I want to open a coffee shop but I have no experience in the industry. Where do I start?
April 22, 2010 11:38 AM   Subscribe

I want to open a coffee shop but I have no experience in the industry. Where do I start?

I have a novel concept I want to implement that involves a faster point-of-sale and greater drink making efficiency. Basically, I want to handle the technology aspect of a new coffee shop. The thing is, I'm set on making this a proof-of-concept store, and definitely want to have ownership in the shop itself.

The only problem is that I have no experience in the food/beverage industry. What I need is someone that I can trust to coordinate and oversee the aspects of hiring the right people, see that the requisite permits are gathered, can help with the purchasing of machinery, etc. Ideally someone who has opened a coffee shop before and knows the details that are entailed. How would I go about finding this person? Where do I start?

Any resources would be helpful. I have very specific ideas on how the place would look, and how it would operate--I just need to find that go-to guy (or gal).
posted by evanm to Food & Drink (17 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
You've seen this, right? I realize you're thinking that your technology will create new efficiencies, but to my mind, this is no different from saying that you have a great idea for decor or cool theme that will make your shop different.

I think your better bet is to build your technology and lease (or loan) it to an existing shop. If it is more of a process than a technology, you may want to follow the Bilkis case before the Supreme Court regarding whether business techniques are patentable. Because if not, anything you do could be copied by every other shop.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:44 AM on April 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

This may sound crazy, and you're going to hate it, but... get a part-time coffee-shop job for a while. You'll be surprised at how much of process and details and nuance you can learn while at the coalface of a business that is related to what you plan to do, and operating successfully.
They'll even pay you a small stipend for your education :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 11:48 AM on April 22, 2010 [6 favorites]

Hunting down the owners of any coffee shops in your area that have recently gone out of business?

Once you have found your person, I suggest first getting them to help you write a business plan in which you demonstrate that your coffee shop will really be able to pay both of you. Will your efficiency changes create enough long term extra revenue to support a small coffee shop paying what sounds like a CTO?
posted by emilyw at 11:49 AM on April 22, 2010

Get a job at a coffee shop and work your way up to manager. Manage a coffee shop for a few years.

If you think that having no experience in the food business is the "only" problem you are deluding yourself about how hard it is to build a successful restaurant or drinks place. Especially for a coffee shop, the mood and vibe created by the baristas will have more to do with success than efficiency. Efficiency won't make much difference until you are trying to run a coffee shop on Starbucks scale.
posted by Babblesort at 11:49 AM on April 22, 2010 [7 favorites]

In Austin, coffee and food trailers are becoming increasingly popular, and may be worth a look.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:54 AM on April 22, 2010

Data point/anecdote point: I don't know that many people, but of those few, I know two people who lived their lifelong dream of opening a coffee house, and both lost their hides (and their businesses). You need to know as much as possible before you start: Work for someone else's coffee house (manage it if you can), try and look at their books, get a feel for overhead, be realistic. Also, you'll need to have enough capital to stay open and get started. If you spend all your money before you open the doors, you won't be open for long. Sorry to sound negative, but I've seen a lot of food service businesses fail in the last year (and I'm in Austin, which has a decent economy). At the end of the day, you need to be good with money -- it's not enough to be good with coffee.
posted by seventyfour at 11:55 AM on April 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

restless_nomad's idea is great. Check your local regulations, though. Lots of Austin businesses (Torchy's Tacos and Hat Creek) have started in trailers and grown from there.
posted by seventyfour at 11:56 AM on April 22, 2010

I don't think the problem in the coffee business is efficiency. If you are so busy that shaving a few seconds off the drink making process matters, you are already the most successful coffee shop in your town. Or you're Tim Horton's in Canada on a Saturday at lunch.

That said, if you are intent on making a go of this, the best bet is talking to existing coffee shop owners. The problem you will run into is that people with failed coffee shops are going to be intensely averse to getting back into that business, and those who would be interested in doing so with the requisite know-how (and presumably, capital) probably already have a bustling shop of their own.

Maybe you could talk to the latter about taking a chance on a second location with you?

