Besides the menu, there is only one thing that truly separates coffee shops from one another: their exterior design. When I was in college, I lived within walking distance of seven (that’s right, seven) coffee shops. Between classes, I always sat outside at a bright, sunny New-Englander café that served cookies and tea. At night, I would travel to the dark steampunk 24/7 coffee shop just across the street whose dim exterior lighting and good music were easy on my no-sleep brain. Both had unique exteriors that drew me to them.
Here are five design elements that can make or break the exterior of your coffee shop:
- The interior
For a customer who doesn’t know anything about your coffee shop, creating the perfect exterior design of your coffee shop means it has to be welcoming and totally on-brand for your customer experience. Nobody wants to be thrown off by arriving with a laptop bag or book in hand only to find out the place they were planning on spending a few hours in wasn’t what they expected.
It can be tough being the new business surrounded by other thriving stores, but it’s nothing a coat of paint can’t fix.
Imagine potential customers walking past a “for rent” empty storefront everyday. Now imagine how much more exciting it would be for your customer to see that empty storefront full of coffee with a shiny new coat of paint on the front that symbolizes a new start, and welcomes that customer to start the journey with you.
Consider choosing a color that matches your interior design and doesn’t clash with the storefronts around you –– you want to stand out, not look like an eyesore. Robin’s egg blue might be the perfect cheerful color if you also sell fresh, healthy food. A cool, steely grey might match the interior exposed piping in your coffee shop.
Before you paint (or make any big changes to your building, really) talk to your leasing management company and talk to the businesses around you. Is there a reason they haven’t painted their storefronts? Has the entire block agreed to keep the same aesthetic? As long as you’re not breaking any rules or etiquette, paint is often the cheapest and most efficient way to tell customers, “Hello there! We’re open for business!”
When you meet a new person, you see their face, and then you ask their name. Similarly, when people say the name of your coffee shop, it should evoke the signage you put outside of it. Your signage is your main calling card to your customers, and the way you display your coffee shop company on the exterior of your building says a lot about what kind of company you are.
A successful brand will have a unique and easy-to-recognize sign that will always be unmistakably theirs. If your brand aesthetic includes earthy tones, consider a font and texture that evokes reclaimed wood. If your coffee shop doubles as a wine bar, make your sign out of wine boxes. If your coffee shop has a more industrial feel, consider a block font and a steel sign.
Be creative and don’t be afraid to use unusual materials or fonts that differ from the businesses around you. Use signage as an opportunity to make a name for yourself and cultivate a personality that people are drawn to.
Some companies use tongue-in-cheek puns or viral memes to advertise some of their products and show their personality. It can work if done correctly, but be careful –– if that’s not part of your brand aesthetic already (and if you don’t show that same playfulness in your social media or website), it can put people off.
And lastly, please, don’t use handwritten signs or printer-paper signs to announce your card reader is broken or early closing hours. Nobody wants to see an all-caps, 24-point Arial “PLEASE ENTER FROM OTHER DOOR” sign. Take care in how your brand is seen by other people. So if you need a quick-fix sign, consider designing one fast using Canva or a number of other easy-to-use graphic design apps.
Remember, the exterior is just a taste of what’s in store for your customer on the inside. Not only does this mean that you should carefully design your interior and exterior to flow well with each other, it also means you should apply the “less is more” philosophy when designing the exterior of your storefront.
You want the exterior to work with the surrounding storefronts and buildings around it, but maintain its own unique flair. So if you have a kitschy coffee shop on the interior, hold back on some of the bits and bobs for your storefront. It can be a delicate balance to walk, but it will set you up for success with your neighbors in the long run.
In the same vein, keep your windows relatively clutter-free of signs or advertisements when you’re a new business. It can be tempting to advertise to the world all you have to offer, but you’re still a new business coaxing customers in and building trust. Allowing them to peek inside your business will make them less uncomfortable when they walk in.
For more information on some key considerations when designing your coffee shop, check out this article!
You will have to decide if your storefront will provide outdoor seating for its customers. Outdoor seating can indicate the store is busy, or that your customers find your coffee shop to be a great place to sit around.
