The 14 Rules of Coffee Shop Design

coffee shop design

Coffee shop design

Design is an integral part of operating a specialty coffee business. Aside from coffee, what other reasons do people have for visiting a coffee shop? Ambiance and environment play a huge role in attracting customers through your doors. 

We’ve helped thousands of people over the years open coffee shops. We’ve seen firsthand what they’ve struggled with, and have asked for help with. The process can be daunting.

One of the top things people come to us for advice with in this process is Coffee Shop Design. It makes sense. You’re investing thousands of dollars and hard work into making your dream come true, and you know that the little details are equally as important as the product you sell and the customer service you provide.

If your customers don’t instinctively know the right place to stand, maybe they’ll get confused, feel uncomfortable, and be less likely to return. If your aesthetic doesn’t match your target clientele, maybe they’ll feel alienated, and again…not come back. 

If your baristas are having a hard time maneuvering behind the counter, resulting in longer than needed wait times – you guessed it, that could ruin somebody’s experience, too. 

With all the variables up in the air, it makes sense to look for help. As long-time pioneers of Specialty Coffee Education, we are here to be the experts you can call upon. 

Here are the 14 rules of coffee shop design, plus a bonus. 

The Importance of a Great First Impression

The importance of a great first impression can not be overlooked in the coffee business. Every day you will be met by new customers that have never seen your business before, let alone have walked in, interacted with a barista, or made a purchase.

The look and feel of your coffee shop must convey the impression that your business is approachable, appealing, and desirable to the community it serves.

Your customer’s first impression of your cafe is a crucial and highly important factor from a marketing perspective because it largely determines who will become your customer.

Loud rock music might work to help your business in a certain neighborhood that caters to people who enjoy loud rock music, but if other parts of your aesthetic imply that this is a place to sit down and read the paper, perhaps you need to take a moment to consider your target demographic and if your choices are consistently catering to them effectively.

Be sure that there is a cohesiveness to your brand that people can remember as the place they go to when they want “that” type of experience. Cozy and quaint? Vibrant and happening? Stay consistent, so people know what to expect when they come in and also when they tell others about you. 

If your operation is poorly designed, either from the standpoint of ambiance or of working layout, your opportunity to make a great first impression (and long-term sales) will suffer.

A common mistake that many cafe owners make is failing to view their operation from the eyes of a new customer.

Imagine it’s your first time walking in to a coffee shop. Would you immediately know where to stand to get in line? Where to stand when waiting for your order? Is it instinctive where to add cream and sugar to your coffee? 

These kinds of details are crucial, as nobody likes to feel confused. If it’s someone’s first impression of your business, it might mean it will be their last.

As surprising as it may sound, even small design deficiencies can impact your bottom line. First impressions leave a lasting impression to nearly every customer you’ll ever have. Design errors can add up to significant losses for your business. That’s why professional designers can justify being paid as much as they do.

Use your first impression to be sure your customers see your operation as superior to the other coffee shops that they could be visiting.

Your design decisions must also reflect your dedication to quality. Ambiance is a huge part of customer perception and is crucial to your overall marketing effort. Aim for design features that delight and make customers comfortable, to encourage them to come back, again and again. Remember, they can go to other shops. Do your best to make your place more welcoming than theirs. A first impression lasts a lifetime. 

The Ideal Layout

Great ambiance doesn’t just happen. It begins with a good layout. You want a clear sense of welcome as people enter, with simple menus that are easy to read and understand. Always try to keep in mind that your goal is to serve people efficiently, especially during peak times.

If you’ve been in business for years and can’t afford a remodel, try to view your operation from the customer’s perspective to reveal low-cost changes that would facilitate better service. Are your baristas moving efficiently? Are all the seats easy to access? 

You want your design to help you serve each customer promptly even at your busiest times, while still making them feel relaxed and welcome. People understand that coffee shops get busy, but they don’t want to feel like they’re the reason that your baristas are stressed, and they especially don’t want to feel stressed themselves because the layout of your coffee shop was poorly designed and they’ve got to figure out how to grumpily navigate through it before they’ve had their morning coffee.

