How can we create a welcoming, inclusive atmosphere in our cafe?
March 11, 2017 3:45 PM   Subscribe

Asking for a friend: three of us, all middle-aged white women, have just purchased an established cafe in a downtown neighbourhood. We've noticed that, while the population of our area is quite diverse, our clientele appears to be predominantly straight, white, and middle-class. What can we do to encourage and welcome a wider cross-section of the community?

Since we're about to redecorate the storefront space to reflect the change in ownership, we're wondering if there are specific things we can do to make things feel more welcoming to people from diverse social groups. Are there certain things people look for in a cafe, and other things that make you think "nope, not for me"? Comments on everything from menu choice to decor to customer service are welcome.
posted by rpfields to Grab Bag (34 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If possible, make the bathrooms gender neutral. And advertise that in the window, along with being LGBTQ friendly.
posted by spinifex23 at 3:56 PM on March 11, 2017 [20 favorites]

Best answer: Is your cafe able to host events? If so, make it a cheap, friendly place to host open mics, poetry readings, political gatherings, etc, to draw a crowd of diverse folks interested in free events!
posted by Grandysaur at 4:09 PM on March 11, 2017 [32 favorites]

This vegan cafe chain in my city does a lot to encourage a diverse clientele, including a lot of Black Lives Matter signage, various welcome signs, having a children's play area, and sponsoring events in the community well beyond just a surface level engagement. One example of their commitment to be inclusive: they changed their table numbers recently to be more accessible to people with vision issues and blogged about it. I also find the staff very friendly, diverse, and helpful to all and that speaks to me.
posted by k8t at 4:09 PM on March 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: have drip coffee that is (1) good and (2) cheap
posted by listen, lady at 4:17 PM on March 11, 2017 [38 favorites]

Best answer: Hire a diverse staff.
posted by momochan at 4:26 PM on March 11, 2017 [67 favorites]

Best answer: ^ Yes, hire from the neighborhood! If you treat your hires well, make scheduling easy, pay a fair wage – they'll bring their friends. Put up rotating art by local artists. Always keep a couple menu items that poor folks can afford, and start a pay-it-forward chart.

"We welcome all / You are safe here" type signs. Go door to door and meet nearby business owners. Give them a free coffee card so they'll stop by and chat with you! Let people post flyers and drop off business cards in a designated area. Plants and cozy seating signal "stay here a while" while sterile, sharp edges, expensive finished wood and white gallery walls signal "bourgeois tech money."
posted by fritillary at 4:29 PM on March 11, 2017 [22 favorites]

Best answer: Gender neutral bathrooms are a must. If you have to do different signage for building code reasons, add signs beside them that indicate additional genders and put small rainbow flag stickers nearby. Add your bathrooms to the various apps out there that track available gender neutral and otherwise trans-safe bathrooms, like Refuge.

Advertise group discounts on Meetup, and see about messaging meetup group leaders directly offering your place as a friendly spot. Look for groups doing different types of activism but also things like language learning groups, artists, and adult education study groups.

Try to figure out some of the commonly spoken languages in your area and get laminated menus translated into those languages. Have them clearly available for people to just pick up without asking for them. If you can, number/letter your menu items so people can order that way - often ESL folks learn numbers and letters first.

Put out feelers for physically disabled people who would like to come consult on accessibility for you in exchange for snacks. Wheelchair friendly is obvious, but things like hooks for canes as well as purses, chairs that provide enough support (end up on the receiving end of a rant about cafe stools from your friends with MS and you will never be the same again), floor texture differences for people with vision problems, various table heights for people who need to hold different postures to actually relax, couches that someone with only one arm can comfortably extract themselves from... So many different things. Obviously you can't do everything for all people, but if you make kind of a to-do about it at first then the people in your community will get to talking and know you are approachable. Oh, and a big Service Animals Welcome sign by the door.
posted by Mizu at 4:32 PM on March 11, 2017 [13 favorites]

Best answer: Is your cafe affordable to people that aren't middle class? I live in a diverse area but there's a lot of stratification in things like many restaurants because a relatively basic dinner and a non-alcoholic beverage plus tip can be $20 (or more) and that's just not affordable to many people. The places that succeed in having diverse crowds tend to be some kind of interesting ethnic restaurants that can meet an $8 for dinner price point, but it's hard to stay in business with those margins, especially with downtown rents.

