Why good design is so important for the success of your Coffee
by Nigel Witham
am very fortunate to have a popular website about restaurant and
coffee shop design which has thousands of visitors every week.
As a result , very few days go by when my email inbox doesn’t
contain inquiries from people who want to open their first
coffee shop and would like to know more about costs and design
ideas. I have been receiving these emails for many years now,
and I always take the time to reply. You’d be amazed how many
people are in love with the notion of opening a coffee shop.
However, have a look around your local town centre and you’re
bound to notice that, whilst there will be several coffee shops;
there will be very few independent operators. What prevents so
many keen people from getting started? Well judging from the
hundreds of emails I have received I have to say it’s naivety,
although perhaps this is better expressed as an underestimation
of the task.
you are an independent operator and want to get the best living
from your coffee shop or café, you have to compete with the
multiples that have marched across every high street in the
country. In order to successfully enter a crowded market you
have to displace powerful incumbents. To do this your coffee
shop has to create a clear and compelling case for its own
This means you have to match every skill and resource of the
chain brands, and more again. It’s for these reasons that you
simply can’t cut corners, or compete without adequate
investment, professional guidance and, of course, hard work.
Thankfully as an independent you will have passion. This is your
one weapon that no chain can consistently compete with. If you
find a way to engage emotionally with your customers and
understand their desires, you’ll always outperform systematic
and faceless organization.
Analyse your business model
Let’s imagine that you have found an empty unit in your area,
and are considering turning it into your dream coffee shop. You
may already be running a successful business elsewhere, but
there is no harm in getting back to the basics.
first thing you might do is take a long hard look at your ideas
and assess the strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and
threats. As we know, food and drink-retailing operations suffer
many failures. Many people start such a business simply because
they like to cook, or to eat, or to hold coffee mornings for
their friends, or even because they just like to design kitchens
and dining rooms. They then expect a magic ingredient called
“word of mouth” to do all their marketing for them . . . .
Overnight! I am sure I sound cynical but I’ve got this notion
in the same mental filing drawer as the tooth fairy.
suggest is that you look at the hard facts of business. By all
means let yourself be carried away with the glamorous parts of
the job you are looking forwards too but from time to time you
will need to come down to earth. I see part of my role as
keeping my clients grounded. You must not forget that there
will be long hours, hard work and
grit. Thomas Edison, who invented electric light and had well
over 2000 patents to his name said:
“Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent
When a major coffee chain opens an outlet they think about how
the kitchen will operate and not how much they would enjoy
serving up vanilla lattes to their friends. They analyse the
numbers. They look carefully and they ask themselves: how many
customers will we fit in this unit? What is the footfall for
take out trade? What will it cost to fit-out? (About £2,000 per
square meter if done professionally.) Is there enough nearby
parking? How many people can we serve? What can we charge? What
ingredients can we buy at a competitive price, add value to and
sell high? Is the labour market good so we can find staff? How
are we going to engage with our customers and get them to tell
their friends? Can we make a profit?
American banker friend of mine (I know these days it is brave to
admit to such friends) once said to me that he thought he knew
why so many food-retailing businesses fail. He said that in his
opinion, restaurants and their like are every dumb person’s
entrepreneurial venture of choice, and I am afraid to say I
think he’s right.
Most people that contact me about new concepts want to know if I
can copy a design they have seen elsewhere, and if so, what it
will cost. I am rarely, if ever, asked:
“what’s the next new way to design an outlet that people will
enjoy more than those already out there?”
current answer to this question is to ask a young person what’s
most important to them. You may find, as I have, that they are
very concerned about the mess we oldies have made of the world
and are looking for ethical, genuinely sustainable businesses to
lot of people that contact me think that their design tastes are
the best and so all they need do is get in a builder and tell
him to make the place look like somewhere else they like, and
then people will flood in. The big thing to remember here is
that just because you know what you like, and you may have
strong convictions about this, does not mean that you know what
other people, your customers, like.
Lead - don’t follow
enter the market successfully you’ll need to lead the market and
not follow it. This requires an original well-contained design
idea presented clearly to create genuine, sincere engagement.
Creativity needs to be at the core of your business thinking.
This is even more vital in the current economy. I believe now
is a time of great opportunity when creativity will force new
and exciting ideas to emerge from distress.
Already this year McDonalds announced a £2.2 billion investment
programme, mostly outside the US. They rightly see the current
recession as a time to grow when others are weak. They have
implemented some amazing forward-looking designs around the
February 24th, in a speech that may save the capitalism, Barak
“the costs of action may be great but the costs of inaction will
find it hard not to agree with this, waiting for things to
change is probably wasting time and costing money, we need
leaders with good new ideas now.
Think about how many Starbucks there are now ,because they are
all vulnerable to the next big idea. It could be yours. Have you
seen the latest McCafe designs? In my estimation they are at
least one generation beyond Starbucks now but they are still
corporate and impersonal.
Henry Ford famously said:
‘if we’d asked the people what they wanted they’d have said
1918 half the cars in America were Model T Fords.
course for every good idea that works there will be a lot of
junk to wade through and this is where there’s nothing like an
impartial, experienced designer to help you work through your
whole strategy dispassionately and then look for ways to create
that genuine emotional engagement with your customers. All you
need do is set aside enough time to do it. The task will be
much easier if you do. Planning your inspiration beforehand is
the key to looking like you came up with an instantaneous flash
of creative genius. If you’ve already found the site it may be
Finding a good designer
There are few barriers to entry of the design profession. Pretty
well anyone who wants can open a design office. Consequently,
there are some designers who simply copy the last design they
saw and make a few changes. Since this is what anyone can do for
themselves and since second-hand ideas rarely work well, a lot
of aspiring coffee chain owners will not bother with designers,
or they will just get in a general practice architect or shop
fitting firm to build a shell for them to decorate and furnish.
This is a shame, both for the independent operator and for the
large number of good design firms who work hard and have their
clients’ best interests at heart. A good designer will learn to
understand the needs of your business and find out at what you
are expert. You should then recognise your designer’s expertise
stand back and let them get on. The difficulty is in finding a
designer you can trust in this way. Another difficulty is in
finding a way to explain your dream to your designer and for
them to convey their interpretation and ideas back to you. After
all, if an idea is truly original no one has seen it before, so
no one can show you how it will look beforehand.
Allow yourself time to build trust and remember, if the design
is wrong you’ll be a long time paying for it but if it is right
it will be the best investment you ever made.
About Nigel Witham
Nigel Witham is a chartered
designer who has run his own design practice for twenty years.
He designed his first restaurant in 1990 and has worked for
hundreds of independent retailers and restaurateurs. He has
offices in London, India, New Zealand and Australia.
Nigel Witham MCSD MIOD
writer, designer and photographer
Member of the Chartered Society of Designers (interior and
graphic design disciplines
to Home Page