One good example of this is to make sure customers waiting in line will have a good view of the pastries and food case, so that they will have their order ready by the time they approach the counter. If this is impossible, consider having a large menu above you so that they can consider their order before they ever approach the register. If a hungry customer has to wait in line without the opportunity to consider their order beforehand, it is likely they will spend two minutes looking through the pastry case asking questions what everything is, holding up the line for everybody else.

Time savers like these can make or break a new coffee shop. People in a hurry will start to view your location as the place with the long, slow lines, and likely never return.  It’s a good general philosophy to solve the problem before it ever becomes one. 

If you’re not good at this sort of thing, ask a decorator or interior designer to do a walk-through and make comments. The look and feel of your coffee bar conveys your business image and determines how your business is perceived. It’s a crucial and highly important factor in marketing because it largely determines who will become your customer. If you’re not appealing to someone, you’re not appealing to anyone. 

Do Your Homework Before Starting

If you are not yet open, it’s worth the effort to go to other stores and get a feel for what makes them unique. What is the reason that their customers go there? What gives them their own competitive advantage? What could you do better? Are they catering to a specific group of people or just anybody who lives nearby? Study the details.

If your cafe intends to have machinery that drives sales, be sure to place visually appealing items (like granita machines, for example), in full view. Brightly colored granitas, turning in their cylinders, will catch your customers’ eyes as they walk up to your counter. A granita machine tucked away where few will see the product will cost you sales. Similarly, if you have ugly machinery, like a dirty toaster readily available for all to see, remember that a customer might find this unattractive and off-putting. A good rule of thumb is to place the attractive things outward, and the less-attractive things in less conspicuous areas.

Long before you sign any contracts with interior builders, look at your plans though the eyes of the customer. What do customers need? What makes things easy for them? For example, one of the biggest sources of confusion is where to place an order.

You want your store to be customer-friendly. An order counter near the front reduces the feeling of being lost as soon as you walk in. Be sure it is obvious where people will stand to put cream and sugar in their coffee, and that there is an obvious trash can nearby.

A crowded area in front of a bar might be overwhelming for many of your customers.

Good layout and rational traffic patterns are crucial to making everything work. Strive to be original to set your coffee bar apart from your competition. Have a definite theme and concept in mind before you begin. Planning for excellence begins with a rough draft of a concept that will set you apart. You must transform your dreams and imagination into a clear sense of what you want before you hire your experts.

Consider this: do you want your coffee shop to be bright and spacious? Subdued, cozy, and intimate? Do you want an Italian or Southwestern theme, cool sophistication or L.A. chic? Collect concepts, make a list of features and themes that fit your dreams, visit operations similar to what you envision and study and take notes on what you like and dislike about each. Aim to keep your branding consistent.

Of course, layout and design of your café will depend upon the amount of space you have, your customers and your theme. Work within the given limits, then aim to make your store the best. What have successful chain operations in your area done to make their stores unique? Often they have hired top designers to contribute to the design. Can you afford to do that as well? If not, it’s important to spend time early on to consider all of these concepts.

Industrial and modern spaces are becoming increasingly trendy.

Look at the colors they use and the art on their walls. Study their menu boards, tables, chairs, and stools. You should certainly duplicate certain aspects of what the chains have done well, but then opt for a design that creates a unique space to give your customers a special experience.

After all, you’re an independent coffee shop, not a big chain, aren’t you? Use that to your advantage.

Showcase what makes you unique, and prove that you’ve considered the customers needs, reward them with an excellent experience and they’ll come back again and again.

We talk quite a bit about how to come up with your coffee shop’s design in our startup course.

Design the Back of the Bar Before Your Menu

Your menu will determine what food-service equipment you’ll need, and similarly, the space and equipment you have will determine the kind of menu you’re able to create.

Remember what we said about efficient layout from the customer’s perspective. The same goes for your staff. If they have to move inefficiently, or if simple processes require multiple steps, different machines, walking back and forth, not only will your employee quickly grow tired of doing this task, it will also mean that your customers are having to wait longer than they need to be served their food.

So, first consider the amount of space you have.