Also, look at similar restaurants in the area that do have diversity and try to emulate what you think is helping them draw that crowd.
posted by Candleman at 4:44 PM on March 11, 2017 [11 favorites]

Oh man, what Mizu says about chairs/stools really rings true for me. I have a non-obvious disability, and benches and shitty chairs absolutely ruin me. I just like a normal, straight-backed chair.

I would also suggest having printed menus (with large, legible type) available at the counter, because people with bad vision, neck issues, and possibly those in wheelchairs may have trouble reading the signage.

In the wake of all the Trumpiness, I have noticed signs at shops in my neighborhood that say things like "All are welcome here--hate free zone", which I would encourage you to do.
posted by radioamy at 4:44 PM on March 11, 2017 [9 favorites]

Cheap food and drink. You can be as inclusive as you want but if only middle class people can afford to visit your cafe, that's your clientele. There is a coffee shop like this in my city. Super diverse area, super white clientele. Because one handmade English muffin costs as much as a 6-pack in the supermarket. But the cheap food court a few doors down is jam packed with everyone.
posted by tippy at 5:05 PM on March 11, 2017 [30 favorites]

Best answer: The podcast The Sporkful did a series last year on how restaurants and cafes are coded for particular audiences, with a focus on race and culture. Some of the suggestions above were mentioned, but you might want to listen for other ideas.
Also, I'm sure you'll do this, but be good to any staff you hire. There's a cafe in my old neighborhood that on first appearance seemed progressive/welcoming, but it became apparent that the owner was rude and belittling to her staff. I stopped going there because I didn't want my money going to her (plus the atmosphere was noticeably unpleasant on days she was there). I would hope that those who share your values on diversity are more likely to be put off by such things - doubly so if your staff are part of the communities you want to attract business from.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 5:45 PM on March 11, 2017 [21 favorites]

If you serve meat, make sure it's halal or kosher depending on the demographics of your area. If you have both, do some research to figure out if halal-eaters are generally willing to eat kosher meat or vice versa.

There is a very nice family restaurant in my impoverished town that prominently advertises a special £5 lunch deal for seniors on Sundays. Deals of that kind (or frequent coupon deals for a general audience) would make it more affordable, at least some of the time, for non-middle-class people, if you can't or don't want to have low prices all the time.
posted by tel3path at 5:52 PM on March 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

As someone who lives in a very diverse city with lots of cafes like this I'd have to say having affordable things on the menu is key. Diverse music selection and employees probably help too.
posted by bearette at 7:05 PM on March 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The cafe I've frequented that had the most diversity of customers had the following features that I think contributed:
- all the serving staff were pretty clearly LGBTQ, or otherwise dressed in a gender-non-conforming way
- there was prominent vegan food on display
- the food was super cheap (to the point that they actually went out of business about a year after opening, sadly)
- the furniture was kind of thrift-store chic, sofas covered with knitted blankets, etc, so you didn't feel like you could ruin anything that would cost them much to replace. (This seemed pretty attractive to people with kids). They did have some more traditional, newer-looking cafe tables and chairs up the front by the window, too, but the thrift-shop-looking set-up at the back was way more popular.
- they had kittens(!) that lived there, that you could play with if they weren't too tired. (I don't actually know if this attracted a diverse customer base, but I mention it because it's awesome. Apparently they also got a fine for not having the proper permits for that, though).
- there were a bunch of video game systems in one corner, hooked up to TV screens, that customers could play, which seemed to attract a pretty good teenage crowd.
- they had magazines and newspapers lying around in a variety of different languages
- they hosted open-mic nights, political events, poetry slams, etc.

