Let Them Eat WiFi
by Steven Krolak

Green Café

By Karen Cerbreros

Caffe Ambiance

by Bruce Millletto

What's Brewin' — Coffee News Flash

Caffe Ambiance: How to Create a Memorable Experience for your Customers

Story and Photos by Bruce Millletto
President Bellissimo Coffee InfoGroup

Founder, The American Barista & Coffee School

The dictionary tells us ambiance is “the character and feeling of a place.” But does ambiance affect your coffee business? More than you know! The ambiance you create is one of your best marketing tools. The look and feel of your business and the brand you create is your signature, and it’s one of the most important reasons customers will choose you over the competition. Whether your café is already open or you’re in the beginning stages of planning your business, there are many things you can do to create an ambiance that will make a visit to your café a memorable experience for your customers.

Focus Groups
As companies grow larger, they commonly hire a market research firm to find out what their customers like and dislike and what additional products or services they desire. This is often done through the use of focus groups. A multinational company we worked with pulled together a series of such groups to explore a new coffee concept the company was planning to develop.

This client had a very unique concept. The company’s goal was to bring the spirit of a certain foreign country to America. The individuals involved in the project knew this country well, and they were very familiar with the likes and dislikes of its people.

However, to successfully import the culture of this country to the United States, they knew they also must learn about the likes and dislikes of the people who lived in the zip code in which they planned to build their first location. To this end, the client held more than 10 focus group meetings, covering myriad subjects from food to seating to ambiance, with the intent of tailoring their concept to fit the needs and desires of this particular American audience.

There is no reason you cannot poll customers in your area in the same way large multinational companies do with great success. Focus groups can be helpful if you are already open or just beginning to plan your business. It is in your best interest to know if you are giving your customers the products, services and ambiance they desire. You need to find out what your customer’s needs are and fulfill as many of them as possible.

To start a focus group, first ask a variety of people in your area if they are willing to participate. Then, create a list of topics and questions to discuss, such as:

• What type of food would you like us to serve?
• What hours would you would like us to be open?
• How do you/will you use our space? Will you conduct business meetings at our cafe? Will you primarily come alone? Is it important for us to provide reading material? If so, what kind? How important is a wireless connection to you? Is it important for our operation to have a child friendly space? Would you use outdoor seating if it is available and if weather permits?
• What type of beverages do you enjoy in addition to coffee?
• If our operation is open evenings and weekends, would you visit our business twice in one day if we served a selection of beer and wine in addition to coffee?
• How important is music? Would you pay a small cover to listen to live local artists? What type of music do you like to listen to when in a coffeehouse setting?
• What colors do you find most relaxing?
• What kind of seating do you prefer?

The list could go on and on. Many of the questions you will come up with will be specific to your location and overall concept. After you analyze the information you have received from your focus group, try to incorporate the best and most workable ideas into a unifying theme that will define your coffee business and create its ambiance.

After the focus group meets, it is important to express your appreciation for each person’s participation. You might offer each participant a $25 prepaid swipe card embossed with your logo. Many of these people could become your best customers because they have had direct input into your business.

You Can Take the Opposite Approach of a Chain
Always remember that no matter how many large chains operate in your town, you have the capacity to out market all of them. You know the needs and desires of people in your area better than is generally possible for the large corporate players. The largest chain stores often look the same in New York City as they do in Manhattan Beach, Calif.—the same colors, the same look, the same products. It would be difficult for a chain operation to redesign each store for every location, so they have developed a formula for ambiance that will work anywhere. They also must keep their “brand” alive by maintaining a consistent look and feel. The design of a chain store must be one that is general in nature; it must be middle of the road so it will work almost anywhere. The chains find locations that “fit” their style. You have a much easier task. You know your area and can tailor your café and its feel to fit your customers—the exact opposite of what the chains do.

What Creates Ambiance?
What should you consider when developing ambiance in your café? The list is endless, but following are some of the most important factors:

> Menu
Yes, your menu is part of your ambiance. As we always tell clients, You must first and foremost be known as a coffeehouse. You do not want to confuse people about who you are by marketing a varied menu that will have customers scratching their heads and wondering, Great place, but what is it? A gelataria? A lunch spot? A bar? By no means does your mission to be known as a coffeehouse mean you have to limit your menu. Instead, it means you must present your menu in such a way that it will create a coffeehouse feel even though the menu may be expansive.

> Your employees and their knowledge of coffee
The way your customers are treated during their visit to your business is also a critical element of your ambiance, as is the overall knowledge your staff has about your menu and coffee. A knowledgeable and customer service-oriented staff will make your customers feel they are frequenting an establishment that stresses quality.

The way your employees dress is also important. Will you require them to wear khaki slacks or shorts with black polo shirts and black hats? The appearance of your staff is a critical part of the overall feel of your establishment.

> Your seating
This is a big one. In most neighborhood or even business district cafés, you should provide a number of different seating scenarios: one for those who come in alone, one for those who want to linger for awhile on a couch and other setups. You can create a low ceiling area with a soffit that may feel private for those coming in for both coffee and a meeting. As mentioned earlier, outdoor seating may be important, especially in areas that have weather that is conducive to being outdoors much of the year. If your budget allows, building a couple of levels for seating can divide spaces appropriately and render a unique floor plan.

