The small business is the staple of modern American capitalism and the epitome of self ownership and freedom. While the road is difficult for any business to become profitable, and entrepreneurs can make mistakes like any other person, there is something to be said about having the grit and determination it takes to start your own business. There are many ways to get a physical space, but unless you want to apply for a construction loan and put on a hardhat, we’re going to focus on simply renting your perfect space and then modifying it to suit your needs.
Getting the Space to Brew the Perfect Cup
Unless you’re going to stand on the sidewalk and hand out coffee you brewed at home, you’ll first need to get a physical space for your small coffee business. This can be anywhere, but you’ll probably want to avoid industrial districts and places where people don’t regularly congregate. While the owner of a commercial HVAC services warehouse might be friendly and accommodating, it is simply not a place that people will travel to for coffee (although the warehouse might think you’re a hit).
Dwell on the places that you normally go to find a great coffee shop and extrapolate from there: they are usually around restaurants, nightlife or cultural centers with a high degree of foot traffic or eye-catching material. Public art, parks and well-trafficked shopping centers always seem to have a coffee shop near them, don’t they?
Once you’ve found the perfect space for your small coffee business, you’ll obviously have to be able to afford to rent it or buy it. If renting, try and save up for three months’ rent before you start out to give yourself a little “new business” runway so that even if all goes terrible, you may be able to salvage selling the equipment and pay off the lease from another income source. If buying, you’ll obviously have to have the money to make a down payment and then continue mortgage payments. If you already own a house, you can use a hard money lender to put your house or other assets as collateral for your new business. If you don’t you may be able to find a co-signer, investor, or partner who believes in your unique and qualified abilities to help you blast off your bean business to the heights it is meant to be at.
As a precautionary measure, make sure that you have the space you are going to rent or buy inspected and/or appraised to make sure you know exactly what you’re getting into. There’s nothing worse than buying the perfect little cottage for a small coffee business only to find out that your craft cottage will need to receive an expensive visit from a commercial roofing company. If these things need to be done (similar to plumbing, electrical or indoor work), try to negotiate with the current owner to fix them at reduced prices if you commit to renting or buying.
Never be afraid to negotiate and have other options for your business to go to. There are many places to brew coffee and create a lively atmosphere, so don’t get locked into a bad one!
Hauling in the Right Equipment
Now that you’ve secured the space and are visiting it on a regular basis to try and make it your very own craft cafe, consider what type of equipment your small coffee business will need.
Are you going to be pulling high-quality espressos that would rival anything found in Italy, or simply looking to compete with the diner down the street? Are you going to be known for creating custom latte art or offering Japanese green tea in clever combinations?
Knowing exactly what you are going to be offering, in terms of drinks and possible food, is the easiest way to budget and shop for the general or specialized equipment that you will eventually need in order to open the small coffee business of your dreams.
For cold drinks, you can decide on whether you’d like to have your own refrigerators and freezers, or whether it might be cheaper to contract with an ice cube distributor to make deliveries on a regular basis.
There are all sorts of machines that can keep ingredients and beverages hot or cold by acting as temperature controllers, and don’t be afraid to reach out to manufacturers or coffee aficionados to find the right one. Especially if you are going to branch out to making specialty beverages (like bubble tea or nitro cold brew), you may need specialized equipment in order to craft the best experience possible for your paying customers. It is simply another set of details that your small coffee business will need to figure out in order for it to be successful and profitable.
While food is sometimes offered at cafes, it depends on whether your focus will be entirely on coffee or whether you will also be known for crafting high quality baked goods or sandwiches. If you’d like to offer food fare without the hassle, you can always contract with local bakeries and chefs in order to provide a wonderful dining experience at a certain price with no headaches. But you’ll need to preserve and store the food when it is delivered, and figure out what to do with it after it’s been expired.
Serving and keeping food may also subject you to local health regulations beyond what drinks may entail, so it is worth exploring whether this will really be necessary for your small coffee business. Packaged foods (such as protein/energy bars) can sometimes be a better compliment to the type of crowd that likes craft coffee, and it may come without some of the burdensome legal red tape.
Hiring the Best People for Your Bean Business
You’ve got most of the elements in place for your small coffee business, including renting the space, ordering the equipment, and having the cafe/ restaurant signs custom made by a craftsman to perfectly reflect the vibe you’re going for. But unless you’re operating a coffee cart on a busy street or planning on programming some excellent coffee robots (feel free to steal that idea) to do your every bidding, you will eventually have to have quality personnel to help you out.
Depending on the type of coffee that you’d like to serve, you’re going to have to look into hiring folks with a certain experience level and energy that may be difficult to find. While it’s not impossible to train somebody from scratch on how to use an espresso machine, or how to craft the perfect cup of green tea, it always helps to have someone else who is somewhat experienced to chime in with a helpful tip or trick.