The customers they attracted seemed to run the spectrum of hipsters, through to families with kids, through to awkward teenagers, and a variety of different genders and orientations. They didn't do so great on attracting elderly people or non-white people, though, although I think the magazines with different languages was meant to try to do so. And it was in the middle of one of the whitest towns I've ever lived in, so maybe that's not surprising.
posted by lollusc at 7:09 PM on March 11, 2017

There is a very nice family restaurant in my impoverished town that prominently advertises a special £5 lunch deal for seniors on Sundays.

That reminds me of another cafe/bar somewhere else I lived once. At closing time, any food left was free, and on the weekends they'd cook up a big vat of spaghetti and sauce about half an hour before closing, which was $2 a bowl. This meant they got a ton of students and poorer folks coming by for that, and then those people are also likely to feel welcome there at other times of day when they do have the money for a treat.
posted by lollusc at 7:15 PM on March 11, 2017 [19 favorites]

Is it the type of place that cops stop in to get coffee? Lots of people don't want to hang out where the cops hang out. I don't know what you do about that though.
posted by AFABulous at 7:58 PM on March 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

I can't recommend these three episodes of the podcast Sporkful which addresses this perfectly. I love the W Kamau Bell one particularly. Sporkful on iTunes


Discusses coding and de-coding dinner and the terrible " 60 40 rule ", and asks is it possible to make a restaurant for every body.

[Oh. I see on pre(post) view that Sporkful was already mentioned. Sorry. ]
posted by taff at 8:25 PM on March 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

Explicit welcomes are always, uh, welcome.

My local falafel shop (owned by a Syrian refugee, and subject of a MetaFilter FPP!) had this sign hanging prominently inside. (I say 'had' because Yassin auctioned his famous sign off to benefit other Syrian refugees. Because Yassin is awesome.)
posted by workerant at 8:25 PM on March 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: If you're providing parking for cars, and even if you're not, provide (good) parking for bicycles. I gave up on an otherwise perfectly nice coffee shop because they couldn't be bothered.
posted by asperity at 11:35 PM on March 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

Hire a diverse staff.

And give them some input into the social media accounts. Let the voice of your business be as diverse as your clientele. Let the staff choose what to chalk on the sidewalk chalkboards and menu boards, post on Instagram and Facebook, etc.
posted by Miko at 5:43 AM on March 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

What can we do to encourage and welcome a wider cross-section of the community?

I live on an inner urban boundary between white professionals and the communities that they are displacing. I frequent both new coffee shops, and existing local sandwich shops/delis. They're very different in terms of who goes there. If your friends want a regular clientele that is diverse, and not just a few diverse faces to maybe sit in the window seats, I'd recommend the following:

Price - decent cup of drip coffee for that competes with local sandwich shops; cheap snacks (e.g. non-artisanal donuts for less than a dollar); etc.
Menu - sell at least some of the food that the 'diverse people' who go to the local delis eat. This may entail getting a decent food permit.
Service - hire the staff so that you do not have one or two people making custom sandwiches at 5 minutes a time.

Go to local sandwich shops - watch how they do their business and what they sell, and to who. Basically, it's reasonably priced (comfort) food and beverages, served quickly, to busy people, with not so much disposable income. You get this right, you will become popular.
posted by carter at 6:35 AM on March 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

a very popular coffee shop near me did great with a range of patrons from groovy/arty hs students to power attys. the secret: 99¢ coffee and a decent bagel for $2.
posted by j_curiouser at 8:38 AM on March 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Portraits of the faces of a wide variety of people on the walls, so anyone who comes in can see themselves there.

