So you’ve taken the plunge and started to prepare your coffee shop for its grand opening. You’ve taken all the major initial steps; created a business plan, found a space to rent or buy, started hiring staff, picked out a catchy name and started ordering supplies. Then you realize you’ve forgotten one major component: an espresso machine! Well, lucky for you, I’ve written this guide on how to choose the best fit for your shop!
This is likely the most important purchase you will make for your business, and definitely the most important piece of equipment you’ll buy. It is important to keep in mind that you’ll be purchasing a commercial machine, which is much larger (and thus better suited for a coffee shop) than the small countertop machines meant for home use. However, it is not always as simple as picking out a machine for your home kitchen, as each coffee shop will have different needs and thus require a different machine.
One aspect many first-time coffee shop owners don’t always consider is what skill level their baristas will be. This is why you should have much of the initial hiring out of the way before you go shopping for a machine. You’ll have a better idea of what type of machine to buy after you’ve established a staff who’ve detailed their previous experience with espresso machines.
There are many machine options out there. I’ll detail a few of the popular options, but the most important information is the details on how to pick the best machine fit for your business.
Manual, semi-automatic or super-automatic?
There are three types of commercial espresso machines: manual “level” controlled, semi-automatic, and super-automatic. The manually controlled machines are much rarer and require a bit more work. So unless you have an old vintage machine you really want to use (either because it fits the character of your shop or it has some sort of sentimental value) it’s better to go with one of the automatic options. It’s also important to note that these machines often require more maintenance and care when operating.
The next option, a semi-automatic machine is the best choice if you want to produce quality drinks. However, it requires a bit more skill from the barista operating it, so you’d need to ensure your staff had the skills to pull shots and froth milk manually with consistent quality.
The super-automatic may not produce the highest quality of coffee drinks, but they make up for it in consistency and ease of use. This means your staff can be a bit softer on the espresso skillset and/or you could give customers the option of making their own drink. It all depends on the type of coffee shop you want to create.
If you choose the super-automatic option, just note there are two varieties within the super-automatic choice: one-step or two-step. One-step machines require almost no skill as they pull the espresso shots and froth the milk with the barista doing very little.
Two-step machines require a bit more skill, but not as much as the manual machines. You’ll have the espresso shots pulled for you but will need to froth the milk yourself, again at a consistent quality.
The type of machine is not necessarily something you can decide right away. You may think “hey I want a manual machine, or a two-step semi-automatic”, only to realize it doesn’t serve the drinks you’ll be making or your staff don’t have the skills.
Thus, it is important to keep all three options in mind, however, don’t make any decisions right away because you feel you “have” to. Keep reading to go through the different factors that will likely affect your machine purchase. At the end of the guide, you’ll have a better idea of what will suit your needs.
What kind of coffee shop will you be running?
This is what will truly decide what kind of machine you end up purchasing as you need a machine that matches your needs. However, there are a few different factors that determine what “kind” of business you will be operating. First, you need to check in with what type of establishment you’ve envisioned with your business plan.
Of course, you’re opening a coffee shop if you’re purchasing a commercial-grade espresso machine. However, in this case, I’m talking about strictly coffee drinks and maybe some pastries. Thus, the coffee will be the main product and should be of the highest quality. You also need to make sure the machine you purchase can handle high volumes of production. Depending on other factors, the best option is often a semi-automatic machine, as it makes the highest quality and has the most flexibility for customizing specific espresso drinks.
You may also want to consider a manual machine if you have patient and experienced staff and a desire to work harder for your quality drinks. However, as mentioned above, these should only be used for a good reason, as they are often harder to find, can be expensive, and require more maintenance.
Like a coffee shop, a cafe set up involves coffee drinks as the primary product as well. However, in a cafe setting there will be more food being served, often times full meals as opposed to just pastries or sandwiches typically served at coffee shops. Thus, coffee is still important as a product in a cafe setting, but not as important as in a coffee shop.
You’ll still want a machine that makes high-quality drinks, but maybe not as important. So, you can opt for a semi-automatic, but a super-automatic might work okay as well, it’ll depend on other factors detailed below.
Okay, not many readers on this site will be opening a restaurant, but it’s worth a brief mention. The meals in a restaurant are always the most important, with coffee usually only ordered after the meal with dessert. In this setting, a super-automatic machine will suffice, and perhaps just a normal drip coffee machine as espresso isn’t always necessary at restaurants.
As mentioned above, there isn’t a single type of machine that will perfectly match each business type. A coffee shop could utilize a semi-automatic as well as a manual. A cafe could do well with a super- or a semi-automatic, and a restaurant may just need a regular drip machine. The next step to narrowing it down is to determine what kind of service you will be offering.
If you will be serving customers (either table or counter service), then a machine that requires more skill, such as a semi-automatic or manual would suffice. However, if you envision customers serving themselves it’d be best to go with a super-automatic which requires little skill.
Of course, each type of machine will be able to handle different volumes of drink production. So it’s important to try to envision what your production volume will be. This can be hard to do when just starting out, but take a look at the notes you made when creating your business plan.
