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Want to Open a Coffee Shop? Consider These 3 Tips First

Advice for anyone thinking about opening a coffee shop. [Photograph: Liz Clayton]

When I was planning to open my first coffee shop back in 2002, there was very little information available online to help me get started. There were some training classes, but they were all a couple hundred dollars, which is a lot to spend when you're starting out and unsure whether these big expenses will pay off.

Now, 12 years later, I'm opening another new shop—my sixth. I've learned a lot about opening and running coffee shops, some through making major mistakes. There's the obvious stuff (manage your cashflow, pay your taxes, etc.), the almost-as-obvious stuff (use good quality coffee, hire good people), and the stuff that nobody tells you about but may make the difference between running decent café and a really great one.

Today, I wanted to focus on that last category of advice, sharing three tips for anyone mulling over the idea of starting a coffee shop, preparing to open one, and maybe even those who already run one.

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Vif Wine and Coffee in Seattle is a newer shop that gets it right. [Photograph: Nick Cho]

1. Carefully Navigate the Trends

There are new $15,000 brewing machines, newfangled grinding techniques, hype around certain roasting profiles, and fashionable taste characteristics that come and go all the time. If you're just starting out, looking over what's going on in the industry online and by visiting some of the newer shops, chances are your eye will catch what's new, cool, hip and trendy.

Be wary.

Sure, if you've got deep pockets (or awesome funding), spring for all the latest greatest gear. If it's an initial splash you want to make, that's one way to become the bright and shiny object du jour. But many of the new trends in coffee equipment and techniques are being pushed by folks who have a business interest in doing so. Additionally, we're in an age when differentiation often masquerades as improvement. "Coffee like you've never tasted before" doesn't necessarily mean it's more delicious. I've never tasted an all-beef hamburger that tastes like it's made of anchovies, and I'm not sure I want to...

Nowadays, I see many people opening new shops who immediately start as a multi-roaster shop (that is, sourcing roasted coffee from a variety of coffee roasting companies rather than just one), buy whatever new expensive espresso machine came out in the past 12 months, immediately get a Mahlkonig EK43 grinder, and forgo offering milk or sugar. Each one of these decisions may be right or wrong for your business, but jumping immediately into the latest trends will limit your education by starting you off on the fringes of what's possible.

Ok, you say, "Fine, I'll carefully navigate the trends. But how exactly do I do that?" Well, thanks for the segue!

2. Be the Coffee Person

Simply put, as the owner of the shop, you need to be the head barista. The craft of coffee is in a weird place in its history right now. The new takes and twists on coffee have gained a lot of recognition, but too often marketing and hype seems to overshadow the quality of the coffee itself. There is, however, an opportunity for true quality coffee shops out there that deliver on the promise of what's preached.

You might think that the key to success then is to go out and hire the best baristas you can find, but you would be wrong. You need to be the best barista.

A good coffee shop is not a simple formula of good location + good beans + good equipment = good coffee shop. Instead, it's like pretty much everything else in life: raw talent + hard work = good results.

Get yourself some good training, preferably from more than one place. Get Barista Guild of America certified. Stay curious and push yourself on techniques, and above all else, learn to taste coffee and taste as much coffee as you can, as often as you can, and as many places as you can.

Raw talent + hard work = good results. I've seen many people open shops but not do the work to be the best barista on staff, and others who try but simply lack those raw skills. I'll be brutally frank: these shops are never very successful. They may have all the requisite trappings, but the coffee is never quite as good as the leading shops out there.

And there are many popular and successful barista-owned shops that grow to the point that the ownership settles into a different role, focused on the business rather than on the coffee. Success is great. I'm all for success. But that's also often when you start hearing people say, "They're just not as good as they used to be." Careful about resting on your laurels.

Being the head barista of your shop means this: learn, practice, hone your skills, teach, and set standards. It's not about throwing your weight around, it's about driving the quality of your shop to get better and better.

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Scout Coffee Co. in San Luis Obispo, California opened earlier this year and is an inspiration. [Photograph: Scout Coffee on Instagram]

3. Build a Culture of Taking Care of People

For me, "building a culture" boils down to being a group of professionals who are focused on taking care of the people who come in to our shop. Giving someone something to eat or drink is among the most intimate of human interactions we have. When an otherwise special moment of caring becomes transactional, it's up to us as the baristas to try to reclaim some of what's lost to commerce.

If we want to truly take care of people in this way through a coffee shop, it informs a list of priorities. If you care, the coffee had better be the best you can make. If you want the coffee to be the best you can make, you'd better really know what you're doing. If you want to know what you're doing, you'd better have or develop a never-ending thirst for knowledge about coffee and get out there and learn some stuff. Oh, and that also means you should have some quality equipment, too. And so on.

But at the core it's about everyone being there to take care of people. We need to start from a point of honoring the space that coffee occupies in people's lives. It's a taste experience, a daily ritual, a social engagement, and fuel for the day (or any combination of these). When you ask people why they drink coffee, more than anything else they tend to tell you a lot about how it makes them feel. That's a big responsibility!

So that's my two cents on the subject. If you've opened a coffee shop, what not-the-same-old advice might you share? Have you thought about opening a coffee shop? Looking forward to reading your thoughts in the comments!

About the author: Nicholas Cho is the co-founder of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters in San Francisco, and produces and hosts the Portafilter.net Podcast for Coffee Professionals. Follow him on Twitter at @nickcho

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