Opening a drive-thru coffee stand is an excellent way to get into the coffee business. It can save you a lot of money in start-up costs and generate as much revenue as a full sit-down café. With the right location, it can be the perfect solution for a new coffee business without the capital for a brick-and-mortar shop.
To start a drive-thru coffee shop, you will need a thorough business plan, a good location with affordable rent, a good marketing strategy, and excellent coffee. The location is the most important piece of your drive-thru coffee stand strategy, and you will need a place that is easily accessible to people by car.
Planning and preparation are key when opening any coffee business, and we want to help you do that. The location may be the most important piece of your business, but you can’t go lease a location without a plan.
Develop a thorough business plan create a menu for your drive-thru coffee shop
Your business plan will be your foundation for everything you do as you work to create your coffee shop. It will help you choose the right location, equipment, and staff. Your business plan will inform every decision you make early on.
Before you start looking for a location, you will need to determine what your drive-thru coffee stand will sell. There are very few cafés that only serve coffee, and your menu will determine your needs for a location.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- What kinds of customers am I hoping to serve?
- What time of day will they be buying coffee?
- Will they want coffee with their meal or between meals?
- What are the other coffee shops in my area offering?
With a drive-thru coffee stand, it is unlikely that you will have the space to cook or bake any products on site. Because of this, you will probably be baking off-site and bringing goods to the shop each morning.
This is something you will need to plan out. The items that you include on your menu need to fit that model. You may want to offer a full lunch menu with hot sandwiches and doughnuts, but that may not work at your drive-thru location.
Once you know what your target market is, you can begin to develop your menu. Muffins, scones, and other items that can be baked the day before are great for a breakfast rush. These pair well with good drip coffees and espresso-based drinks.
A large selection of teas, smoothies, Italian sodas, and other non-caffeinated beverages are great for the afternoon and evening crowd. Coffee is your primary offering, but you can capture new customers by offering beverages without caffeine.
You have to make the decision that is best for your area and market. Speaking of your market:
Research the market in your area and know your competitors
Find out what kind of coffee shops are in your area. Are there any drive-thru options already available? What do they serve? If all the drive-thru stands only serve beverages, then adding food to your menu will set you apart.
You also need to know what the sit-down cafes are doing. Do they have an option for mobile order/pick up? Adding the option to mobile order through an app like Waitr can add a new dimension to your business. If someone gets their coffee at your stand twice as fast as anywhere else, they will come back. In fact, they may become loyal customers.
Another thing to consider when researching your competitors is their peak busy times. If there is a Starbucks down the street from you, you will be, in effect, taking away a part of their business. Studying their peak times can help you prepare for staffing needs and marketing strategies.
Find a convenient location that is easily accessible by car
Your location will affect your customer traffic more than almost anything else. A drive-thru coffee shop’s number one selling point for consumers is convenience. As an operator, you can save a lot of money in start-up and operation costs. As for the customer, they want their coffee cheap and quick.
Most people buy coffee on their commute to work or school. As a drive-thru coffee stand, your quality matters, but the convenience is even more important. If your coffee stand is in a location that is hard to drive to, you will not be successful. Make sure there is more than one entrance to your parking lot, as this will reduce traffic build-up.
When opening a drive-thru stand, your location can be as simple an empty parking lot. Rarely are you going to buy an existing drive-thru coffee business. If you can find a large shopping center that already gets a lot of traffic throughout the day, contact them about building on their property. If you are able to build on the property, it can be a huge boost to early sales from the existing traffic alone.
One thing to keep in mind if pursuing that route though is your state/city/county regulations. Be sure to contact your local government and ensure your plan for your business complies with their regulations. If you don’t do this upfront, it can cause you a lot of headaches later on.
Once you’ve done that and have a few potential locations in mind, consider the following questions when narrowing down your options.
- Look at the road maps around your potential location. Are there multiple ways to drive to it?
- You want to be busy, but if you are, is there room for a long line of cars around the stand?
- Is there a county or city line near your location? Research the two counties or cities and decide which is most beneficial for your business. This will depend on your individual location.
Decide if you’re going to build or buy your drive-thru coffee stand
Building a coffee stand from scratch is a completely viable option. If you have access to the right tools and equipment, you could save a lot of money by building the stand yourself. If this is not something you know how to do, reach out to a contractor in your area. They may be able to do this for you at a low cost and help you see your specific vision realized.
If you don’t want to build the stand, there are lots of options for purchasing a pre-existing stand. Some companies actually sell drive-thru coffee stands that they will deliver to you. Some people even buy old RV’s or food trucks and convert them into a drive-thru. This option can also allow you to move your coffee shop if there is a local event that you want to have a presence at.
Whatever you choose, make sure as we mentioned earlier that you are meeting all your municipality’s regulations. If you aren’t, that can ruin your business down the road. Here are a few simple things to consider upfront.
- Have at least three sinks for washing dishes. This is almost always a food safety requirement.
- Get a small fridge to keep your milk and other cold beverages. Size matters here, so make sure it will hold your stuff and fit your space.
