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Your coffee bar doesn’t have to be a clone of all the other chains out there. Here’s the inside scoop on how to design a layout that’s both original and efficient. Rama Ramaswami reports.

Once upon a time, if you had a good product, people would come to you. You wouldn’t have to do much to promote it either, other than take out an ad space in the local paper or put some flyers in the mail.

We have, however, entered the era of “lifestyles” and “experiences”. Armed with volumes of consumer research, retail pundits tell us that shoppers are no longer content with just buying what they came in for and heading out the door. Whether you’re peddling coffee or cosmetics, everything about your store must set a mood, create an ambiance to alternately stimulate and soothe the customer, as well as pander to highly idiosyncratic tastes and preferences. Many things need to be considered, from the intensity of the lighting, the height of the counters, and the paintings on the walls, all the while competing with the place across the street that does the very same thing.

That brings us to the heart of coffee bar design today - differentiation. Ever since Starbucks came up with store layouts that turned coffee into an experience, entrepreneurs have had a hard time designing spaces that look, well, different. To bring you expert tips on what works and what doesn’t, Tea & Coffee Trade Journal turned to an authority on the subject. We spoke at length with Tom Matzen, a veteran of numerous coffee bar and other small business start-ups and co-author of Start and Run a Profitable Coffee Bar (3rd ed., Self-Counsel Press, 1999), perhaps the most comprehensive book on the topic available today.

In a world of look-alikes, how can an aspiring coffee bar owner use design to distinguish his or her business?
Design will just facilitate your concept. It won’t differentiate you for the most part. Once you’ve got something to differentiate you, whether that’s in-store roasting or organics or neighborhood community feel or whatever, then design can help facilitate that. For example, if you’re going to have an in-store roaster, you want to build it in so people can see it and know it’s there, but make sure it doesn’t get in the way of the liquid coffee drinkers who are coming in and out. Where you situate your roaster can have a really big impact on the quantity of bean sales that you do just because of the people that walk by. A lot of owners make the mistake of designing the layout so that people can get to the cash register first. If the place is poorly designed you’re missing out on a huge opportunity, and in my opinion opting out for a lower check, by anywhere from $1.00 to $1.75 per customer. That’s a lot of money to lose, when you consider that most coffee bars have 300-400 customers a day. In many coffee bars today, it’s the difference between a profitable business and a job.

What other design features would increase revenue?
Figure out who your target audience is. This is something I see happening all across America - people think that because they saw a great concept in San Francisco or elsewhere on the West Coast, it ought to transfer easily to the Midwest or the South. It doesn’t necessarily transfer, since it depends on who your audience. If your audience is the same as that one on the West Coast, then it could very well transfer. But if you’re in a suburban area and your target audience are moms, then you’d need to have a very different feel and layout than if the audience were hip Gen Xers looking for the equivalent of a bar or café where they can chat and socialize.

Wireless is a great thing for cafés, because it creates another excuse to hang around your place. But it’s an excuse for busy people. A lot of café owners want to put sofas and couches and leather chairs and these big comfy things for people to sit down on, and the problem with that is - people actually sit down! Even the big players - Starbucks included - have stopped putting in a lot of lounging areas. At most they’ll have two or three comfy chairs in a facility in their new designs, because they know that once those chairs are filled, people will sit there for three or four hours and watch the world go by. Which is OK if you own an independent bar and want it to look busy, but as soon as you get busy, it’s a terrible thing.

But isn’t that the original purpose of a coffeehouse - that you can just sit there and drink coffee and hang out forever?
Absolutely. But as a business owner, you have to balance a comfortable environment with the practical reality of making money. This is why teahouses have so much trouble. Tea is a contemplative, relaxing product, and the concept of “tea to go” is an oxymoron. It’s not a rush product. Some people do it, but you’ve got to be a tea fanatic to want tea to go.

