The 14 Tenets of Coffee Shop Design (Part 1)

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Coffee Shop Design is an integral part of operating a specialty coffee business.

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. Your baristas having a hard time maneuvering behind the counter, causing 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. 

This is Part 1 of our 3-Part Series, “The 14 Tenets of Great Coffee Shop Design”

Today’s topic:

Creating a Stellar First Impression

Store Layout and Structure

Don’t have time to read the entire article? Jump to the part in which you are most interested.

  1. The Importance of a Great First Impression
  2. The Ideal Layout
  3. Do Your Homework Before Starting
  4. Design The Back of the Bar Before Designing the Menu
  5. Hire a Pro

Conclusion and Next Steps

1. 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. 

2. 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. 

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

Conclusion and Next Steps

A great first impression is incredibly important when considering coffee shop design.  In today’s world especially, beautiful cafes are popping up everywhere with seemingly endless budgets. How will you compete? Do your due diligence, and cater to a specific type of person. Make it appealing, and make the little things flow smoothly so that people’s first impression will be a positive one.

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 brand. Remember that the customers will come in for the people working there as much as they will come in for the coffee and 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.

Are you entering the coffee industry?

Hey, we’re Bellissimo Coffee Advisors. A team of coffee professionals determined to help people just like you succeed in specialty coffee. 

We’ve been around 30 years and have helped thousands of coffee shops all around the globe open and stay open well into the future. Learn from our experience, give your business the best chance to succeed.

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Further Reading…

Coffee Business

Why Do Coffee Shops Fail?

The coffee industry is an exceptionally rewarding one. Starting a coffee shop of your own is a dream to a lot of people. Who doesn’t

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Are you planning on opening a coffee shop?

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Contact Us

Bellissimo Coffee Advisors
1028 SE Water Ave
Ste 275
Portland, OR 97214


Bellissimo Coffee Advisors
1028 SE Water Ave
Ste 275
Portland, OR 97214