Where will your equipment be placed? Where is each task performed? Unless you have years of experience working in retail coffee or kitchens, you’ll never envision the hundreds of small considerations involved in design such as:

“Where will I prepare and stage my sandwich assembly?”

“Where will I wash the lettuce and store my tomatoes?”

“Will my baristas be able to pull shots and assemble drinks without colliding with an employee making iced drinks?”

The basic rule is to design the back of your bar first. Proper layout in this area is the key to good compact workflow so you can provide the service required and have happy employees, all of which will make your operation much more successful.

Precision planning allows for the proper flow of work in the smallest area. This is important when you remember that only the square footage in the seating area generates profit.

A well designed coffee shop workstation is vital. Spend time imagining all of the tasks that each employee is asked to do, and be sure that they can do as many of them as possible without annoyance, or having to stray far from their workstations.

Efficiency equals time, and time equals money.

A Word About Designing Your Coffee Shop Menu:

Using various online tools, you can produce clear, simple and legible point-of-sale signs to put on the counter and in display cases. But hire a graphic designer to create the larger signs outside and inside your business, including your large menu boards. Make your menu easy to understand, easy to read and not too cluttered or complex. Put your food menu near your drink menu, where it’s easy to see and may prompt an impulse buy.

Give items original names. But don’t get too cute. Foreign words, not translated, can put people off. If you offer a Bangkok Panini, explain what it is or you’ll leave customers baffled. Study the menus of other coffeehouses. Read the menus of successful upscale restaurant chains for inspiration and creativity.

If you’re in a fast-paced business district, distribute menus with your phone number and Web address. Let people phone-in orders and pick them up with no waiting. Your menu should be both descriptive and alluring.

Hire a Pro

Only a professional coffee bar design firm can understand all of the space and motion relationships that will make your operation work smoothly, well before any concrete is poured or any cabinets are built. Not every famous national design firm has experience in café layouts and few local firms have any at all.

A Florida client resisted our advice to contact a firm specializing in coffee bar design and spent several thousand dollars working with a local architect to make their own dreams come true. After reviewing the plans, we recommended more than thirty changes. At that point, six weeks behind schedule, she realized she DID need someone who specialized in coffee design.

With the help of industry professionals, developing a winning food-service area along with a great concept and efficient layout is easier than you might think.

Hire pros and you won’t have to build three coffee operations to finally get everything right. It might seem like a lot to invest in up front, but trust us, you don’t want to fail because you were stingy in the beginning.

Designing Around Your Theme, For Comfort, and Designing the Retail Area

After the service areas, the next step is to design the front — the part of your operation where most of your in-store marketing will take place.

Design this part of your operation with your cafe’s theme in mind, recalling that your money will be made in the square footage in front of your workspace and counters.

Designing for Comfort

Unless you have a small operation in a downtown metropolitan area where most of your sales are to-go drinks, you will need to design your café to accommodate customers who want to linger. Think your customers want to read? Consider the lighting, and where they’ll put the paper down when they need to use the restroom.

A good “third place” (first being home, second being work, third being the ‘other’ place where people go to feel comfortable) will have attractive and comfortable seating, and feel inviting for them to want to bring their friends.

Think your customers are going to spend a lot of their time working on their laptops? Think about how many electrical outlets you have. People who work from their computers frequently decide where they are going to go to a cafe based solely on whether they’ll be able to keep their computers charged.

Designing the Retail Area

If you are going to sell merchandise, you will need to create a retail area that fits into your overall design. Chains employ experts to position retail items at key points in their stores, so before you add retail items, visit a chain and take notes on the ways that they do this. You can be sure they have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to study the merchandising aspect of the business.

Pay attention to the way successful coffee bars and large chain stores integrate retail into their floor plan. Ask yourself how practical your display will be. Will your mugs, T-shirts and other retail items be in clear view of your cashier to prevent theft?

Interior Finishes

You don’t need to spend a million dollars to build a great coffee bar. One of Bellissimo’s clients installed a floor of inexpensive fiberboard covered with a transparent gym coating. It was stunning.

