If you grew up in the Bay Area like I did, you might have spent a lot of time in kissatens, small Japanese coffee shops and tea houses. The unique architecture, delicate teacups and bespoke details –– like a steamed hand towel (similar to the ones you’d be offered in a flight) or plants sprouting through the walls –– make them truly unique while still preserving a lot of the utility most American coffee shops have.
Here’s how to start a Japanese-style coffee house:
- Do your research
- Pick a location
- Design and set the tone
- Buy equipment
- Acquire permits and licenses
- Hire service staff
Kissatens are still great for your coffee or tea fix, and they’re usually built for longer stays (I used to read my books to the sound of a delicate waterfall while mint tea was being brewed in the background), just like most coffee houses. And, just like American coffee shops, they capitalize on a very unique aesthetic that connects with customers and keeps them coming back.
Do your research
Nobody likes hearing this because it’s like, “Well of course I have to do my research.” But you should really be spending your time at a lot of kissatens, or looking them up if there are none near you. If you’re offering someone a specific experience, they’re going to have expectations about what that experience should look like, and you want to deliver what you can.
What details do you like? Is it the kind of furniture? Is it the music? Are there any design elements that speak to you? What parts of a kissaten experience can you offer and want to offer, and what parts would you rather not include? Don’t be afraid to branch out and put your own spin on a kissaten, or take inspiration from your local community to create a fusion experience.
Pick a location
Do some research on your demographics and your community, and allow that to inform you on where you want to set up a Japanese-style coffee shop. Growing up, I saw a lot of kissatens that were surrounded by Asian grocery stores and in plazas that served other Japanese food.
But I do remember a small, quiet coffee shop on a street corner in Washington D.C. that pulled a lot of inspiration from Japanese kissatens. It got a lot of foot traffic specifically because it offered an experience that was much more unique than the industrial coffee bars or cabin-like woodsy coffee shops in the area.
When you’re looking for a space, try to find any architectural details that work in or against your favor and see how it will work in a practical manner for a coffee shop. Talk to the rental company or property manager about what liberties you can and can’t take. Will you be able to paint the exterior? Do extensive remodeling?
Secondly, make sure you pay attention to the businesses around you and the foot traffic. Do you fill a need for a sit-down coffee place among a cluster of retail stores? Does the area around your potential storefront tend to be pretty crowded?
And lastly, make sure your Japanese-style coffee shop is an experience people in this location would want. Kissatens, while widely popular where I used to live, might be a different experience for others. Make sure your concept will work well with their sensibilities.
Looking for more tips on how to choose a location? Check out this article!
Design and set the tone
Designing a kissaten-inspired coffee shop may require some unique furniture and elements you can’t find at restaurant wholesale stores. I’ve been in kissatens that have created an indoor-outdoor space that mimicked a greenhouse, where the ground was full of loose pebbles and the walls and ceilings were covered in glass. There are kissatens that put their tea and coffee selection on full display, proud of their variance, and use their product as a decoration.
You might decide you want more plants in your kissaten, or you might want to focus on light, woody furniture or sculptures. Pick out a few, affordable elements about kissatens that really speak to you and shine a light on those.
Other things you want to look into with a Japanese-style coffee shop is how you want to set the tone. Some kissatens don’t allow loud conversations or cell-phones. Others trick out their coffee shops with high-quality sound speakers and play jazz music and allow for louder conversations.
Think about what kind of etiquette you want to establish for your coffee shop, and see how you can use design elements to enforce that. A quiet, spa-like coffee shop might indicate to customers your coffee shop is a soft, relaxing environment. A music-heavy coffee shop with lots of studying spaces might indicate you’re okay with people bringing in their laptops and talking loudly.
If you would prefer your coffee shop to act like a more sociable space, arrange your furniture accordingly. If you gather armchairs around in a circle, it will indicate to your customers your coffee shop is a fun place to hang out with friends or read a book. The way you design your coffee shop will give customers an immediate indication of how to act.
