Frequently Asked Coffee Questions
By Bruce Milletto
Bellissimo Coffee InfoGroup
A few months ago, Fresh Cup Magazine's editor, Sarah, called
me with an idea for a new direction for my column. She explained
how the Fresh Cup office receives dozens of calls a week from
novices interested in opening their own specialty coffee business
as well as inquiries from folks struggling to squeeze more profit
from their existing operation. And for every one of these many
questions as yet unanswered, Sarah suspected there were countless
more frustrated coffee businesspeople out there in the field,
craving advice. She proposed inviting those questions to the
columnist's table, providing Fresh Cup readers with a retailers
forum in which I would lend my experience as a specialty beverage
business consultant directly to the people who need it most by
answering their questions right here.
Toughest (and Most Common) Question
Almost every day someone calls my company, Bellissimo, to ask
what he or she thinks is a "simple question," that
is actually anything but. "What will it cost me," they
begin, "to open a coffeehouse?"
But it's nearly impossible to respond without knowledge of the
particular situation. Will the operation be a sit-down café,
drive-thru, cart or kiosk? If it is a sit-down, will it be 800
sq. ft. or 4000 sq. ft.? Will the countertops be topped with
granite or a laminate? What about lighting? We've had clients
who invested $2,000 in lighting and others who spent more than
$15,000 for halogen track systems. What about floors? Are they
in good condition? Do you want to acid etch your concrete floor
so it looks like marble? In what condition is your space? Was
it previously a hair salon with glued-down carpet and walls that
will need to be reconfigured for your operation, or is it new
construction? Bathrooms are often an expensive issue to resolve.
Does your location have them? Are they to up to code for a foodservice
establishment? How many do you need? When somebody calls asking, "What
will it cost?" these are the variables for determining the
Do your walls only need paint or are they in such poor condition
they will need major work? What color do you want to paint them?
Do you want faux painting? Speaking of walls, how many of them
will you have to tear down? Will you need to erect new ones?
Do you need an office on premise, or can you do without? We've
not even touched on electricity and plumbing, mind you. Obviously,
the questions are endless.
What about a drive thru-operation? Do you need to run electricity
and water to the site, and if so, how far away are your hook-ups?
Is there trenching involved? How large is your unit, and is it
double-sided? What are the specifications for the lane lengths
and widths for a drive-thru in your area? Do you want counters
and shelving that a football team can dance on, or will you be
using cheaper materials? What type of equipment do you plan to
budget for? Do you want the Mercedes of machines, grinders etc.
throughout, or do you want to buy some good, but lower-priced
Many of the above questions apply to cart or kiosk operations,
as well. But the big umbrella all these inquiries fall under
is who will be responsible for all these expenses? In other words,
how much financial help will you receive from the landlord or
property owner? The answer usually depends on how much they want
you as a tenant.
The Second Hardest Question We Are Asked
Fresh Cup and Bellissimo hear this one all the time: "How
do I find a great location?"
Without being familiar with the town or city, it's impossible
to be specific. At Bellissimo, we send these clients a questionnaire
in order to gather detailed information about their proposed
Many clients are not aware they can obtain useful statistics
such as traffic counts from government agencies such as the Department
of Transportation. They also don't realize they can get demographics
from malls and retail centers that have done studies of the areas
surrounding their properties. This type of information is vital
when searching for a location in which you can run a successful
Questions From Existing Businesses
The most FACQ we get from existing retailers is-take a wild guess- "How
can we make more money?" If a business is just getting by
or struggling, the owner may desperately need a consultant, but
is unable to afford one given the problem.
Again, more detailed information is required in order to accurately
answer this question. Lack of customers could be related to bad
hiring policies, inadequate customer service or poor product
quality. I also sense that many retailers don't understand marketing
because they perceive it to be a mysterious black hole.
General vs. Specific Questions
Clearly, there are questions that are general in nature which
tend to be more challenging to answer than the specific ones.
General questions can have enough variables that we would be
remiss in trying to address them without being unintentionally
misleading. Knowledge truly is power and certainly will help
you to make wise, money-saving decisions.
We love working with clients who have done their homework before
they call us. Their questions are more likely to be pointed
and therefore are easier to answer with sound, useful information.
Questions Change Over Time
I've often wondered about the folks attracted to specialty coffee
retailing who are mesmerized and intoxicated by the ambiance
and lifestyle surrounding the business to such a degree that
they open their stores without thoroughly researching the industry.
The good news is that each year people's questions get better
and better. Ten years ago a typical caller to our office might
have said, "I hate coffee but I want to buy ten of those
coffee cart things," or, "I'm not really that concerned
with the layout or the business part. I just love coffee and
I feel that will be enough to make me successful."
These days, curious callers are much better informed. "My
husband and I have researched this business opportunity for more
than two years," a caller might begin. "We have already
attended three coffee trade shows and, yes, of course, we have
joined the Specialty Coffee Association of America, and we have
subscriptions to most of the industry magazines." This approach
to opening a business is a healthy one. Not only do they have
more potential for success, their quest for knowledge and respect
for quality standards reflects well on our industry as a whole.
Bruce Milletto is the owner and president
Coffee InfoGroup, a firm specializing in consulting and
coffee educational materials. He can be reached at 800.655-3955
This article is excerpted from the upcoming book Effective
Marketing for Your Coffee Operation due for release in
the spring of 2004.
Reprinted with permission from Fresh