Start-up Strategies

The next time you visit a quick-service restaurant, observe how much their workers accomplish in a short timeframe. Experienced fast-food operators know that the quicker the line, the more people they serve, and the more money they make. As a result, the layout of a fast-food operation is a marvel of efficiency, making for happier customers, employees, and owners.

By contrast, it never ceases to amaze me how few independent coffee houses are laid out to support efficient drink preparation and customer service. Too often, instead of consulting an expert, the new coffee house owner has listened to a plumber, architect, or some other person who has “experience” in the coffee business. Or, they have tried to wing it by creating their own design. The result can be a mess… customers waiting impatiently, while baristas and cashiers trip over one another.

Keep in mind that customers expect speedy service. They are not going to wait in a long line, unless for hand-poured coffee, no matter how good your drinks taste. Designing the layout of your coffee bar to serve customers quickly is vital to increasing sales.

By speeding drink preparation and customer service, the ideal coffee bar layout can boost the espresso-to-drip-coffee ratio by 20 percent or more. For a café serving 200 customers per day, this could mean an extra $20,000 in profits each year.

Poor layout also affects employee productivity and bottom-line profitability. In fact, I’ve seen coffee shops save close to $50,000 a year in labor costs (approximately two workers) just by creating a more efficient layout.

The Ideal Coffee Bar Layout

Your coffee bar should enhance the choreography of the business. The space should accommodate the equipment needed to produce a great-tasting drink in a matter of seconds. This is vital to serving customers quickly, while minimizing barista and cashier movement. Here are several factors to consider in designing a coffee bar layout:

1. Because people follow their eyes, the first thing customers should see is the espresso machine used to produce the most profitable drinks. Lead customers to the espresso machine, and then locate the menu nearby.

2. The cash register should be two steps away from the espresso machine, and there should be counter space between the register and the espresso machine to allow for exchanging money and serving the beverage.

3. Equipment and ingredients for the hot bar should be near the espresso machine within the barista’s reach. An ideal layout accommodates:
•    A commercial, under-the-counter refrigerator placed immediately under the espresso machine.
•    Two espresso grinders – one for regular and the other for decaffeinated blends – placed on the opposite side from the Point of Sale system (because of the noise factor).
•    Syrups and chocolates placed next to the espresso grinders, space permitting. Again, everything should be within the barista’s reach.

4. The back counter should house a cold bar for making iced and frozen drinks. Here, you will need an under-counter refrigerator, ice machine, blenders, chocolate and white chocolate sauces, drink powders, and dump sink – all placed within four steps of each other.

5. If you plan to serve hand-pour coffees, you need to have a “slower area” for these drinks. Customers will wait for these drinks.

6. The drip coffee grinder, brewer, and air pots should be as far away from the customers’ view as possible so you can focus on selling espresso-based drinks. For the same reason, you do not want to place air pots in a self-serve situation.

7. Pastries and assorted goodies should be placed next to the cashier. This is the ideal location for a pastry display case, if desired.

8. Place the condiment area away from the main counter area to prevent bottlenecks.

Setting up the Back Room
Your back room acts as a staging and storage area. At minimum, it should contain:

1. A three-compartment sink for washing utensils, as well as a hand sink and a mop sink, which are usually required.

2. Metro shelving to store extra napkins, cups and lids, chocolates, and syrups.

3. An NSF-approved, two-door commercial refrigerator to house extra milk.

For most independent coffee shops, an efficient equipment layout means the difference between a profitable business and going out of business. The good news is that a great layout costs no more, and often less, than a poor one.

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. Greg can be reached at

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