Did you know kissatens were originally known for their craftsmanship when it came to brewing coffees? As early as the 1950s, kissatens were experimenting with ways to perfectly brew coffee beans, while most American coffee shops were focusing on efficiency.
Japanese kissatens were using syphons and drip mechanics long before it became an industry standard in the U.S. among smaller coffee shops. In fact, you would have had a hard time finding these materials outside of Japan at all, anywhere in the world. It wasn’t until the last couple decades or so that the U.S. and the world at large came to embrace the obsessive perfectionism most Japanese coffee shops adopted.
So embrace your Chemex, or your syphons, or your filters for that matter. If you want to create a coffee shop that puts a premium on delicately brewing coffee and squeezing as much flavor out of it as possible, there is nothing wrong with investing in higher quality products. But don’t be afraid to buy an espresso machine or two either –– they can be exceptionally useful for the crowd who just want a cup of coffee.
If you plan to also serve tea, which is common in many Japanese coffee shops, buy a good variety of tea leaves to brew, and buy a couple of commercial tea-makers. This will make it easy to brew and ice teas for your customers quickly and efficiently.
For what it’s worth, most traditional kissatens brew coffee and tea in small batches. But nobody’s going to fault you for buying some commercial equipment products to make things go by faster. Both you and your customer have a life!
Acquire permits and licenses
Depending on where your coffee shop is located, permitting and zoning laws will differ; not just state-to-state, but county-to-county as well. Take an extremely close look at the laws in your city or county and act accordingly. Here are some of the licenses and permits you may need to track down.
- Business license: A business license will turn the coffee shop in your imagination into an actual, legal, operating business. Applying for a business license will look differently depending on where you live, so take careful note of all the stipulations. Some may require a certificate of occupancy, others may ask you to renew your license every year.
- Food service license: Your local health department will be in charge of giving your business a food service license if you operate a coffee shop. You may need to submit additional documents before you can apply for a food license, and you may also have to renew this license every so often.
- Sign permits: If you want to stick a sign on your storefront –– which you’re definitely going to want to do, unless you plan on becoming one of those cool, word-of-mouth places –– you may need to acquire a sign permit from your city or county government.
Hire service staff
One of the most interesting things about traditional kissatens is their attention to service. Like I mentioned, some bring over warm hand towels and some bring the customers’ food and coffee to them instead of asking them to pick it up.
If you want to hire service staff that has the same level of attention, you definitely want to interview them carefully and make it clear they’ll be interacting with customers a lot, not just making coffee. Talk to them about any past waitressing experience, or any service forward job they’ve held in the past. All this will matter just as much as their experience at coffee shops.
Consider putting all your expectations into your job description online. You may find a lot of coffee enthusiasts who are excited to try working in a new coffee environment.
Now, if you don’t want your coffee shop to be so involved with the customers’ well-being, that’s totally fine. Nobody is walking into a coffee shop expecting a warm, steaming towel, or expecting to be asked how their tea is every few hours (especially if they’re in the zone reading a book or writing a paper).
You are free to put your own spin on what service you provide at your own kissaten-style shop. And often, when people are exploring new environments, they gravitate towards the familiar. So if the people in your area have never been to a Japanese-style coffee shop, perhaps having a order flow similar to that of regular coffee shops will actually work in your favor.
Frequently Asked Questions
Depending on how much capital you put into it, as well as your location, it can cost as few as $70,000 and rise up from there. But there are a lot of benefits to providing a small, boutique experience, so you don’t have to break the bank with seating, large spaces and tons of coffee and food.
A lot of coffee shops fail not because of the quality of their coffee, but because a lot of coffee shops aren’t sure how to embrace their concept. You want your customer to be able to look at your coffee shop and right away get a sense of what it might be like. If you can lean in to the kissaten aesthetic and make customers comfortable and happy, you should be good to go.
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!