The 14 Tenets of Coffee Shop Design (Part 2)

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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 opening their cafe 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 2 of our 3-Part Series, “The 14 Tenets of Great Coffee Shop Design”

Today’s topic:

Making Your Space Beautiful

Comfort and Ambiance

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

  1. Designing Around Your Theme, For Comfort, and Retail Area
  2. Interior Finishes
  3. Ergonomics
  4. Lighting
  5. Seating

Conclusion and Next Steps

6. 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?

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. Lighting

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.

10. Seating

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.


Designing a beautiful, comfortable coffee shop is half of the battle. For many shops in the world, this alone is enough of a reason for people to come back.  People naturally are seeking a Third Place (the first two being home and work), to spend their time in, and gravitate towards places that make them feel at ease. The ambiance of your cafe is something that is incredibly important when considering your coffee shop design. 

Design your coffee shop with your intentional branding in mind, keep your ideal 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.

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…

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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