Or as someone else recommended.... buy an existing shop and hire the previous owners as consultants for a 6 month period. Happens all the time in this kind of business.
posted by neksys at 12:04 PM on April 22, 2010

You need to work in a coffee shop as a barista before you go anywhere else with this. None of your employees are going to trust you or your efficiency upgrades if you haven't been in the trenches.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:08 PM on April 22, 2010

I don't care how fast it takes to get that cuppa coffee in my hand - I care how much it tastes.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:09 PM on April 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Nthing the need to work in the business. I have a rule (as a bartender) to never work for first time bar owners who have no experience in the industry. With few exeptions they haven't a clue how the business actually needs to be run and it's a nightmare working for them.
posted by Jawn at 3:01 PM on April 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you think that the most important factor in a coffee shop's success is speed in drink making- or even that it's close enough to the top of the list that your innovation will put you ahead of the curve- you're either dealing with a really specialized niche and we don't know what we're talking about... or you need to go work in a coffee shop for a few years.
posted by MadamM at 4:15 PM on April 22, 2010

Hospitality is brutal man, and efficiency shmcefficiency - this will be a very hard road to go down unless wherever you are is literally screaming out for a coffeehouse. You need to talk to some managers etc in hospitality who can assess your risks and give you a clear-eyed picture of whether your plan will work, asap. Protect yourself or you will go broke.
posted by smoke at 5:22 PM on April 22, 2010

As someone with a lot of work experience in the "trendy coffeeshop" industry, I really recommend that you get a part-time job at a coffeehouse. Because:
1. You will find out if you actually like the business. Parts of it can seriously suck.
2. You can see how your Novel Idea would fit into a Real Life coffee shop.
And I hate to be a downer, but it seems like if your idea is so revolutionary and awesome, someone would have implemented it already? In some of the places I have worked, policies and protocols are constantly being revamped.
But if this is really your dream, test the waters by working in a coffee shop.
posted by pintapicasso at 7:03 PM on April 22, 2010

Absolutely get a job in the industry first. 6 months experience at least. Sure, it's a pay cut, but it's a valuable education.

I know two people very well who have created successful coffee shops, so I have a few thoughts:

1) If you're going to own and not manage, you're going to have a hell of a time. Coffee shops don't make much money and you're going to have a hard time finding someone who is willing to work for peanuts while essentially running the whole business. Okay, that's not entirely true. You'll be able to find someone to do the job, but they won't be worth it. And if you don't have industry experience you may not recognize if they suck or not.

2) The most important things for an independent coffee shop are, in order 1) ambiance, mostly generated by the employees. 2) Affordable prices. 3) Good drinks/food. Notice that efficiency is not on that list. What else are you bringing to the business?

3) I'm pretty skeptical that you can bring noticeable improvements to a business that you know almost nothing about. I've visited my friend's coffee shop for several hours a day, 2-3 days a week for 6 years. I love efficiency, and I'm good at it, so I sometimes make suggestions where I think they'll do some good. But not once have I made a good suggestion. Every single time they've had a very good reason for doing things the way they do them. Sometimes it's health department rules, sometimes it's logistics I didn't consider (ie: 'yeah, but it takes longer to clean up') and sometimes it's penny wise and pound foolish ('Sure, but if we do it that way we go through our stock 20% faster.') or any number of other reasons that I can't see because I'm not back there doing it 12 hours a day every day.

Both of these successful owners are workaholics. One regularly gets a day off every six weeks, the other never took more than two days off the whole 3 years she owned the place.

To sum up: Get some on-the-job training, bring something more valuable to the business, plan to work your ass off.

And good luck!
posted by Ookseer at 10:05 PM on April 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Hey, Matthew Lesko might be able to get you money to open up a coffee shop, AND work on your invention... Two birds with one stone!

Uh, anyway... I sort of had the same dream of late, so I was glad you asked this question. I looked for similar AskMeFi threads, but really could only find this one so far.

I liked the Slate article linked in the first response. Anyone else with other related articles?
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 1:05 AM on April 23, 2010

I think you really need to get in the trenches to learn about the restraunt and beverage business. Specifically, you need to work in a coffe house because tehy have different turn-over rates than other places. In a coffee house, someone might buy a 4$ coffee and sit there for 4 hours reading a book or writing. In a diner, somone might spend $15 on a meal but only take up space for 40 minutes. That and much more would need to be considered for things like what your ideal margin is.

Also. a lot of community colleges offer classes in hospitality management now-adays. Check and see if any around you do.

One thing that strikes me as wierd about your idea is that it centers around the idea of fast and efficient. If I want coffee fast and efficiently, I go to a convenience store and pouir my own cup. That's about as fast and efficient as it gets. When I think of a coffeee shop i think about slooooowwing down, relaxing, reading the paper, and spacing out. PErhaps playing a game of scrabble using some game pieces that look like they were excavated from Pompeii.
posted by WeekendJen at 9:47 AM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

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