Also, there are regulations for washrooms and seating requirements. If a café exceeds 10 seats, it has to have two washrooms, be handicapped-accessible, and there has to be a lot more space. Suddenly your rent’s going to go up by a third to a half, with basically the same draw, the same target audience, and the same location. I see this all the time when people are securing sites -- they get a site that’s too small for what they really want to do or one that’s way too big for them to handle, plus they don’t have their revenue stream planned. They’re basically waiting for people to walk in the door and buy from them because they’re there. In the 1980s, as long as you had friendly service, you could make money pretty much anywhere in the coffee business. Those days are gone. Now you have to consider a lot of other factors, and design is one of those things.

What’s the biggest design mistake you can make?
I always say, design your place for staffing levels of one, two and six. You’re hardly ever going to have six staffers at once. I’ve probably been in over 2,000 coffee bars, and to the best of my knowledge I’ve seen six staff members working behind the counter only once. I’d seen six in the store, but never six behind the counter. The reason I say one, two and six is that when it’s dead, there’s going to be only one person there, so it’s got to be functional for one person. Most of the time you’re going to want two people on, and the layout needs to flow for two so they’re not crossing over each other. That’s the biggest mistake people make in designing - they have traffic flow patterns that bottleneck and cross each other. Part of the problem is that they copy the Starbucks layout.

What’s wrong with the Starbucks layout?
Starbucks layout is not a good layout. It was designed in the early days to cause lineups, as a strategy to attract crowds. If you’ve got deep pockets and a large amount of patience, that strategy is smart. For the rest of us, it’s not. I live in Vancouver, which the last time I checked, had 142 Starbucks stores. It’s the most Starbucked city in the world, per capita. But the stores lost money in 10 of their first 12 years. It’s taken Starbucks a long time to figure out that what they consciously did in the beginning, in terms of design and layout, doesn’t work for them anymore. Their new store layouts are different because they got restaurant designers involved. Restaurant people would never design a coffee bar the way coffee people do, since path and flow requirements are critical. When six people are working, they’re standing. One of the six may be walking, but the other five are stationary. Do you have stations set up behind the counter in your design? Is the path clear? Does it flow?

The same thing happens in front of the counter. In North America, people move to the right when they walk in. But you’ll often see coffee bar designs that force people to move to the left. So when they leave they’re moving to the right again, crossing over the people that are coming in and moving to the left to get to the counter.

Many coffee bars now sell a variety of products other than coffee. What do you think of this trend?
I’m a huge fan of complementary uses. However, I’m a massive non-fan of competitive uses. Baked goods that go with coffee are a complementary use. Music could be a complementary use-as you enjoy your coffee, you enjoy music. Lunch, on the other hand, is a competitive use. It’s a different purchase, a different decision, and a different audience. Starbucks has a lot of money and a lot of bright people, and every one of its lunch methods so far has failed. For an independent coffee bar owner, it would be insane to try lunch. There are other reasons why lunch is a stupid thing, such as financial, labor, and productivity issues. Instead of feeling frustrated because they’re losing business to the restaurant down the street, if coffee bar owners bought a roaster, they could sell to that restaurant. They could build wholesale accounts, and they could - an unheard-of thing in the restaurant business - have their staff eat lunch at lunch. They could clean their place up. A lot of coffee bars are filthy, not because their owners are sloppy but because their staff is busy and doesn’t make the time to clean. If you’re not crazy preparing lunch, you will get time to clean up, because it will be dead at lunch. And you can work on another creative latte bowl recipe or whatever it is you do to differentiate yourself.

Should you try designing your coffee bar yourself or go with a pro?
I strongly recommend hiring someone that does café design. Most designers are architects or graphic designers - they don’t understand flow or customer service, or the impact of the bottom line, so they’re designing for “pretty” rather than for the concept of working well. You need someone who understands restaurant design. For example, you can have modular cabinets on legs like the ones in Europe. They don’t look modular, but you can move them, adjust their heights, or take them with you. There are a lot of creative things in design out there that can make it much more cost-effective in the long run.

Rama Ramaswami is a business writer based in Wilton, Connecticut.

Tea & Coffee - August/September, 2005


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