Photo by Kenneth R. Olson
Reprinted from Barista Magazine
Let’s face it, not to sound too terribly clichéd, but first impressions really do matter. What is the first thing your customers are going to notice when they walk in the door? That’s right, the café itself. Whether you are making the best coffee in town or not, pulling bodies off the street into your door has to be the forethought of your business plan. You are out to make good coffee, sell it and be able to balance your checking account without pulling your hair out. If the customers off the street don’t feel comfortable looking in on the environment, you can bet they will walk away. Design of your café shouldn’t be more important than the quality of your coffee, but it had better be a top priority in your planning.
See It Before You Build It
The build out and design is of critical importance when you are planning to open an in-line or storefront coffee bar, no matter what size of a business you have in mind. But back up for a second: before you even think of starting the build-out, you will want to have a clear vision of your concept and the theme of your coffee bar, and you absolutely must have an overall plan and budget in place. This stays true no matter if you are designing a small, minimal, 600 sq. ft. coffee bar or a 3,500 sq. ft. community-based coffeehouse. Without a plan and budget firmly grounded in the real world, spending will quickly outstrip your means, and your entire enterprise will start deep in the hole, which may be difficult to impossible to ever dig your way out of. So even though you may be realizing your dream by opening your own café, make sure your design and strategy is determined well before any real construction begins. That way you have a much better chance of bringing your dream to life instead of finding yourself in a waking nightmare.
The first time you open your doors, you will want your operation to look and feel well organized, clean and inviting.
The best place to start on a solid design plan is to have a rough picture in your mind of what your bar will look like, and a major step toward refining that vision is to determine your menu. For example if you’re going to prepare and sell food, you’re going to have very different concerns than a coffee shop that only offers espresso and bagels. A couple of other major factors that can influence the design are if you plan to retail coffee brewing equipment, or extensive whole bean coffee.
When designing the interior of your coffee bar, there are some components that promote good customer flow and aesthetics, as well as creating a unique retail coffee business. Generally, a coffee bar should be a relaxing and comfortable place to be. Often this is achieved with soft and simple textures, natural finishes and more muted colors. Some favorite and often inexpensive components to work with are different woods, concrete, stainless steel, and deep textured accents.
Get in the Flow
Once you have your café’s menu planned and an idea of what you want for a working design, it’s time for some field research. Spend a few days checking out other coffee bars or food service venues that are successful in your area. It is not as important that these places serve coffee, or are similar to your concept, but that you can find some strong examples of a “good flowing” retail environment. Look at places that are busy and successful. It can be useful to even take a note pad to a few different places to write down your impressions. Keep an eye on the flow of the customers in and out, as well as the employees. If the space designed well, there should not be a lot of general confusion.
Two different flows must work together in order for your café to be successful: the customer flow and the baristas’ workflow. Each requires bringing different variables to the plan, but both must be in harmony for the café to really sing.
When planning for the customer flow it’s important to build a defined route from beginning to end, almost sub-consciously directing each customer on where to go from the minute they walk through your door. By placing menu boards, pastry cases and other profit centers in the right places you can also greatly increase what your customer sees prior to point of purchase. It’s not unusual in a poorly planned café to find yourself at the coffee bar ready to pay for your order when you realize that there’s something else, like a pastry that you wanted, but feel like it’s too late. Build your café with a strategy for the customer flow in mind, and you can minimize these lost sales.
First, consider counter space and espresso machine placement. This may be the most critical part of the overall design. Even though this is not a space customers will be spending much time in front of, it is the space that will determine how much time they will be spending standing in line and waiting for their drink. It is also the space from which your baristas will serve coffee.
If the counter space is uncomfortable for your staff, there is no doubt your customers will notice, and at seven in the morning with a line out the door, a disruption in customer flow is quickly obvious. One should be thoughtful of the natural flow of people around the counter space: customer walks in, places an order with the barista, grabs a pastry, walks to the register. It’s a simple progression, but one that all too often runs into too many obstacles simply from a lack of prior planning.