Hopefully, you observed the customer volume at your location of choice at different times of the day. From this you’ll be able to decipher the peak volume time (likely the morning rush) and roughly how many customers your shop will need to serve. Again don’t stress, make an educated guess, you can always change machines later. I’d suggest you err on the side of caution and assume a slightly higher peak volume so you don’t run into problems if your guess is a bit too low.
It’s also important to note that the volume production is not determined by the type of machine (manual, super, etc.) but by the individual machine. This will be noted for each machine you look at, and if not make sure to ask!
I’ve alluded to this factor before, but it’s one of the most important aspects you can take into account when choosing a machine. If you’re just hiring anyone with a “good attitude” you’ll want to go for a one-step super-automatic which requires little to no skill. If you’re hiring baristas with some skills but who aren’t experts, a two-step super or a semi-automatic are your best choices. Only buy a manual if you have expert staff on your team, as I’ve mentioned before.
This is why I suggested doing your initial hiring before you go machine shopping, as it can be a helpful “narrowing down” factor. However, it isn’t completely necessary and might actually hinder you. If your business is going to be a small coffee shop that produces high-quality espresso produced by a vintage manual machine, you need to hire experienced staff from the get-go. Otherwise, you’ll be creating a massive headache that could’ve been avoided.
Different Options of Machines
As this article is not meant as a “buying guide” for machines, I’m not going to pretend I’ve researched absolutely every possibility of machine. My main goal was to provide information and context to get you thinking about the needs of your business when it comes to your espresso machine. Below I’ve outlined a few different options for each machine type. All are popular, widely available and very highly reviewed. But again, it is not an exhaustive list nor am I meaning to say you can’t choose to buy something else.
Refresher: These machines a manually operated and require a skilled barista to pull the espresso shots and steam/froth the milk consistently with very little assistance.
La Pavoni Bar 3L-B Lever
Aptly named, this manual model as three levels used to extract the flavors in the espresso shots, which means the barista has a high level of control. However, this also means the barista would need to be highly skilled in order to operate the machine at a consistent quality production. It’s also one of the most beautifully designed machines, which only makes sense as it is made by an old school Italian company that has been in business for decades.
Refresher: These machines require a little less skill than manual machines, but still aren’t for just anyone to operate. Your baristas will still need to be able to pull shots and steam milk but will be working with a more “user-friendly” machine.
Nuova Simonelli Appia II
This semi-automatic model is perfect for “in-between shops”, meaning those with average customer volume and baristas with medium skills. It produces consistent quality drinks without requiring too high of skills. It is also a sleek and aesthetically pleasing model, that’ll look good on your coffee shop counter. One of the most popular semi-automatic models available and made by a well-established company.
La Marzocco Linea 2 Group
While still a semi-automatic machine like the Nuova Simonelli, this machine is slightly less “user-friendly”, but still produces high-quality drinks. Thus only purchase this machine if you have expert baristas, however, in the right hands it can make some of the best espressos. It is also a good machine for coffee shops in need of high volume production.
The most “user-friendly” type of espresso machines, super-automatics require very little skill. They are most popular with “self serve” type of shops, or in office break rooms where employees want their latte fix without going to a coffee shop. However, they can be useful if espresso drinks aren’t your business’ main focus, but you still want to have the option without hiring expert staff.
Jura Impressa Z9
Made by a Swiss company it’s no surprise that this machine is as efficient and well run as they come. Literally made so that anyone can operate it, the Jura Impressa is a great choice for a cafe or less “espresso focused” establishment. Your customers will love the easy-to-use machine where they can make their own coffee drinks to a reasonable quality level for a super-automatic. It also looks quite nice on a coffee shop counter.
Schaerer Coffee Art
This wonderfully engineered two-step super-automatic machine lets you control with just a touch of a button. You can switch from steaming latte milk to foaming cappuccinos within seconds. This also makes it very popular for establishments taking the “self-serve” route for coffee service. It does best in medium volume scenarios and always delivers consistent beverages no matter the skill level of the user.
A grinder is just as important as the espresso machine! An often overlooked piece of equipment, the grinder you use for your beans is just as, if not more important than the espresso machine! If you don’t buy a grinder that can grind a high volume of beans in a timely manner, it won’t matter how great your espresso machine is. If there aren’t any coffee grounds to make drinks out of, what’s the point? Make sure you buy a grinder that can produce large volumes without destroying the coffee (by burning or over-grinding) along the way.
Frequently Asked Questions
This depends on the type, model and features of the machine of your choice. If you choose a machine with more features (such as adding syrup or grind the beans for you) it will cost more than a basic machine. A good estimate for an average commercial grade machine is between $5,000 and $35, 000. Estimate your costs effectively with our help.
While not directly related to the price of a machine, general logic is that a slightly more expensive machine will last longer. This is because more expensive machines should (in theory anyway) be of better quality. However, make sure you research your top choices of machines before purchasing to get a better idea of how long they typically last. A good estimate is between 2 and 15 years for a commercial machine. All depending on daily production, maintenance, and care over the years.
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!