If you don’t have any of these people around, or are learning the ropes yourself, it can be helpful to contract a staffing agency to help you find someone with previous cafe experience who knows their way around making a decent cafe au lait or just brewing a good cup of drip coffee. Once you have one experienced worker that you pay accordingly, they can help train others with a desire to do well and everything can go swimmingly along.
In thinking about how you get your experienced workers, you may also want to have a conversation with any potential hires about what can be different about working at small coffee business versus retail or another environment. The pace can be fast, you may have many local repeat customers that expect to be treated accordingly and even have orders memorized or placed in advance. You certainly don’t want to be sued or cited for unsafe business practices, and you should remind all potential employees that they will be working around extremely hot liquids and machinery that can cause burns or scalding. With the proper preparation, this will become a non-issue, but it is worth remembering.
Setting the Right Atmosphere and More
So you’ve got your small coffee business ready to go equipment-wise and the set up of your space looks fantastic. You’ve got quality employees ready to start their first day While you’re almost ready to open, there is still one more thing that you should consider before you throw open the doors and start grinding beans: what type of small coffee business are you going to be? While that may seem like an absurd philosophical question better adapted for a graduate-level college seminar, it is actually very poignant. To put it frankly, some coffee shops host events and participate in the community while others don’t. There’s nothing wrong with being all business or being half arts venue, but it needs to be known and adjusted to accordingly.
Lots of smaller coffee shops tend to embrace the arts in various ways. The old cliche of hipsters sitting around drinking coffee and snapping their fingers while somebody reads poetry is a cliche for a reason: there are lots of cafes that encourage this type of gathering and even promote local artists. In some ways, this can be good for business by informally designating your small coffee business as a “hip” place to gather where creative and intelligent people exchange ideas and help each other out. On the business side, there can sometimes be issues with crowding and too many people hanging out versus buying coffee or other goods.
Ideally, you want to encourage both with clear rules about what is acceptable in your business and not. You can actually have the best of both worlds by having “art nights” or certain hours of the day where the clientele is encouraged to change and the atmosphere changes. What may be a sober-minded business retreat during the day can become quite the rambunctious art gallery or meeting of the minds at night. Unlike a bar, which serves intoxicating beverages and can be prone to violence, the stimulation and atmosphere of coffee can create some delightfully odd experiences at night for creative-minded clientele.
Since it is your business and you are allowed to dictate what happens, you can also rent out your venue to other people for special events. In the artistic vein, stand-up comedians may want to film a low-key special at your cafe and record it to send out to their audience. Ditto with poets of all types and performance artists, from improvisers to amateur Shakespeare groups or playwrights. On the commercial side, a wedding party may want to have a brunch or coffee social in your cafe before the festivities begin, or a corporate team reserve some tables for a mid-morning strategy session.
By allowing your space to be used for more than just conducting official coffee business, you can be known for both your products and your atmosphere. The easiest way to make these details known is through some official means of communication. Make sure to set up a basic website for your business with rules and offerings laid out, and then try to confirm this with a bulletin board or physical space in your actual business, preferable located someplace conspicuous. You’ll be glad you did once the offers and compliments start rolling in and alternative business starts brewing.
Always Remember to Stop and Take a Sip of Joe
Planning, opening, and running your own small coffee business is no small feat. Don’t let anybody fool you into thinking it is, or bring you down by saying that it’s not as prestigious as their job. Starbucks and Dunkin’ may make it look easy, but they follow pre-planned models and have the support of upper management, engineers trained in industrial building design, professional accountants, and a whole host of other resources that simply aren’t available to most people. And while they may be more profitable than you, is their coffee really that much better?
In order to produce, distribute, and finally brew the enormous amount of coffee that they do, they have to follow a standardized process that can leave much to the imagination in terms of flavor and pizzaz. While there’s nothing wrong with corporations trying to find the easiest way to make a profit, there is something to be said about trying to find and brew craft cups of coffee in all the unique styles, blends, and latte art that you can find.
At the end of the day, be proud of yourself for starting your own small coffee business, and try not to let things get you down too much. Rely on financial advisors, tax specialists, lawyers, and the help of bondsmen when you need it. As a local owner and operator, you actually have much more control over how your business is run and operated than any one person who owns a franchise and has to take orders from a large conglomerate located far away. This allows you to be creative in a way that most people only dream of. So whether business is slow or brewing along nicely, remember to take a sip of joe (morning or night) and remember that you’ve got all the beans in place for a quality coffee shop. The rest is in your hands (and hopefully the cups you serve), so enjoy it!
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