Once your customers have their beverages and their favorite tasty treats, you want them to have a seat in the cozy space you have dreamt up. First stop is the condiment bar, a small part of the café experience, but nevertheless, an important one. The last thing you want is a fight over the last packet of Splenda, or customers reaching over one and other juggling their hot cups of coffee. Keep it simple and keep it easy to stock, so your staff does not have to put on a safety helmet to fill the to-go lids.
If you have not worked in a coffee bar or foodservice business before, it may be difficult to understand the importance of workflow between an employee and the equipment used in a coffee bar. It requires the right amount of space, not too small and not too big, to promote efficiency behind the bar. The mechanics of drink preparation in a coffee bar are different than almost any other foodservice business. Incorporate these variables into your design and try to understand exactly where to place your equipment, where to leave open space for drink preparation and delivery, establish work areas and define places where interaction with customers can take place and feel natural.
You will also want to project the volume you anticipate your business doing, and be prepared if down the road you need to add a second machine, or go from a 3-group to a 4-group espresso machine. Often, your space design can greatly limit growth within your menu, be it adding a third grinder for a single-origin espresso, a pour-over brewer or even a prep area for light food in the afternoons.
You’ll want to place the espresso machine/barista workstation so it is prominently within the customer’s line of sight when entering the café. The machine should stand at a medium-low height, not only to accommodate the munchkin or two on your staff, but also to give the barista a good opportunity to make eye contact with each new customer.
Eye contact and a smile never go out of style for someone walking into a coffee shop to shake off the morning grumpiness. Your barista can then take the order, be as pleasant as necessary, and send the customer down the counter to the cash register, charmed and ready to settle up. Additionally, ergonomics, also understood as human engineering, are of extreme importance to coffee businesses, which are often high volume/quick transaction operations. Strong design in your coffee bar will pay off many dividends in the future. And overcoming early errors in design can end up costing you dearly. The return on investment of hiring a professional to help design your coffee bar can be tremendous. It’s not unusual to hear how after a poor decision early in a café’s design, a few years after opening, the owner needs to tear out the whole bar and re-design the operation. This can mean lost income, and the extra expenses involved in build out and construction. It’s much better to spend a few dollars up front than thousands to go back and re-design your bar.
You must also pay attention to how efficient the employee’s work environment is. It will be imperative to create an efficient workflow to minimize the preparation time of products, to hold labor to a minimum and to minimize conflict or working areas between employees. Your employees will also appreciate a thoughtfully designed workspace, as it will allow them to optimize their hours spent on shift, which can greatly increase tips and lower overall stress while at work.
You can also minimize the repetitive movements and steps that a barista makes each day while behind bar. With a good workflow, a barista will not have to make excessive steps, or will not have to make as many awkward movements to perform their job. In a busy shift, a barista may make more than 200 drinks and if each time they have to take four extra steps to the trash can or sink, the wasted energy and fatigue on the barista will quickly add up. Creating well planned working paths is also important; minimize any potential hazards for a collision between employees or customers.
Tip jar, pastry case and cash register should be the holy trinity of your counter space. The pastry case should be very simple, clean and easily navigated by your customers’ eyes and hands. Don’t clutter it up with unnecessary signage, and make sure the customers have a chance to peruse the goodies well before they have to pay for their order. Put all the pastries that are delivered in at once, so you don’t have to worry about clumsy staff trying to restock the case in the middle of a rush. This pastry case should be very accessible to the person operating the cash register, so they can double up their duty as money-taker and pastry-slinger. Our other two suspects, the register and tip jar, should be staged with forethought as well. Figure out where the baristas’ hands will be as they reach across the counter to hand the customers their change; that is where the tip jar should go, as at that point the customer is more apt to drop a George Washington or a couple of his little brothers into the jar.