- Make sure you have a way to power all your equipment. Power can be a big hurdle to overcome, so spend some time planning for this.
Buy equipment to fit your space, but don’t overspend
Equipment is the most important part of making excellent coffee. In a large café, you only have to think about the quality of coffee that a given piece of equipment can produce. But in a drive-thru stand, you have to think about size as well.
Your espresso machine and your grinder are the two most important pieces to consider. When it comes to espresso machines, the biggest determining factor in size is the number of group heads on your machine.
Most commercial espresso machines come with either two or three group heads. While it may seem like having three can increase your productivity and your revenue, it doesn’t always work out that way. In small spaces, having three spots to pull shots from can create more chaos than anything else.
You will almost never have more than two people working an espresso machine at a time. If you do, the third person is almost always better off steaming milk rather than also pulling shots.
Pro tip: milk steaming is usually the most work-intensive and time-consuming part of making milk-based espresso drinks. Try putting one of your baristas to work steaming and pouring milk while the other pulls shots. This can often speed up the workflow, which helps you serve more customers and sell more coffee.
With that in mind, it may help to buy a smaller two-group machine with two steam wands. This will save space while keeping your productivity at a similar rate. And since start-up costs are one of the key factors in opening a drive-thru coffee stand, buying a smaller espresso machine can help cut those down.
After you’ve selected an espresso machine, you’ll also want to find good grinders. You need separate grinders for espresso, drip coffee, and decaf if that is something you want to serve. You’ll also want to find grinders that fit well into your coffee stand. Something like a Mahlkonig EK-43 might be the best grinder you can buy, but it also may leave you with no counter space.
Find something that has a quality grind and a small profile. As a pro-tip, spend more money on your espresso grinder than your drip coffee grinder. Espresso is much more temperamental than drip, and it is worth investing in a better grinder. Companies like Bunn, Mahlkonig, and Baratza all have good offerings for various volume needs.
Make sure you also have a way to filter your water. Coffee is more than 98 percent water, and your water quality will determine your coffee quality. You can bring filtered water from a second location each day, but this method can create a lot of logistical problems. Your best bet is to get plumbing directly to your stand. If you can’t, you may try to have a second building on your property. This can also help provide a restroom for your employees.
Even if you do get water plumbed into your coffee stand, a second building is a necessity with a drive-thru. Whether it’s in the same parking lot or not, you will need a place to store excess coffee, cleaning supplies, and other items that may not fit in your coffee stand.
Design a memorable, eye-catching, and unique brand for your coffee shop
Branding a drive-thru coffee shop is different than a brick-and-mortar café. You don’t need to worry about the aesthetics of your interior, but you do need to be able to grab people’s attention. More often than not, people don’t go to a drive-thru coffee stand for the best coffee. They go for good coffee that is convenient.
There is often a tendency in the café industry to create beautiful, clean, minimalist branding that is pleasing to the eye. This is good, but it can often be bland and uninteresting. For a drive-thru business, you want to be able to catch someone’s attention as they drive by.
Bright colors, unique wordplay, and even a good pun can do more for your drive-thru than a minimal approach. Remember, you don’t need people to feel calm and soothed by the branding of your store. You need their car to pull into your parking lot to buy coffee.
Start marketing before you open
Marketing campaigns can make a huge difference on your opening day or weekend. There are two main ways to market yourself.
First, you can market online and on social media. Starting a blog, posting Facebook and Instagram videos, or starting conversations on Twitter are good places to begin. This can generate some buzz and at least let people know that your new coffee shop is opening.
The second way to market your drive-thru coffee stand is the old-fashioned way. Get big signs, lights, and anything else that will catch a driver’s attention as they pass by. Advertising your best items in big, bold letters or with photos helps as well.
Remember, the drive-thru business is not the same as the café business. You can’t host a community event at your coffee stand or an open mic night. Those aren’t your selling points.
You provide people with their coffee quickly, and they don’t even have to leave their car. Use that in your marketing. Remind people of the convenience that you offer.
Choose and price the coffee you’re going to offer
In a drive-thru coffee stand, two primary things that will set you apart from your competitors: cost and convenience.
The average patron of a drive-thru coffee stand is not looking for a $5 cup of pour-over coffee. They want something caffeinated that doesn’t take like dirt. You have to be careful when considering what coffees to offer and how to price them.
You want to have better coffee than the big coffee chain down the street, but you may not have space or capacity to make better coffee than the shop downtown…and that’s okay. There are diminishing returns in coffee and coffee equipment. Most drive-thru shops try to find that sweet spot of delicious, but not overpriced.
Our first recommendation would be to look for a local roaster who can support you. If you don’t have to ship your coffee across the country, it’s going to be cheaper and fresher. This is obviously better for your business.
Once you’ve selected a roaster, decide how many coffee options you want to have. Most drive-thru coffee stands only have one type of espresso and mostly use it to create milk drinks. They also rarely have single-origin options. If they do, they are on a monthly rotation and batch-brewed.
