A café’s décor is its defining moment. It sets the mood, attracts and retains customers, supports and comforts those working in its environs.
Since the ambience established by a shop’s design can make or break a business, it is important to be on top of the trends and get it right the first time.
“There are two different approaches to conceiving a café design,” says Bruce Milletto, president of Portland, Ore.-based Bellissimo Coffee InfoGroup / American Barista & Coffee School. “Operators can come up with their own idea, look for a space that can accommodate it and build it out in their mind’s eye with all the accoutrements. Cafes also can be designed to target a certain market.”
For design inspiration, Milletto looks at all other retail outlets. “Inspiration is everywhere. I’m always thinking about it, since it’s what I do,” he says.
The majority of the time, however, it’s the client that provides design direction for a project.
“Nine out of ten times, our clients come to us with some sort of concept in mind,” says Ed Viser, design principal at Café Design and Architecture, based in Maricopa, Ariz. “They are looking for someone to help them get their dream visualized and built. I see the passion they have for something other than coffee expressed in the direction we take the design concept. All it takes is someone who not only is knowledgeable about design, but also the specialty coffee retail business.”
These design ideas are often conceived from an operator’s interest in a theme or event.
“Rather than simple build outs, we’re seeing more operators emulate a theme,” says Christopher Shay, owner of R Source Global, in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Retailers want the look of a Starbucks or the feel of an Italian coffeehouse, but don’t want to break the bank to accomplish this.
“One retailer we worked with opened an Irish concept coffee bar in Boise. A client in South Carolina had a café theme centered around the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Another operator in Florida had us create décor that highlighted an Ethiopian village,” Viser says.”The most rewarding types of projects are the ones that challenge your ability to meet the client’s goals aesthetically.”
Some café designers make a point of not following the trends.
“Instead, we work with the operator, listen to their ideas and enhance them with suggestions that will help their business target customers,” says Shay.
Design ideas don’t have to be new. Much décor today is being resurrected from the past.
Shay says he has recently been inspired by old movies showing the stylish décor from the ‘30s and ‘40s.
“This modern look includes architectural features like columns, curved counters, round booths and odd-shaped tables,” Shay says.
Sustainability also has had a big impact on today’s designs, especially in the West Coast and Pacific Northwest.
“What we’re seeing in Oregon is a greater use of recycled materials,” Milletto says. “For example, we utilized recycled fir beams for a recent project.”
Evidence of sustainability’s increasing popularity is Starbucks’ new design approach. The chain’s Shared Planet initiative focuses on ethical sourcing and environmental stewardship.
Starbucks’ Olive Way store in Seattle includes salvaged wood in the coffee bar, tables created from wood floors and recycled chairs.
There is no question that the economy is impacting much of today’s décor in coffee cafes.
“The first 650 sq. ft. of a project is expensive, but the next 650 sq. ft. isn’t,” says Tom Palm, president of Wayzata, Minn.-based Design & Layout Services. “[In terms of allocating space,] operators need to look at rent versus volume. Square feet generates revenue and there should be one customer for every 15 sq. ft. of space.”
For those on tight budgets, designers offer a more cookie-cutter approach to transform a space.
“There are many common approaches to design that we offer and encourage our budget-oriented clients to consider,” Viser says.
Among these are using glass bell-type countertops instead of display cases; preparing concrete floors for finishing instead of installing costly quarry tile, wood floors or commercial carpet; utilizing simple counter tops, such as thick wood slabs, along with open base cabinets; hiring local artists to paint walls or create artwork; and adding ceiling fans, which are decorative and help ventilate the space.
“Saving money is huge, and most people are looking at buying used equipment from closed coffee shops. Everyone wants the best they can get for the cheapest price,” Shay says.
Recession spruce ups can work, but not if they are too extensive and require closing the business for any length of time.
“If things are rough for your café financially, the last thing you need is to spend more money on design in an effort to get more customers,” Viser says. “One of our local bars was consulted on renovating to draw more people in. The renovation was expensive and the bar had to close to complete the project. Needless to say, they ended up going out of business a few months later.”
A café can spend $12,000 to $15,000 on new casework, furniture and lighting, but a real return on this investment may not be realized for some time. Plus, operations that close their doors for renovation may lose customers to their competitors.
“We recommend that our clients re-task as much as possible during renovation projects,” Viser says.
If just a spruce up is needed, professional designers can help operators get the best value for their dollar.
“Art, lighting and a new piece of furniture or a new seating group would be the best low-cost spruce up for a café without shutting down the business,” Viser says.
With international clients, money is not as much of an issue as it is in the U.S.
“Here, with the economic downturn, clients are taking over existing operations [rather than opting for new construction],” Milletto says.
In this case, bar layouts are inexpensively altered to provide a new look.
“The industrial look is big right now,” Milletto says. “Not many coffee bar renovations include pricey granite counters or large lighting allowances.”
In addition to more budget-friendly décor, today’s café renovations include multi-purpose space for meetings.
“A free room that can be reserved is a great asset to the ever-growing self employed and small businesses,” Viser says.
A Café Design and Architecture client in South Carolina included a dual purpose living room/conference area in the design that was immediately booked for meetings by a real estate tenant in the building.
“The location will dictate whether a separate meeting area is warranted,” Palm says. “If an operation has the room or is located by businesses, it would be worth designating the extra space.”
Multi-purpose areas are becoming more common because they can help cafes expand customer bases.
“We are working with a client who is putting in a meeting room, while another client is including a childcare area on the premises. An operator just needs the extra space to do this,” Milletto says.
One of Bellissimo’s clients in the Southeast is planning an operation with a coffee bar on the first floor, space in the basement for parties or large meetings, a liquor bar on the second floor and a health/fitness area on the third floor that includes both a lecture and a yoga room.
“There’s more money to be made if operators can expand the day part to evening [by adding liquor or menu items], but they may be increasing their competition to include area bars and restaurants,” Palm says.
Because additional space costs money in overhead, it is important to make sure it is used often enough to justify paying for it.
“We are working on a project where the operator wants a general area sectioned off with columns and half walls,” Shay says. “This way, it can still be used by other customers when not being utilized for meetings.”
Along with designated meeting areas, multiple seating spots are becoming more common in today’s café designs.
“The biggest thing to hit independent cafes in the last decade is large community seating areas,” Milletto says. “We recently included a large, narrow bar with stools for one project, and another had a giant farm table that accommodates a big group.”
In an effort to attract more customers, dual purpose cafes also are on the rise.
“Our projects include a coffee shop with a wine bar and a coffee café with a bakery,” Shay says. “Many people are thinking along these lines because dual concepts have the potential of bringing in more customers and increasing revenue. However, décor for these operations can be more difficult to create.”
Rather than add floor square footage, more operators are opting to build up to increase usable space.
“Mezzanine areas with higher ceiling lines in new developments and older city buildings are more common above small kitchen or storage areas to double square footage and enhance space,” Shay says.
Open ceilings also enhance visual appeal.
“We’re adding open ceilings to design plans wherever possible, because people like the look, and this allows us to create more intimate spaces with lighting,” Viser says.
Designers say today’s décor includes more indirect decorative lighting, in addition to LEDs that help save on energy costs.
In terms of café design, it’s important to do something different than what the chains are doing.
“These operations tend to create generic design formulas that work in different markets and locations,” Milletto says. “Our clients are thinking about who their customers are.”
It’s these design concepts that not only enhance a business, but also play a part in its success.