The counter itself should be long enough and wide enough for comfort. If you plan on having two grinders, a three-group espresso machine, an air pot for drip, and some sort of space for cups (porcelain and paper), start thinking about building a U-shaped counter. In this set-up, the back counter can be for a drip-brewer, drip grinder and other accessories. And the front counter, where barista and register person stand, should be stocked with items needed immediately in service, like milk pitchers and such. Keep plenty of room for the baristas to move in a rush, but the space ought to be tight enough that they don’t have to walk all the way to Antarctica to wash their hands.
Tables, Lights, Action
Tables for the café seem like they ought to be easy to find, but thinking about what you need from the tables must come first, much like the overall design you’ve been developing for your shop. Finding tables to purchase in large numbers to fit in your café is not a hasty job, but should never be too difficult. First, judge it on its looks. Is it sturdy and does it look nice? Does the wood or metal match the paint job/wood of your walls and your floor? It’s not too hard to find something fairly priced that can do the job, and if you are an IKEA person, the answer is one drive away. Size is another issue: Take a newspaper, lay it lengthwise on the table, sit down, unfold it and try reading it comfortably. Do you have to fumble and fold at every turn of the page? Is there enough room to place a cup of coffee and a small plate? If you have to ball up your paper like a pile of trash or rest your cup of coffee on your lap, the table is too small. If there is not only enough room to lay the entire paper, but you are able to lay another entire newspaper out on the surface, it is too big. To keep your customer flow smooth, you don’t want a bulky piece of furniture out in the middle of your café.
It’s always easier to keep the color simple, like white, gray or exposed brick. But it depends on that original vision you had for your shop and the environment where your café will be. Effective color palates vary according to the larger environment surrounding your business, but as a rule, keep your colors neutral. Then you can use items on a rotating basis to liven things up such as work from local artists. Remember, most of your customers are just waking up, or are on the road to waking up, no matter what time of the day it is, so you don’t want anything abrasive. You want a relaxing vibe in the shop, and color is key to that. Another key of course is lighting.
The lighting inside your coffee bar is also extremely important and will greatly affect the mood and ambiance of your business. Before putting in new lighting, think about the mood you want to create throughout the day. Invest in a dimmer switch for all front of the house café lighting. This is essential in giving your staff the ability to set the mood no matter what time of the day it is. Lighting is huge, whether you have an enormous aquarium of a window, or are entirely closed off from the world; it is going to affect your customer’s perception of every aspect of your café. People are very light sensitive, especially when they are trying to enjoy some calming time away from life in general, so the last thing they want is the dentist chair experience. Train your staff to adjust the dimmer switches to match the daylight outside, keeping in mind you want the happy medium and don’t want the café to look too dim from the outside. This will make a huge difference in your staff ’s mood and potential customer’s attraction.
Finally, with your customers and your employees happy, make sure your design calls for space exclusively for you. Incorporate a small office into your design if at all possible. It is important to have a place where you can take care of your duties like counting money, assembling bank deposits or meeting with an employee, and you don’t want to have to be doing any of those things at a table in the midst of your customers. It’s a great bonus if you can design your office with a window that gives you a view of your operation.
At the end of the day, what you want in a café is a place that you, your customers and your staff can feel comfortable and take pride in. You could travel the world and see some of the best cafés for years, but when it comes down to what makes a café great, it’s the simplicity of its function: provide a great space for social interaction. Keep in mind all of the aforementioned things in design, but don’t think in terms of right and wrong. Take a look at the neighborhood around you, and feel out your potential customers and surrounding businesses. What can you do to stand out in a unique way? Ask yourself that at the beginning of the process and you will surely find something that works out in the end. And remember, if you are able to start planning your design before you sign a lease, you will be better off. Establish your menu and determine what you intend to sell. Every aspect of the production of your menu will affect not only your design, but also all the things that follow—equipment, prep areas, storage, refrigeration, etc. Take into account the customer traffic flow, placement of menu boards and display items to maximize impulse purchases, and the ergonomic design of your employee work areas. With all of these in place you will have a fully functional and pleasant work environment for you and your baristas, and a dream café to call your own.
Matt Milletto is Bellissimo's consulting director and the director of the American Barista & Coffee School