Coffee shop and cafe are two different phrases that tend to be confused by many. Some people use them interchangeably, and one would really wonder what the difference is between these two phrases.

We will examine the similarities differences of a coffee shop and a cafe by discussing:

  • Comparisons and contrasts between them.
  • The connection between the two venues
  • Specifically defining a cafe.
  • Specifically defining a coffee shop.
  • The connection between the two types of venues.

What Are The Differences Between A Coffee Shop And A Cafe? -

Comparing and Contrasting Coffee Shops and Cafes

In simple terms, the line between cafe and coffee shop is actually coffee itself. Generally in a coffee shop, coffee is the main focus. You will find different brewing methods, traditional espresso beverages, and most also have a selection of tea offerings. Officially, a cafe can also be referred to as a restaurant. In cafes, the main focus is on food rather than coffee, though most cafes will offer coffee pairings on their menus. On the other hand, because a coffee shop mostly deals with coffee, it does not have the qualities – like the main focus on food – that make it possible to be called a restaurant.

From the simple definition, a cafe is a type of restaurant that mainly serves coffee and snacks. The word cafe is a French word which means “coffee.” A cafe is, therefore, a place where you can relax and take coffee as you read a magazine or chat with other customers or have a discussion with friends. It is a social interaction place and they mostly share some characteristics with bars and restaurants.

There are no rules set for the two. Some coffee shops normally prepare food and some cafes can offer only coffee, though it’s very rare to come across such cases. There are also some large chains that may assume the names and instead use other names to prevent assumptions that are normally made by customers when they come across such descriptive names. This can often cause confusion among the everyday guests that visit cafes and coffee shops.

What Are The Differences Between A Coffee Shop And A Cafe? -

The Connection Between Coffee Shop and Cafe

The greatest difference between a cafe and a coffee shop is how they are connected and how people tend to interpret the two. Despite being a French word, many business owners prefer not to translate the word cafe to English for various reasons, the major one being that it sounds classier. You’ll find coffee shops offering drinks that have names such as “Cafe Latte” or “Cafe Mocha,” which can be literally translated to chocolate coffee, but like you just read, it sounds classier in a way. It is also “more official” to throw the word cafe in front of the drink title. Most people know what a latte is without having to have café in front of it.

Due to this, many coffee business owners tend to use the word cafe. Some argue that the name sounds stylish and sophisticated which may create some kind of imagination in the customer’s mind and give them a nice picture of where they are just about to enter or the beverage quality they are receiving.

The good thing is that a cafe has nothing to do with the name of a coffee shop. A coffee shop can use the name cafe, but a cafe cannot use the name coffee shop. Confusion enters in when these terms are used interchangeably. Another factor that might create a difference between the two is the environment. A cafe owner will have to spend a large amount of money to make their premises look pleasant and have an eye-catching environment. This might not apply when it comes to the average coffee shop with – of course – independent shops as exceptions.

What Are The Differences Between A Coffee Shop And A Cafe? -


The term cafe is a borrowed name, and many countries use it differently. What is served in an African café is different from what is served in Asian café and in Europe.  Basically, in most cafes, you will be served coffee, food, and other drinks. Their menus are simplistic and there is a fantastic balance between drinks and food items that they offer.

Most folks will go to a café with lunch in mind and they will have to opportunity to order something along the lines of a traditional cappuccino or macchiato with their meal. Cafes offer high-quality coffee and food with a promising cool atmosphere. Click here for more information on a typical cafe menu and what is offered.

What Are The Differences Between A Coffee Shop And A Cafe? -

Coffee Shop

A coffee shop is simply an establishment that sells coffee and some food items. Coffee sold in such shops is usually a drip coffee or with decaf. Some of these shops may have espresso machines although it is not a must as espresso drinks are not their major focus.

There are 3 different kinds of coffee shops in the coffee world. They are called “waves.” There are first, second, and third-wave coffee shops. The term “wave” comes from imagining your options for coffee as waves.

The first wave that will hit you (for most people) is a coffee pot on your counter, or maybe a pre-made beverage you bought and kept in your fridge.

The second wave hits you as you’re on your way to work and you drive past those franchise shops.  They are known for cheap coffee and quick service – somewhere you can swing into the drive-thru and continue on with your day.

Third-wave shops are generally found in large cities. You will never see a drive-thru at these locations. They are generally independently owned, specialty coffee shops. Your beverage will be made quality over speed of service, there is almost always latte art, and you will often see higher prices at these establishments. 

One of my favorite aspects of third-wave shops is that everything is made traditionally. If you order a macchiato, you will receive the same drink you’d get in a shop in Italy versus how the macchiato is perceived at other American-based coffee shops.

Coffee shops can have simple menus, and most of them normally offer only coffee drinks with some pastries. Some of them offer only coffee drinks without any food pairings.

To run a successful café, you have to do some campaigns through email, social networking, creating both online and offline advertisements. The food you offer and service you provide to your customers will determine whether they will come back again. Hiring a good chef will help you retain your customers.

No one would wish to be served by a stuffy staff.  Staff really plays a big role in maintaining customers in either a coffee shop or in a café.

What Are The Differences Between A Coffee Shop And A Cafe? -


When you talk of a coffee shop, the emphasis is on the quality coffee that is potentially savory and sweet. For the café, you’re referring to light meals and some coffee. However, there is not much emphasis on the quality of the coffee. 

These two words can seriously mislead you to thinking that you’re going to get served something, yet when you reach inside, you’ll realize that what you read on the signpost is not what you really wanted. There is no clear difference between the two. What really matters is what they sell and their emphasis on coffee.

Read our top ten tips for starting a coffee shop here.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Starbucks a café or a coffee shop?

According to the Business Chief of Europe in an article that ranks the top 10 best coffeehouse chains, Starbucks is #1. Hence, in reference to this article, Starbucks is considered a coffee shop and not a cafe.

What is the history of coffee shops?

Coffee shops came from the Middle East in the 1500’s as a fancy venue to drink coffee (Spencer 2009). 
You may also be interested to know about internet cafes and how to start one. Check it out here.

To learn more on how to start your own coffee shop checkout my startup documents here

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.