Another practical flooring option is acid-etched concrete. The new high-traffic, commercial vinyl tiles come in a variety of slate patterns and colors, are long wearing, easy to lay and very inexpensive.

Quality non-slip ceramic tile is expensive but lasts longer than other choices, with minimal care. Choose patterns that camouflage soil.

Avoid carpets as they soil quickly, are hard to clean and need to be replaced all too frequently. A big, beautiful rug might look nice in the beginning, but after a few spills, it will quickly make your place look like it’s seen better days.

Hardwood floors require care and can warp if exposed to moisture. Mats near the entry keep floors cleaner. The kick guard at the counter, about five inches high, can be made with rubber that coordinates with your color scheme.

If your operation is in an older or historic building, leave the walls in their natural state if they are in good condition. Old brickwork, cleaned up, is beautiful.

Aged wood has a unique appeal. You can camouflage ductwork or paint it bright colors to make a statement. Dark ceilings work well in large spaces, while small spaces feel much more open with bright ceilings.

We’ve found that in general, lighter earthy colors work best for walls. Study decorating websites for ideas. Wall treatments such as murals, wainscoting, wall textures, faux finishes or decorated borders add a distinctive touch.

Ergonomic Designs

Ergonomics, or human engineering, is about making the designed environment fully compatible with people. Ergonomics was originally the domain of industrial efficiency experts.

It’s the science of the design of devices, systems and working conditions to match the requirements of the human body. It talks about how workers move through their tasks and how to make it easy for them to do their best.

Good ergonomic design will allow your staff to do things with the fewest steps and the least reaching, performing their jobs quickly without colliding with others or creating hazards. Good ergonomics will increase convenience, raise efficiency and reduce wasted effort.

Use ergonomics to maximize safety and help prevent accidents, while reducing frustration and fatigue, and increasing staff comfort.

Good ergonomics is also design that respects your customers. Today, it includes an understanding of how chairs and tables and counters fit, how people line up, how they view signage and how long they will enjoy sitting in a particular chair. Let ergonomics help you achieve the best fit for your service counter, seating areas, coffee displays, pastry cases and more.


Natural light is all the rage these days. Do your best to maximize natural light, but also think about the consequences. With all the heat generated by your machines, customers, and employees, sunny windows and skylights can put an extra load on your cooling system.

The most effective way to shade big windows is with an outside awning to block direct sunshine before it gets to the glass. Use interior drapery, shades or shutters as needed, to cut direct sunlight or to keep the heat inside during very cold weather. Lighting design is crucial to your operation.

Bluish fluorescent light and shiny surfaces can assault the senses. Colored incandescent bulbs and mini-halogen track lighting create a much warmer environment. Provide some areas bright enough for reading, and other areas where the light is subdued so customers can relax.

Lighting is a complex art form and new technology is rapidly evolving. Study lighting design blogs, books and magazines for ideas, but don’t try to come up with a lighting plan yourself.

Power usage, safety and security, mood, color, and other considerations enter into good lighting design decisions. When in doubt, talk with lighting experts before you make your choices.


Is your business a coffee shop where people will come to relax with friends? You’ll want soft couches and chairs with low coffee tables.

Or is it a high-volume coffee bar where people make a brief visit and are content with tall, high stools or hard chairs that are easy to keep clean? Small, hard chairs encourage shorter stays.

Offer many seating options. Large commercial restaurant wholesalers will have the best choices. Be sure that the chairs you choose can be repaired, repainted or replaced when they wear out. Look for good back support and chair heights that work well with your tables. Bring a couple of critical friends along and try out every piece of furniture you’re considering. Look for tables that are easy to clean and of a finish compatible with your design and theme.

We’ve found that tables 32 inches high are ideal, comfortable for most people and chairs fit well. Some table styles allow height adjustments. A black base is simple to touch up with paint when it gets scuffed.

Design With Work In Mind

Today, most coffee houses offer wireless Internet connections. Most also offer plugs to power laptop computers and save battery power. At almost every coffee business I walk into, I see numerous people working on laptops or surfing the Internet as they sip their favorite drinks.

