To Build a Mountain of Profits, Focus on the Big Rocks

by Greg Ubert – Crimson Cup Coffee

3_13 5-AAfter work­ing with inde­pen­dent cof­fee house own­ers for more than 20 years, I’ve found that one con­sis­tent, major weak­ness is the lack of focus on mar­ket­ing. Many busi­ness own­ers neglect this vital func­tion because they don’t know where to start, are put off by the per­ceived expense, or are dis­tracted by the thou­sands of small details involved in run­ning a suc­cess­ful enter­prise. Yet mar­ket­ing is one of what I call the “big rocks.” The term comes from a story attrib­uted to time man­age­ment guru Stephen Covey.

It starts with a busi­ness pro­fes­sor who takes out a big glass jar, fills it to the top with fist-sized rocks and asks his stu­dents if the jar is full.  “Yes!” they answer. “Not so fast,” the pro­fes­sor cau­tions. He then takes out a pre­vi­ously hid­den con­tainer of small peb­bles and pours them into the jar, fill­ing the spaces between the big rocks.  He asks again if the jar is full. This time the stu­dents respond, “Probably not.” The pro­fes­sor then pulls out a bucket of sand and dumps it into the jar. The sand sifts into the spaces between the peb­bles. This time when he asks if the jar was full, the stu­dents all say, “No!” Finally, he grabs a pitcher of water and fills the jar to the brim. After the stu­dents agree that the jar finally is full, he asks, “What is the point of this demonstration?”

That you can always fit more into your life,” says one of the students.

No,” says the pro­fes­sor. “If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”

Marketing is one of the big rocks of run­ning a cof­fee shop. If you don’t put a sound mar­ket­ing pro­gram in place, you may never get to the other items on your “to do” list … because you may not have a shop for long. Fortunately, effec­tive cof­fee shop mar­ket­ing doesn’t require spend­ing a lot of money. A well-focused mar­ket­ing plan that employs sig­nage, grass roots strate­gies, social media, events, and in-store pro­mo­tions can deliver a grow­ing stream of cus­tomers with­out break­ing the bank.

Here are some mar­ket­ing tips that cof­fee house own­ers have used to turn their big rocks into abun­dant profits.

Don’t get stuck on your name. Many cof­fee shop own­ers spent hours fret­ting about the name of their busi­ness, but it’s not a big rock. Just choose a name that quickly com­mu­ni­cates who and what you. Be sure to tack on “Coffee House” or “Coffee Bar” to the title, because peo­ple are not going to stop their cars to find out what your busi­ness is about. And do your research to make sure the name hasn’t been trade­marked by any­one else before you invest in sig­nage or pro­mo­tional materials.

Stake Your Claim. Prominent sig­nage is as impor­tant as the name of the shop. Again, make sure the words “Coffee House,” “Coffee Bar” or “Coffee Shop” are dis­played in very large let­ters. Steer clear of fancy, script fonts.  Potential cus­tomers aren’t going to cir­cle around the block to take a sec­ond look at a sign they can’t read.

Make Your Menu Sell. Lay out your menu in a way that entices cus­tomers to try your most pop­u­lar and prof­itable drinks. As a gen­eral rule, con­sumers read adver­tise­ments from top down and left to right. Put your hot espresso drinks at the top left, iced and blended espresso drinks on the right.

Invest in a Website. Your web­site is your online store­front. Customers can check it 24 hours a day for your busi­ness hours, spe­cials and events.  Web plat­forms such as WordPress make it easy to estab­lish an inex­pen­sive web­site that can be updated regularly.

Grow Your Business with Grass-Roots Marketing. The best form of mar­ket­ing doesn’t take a lot of money. You have a community-based busi­ness, so don’t start with a radio spot or by plac­ing ads in a city-wide paper. People are not going to drive across town for a cup of cof­fee. Instead, hit the pave­ment to meet other busi­ness own­ers and build rela­tion­ships with local schools and com­mu­nity orga­ni­za­tion.  As your busi­ness grows, you may become so busy that “hit­ting the pave­ment” loses its pri­or­ity.  Again, focus on the big rocks and it will pay big dividends.

Strike a Partnership with Local Business Owners. Ask local busi­ness own­ers for refer­rals, and then give them and their staff a $1 espresso-based drink. Local restau­rants, retail shops, salons and other busi­nesses in the area are good places to network.

Join the Chamber of Commerce. Become a mem­ber of your local Chamber of Commerce and take advan­tage of the ser­vices they offer, includ­ing net­work­ing ses­sions and annual events. This is a great way to meet your neigh­bors and get involved in the community.

Hold a Grand-Opening Event. Plan a grand open­ing about a week after your soft open­ing. Make some inex­pen­sive signs and fliers invit­ing neigh­bors to come in for great espresso-based drinks for $1. An espresso-based drink costs about $1 to make, so you’re not los­ing money by sell­ing it for $1. Ask area busi­ness neigh­bors if you can post signs or leave fliers with them, and leave fliers at area homes.

Create Weekly Specials and Seasonal Promotions. Encourage your cus­tomers to try some­thing new with posters, counter mats, table tents and other point-of-purchase mate­ri­als fea­tur­ing a pic­ture of a deli­cious drink. These point-of-purchase mate­ri­als also usher in the hol­i­days in a fun and invit­ing way.

Activate Your Customer Base. Building rela­tion­ships with your cus­tomers encour­ages repeat sales and refer­rals – the lifeblood of any small busi­ness. Encourage cus­tomers to bring friends in for a “buy one, get one free” spe­cial.  Gather cus­tomer e-mails and send them reg­u­lar news and specials.

Get Social. Starting a social media pro­gram is another inex­pen­sive way to engage with cus­tomers and prospects. With today’s array of social net­work­ing plat­forms, it’s easy to get over­whelmed, so start out slowly. Open only a Facebook account or only a Twitter account. Once you have mas­tered that account, branch out to oth­ers. Keep these things in mind as you set up your social media pro­gram:
1.    Make a plan. Know what you hope to achieve and how you will mea­sure results.
2.    Be inter­ac­tive. Listen to your cus­tomers, respond to their ques­tions or con­cerns, and ask for their opin­ions. The more engag­ing you are, the more likely peo­ple will be to visit your page, web­site, and ulti­mately, your cof­fee house.
3.    Be con­sis­tent. Social media is a long-term invest­ment; you have to post reg­u­larly to see the payoff.

Celebrate Your Anniversary. Every year, cel­e­brate your busi­ness anniver­sary with a one-day spe­cial, such as $1 drinks.

We have just scratched the sur­face of the mar­ket­ing big rocks in this col­umn. Next time, we will look at the real costs of shoe leather in grass roots mar­ket­ing campaigns.

Greg Ubert, founder and pres­i­dent of Crimson Cup Coffee & Tea, has been roast­ing cof­fee in small batches since 1991 and has taught hun­dreds of busi­ness own­ers how to run suc­cess­ful inde­pen­dent cof­fee houses. The author of Seven Steps to Success in the Specialty Coffee Industry can be reached at

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