Going back to the importance of convenience, pour-overs and pulling great espresso takes time and effort. For some shops, it is worth the time to offer those, and they can make more money per cup than with a more basic drip coffee blend.
In a drive-thru setting, though, you will be better served by offering coffee that is good and quick. Your goal is to get as many happy customers past your window as possible. Don’t get caught up in perfectionism; just make sure your coffee (and food if you choose to serve it) is delicious.
Make your coffee better than everyone else’s
We said there are two things that will set you apart, but there is a third. Quality.
While you may not have the time or space to create the absolute best coffee in town, you do need to make sure everything you offer is as good as it can be. As recommended in our “How to Start a Coffee Shop from Scratch” article, here are a few resources that can help you make much better coffee in no time.
- The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee – James and Caitlin Freeman
- The Professional Barista’s Handbook and Everything but Espresso – Scott Rao
- The World Atlas of Coffee – James Hoffman
- Brew: Better Coffee At Home – Brian Jones
As a drive-thru coffee stand owner, you have to find ways to make great coffee efficiently and quickly. To make great espresso, you should always weigh the ground coffee as well as the liquid you pull from the shot. This is the best practice and will yield the best results.
But if your average customer is ordering flavored lattes and iced espresso drinks, the returns on that time investment get lower and lower. Consider teaching your baristas to level their espresso in the basket and time their shots instead. You can also find an espresso recipe that takes less time to pull. If you save 5-10 seconds per shot, that can actually increase your revenue.
That doesn’t sound like a big difference, but If you are making 100 drinks in an hour, you could save up to 16 minutes just by changing that recipe. That’s time you can use to serve more customers, and by association bring in more cash flow.
Decide what hospitality is going to look like in your drive-thru coffee business
Hospitality is vital in the coffee industry. People love feeling cared for and attended to, especially in the restaurant business. The issue is, this looks different in a drive-thru setting than in a sit-down setting.
In a sit-down café, you can bring the customer their drinks to their seat, serve the drinks in unique, beautiful ways (think a bamboo platter and carafe for a pour-over) and provide comfortable seating. You can also come to take their trash or dirty dishes from them so they can have more space to work or enjoy time with friends.
None of these things are possible in a drive-thru. But you can still show hospitality. Take lessons from companies like Chick-fil-A. Anticipate the customer’s needs before they ask. If a customer orders drip coffee with cream and sugar, offer to add that yourself. If they get four lattes, put them in a cup carrier and put stoppers in the lids of their drinks.
Little things like this can go a long way in showing that you care about your customers and that you are going the “extra mile” to serve them. This can make the difference between a one-time and a loyal customer.
Hire and train great people
Staff can make or break any business, but especially one that is as customer-facing as coffee. Hiring can be a difficult process, but there are a few key things to look for when finding the best baristas.
- Do they have any experience in customer service? It doesn’t have to be coffee, but they need to know how to treat customers.
- Do they work well in a fast-paced environment? Coffee requires efficiency and excellence, and your employees have to know how to handle stress and pressure
- Do they love coffee? The last thing you want when a customer says, “What’s your favorite drink?” is for your employee to say, “I don’t know, I don’t really drink coffee.” It’s like walking into a Mercedes dealership and learning the owner drives a BMW. It creates a disconnect.
- How well do they learn new skills? You can hire someone who already knows how to make good coffee, but it might be easier to train from scratch. They need to conform to your recipes and your understanding of good coffee, not fall back on old habits.
Pro tip when training your baristas, take some time to learn if they do have any bad habits. If they’ve worked in coffee before, they may have learned to serve a shot even if its bad or use warm milk in an iced drink.
New baristas may not have much experience yet, but they can often turn out better for your business. You get to train them from scratch and teach them your way of making great coffee.
Monitor your progress and make changes
Congratulations, you opened your own drive-thru coffee business! Now that you are open, the work starts in earnest.
You should be reading through your sales numbers, labor costs, and expenses often. Keep track of where your money is going and develop new strategies to improve your business.
Look on websites like Yelp or Google and find reviews from customers. What did they like about your coffee shop? What didn’t they like? This insight can help you make changes that will improve your business in the long run.
How do I open a coffee food truck?
A coffee food truck is not much different from a drive-thru stand. Your customers will be on foot, but these principles all still apply. You still need to deal with space issues, and convenience is still king. You need to be able to make your business mobile, but you can still follow this guide (with a few modifications).
Should I join the SCA?
The Specialty Coffee Association of America has a lot of helpful resources for coffee shops starting up. While not necessary, it is a hugely beneficial resource that we would recommend. Membership costs are not very high, and they can be a tremendous resource for you and your business.
Can I add a drive-thru to my existing coffee shop?
Adding a drive-thru to a brick-and-mortar café has become more popular in recent years. If you are already running a coffee business, you may not need to make many changes to do this. Implement some of these drive-thru specific principles, and you will be well on your way.
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.
If you’re ready to start your very own coffee stand, take a look at our coffee startup documents here.