(You're awesome for this intent, BTW. Good luck!!)
posted by wenestvedt at 10:11 AM on March 12, 2017

I'm not white, and I find these features appealing:
- Comfortable sofas, good distance between sofas
- Soothing, quiet music
- Free wifi (will attract students)
- Yummy coffee
- Inexpensive cookies, croissants, muffins, salads, sandwiches (I think price is really key to your clientele) - advertised on a chalk board outside
- Non-white, friendly staff members
- Good lighting
- I like when there are plants nearby
- Good colour scheme
- Tables for working and reading
posted by Crookshanks_Meow at 11:10 AM on March 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Vary the music; it signals promptly, and often subconsciously, who the space is for.
posted by theora55 at 11:15 AM on March 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Compare local cafes to local demographics and figure out who does not have a place they can call their own. Make an extra effort to cater to them.
posted by pracowity at 11:38 AM on March 12, 2017

There is a sandwich spot near me that opened with a big poster of a gyro (pita + souvlaki) in the window. When I actually bought lunch there a couple of years later, I found there were plenty of latin/Hispanic items on the menu. I think he found he needed to do that to get the lunch business of the local workers. So, know the clientele in your neighborhood.
posted by SemiSalt at 1:48 PM on March 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everybody! You've inspired my friends to develop a short, medium, and long-term action plan, starting with gender-neutral washrooms, music and art that reflects the neighbourhood, affordable items on the menu, and neighbourhood outreach for staff and ideas.

I'm also amazed by what I learned from these answers, which made me realize how many things I fail to notice/take for granted when I enter a public space. That series of podcasts on "coding" in restaurants was both fascinating and depressing, for example.
posted by rpfields at 4:44 PM on March 12, 2017 [8 favorites]

Comfortable seating, affordable fare, and hiring from the local community.

People underestimate the importance of comfortable seating. Lotsa places look fancyish, but if the chairs are dinky and the tables are crowded/wobbly, then it'll be written off as a place "not for me". These places shut down fast.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:13 PM on March 12, 2017

Also, have a strong takeout game. All of the Actually Diverse coffee shops near me each hit all of these marks.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:16 PM on March 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you serve foods of any kind, please have a list of ingredients available. Some of us have severe food allergies and intolerances, and if you don't have those lists available, I'm not going to feel safe ordering the food in your establishment.
posted by spinifex23 at 6:57 PM on March 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

Make sure you have an 85cm or 90cm wide aisle (space between tables) between the door and the counter, and to the toilet. Otherwise wheelchair users don't have enough room to get through.
posted by Sockpuppets 'R' Us at 7:24 PM on March 12, 2017 [5 favorites]

A bakery near my place sells day old bread and pastries at a super reduced price. It was the main reason I (latina) and a couple of non-white friends started going there. I am not sure if I'm middle class but I sure as hell am indoctrinated to be thrifty by my culture. I do buy full price stuff once in a while, but I would not have gone in were it not for the deals!
posted by Tarumba at 12:10 PM on March 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Pretty late to this but: these three friends can't be the only ones making decisions about things. I say this as an almost-middle-aged, well-meaning white lady: we have too many blind spots. Ideally they would hire a manager from the community, but if they can't afford that yet, then they need to be getting advice from their best staff members (and yes, as others said, those staff should be from the neighborhood) about things like food choices, decor, music choices, etc.

I live in a gentrifying but still diverse neighborhood, and in thinking about the businesses whose clientele reflects the neighborhood, there's a few things: 1. the owners are Black or Southeast Asian (two of the big communities of color in the area) 2. The food is really good at a reasonable price point (doesn't have to be super cheap, but has to be reasonable and good) 3. The place just feels friendly and welcoming. The staff is friendly and doesn't hustle people out, the decor is comfortable and colorful, kids are welcome.

#1 your friends can't do anything about. #2 is often a big issue for coffee shops, if that's what you mean by "cafe." A coffeeshop where the food isn't good is going to be full of white hipsters and tech bros, basically.
posted by lunasol at 4:15 PM on March 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

« Older Were you a girl in the 90s? Do you know your fonts...   |   How do people in cities without public transit get... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.