The Coffee Shop I Want

Ideas for a thoughtful coffee shop.

February 24, 2017


Over the past 4 years, I’ve worked almost exclusively in coffee shops. From Columbus to Santa Monica, I’ve tried them all. I spend 4-6 hours per day in them. Mostly, as someone looking to get work done. Occasionally, just to read or hold a meeting.

I don't know if this makes me an expert on anything, but there are some things I've noticed about them. And if I were to build a shop, I wanted to go over what I'd do differently or be thoughtful about.

2 days ago, I switched shops because the one I’d gone to previously was having wifi issues. Over the last two days, I’ve had a soreness in my upper back I can’t explain why. But then it hit me, it was the chair at the shop, combined with the height relative to the desk, that had created a knot. It was an awkward position to be in or such a long time.

I know it’s a ridiculous detail to notice, but I probably won’t go back. And even if I didn’t know what specifically it was that bothered me, could I have started associating “bad” with that shop just from the pain. Could this shop have prevented this?

Since I’ve spent so many hours in so many shops across the country, I wanted to create a list of questions or ideas that I’d think about when considering the formation for my very own coffee shop.

*Note that I’m a specific type of customer, the “get stuff done” customer. Call it bias, but I do feel that more and more I see a majority of people coming to these specialty coffee shops to accomplish something or other. A task, a meeting, or working remote...

Here's my list for ideas on how to make a thoughtful coffee shop.

1. Seat height and quality.

Most shops tend to go for the low-cost option on this. Something semi-aesthetically pleasing but also from ikea. To me, adjustable height would be a must, even above comfort. This is because the angle at which you’re able to rest your arms, use your laptop, or hold your cup needs to be comfortable and being that we all come in different shapes and sizes, we should accommodate for that. Seat comfort can be secondary but is a bonus.

2. Line formation.

Specialty shops all have lines because the coffees are all made to perfection for every individual customer. Usually, this is because the person at the register is also the barista. I have no problem waiting in line, however, the problem begins when the line starts to pour into areas that do not seem designated for standing in. I’ve had meetings where people hovered by our table, as they were just waiting in line. If you’re discussing legal matters or anything personal with your friend it’s awkward for both parties that the line is an intrusion into customers space. 

I’d aim for a line that had a clear demarcation of what the boundaries are for. Americans are especially great at following rules and being fair about lines. Just put us where you’d like us, give us what we need to read in an easy to consume way, 

3. Wifi with an easy to find password. 

How frequently do you find yourself asking either the barista or a neighbor about the wifi password? It seems so simple as a fix I’m unsure why shops don’t advertise. I can’t really think of a good excuse not to have this easily available to find. While it’s not a big deal to ask, it’s an extra effort, a negative brain moment for a customer, some may be too shy to ask.  I won’t even get into wifi here, as to me it’s a non-negotiable – either get super fast wifi that can handle big crowds OR go no wifi at all. The in between seems like a bigger headache than the expense is worth. Just save the customers and the baristas the time explaining and repeating the wifi situation.

4. Service to your table.

A lot of times it’s hard to judge whether or not, by the time you get your coffee, you’ll be able to have a seat or not. You're meeting with someone and you don't know if you should sit down first or wait for the coffee first. I’m not saying this is a total necessity, but the best interactions I have with baristas is when they bring the coffee right to you. For some reason, it adds a fun bonding moment, sort of like at Starbucks when they write your name on the cup. "Here, I made this just for you." It's part of why we choose a small shop over a chain. 

5. Really Healthy snacks. Protein for the caffeine. 

Most shops have the baked goods covered. It’s almost always croissants, muffins, bagels, and then only potentially some fruit or oatmeal. I’m always amazed at how few healthy options shops have. I think it’s because coffee pairs amazingly well with a croissant but poorly with, let’s say, an apple. 

What I would push for is some unique solutions to this problem. There's got to be some healthy items we can pair that are cheap to provide.

I bring a snack every day myself now to the coffee shop, usually something with protein as caffeine is balanced in your body a bit through protein (and sugar). I feel bad sometimes eating something that's not from the shop, but I would buy something if there were something that's within my current diet. 

I typically bring An Epic Bar (chicken siracha or bison), A Healthy Warrior Chia Bar, or some type of nut/protein bar. 

I actually find that starbucks has done a better job here than most smaller shops in sourcing healthier snacks, although they also have a lot of snacks that appear to be healthy but aren’t. 

6. Elegant lighting, light blocking.

The lighting is massively important to setting the mood of the shop. You can almost control the whole brand experience with the light, choosing between fluorescent lights to hanging lights or big windows. 

Then there’s negative light, too though. Light negatively covering the screen of my computer, light in one person’s eyes during a meeting, light that keeps you from taking beautiful photos to share with others. 

7. Education.

One Line coffee changed my perception about coffee. This was through education, and not the pretentious education. I honestly didn't know what a pour over was, or what the difference between a cappuccino or a Cubano was. Later, I learned about its origins and sourcing. Education helped my appreciation, but it also helped me not feel dumb or nervous when I ordered.

At my shop, I'd make sure every barista was taught how to simply explain, in a non-pretentious way what customer options would be, and help them choose accordingly. 

(Shout out to Mick, Sean, Tyler, and all of the other kind staff there). 

I would be remiss to not mention some shops that I think have done a wonderful job of the above items. I've spent many hours back in Columbus at Mission and One Line. Maybe some day I’ll create an entire blog dedicated to my experiences and thoughts on particular shops around the U.S. for going to. 

Some of my favorites:

La Columbe, Chicago.
Spyhouse, Minneapolis.
Milstead, Seattle.
Stumptown, NYC.

What shops have been great for you? What have you noticed? 

David Sherry