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.

The 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 answer.

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 equipment?

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 locations.

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 coffee business.

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 of Bellissimo Coffee InfoGroup, a firm specializing in consulting and coffee educational materials. He can be reached at 800.655-3955 or 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 Cup Magazine.

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