan. I’ve also spent a lot of time, and an eye-watering amount of money, hanging around in coffee shops all over the world. I think this has given me a fairly good idea of what makes a good one!
I posted previously asking my loyal follower(s) to say what makes a place worth visiting to them. After good coffee, most answers seemed to revolve around the idea of “comfort” – ie: “no metal chairs!!” “big squashy sofas” and “free wifi”. I agree. To me, what makes a good coffee shop is as much about atmosphere and environment, as it is about the coffee. I’ve worked in, and spent time in places where the coffee is not that great. but everyone in there were so friendly and fun that attendance was habit forming. Conversely, I’ve visited places (typically, in the posh parts of London but also significantly in Darlington and one here in Regina) where the coffee itself was exceptional and expertly crafted, but the places themselves felt at best sterile and at worst, pretentious and actively hostile.
Coffee can be sold by image. Some places are just Fashionable: if you can make the coffee look pretty, and if you are in the right location (for example, in the city centre where people with a lot of money reside or work) and build up a popular brand image, then people will pay for it regardless of whether or not the coffee itself is any good. The same is true of ethical branding – serve fair trade/organic/bird friendly/rainforest alliance/ 30% raw/gluten-free/anti-oxident-packed GRIT in recycled cups with 10% going to charity in a ‘social enterprise’ café and position yourself in the midst of the hipster part of town, and that burnt grit could make your fortune.
I am not trying to say that all coffee shop customers are gullible fools – they are not, and consumers are getting more and more demanding of higher quality coffee, hence the increasing preference for independent places over the chains in the UK. Happily, people are starting to appreciate what they are drinking more, and becoming more discerning. My point is really that it is not just the coffee that makes a good coffee shop. People visit for other reasons.
In my experience, creating the right atmosphere is heavily based on personality – that of the staff and of the business owners/designers. Friendly, chatty, informal people who don’t treat customers like they are just walking ATMs. The chain coffee shops attempt to artificially create this atmosphere by effectively scripting their staff, and designing the branches so that baristas can never actually sit down visibly, so that we constantly looked busy and active but never relaxed! Unsurprisingly, this approach usually failed, and gave rise to the chain store baristas being called “robots” “button monkeys” or “drones in green aprons”! (all real quotes from my customer focus groups).
Baristas have to enjoy what they are doing to be good at their job, and should be given the opportunity to showcase their creativity and individuality – coffee and creativity always go hand in hand! A huge amount of Coffee Shop Success is based on personality; particularly in small businesses, it is as much about selling your personality as it is selling coffee. Community is also important, as an article in our local paper showed the other day:
Fully 71 per cent like to support owners who live in their community, and 68 per cent like the personalized service from small businesses.
That’s no surprise to Craigen, who said people note her firm’s visibility in community events and tell her, “we’re going to support you because you support us.”
“People like businesses that participate in the community, their ‘nearness’ and the fact that they get to know the owners,” agrees RBC’s Mike Michell
So there you have it: good coffee shops need good coffee, great, personable, happy staff, a sense of community and big squashy sofas. You heard it here first!