A lot of coffee house owners begin with the impression that the hardest work is behind them once they open their doors. Like Ray Kinsella, Kevin Costner’s character in the movie “Field of Dreams,” they believe customers, like Ray’s ballplayers, will appear as if by magic now that they’ve built their coffee shop.
The truth is, your most intense activity will come in the months after you open. Coffee businesses are built incrementally. You need to attract customers and keep them coming back, all while becoming an expert at other aspects of running your business. Here are some solid strategies to put you on the path to success.
Ease into Operating Hours. It is best not to set formal operating hours when you open your doors. During the first several weeks, you will not know the exact traffic patterns of your location. Therefore, plan to open the doors around 7 a.m. and stay open until you consistently see a long break in customers, which may be in the late afternoon or early evening. If you want to expand your business hours, do so in stages. If for example, there is a line of customers waiting when you open, try opening an hour earlier. Remember that once you post your operating hours, you have made a commitment to your customers and must not fail to open on time or close early.
Practice to Perfection. Specialty coffee customers will walk past ten competing coffee shops to get the best espresso. How do you become the best? Source the highest quality beans, syrups, dairy, and other ingredients that you can find. And then practice, practice, practice. You will usually have some periods of slow customer traffic during your first months of operation. Use this time to perfect your drink preparation skills. Remember, customers hate to wait, so you must craft a perfectly prepared drink in a matter of minutes.
Get the Word Out. You’ve already invested in your success with a great location and prominent signage, but this is just the ante in the game. You need to tell everyone in your community – family, friends, area residents, and businesses, about your coffee shop. Leverage the power of social media to connect with friends and fans through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, and the like. Try out some of the grassroots marketing techniques I discussed in my April 2013 column. One of the simplest yet most effective is to hand out promotional cards offering any espresso drink for $1 (about the cost of the drink). Every time one of these cards is redeemed, you have a chance to acquire a customer at no cost to you. Savvy marketers consider this a win-win proposition.
Track Customers and Sales. The more you know about your customers, the better you can satisfy their needs and keep them coming back. So track their habits and collect feedback. When do they come in? How much time elapses between customers during busy periods? What are the most popular drinks? How many $1 espresso cards have been redeemed? How much is your average sale? What is your ratio of espresso drink to drip coffee sales? What are customers saying about your drinks? (If they’re not raving about the quality, find out why!). Collecting this type of information allows you to tailor your hours of operation, menu, and staffing patterns to enhance profitability.
Set Up Systems. Operational systems establish order and help staff members understand and master their responsibilities. You should put systems and checklists in place for everything from drink recipes to opening and closing the shop to ordering and storing supplies and maintaining equipment. You will want to keep individual recipes and checklists where they are easily accessible and assemble everything in an operational manual. Refine and update systems as you identify better ways to do things.
Get Backup. It’s lonely at the top with everyone depending on you. It’s a good idea to create a support system of people who can help you through the rough spots. You can set up a formal advisory board or make time to connect informally with mentors, business peers, and bankers. Your business, and your spouse, will thank you.
If you follow these strategies, your coffee shop should begin to fill up with a regular cast of returning customers.
Greg Ubert, founder and president of Crimson Cup Coffee & Tea, has been roasting coffee in small batches since 1991 and has taught hundreds of business owners how to run successful independent coffee houses. The author of Seven Steps to Success in the Specialty Coffee Industry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.