What makes a coffee shop stand out?
Jordan Montgomery and Tom Balerin explore how to make a coffee shop stand out in such a competitive market.
Over the course of two decades, specialty coffee has come a long way. As the US expects 17,500 new coffee shops to open by the end of 2025 – 26% more than currently exists – many are competing for visibility.
Many are having to go the extra mile to make their coffee shop stand out. Tried and tested techniques to attract and retain customers may no longer be enough. For example, it is now standard practice for a coffee shop to offer a loyalty scheme, or to create engaging social media channels.
A more recent trend is the emergence of the ‘Instagrammable’ coffee shop. Brands are increasingly decorating their cafes with selfie-worthy features to harness the power of social media, allowing them to organically reach a wider audience on platforms like TikTok and Instagram.
However, this must be balanced with a tenet that has been central long before Instagram was invented: Creating an atmosphere. Whether the space has been created to be comfortable, fun and energetic, or something else, it will determine the kind of customers it attracts, and their likelihood to return.
One way to create a particular atmosphere and make your coffee shop stand out is through music choice. Comfortable and ambient noise has not only been shown to improve mood and productivity, but can often influence how much customers spend.
Likewise, studies have shown that having amenable and chatty staff not only helps to create an atmosphere, but improves customer retention and profit.
Ultimately, to make a coffee shop stand out, you must think beyond a cup of coffee to how the experience makes your customers feel. While an excellent flat white can brighten your day, a positive experience can linger even longer in a customer’s memory.
Adding another dimension
Many coffee shop owners must decide whether they are going to offer a range of products, or focus solely on coffee.
“Serving just coffee isn’t an easy game, you are fighting against all of the other [businesses] having amazing brunch, breakfast, cakes, sweets, wifi, terraces and more,” says Tom Balerin, a multiple national barista champion and co-owner of Astère Coffee in Montpellier, France.
“So you definitely have to be on top of coffee quality, shown by the consistency, service, choices of the coffee beans, the menu, and to show that you are knowledgeable.”
Essentially, if a coffee shop exclusively serves coffee, it must establish authority and position itself as the ultimate destination in the area – something Tom decided to do with his brand.
“It’s a bit radical, yes, but I believe to change the habits of some customers and stand out, we need to show them that we just have coffee, but we know what we are doing and just focus on that,” he says.
For other businesses, diversifying what they offer can make all the difference in attracting new customers and making their coffee shop stand out. This can be as simple as exploring food options.
Against conventional wisdom, offering a wide range of options and cuisines is often not the best approach to attracting new customers. Instead, choosing a specific product and specialising in it can make a coffee shop stand out. In this case, having a reputation for “coffee and Swedish buns”, for example, can make your brand recognisable.
Others go even further to make their coffee shop stand out, exploring experiences beyond food and beverages. For example, some cafés supply board games, hosting events and tournaments.
Some, especially those with multiple storeys, double as a space to host public events and shows, such as coffee events, book clubs, art workshops, and private events.
Ultimately, expanding what you offer not only diversifies your revenue streams, but also adds another dimension to what the brand can be recognised for – making your coffee shop stand out.
Branding, interior design, and equipment
For many, branding is the most important factor in making a coffee shop stand out – something big companies have an advantage in.
“You are competing with big roasteries and big budget cafes, who will work with the best designers, community management and brand creators, and more,” Tom says.
For smaller coffee shops, good branding is often underpinned by authenticity. “Astère’s design is pink, refined, sweet and delicate. When you look at my 190cm and 105-kilogram figure, you’d never assume that it reflects me,” he says, “But that’s why I love branding, it could help me share who I really am without judgement.”
Tom collaborated with a designer to create Astère’s branding, aiming to reflect his values and engage a diverse audience. However, he warns that too much personal connection to a brand comes with its risks.
“Coffee shops need to be careful, as when you are putting too much of yourself into your branding – if you really are your brand – it can also be difficult to grow, expand, reproduce and perhaps eventually, to let go.”
Interior design also plays a crucial role in making a coffee shop stand out. The contrast between between a light and airy space, or a low-lit and cosy space may make all the difference. As with ambience, it will guide the type of customers who walk through your door, and if they’re willing to stay for a second cup.
“For this first location, we decided to build a big bar that is clean, light and not overwhelmed with many things around – we did that in order to have people sharing coffee together, to have conversations and so on,” Tom says.
“But, it’s true that this was a bit of a risk – we see many foreigners embracing the concept and loving it. The French indeed are less attracted by it, they prefer being outside not sharing much conversation with people they don’t know.”
In many cases, coffee equipment plays a central role in making a coffee shop stand out. Beyond ergonomics, and how everything is positioned to allow for positive customer interactions, the equipment itself can be pivotal.
For example, vintage espresso machines create a memorable centrepiece for customers to enjoy, and can make a coffee shop stand out. The Elektra Indie, for example, comes in “ice white” or “matt black”, and provides a striking focal point for any coffee shop. Having equipment like this encourages customers to feel they are about to receive a special cup of coffee.
“We still judge coffee shops on the first impression, so having nice-looking and renowned coffee equipment will always give you a boost,” Tom says. “Having good equipment will also help you in achieving quality and most importantly the consistency that you need in order to perform and grow.”
Ultimately, in an increasingly saturated market, the strategies that worked to stand out just a few years ago are becoming less effective. To thrive in this dynamic industry, coffee shops must remain reactive. At the same time, being authentic and giving your brand some personality is often considered crucial – after all, there’s only one you.
New Ground Coffee
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