Designing a Great Coffee Shop for the USA

cup of coffee 150Michael:  Americans drink 133% more coffee per capita than Colombians. Yet, the difference between coffee shops in the two countries makes no sense to me. Opening a place that sells the black brew in Colombia seems an almost guaranteed money maker. However I’ve noticed that many small coffee shops in the USA are having trouble or have failed.

In the Southeast Michigan area, a December 5, 2012 Clawson Patch writing noted that two coffee places in that city closed. The Fenton Patch noted that Great Gatsby there closed.

Graciela:  My husband and I finished publishing our writing about the ten best coffee shops in Bogotá and were enjoying our favorite brew. This is often our time for brainstorming articles. Michael’s mind went to the bad taste of coffee in the USA.

Michael:  My wife and I have often tried coffee in America. Once we even drove across the country sampling different brews. Generally the result was terrible tasting when compared to its Colombian counterpart. This seem to be confirmed by the amount of other ingredients Americans add to their coffee to modify the flavor. But there could be another reason for the difference. It seems to me a much higher percentage of Americans take coffee for the drug effect than the taste. Now the question becomes did the caffeine addicts cause the lowering of flavor or did the lowering of taste cause more people to just take coffee for it’s wake up power?

Graciela:  Michael and I thought to present readers with what we have learned that makes a great coffee shop. Our views are based on years of experience, interviews with shop owners and what we learned at the Juan Valdez labs in Bogotá.

In the most basic sense a great coffee place pleases all five senses, taste, sight, smell, hearing and touch.

Michael:  Great tasting coffee does not come from a pot or thermos. The places with the best tasting brew make each cup individually as the customer orders it. They use a quality espresso machine. For what they call here in Colombia “café Americano” you add water to the espresso. The beans are fresh ground. The water is filtered and heated to between 195 degrees and 205 degrees. The cup is rinsed out with hot water before adding the coffee.

Graciela:  Since we are talking shop and not just coffee there is another taste that needs to be considered, that of the goodies to go with your cup of Joe. Michael and I walked into one coffee shop in Michigan on our last trip and the few choices in the display case looked dried and tasteless. Postries (deserts) and breads should look fresh and taste fresh. An example is shown by one of our favorite coffee shops, Moksha. The choice should also include healthy items as well. You know, those things that are not high in sugar or oil and bad for your heart.

Here in Colombia I feel that 95% of the coffee places have healthy items available. However not a single coffee shop we hit in the USA did. And at one , a bakery that also served questionable coffee, the attendant looked at me like why would anyone want such a thing.

Michael:  Now that she brought it up, my wife is correct. I have hit American coffee shops for years and the only one that came close to having healthy things accompany the brew was Uncle Harry’s New York Bagelry & Coffehouse in Fresno, California.

Graciela:  Moving on to sight, in Colombia we have a dicho (saying) that is, “Todo entra por los ojos.” Literally translated it says everything enters through the eyes. It means we judge things by what we see.
Michael says that the days of beatnik coffee shops are gone. Since the culture did not come to Bogotá he explained to me about the dark rooms with questionable poetry often accented with a hit on bongos.

The most popular coffee shops have three main characteristics in the area of sight. They are open design with plenty of light. Bright colors are used. Live plants are part of the decoration. A display case of very tasty looking goodies is placed before the area where you order your coffee.

Michael:  We opened the door to one coffee shop in Michigan and the smell of burnt coffee about knocked us back out the entrance.

There is a reason many coffee shops in Bogotá are also panaderias (bakeries). The smell draws customers in. The sight and smell of pan de yucca, pan de bono, pan de chocolate and pan de queso turns me into Pavlov’s dog.

The fresh natural smell is probably another reason that many of the coffee shops are surrounded by potted bushes and/or plants.

Graciela:  One of the most difficult things is to please the ears. Everyone has a different taste in music. Shop owners tell us that soft classic rock seems to agree with most ages. Volume is important. People like to talk over coffee. The music must be heard but not so loud that patrons must raise their voice. That means speaker location is also important.

Music is not a must and many places do not have it. But they do have things like plants and decoration that absorbs excess sound.

Brot table outsideMichael:  The fifth sense is touch. It is important to have a comfortable seat. However I also like to include in this fifth area feel or ambiance. Indeed, doing the best with the other four senses can make the feel of the place good, but it goes beyond just ambiance. Feel also includes service as well as size and shape of tables. Those places with friendly attentive employees and workers keeping the place clean do the best business. As for tables, unless students are your target market I have noticed that places with rectangular tables designed for eating a meal often attract groups that put the tables together, spread out books, do homework, make a good amount of noise, stay a long time and purchase very little. Quality made (meaning they don’t move easily or wobble) small round tables seem to be what the better coffee shops have. An excellent example of ambiance is the photo of the Brot Bakery and Café.

Graciela:  My husband and I both recommend that anyone thinking of opening or remodeling a coffee shop in the USA first come to Colombia and visit our ten favorite coffee shops in Bogotá. You are bound to walk away with some excellent ideas to increase your business.

This was originally published by Michael and Graciela in the Clawson Patch November 2013.

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