How To Build A Loyal Following For Your Neighborhood Coffee Shop

Whether you’re a new coffee shop owner or an established one, growing your business and building a loyal following is a challenge. These d
May 04, 2011

Whether you’re a new coffee shop owner or an established one, growing your business and building a loyal following is a challenge. These days, there’s a coffee shop on every street corner. What makes choosy customers come back to one coffee shop instead of another?

It starts with the beans, of course. Do your due diligence before committing to a coffee roaster. Serious Eats coffee columnist Erin Meister (who is a former barista-trainer and current customer support expert for Counter Culture Coffee) warns: “Don't pick a roaster out of a hat, or because one is "fashionable" at the time. Compare prices, services, policies, principles—and, oh yeah, coffee quality! Taste around and find a coffee that fits the shop's personality, as well as your personal preferences. As a coffee shop owner, your roaster should be one of your most significant partners, and you should feel able to talk to them openly and honestly about what you need and want.” Focus on making the best coffee you can make, says Meister: “Word of mouth is the most powerful type of advertisement, so it's important to put something delicious in those mouths.”

Beyond great coffee, enthusiasm is a necessary ingredient in a coffee shop’s success. Serious Eats New York coffee columnist Liz Clayton says customers are looking for “real passion and interest in the coffee, and a desire to share that passion with the customer in an inclusive, unsnobby way." What turns her off? “Slow, snotty, ‘cooler than you’ or inattentive service.”

Meister recommends hiring baristas based on personality, not just coffee-making experience. “If someone is engaged and engaging, friendly, and responsible, they can almost always be trained to make delicious coffee with the right about of care and patience. It's much harder to train someone to be nice to customers and have a good work ethic.” Once you’ve hired them, be sure to treat your staff well! Allon Azulai, owner of Ozzie’s Coffee in Park Slope, Brooklyn, says, “Create an positive working environment for your staff and give them the tools to deal with everyday issues. Treat the staff right and they will win over customers.”

So you’ve got good beans, and friendly, enthusiastic baristas—what about promotion?

You can encourage customers to become regulars with discounting tools like a punch card that’s good for a free cup of coffee after you’ve bought 10, or a free drink with a purchase of a pound of coffee beans. Or get more creative—hang personalized mugs on your wall for regulars, and discount coffee served in a reusable mug. Offer samples of new baked goods, and ask our customers’ opinions on them.

What about promoting your coffee shop on the Internet? Does social media work? Meister says, “Facebook and Twitter can be great, but there's so much business promotion that goes on both places that it can seem a little saturating at times, which doesn't always end up attracting business or loyalty.” If you’re going to use social media, be sure to follow the cardinal rule of give and take: social media is forum for conversation, not just a place to hype your shop. Use Twitter and Facebook as a way of building relationships. Offer interesting articles to read, promote events in your community and be friendly.

Beyond the Internet, work on building your connection to your community the old fashioned way. Meister recommends you “get to know other coffee-loving folks, from both sides of the counter—patronize other coffeeshops, build relationships among coffee people in a community and a neighborhood, generally be a friendly face. Partner up with other cafes and host a fund-raiser, maybe, or host a local artist's work for a while, and have a reception to celebrate.” Sponsor local schools or Little League teams. Consider hosting coffee cuppings to introduce people to your coffee, or an evening of coffee pairings that demonstrates how different coffees work with food. If you have space, you could even offer coffee-brewing classes focused on how to use a French Press or Chemex, sharing information about the best home grinders and brewing techniques. In addition to sharing useful information, you’re building relationships with customers who are more likely to become regulars when your coffee shop is a place where everybody knows their name.