> Your signage
Never underestimate the importance of professionally designed signage. From your storefront sign with your logo to menu boards, countertop and retail signs, to unique tabletop tents, each component of your signage should be professional, distinctive and thematic.

> The equipment you choose
Many may question how the equipment you choose affects the feel of your operation. A former client of Bellissimo built a beautiful, well-thought-out coffeehouse where cost was not a major factor in selecting the materials. However, when it came time to buy an espresso machine that would be the focal point of his operation, he chose an ugly, boxy two-group machine, totally out of character with his upscale theme. We told him he needed a red Ferrari as his centerpiece. He never regretted his subsequent purchase: a larger, modern, colorful three-group machine that complemented the character of his operation by adding to—not diminishing—the look and feel he desired.

> Your small wares
If you decide to sell items such as French presses and other brewing equipment, you will need to design a customer-friendly area that is in full view of your staff. It should be visually appealing and be kept fresh month to month with new displays and merchandise.
The type of china and even the paper cups you serve your beverages in also affect your ambiance. Do your paper cups have your logo on them, or are they plain white? The shape, size and condition of your ceramic cups also define your ambiance. Do you use ceramic cups imported from Italy or mismatched china? What feeling do you want your business to convey? A hip, urban coffeehouse may require mismatched retro china, while an upscale café in the suburbs may choose a polished look for their glassware and china.

> Latte art
How do you present your lattes and cappuccinos? Do your baristas pour beautiful hearts and rosettas that wow your customers, or do they serve drinks with little thought as to how they look? Pouring latte art affects your ambiance because it affects how your customers feel about your product and your business.

>Your media
We cannot imagine building out or redesigning a café with ambiance in mind without putting a great deal of time into choosing the right music to play at various times of the day. Upbeat music that would be appropriate in the evening may not appeal to your morning customers who have just gotten out of bed. If you have an Italian-themed bar with the ambiance of Verona, you may want to interject some Italian music from artists like Zuccero or Eros Ramazotti. If your theme/branding and ambiance is geared to a very hip, young audience, it will likely suit your customers to include songs with a driving beat from cutting-edge alternative and electronic artists.

Just as most coffeehouses are putting in a free wireless network for their clients, they also are incorporating flat plasma televisions into their operations. TV screens give you a lot of options when it comes to creating ambiance. You can tune your television to CNN in the morning, fashion or music channels in the afternoon and possibly play black-and-white movies from the 1930s with the sound off in the evening, using your stereo to play appropriate soundtrack music.

> Materials / lighting / art
The materials you use to build out your operation will be a major component of the ambiance of your coffee business, and the choices are almost endless. Countertops can be concrete, marble, laminate or of beautiful wood. Floors can range from acid-etched concrete to terrazzo to granite. The use of wood can evoke a feeling of warmth. Exposed pipes and air ducts can give your business an industrial feel. Draperies can dampen sound and add texture.
It is important to have some flexibility in your lighting scheme and have the ability to dim your lights during evening hours to create a different mood than the one you have during the day. Soft halogen lighting works well to highlight certain areas of your operation and create focus.

In addition to your building materials and lighting, the art you choose to put on your walls will make a huge impact on overall ambiance. Local art, modern art, renaissance art or a hodgepodge of all of them will help convey the ambiance you are trying to define.

Ask for Help
We have only scratched the surface of some of the aspects of creating ambiance, which is crucial to your success. Over the years, we have seen few coffee retailers who place enough importance on this aspect of the operation.

Never be afraid to do your research, reach out and ask for help if you need it. Few people who will open a coffee business have all the expertise it may take to get each and every component of ambiance correct. If you do not know how colors work together, ask people who do. The same goes for decor, music, seating layouts, fabrics, surfaces, etc.

Keep a notebook handy and write down things you like that you see in other operations. Do not limit your explorations to coffee operations. You can obtain wonderful ideas from many types of retail stores.

Your ambiance tells customers everything about you and what you stand for—it is the image you want to sell. Take the time to do everything right.

Caffe Ambiance DVD Available from Bellissimo

Bellissimo developed "Caffe Ambiance" for coffee business owners to play in their cafés or on their showroom floors. The DVD is an expertly photographed series of coffee landscapes, joined together by fast-paced editing and accompanied by a hip sound track of original ambient music, specifically composed for each unique segment. For quieter times, the images speak for themselves with the volume turned off. In addition to coffee-related imagery from North, Central and South America, Europe and Africa, "Caffe Ambiance" is sprinkled with beautiful fancy milk art pours that will convince customers that a cappuccino is truly art in a cup.

The 60-minute DVD is formatted to repeat over and over, allowing you to play "Caffe Ambiance" all day long without tending to the DVD player. "Caffe Ambiance" retails for $79.95, but is on sale for $69.95. Wholesale discounts are available. Click here to order.

Bruce Milletto is the President of Bellissimo Coffee InfoGroup and Founder of the American Barista & Coffee School.

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