So You’ve Opened a Coffee Shop. Now What?

by Greg Ubert – Crimson Cup Coffee

A lot of cof­fee house own­ers begin with the impres­sion that the hard­est work is behind them once they open their doors. Like Ray Kinsella, Kevin Costner’s char­ac­ter in the movie “Field of Dreams,” they believe cus­tomers, like Ray’s ballplay­ers, will appear as if by magic now that they’ve built their cof­fee shop.

The truth is, your most intense activ­ity will come in the months after you open. Coffee busi­nesses are built incre­men­tally. You need to attract cus­tomers and keep them com­ing back, all while becom­ing an expert at other aspects of run­ning your busi­ness. Here are some solid strate­gies to put you on the path to success.

Ease into Operating Hours. It is best not to set for­mal oper­at­ing hours when you open your doors. During the first sev­eral weeks, you will not know the exact traf­fic pat­terns of your loca­tion. Therefore, plan to open the doors around 7 a.m. and stay open until you con­sis­tently see a long break in cus­tomers, which may be in the late after­noon or early evening. If you want to expand your busi­ness hours, do so in stages. If for exam­ple, there is a line of cus­tomers wait­ing when you open, try open­ing an hour ear­lier. Remember that once you post your oper­at­ing hours, you have made a com­mit­ment to your cus­tomers and must not fail to open on time or close early.

Practice to Perfection. Specialty cof­fee cus­tomers will walk past ten com­pet­ing cof­fee shops to get the best espresso. How do you become the best? Source the high­est qual­ity beans, syrups, dairy, and other ingre­di­ents that you can find. And then prac­tice, prac­tice, prac­tice. You will usu­ally have some peri­ods of slow cus­tomer traf­fic dur­ing your first months of oper­a­tion. Use this time to per­fect your drink prepa­ra­tion skills. Remember, cus­tomers hate to wait, so you must craft a per­fectly pre­pared drink in a mat­ter of minutes.

Get the Word Out. You’ve already invested in your suc­cess with a great loca­tion and promi­nent sig­nage, but this is just the ante in the game. You need to tell every­one in your com­mu­nity – fam­ily, friends, area res­i­dents, and busi­nesses, about your cof­fee shop. Leverage the power of social media to con­nect with friends and fans through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, and the like. Try out some of the grass­roots mar­ket­ing tech­niques I dis­cussed in my April 2013 col­umn. One of the sim­plest yet most effec­tive is to hand out pro­mo­tional cards offer­ing any espresso drink for $1 (about the cost of the drink). Every time one of these cards is redeemed, you have a chance to acquire a cus­tomer at no cost to you. Savvy mar­keters con­sider this a win-win proposition.

Track Customers and Sales. The more you know about your cus­tomers, the bet­ter you can sat­isfy their needs and keep them com­ing back. So track their habits and col­lect feed­back. When do they come in? How much time elapses between cus­tomers dur­ing busy peri­ods? What are the most pop­u­lar drinks? How many $1 espresso cards have been redeemed? How much is your aver­age sale? What is your ratio of espresso drink to drip cof­fee sales? What are cus­tomers say­ing about your drinks? (If they’re not rav­ing about the qual­ity, find out why!). Collecting this type of infor­ma­tion allows you to tai­lor your hours of oper­a­tion, menu, and staffing pat­terns to enhance profitability.

Set Up Systems. Operational sys­tems estab­lish order and help staff mem­bers under­stand and mas­ter their respon­si­bil­i­ties. You should put sys­tems and check­lists in place for every­thing from drink recipes to open­ing and clos­ing the shop to order­ing and stor­ing sup­plies and main­tain­ing equip­ment. You will want to keep indi­vid­ual recipes and check­lists where they are eas­ily acces­si­ble and assem­ble every­thing in an oper­a­tional man­ual. Refine and update sys­tems as you iden­tify bet­ter ways to do things.

Get Backup. It’s lonely at the top with every­one depend­ing on you. It’s a good idea to cre­ate a sup­port sys­tem of peo­ple who can help you through the rough spots. You can set up a for­mal advi­sory board or make time to con­nect infor­mally with men­tors, busi­ness peers, and bankers. Your busi­ness, and your spouse, will thank you.

If you fol­low these strate­gies, your cof­fee shop should begin to fill up with a reg­u­lar cast of return­ing customers.

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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