This technology, like others, is changing rapidly. Choosing a service provider can be a difficult decision. Be sure you keep up with the latest technology. Be sure you offer fast, reliable wifi, and as many power outlets as possible. If you’re lucky enough to be in the early planning stages of a cafe, be sure to talk with an electrician to try and provide as many power outlets as possible (don’t forget to consider your electricity breaker’s capacities). Trust us, you’ll never lack for a need for outlets. If you’re in an older location, consider getting a reliable extension cord for multiple people to plug in with. 

If you happen to be located near a high school or college, keep in mind that a majority of your customers will need space to study, and spread out with a book, notebook, and laptop. Plan accordingly to meet their needs, or they’ll find a cafe that wi


Plan for music from day one. If you intend to have a good music system, the wiring has to be installed before the sheetrock and wall coverings go on. And you need to make decisions about where to keep the stereo system and plan procedures for who will be changing them. Remember that baristas are people, too, and frequently have strong opinions on music. Perhaps they’ve got great taste, but that doesn’t always mean your customers will appreciate it. Try to be mindful about who your target audience is.

Music is a crucial part of your ambiance. The type of music you play will often dictate the mood of your customers and what kind of customer walks through your doors, and who walks out. Be sure staff appreciates the fact that the music is not for their entertainment, but for the pleasure of the customers.

If you don’t know much about music, find someone to help you select a background sound that creates the atmosphere you want for your business. The music you play in early morning may be very different than what you play at noon or in the late evening with wine and dessert. Pandora and Spotify are easy enough to understand these days, and will make your life a lot easier when choosing music to match your ambiance. 

Perfection in the Simple Touches

To help you design your business, look around the internet for the term “cafe designs”. When we work with our clients at Bellissimo, we advise them to look through images of cafes that look great to them, then tell us what they like about particular designs. Most of these clients like certain aspects of four or five different operations. The educated client with strong ideas gets the best work from the design professional. By doing your own research, you help your consultant or professional designer hone in on what is important to you and on the feeling you want to convey in your operation.

With limitless design options, there is no reason you can’t create a one-of-a-kind coffee operation. You may decide to acid-etch your floors in four colors. Looking for a quiet, peaceful ambience good for reading? Why not get creative with floor to ceiling drapery down one of your walls? Local art that changes each month can provide ambiance and an added income source (and it’s always great to support local artists). Murals can transport your customers to a different place or time. Let your imagination and that of friends and professionals lead you to create a setting that is attractive, comfortable, workable, unique and very profitable.

The design of your work areas determines how well your staff can function. The image projected by your design decisions will create your store’s atmosphere. It’s difficult to measure or even to define, but everyone who comes in can feel it. When the atmosphere is enticing, comforting, exciting or fun it draws people into the store and enriches their experience, making them want to return

Don’t Forget That You’re a Coffee Shop

No matter how extensive your menu is, your business is first and foremost a coffee operation. Your primary identity is your coffee. You want to be known as THE coffee operation in your area, the one that serves the very best coffee. To do this, you must fully understand the nuances of your product. That is a tall order, and requires you to fully educate yourself.

Few start-up coffeehouse owners have done this. The result is that purists and knowledgeable aficionados could feel ripped off and resort to home brewing.

Obviously we’re biased, but we offer a week-long coffee skills workshop each month in “Independent Coffee Mecca”, Portland, Oregon. We wholeheartedly believe that our workshops will put a coffee shop owner a significantly higher chance of success, and all are invited to contact us anytime at (503) 232-2222.

There are no better workshops when it comes to teaching espresso skills or coffee business training.

Be Your Own First Customer

Store ambiance is something that is incredibly important when considering coffee shop design.  In today’s world especially, beautiful cafes are popping up everywhere with seemingly endless budgets. Design your coffee shop with your intentional branding in mind, keep your customer always at the center of your focus, and do your best to stand out while remaining authentic to your vision and your self. Remember that the customers will come in for you as much as they will come in for the design of your location.

Think we missed something? Something not clear or need updating? We always appreciate corrections and inquiries about anything that needs clarification. Email us anytime. We’ll be happy to hear from you.

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