Coffee Shop For Sale
Have you ever dreamed about that one coffee shop that was for sale? The one that was so cute and you were convinced you could turn it around? Whether you're looking to buy a coffee shop or currently own one, let's hope these are words you never have to type into a local or online business ad.
Below I'll share some of my experiences in countless shops in Kansas over the years, as well as what I've learned from veterans within the industry. Also, we'll pore over (see what I did there?) four keys to keep you in business for good, no matter how many upset customers or rainy days happen to visit that little shop of yours.
1. Look at your Coffee Shop from the Outside
Sometimes there's nothing more powerful than seeing through someone else's eyes. If you were to switch places and imagine yourself as a customer walking into your shop for the first time, what would you notice? What would you see when you order a drink? Don't hold back. Be honest, and be critical. A common enemy of small business owners is familiarity. Familiarity to the point that they stop critiquing, stop seeing what's in front of them, even if it's sub par (service, product, presentation). Familiarity can blind us. Familiarity with decor, familiarity with drinks, customer service, profits, decor, etc., etc.
What many hard working business owners fail to grasp is that their hard work has given them tunnel vision. Slowly but surely, they stop seeing what matters the most. It's one of the unfortunate side effects of grueling work. If you've never owned a business, you probably can't relate. Perhaps the only comparison that can be made is parenting.
"What do you mean sleep?", you say to your friends when they ask you about the last time you actually slept. Just like parenting, a business is your baby, and no one else will take care of it but you. And the responsibilities are endless.
So endless in fact that you're not sure what's actually most important to propel the business anymore. You just do things for the positive feeling of getting something done. But when you're responsible for drinks, profits, customers, employees, employee personalities, sinking profits, early shifts, late shifts, firing, hiring, training, cleaning, social media, web site, landlords, constant menu guessing (and that's just Monday morning), at some point you enter small business survival mode, and you're staring blankly when a barista asks you a simple question, or sitting at your desk laughing at the most incomprehensible details like Tom Hanks in Castaway.
It's here that you need to step outside and take a deep breath. Stop crunching the numbers for a few moments and change your perspective. Now, if you've managed to get on the outside looking in, ask yourself these honest questions.
A. What do we do really well?
B. What do we do poorly that we've come to just accept? Why have I accepted it? If I'm the owner, how can it change?
C. Is our product (drinks, customer service, environment) objectively better than other shops in town? If we can't measure why it is and put specifics down on paper, what steps do we take to make those areas better?
By simply stepping away, looking around and looking in, you'll shift your eyes from a 9-5 manager vision to that of a leader.
2. Make the Coffee Top Priority
I live in the capitol city of Kansas, Topeka. It's the birthplace of PT's Roasting company, early adopters of the specialty movement in the 90's and winners of Roast Magazine's Roaster of the Year award in 2009. I've always been a huge fan of PT's, and remember buying Flying Monkey and Farm Girl (now Flor Del Sol) at my local Dillons and taking in that incredibly sweet aroma escaping from their freshly roasted bags; and simultaneously looking for their recent roast dates they placed on every bag with care (the only coffee supplier out of 20-25 options in the store who did that). Why don't other chains do this, you ask? Because coffee stales quickly, and it's costly for businesses to scale freshness. Especially if their entire business is modeled on high volume distribution. But I digress.
There are a few other roasters besides us around here, but none of them come close to PT's in size and reach, and they earned it. Why? Because they decided to make the coffee king; and believe it or not, very few companies were doing that well inside our state at the time.
And as many strides as PT's and some others have made over the last few decades, we need to be honest as Kansans and admit there's a lot of growth that needs to happen when it comes to specialty. Granted, the coffee scene in K.C. is really cool, and we have some roasters who are partnering with outstanding farms across the globe. But specialty still needs to come along way. So what does that actually mean? It means it's really good news if you own or are starting a coffee shop.