If you’re operating a kiosk or a truck to save space and money, you might consider adding a few outdoor seating arrangements that can weather out the elements if your city or leasing office permits it. Make sure they’re secure to prevent them from being stolen or vandalized, and take them down when your coffee shop closes for the day.
If, however, you’re operating a coffee shop with extremely high traffic and often find your customers crowded together, ditch the outdoor seating space. It’ll only make your coffee shop look more congested and chaotic, and it’s not like people are going to want to sit around after waiting in line for a cup of your premium coffee.
Especially for a coffee shop, having the right music indoors is an important way to indicate what kind of space you want your shop to be. A coffee shop that thrives on repeat customers hanging around for a long time might opt for subdued, soft rock music, whereas if you’re operating a high-traffic kiosk with no room to lounge around, you might be more drawn to playing loud, punky music that draws people to you.
Regardless, try to be mindful of what music you play. Something overly generic might annoy customers who hear that music on the radio every day, but something too niche and specific can be grating to people who have strong tastes. Find a few pre-made coffee shop playlists online to see what would work with your coffee shop, and branch out from there.
Unless your storefront is in a serious need of time, love and care, switching up just a handful of things that take your storefront to the next level. Be creative, and play around with one or two of the above exterior elements of your coffee shop to give it a fresh look and let people know you’re new, and you’re ready for business.
Frequently Asked Questions
A good tenant of any small business is to stand for something and have a unique perspective. It might mean you appreciate a very specifically crafted coffee, or you want to pay homage to an art form or a period of time that inspires you. You can even look at the community around you for inspiration. What kind of flora is unique to where you live? What do the landscapes look like? What do people in your area do? I’ve seen bicycle cafés, dog cafés, and even a coffee shop dedicated to cacti. Start from there and build a confident brand voice that translates into your design.
That entirely depends on how much you want to spend. Don’t go breaking the bank for a completely renovated coffee shop exterior. Be creative. Analyze your storefront and take advantage of the pros. Do you have big windows? Focus on making the interior of your coffee shop more pleasing to the crowds on the street. Do you have a lawn of some sort out front? Maybe invest in some picnic benches and make that area more attractive. If you can draw your customers’ eyes to one or two attractive and unique features, they’re not going to spend their time talking about the potential downsides.
Go through the experience of your customer. Walk to your coffee shop from a few high-vantage points with lots of traffic. What you see is what they see every day. If you’re new to the area, what about the exterior coffee shop would pique peoples’ interest? What would turn them off? Think about what some of your weakest points may be and find creative ways to correct them.
Please note: This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult a legal expert to address your specific needs.
Hi! I’m Shawn Chun
My adventure in coffee began when I first launched my first coffee shop back in the early 2000s. I had to figure out so many things on my own and to make it worse within 2 years of opening two large corporate coffee chains moved in just blocks away from me!
As I saw smaller and even some larger coffee shops in the neighborhood slowly lose customers to these giant coffee chains and slowly close up shop, I knew that I had to start getting creative…or go out of business.
I (like you may be) knew the coffee industry well. I could make the best latte art around and the foam on my caps was the fluffiest you have ever seen. I even had the best state-of-the-art 2 group digital Nuova Simonelli machine money could buy. But I knew that these things alone would not be enough to lure customers away from the name brand established coffee shops.
Eventually, through lots of trial and error as well as perseverance and creativity I did find a way to not only survive but also thrive in the coffee/espresso industry even while those corporate coffee chains stayed put. During those years I learned to adapt and always faced new challenges. It was not always easy, however, in the end, I was the sole survivor independent coffee shop within a 10-mile radius of my location. Just two corporate coffee chains and I were left after that year. All told the corporate coffee chains took down over 15 small independent coffee shops and kiosks and I was the last one standing and thriving.
Along the years I meet others with the same passion for coffee and I quickly learned that it is not only “how good a barista is” that makes a coffee shop successful, but the business side of coffee as well.
Hence why I started this website you are on now. To provide the tools and resources for up and coming coffee shop owners to gain that vital insight and knowledge on how to start a coffee shop successfully.
Stick around, browse through my helpful blog and resources and enjoy your stay! With lots of LATTE LOVE!