Many coffee lovers around here tell me they order a shot of espresso in Topeka and what they get is really sour, or pungently bitter (latte please!). Many more tell me they drive to Lawrence or KC for coffee (which is absolutely crazy when you think about it). I walked into a coffee shop last year and asked the barista for one shot of espresso, and the girl stared at me confused, asking, "Like, in a cup, all by itself?"
Not being familiar with third wave coffee isn't the barista's fault, it's the owner's for not giving them the training they need. And let me tell you, if the demand for good espresso exists (and it does and is increasing), more customers, I guarantee you, will flock into your shop if they hear you offer it.
And it's here the reality that delicious coffee doesn't automatically come with premium beans starts to settle in. It has to be prepared right, just like any food. Fancy ingredients doesn't make the dish.
While there's much more that could be said here about preparing the best coffee possible, follow these principles to put your product past the other shop down the street, and consequently out of the "businesses for sale" section.
Keep Freshness. Manage your bean inventory such that you only serve beans 4-14 days after their roast date. This will require you to change your purchasing schedules and manage quantity more closely, but coffee is twice as fresh and tastes twice as good in this window.
Distribute and tamp correctly. Much can go wrong with espresso, but the two most common enemies of delicious shots are uneven grinds prior to tamping and poor tamping. There are two ways you can solve this problem. 1. Send your best barista to training and have them train the rest of your employees, followed by quality checks on shots that are being pulled at least once a month. 2. If you're unwilling to take these steps, purchase a distribution tool and a push tamper (not a sponsor) from Clockwork Espresso. These tools are no substitute for education, but they'll significantly improve what's coming out of your machine.
Learn from the Best. Google the most popular coffee shops in places like K.C., Portland, or San Francisco. Start looking at their menus. See what they're serving and figure out how to make it well. Check out companies like Counter Culture, Ritual, Cat & Cloud, Verge and others. Review what they're doing and reasonably mimic what you can. There's a reason they always are growing (and they rarely have had a coffee shop for sale).
3. Live for Your Customers
I'll be brief with this one. I consistently get a better customer service at a Starbucks than I do at any other local coffee shop in the country. This isn't actually a dig at local coffee shops (they're my favorite place to go!). This is proof that being local doesn't actually make you better.
If your employees aren't graded and constantly reminded to greet (not yell), smile, and say thank you to every single customer, they simply won't. Remember you don't have to do this. Delegate it. If you your employee can't do it, hire someone who can.
Also, don't see your customers as simply a means to money. They'll see right through it. Genuinely start caring about them. Tell your baristas that it's their job, whether they're successful or not, to be the best part of their customer's day. Also, if your employees see you doing the same, eventually it will become part of the culture.
4. Make Your Shop Environment Amazing
You probably already know this, but there's a large demographic who could care less about how good your coffee tastes. They just want a fun, comfortable place to meet up with friends. Sit down inside your shop and start looking around. How long would you want to stay in here? How many times a week? And the all important one, what makes your environment better than the next?
If you don't have an eye for design (most of us don't), hire an interior designer. Many coffee shops reflect the tastes of their owners, and this isn't always always the best. If you don't have the budget, again, look at popular shops and do something similar. I know a successful shop that has horrible coffee but a really special environment. They don't need good coffee to make a profit. They found their niche (they also make good food) and capitalized on it.
But know the latter is not the norm. Typically you need all three (coffee, customer service, and environment) as a good baseline towards profit.
If you don't have a space yet, you have a lot of options. Don't settle.
If you already have a space, get as creative as possible. Note the following, they all matter:
Music, temperature, ventilation (yes some people don't do it well), lighting, day light, seating comfort, islands, outdoor spaces.
Finally, always ask yourself this question: If I'm spending an enormous amount of time, energy, and focus into something, does it fit within one of these four areas? Why? Because unless you want that coffee shop for sale, it's these four that will not only make your shop better, they'll bring you more profit over the long haul.
Jonathan is in charge of Coffee Education at Redemption Coffee. He's been tinkering with countless brew methods over the last decade (even creating a few of his own) and loves helping coffee shops perfect their products and service. Jonathan@redemptioncoffeeco.com