How to Open a Coffee Shop

Wondering how to start a coffee shop? Our guide walks you through the process and covers what's important to know.
Vivian Giang
By Vivian Giang 
Edited by Robert Beaupre

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It's been a few decades since Starbucks emerged from Seattle to take over the world and made a coffee shop on every corner the norm. As a result, the way Americans drink coffee has changed drastically.

This has also created a window for entrepreneurs looking to start a business. While the big coffee chains have expanded, so have specialty, independently run shops. According to an article in the New York Times, Americans drink less coffee today than we did in the 1930s, but we’re drinking higher quality, better-brewed cups. As such, many entrepreneurs today might wonder how to start a coffee shop to serve their own high-quality brews.

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How to open a coffee shop in 7 steps

Wondering how to start a coffee shop of your own? These seven steps will take you through everything you need to know.

Step 1: Decide whether you want to open your own shop, a franchise, or buy an existing business.

When it comes to starting a business you usually have at least two ways to go about doing it, and with coffee shops, you've got three. When it comes to how to open a coffee shop you can do one of the following:

  • Completely start from scratch and open your own shop

  • Open a coffee shop franchise

  • Buy an existing coffee shop that's for sale

Each of the options has its pros and cons and varying degrees of work required by you. If you choose to open a franchise you'll be bound by many of the aspects of that franchise like the beans they use and the decor of the actual shop. If you buy another coffee shop you might have less construction to do to set up the space as a coffee shop. These options come with limitations as well.

Step 2: Create a business plan.

A well-thought-out business plan is key to creating any business, and a coffee shop is no exception. If you want to open a coffee shop, you probably already have a love of good coffee. To create a successful coffee shop you have to decide how you'll get other people to love coffee as much as you do. A business plan will help get your ideas focused and in one place. Besides the basics of what your coffee shop will be and the products you'll sell, a business plan also includes a marketing and sales plan, as well as financial projections.

An important consideration you'll need to take care of in the early stages, and that you'll include in your business plan, is to decide on the business structure you want your company to operate as. There are several business entity options you can choose, including a sole proprietorship, LLC, C-corp, and more—and the entity you choose will have both tax and legal implications for your business. It's always a good idea to seek the advice of a business attorney when making these big decisions as you start your coffee shop. if you choose to open a franchise, you might already have a business entity that you have to use.

While creating your business plan, you'll have to come up with a name for your business and an idea of where you want to open your coffee shop. Once you find the perfect location be sure to add it to your business plan, it might happen before or after you've written the plan.

You'll also want to outline the pricing of your products, what goods you want to offer, the type of coffee shop you want to have (sit-down, drive-through), and more. It's a lot to think about, but a business plan is where you can get all of these plans down in one place. Beyond that, if you'll need outside capital to make your coffee shop dreams a reality, you'll need to provide a business plan for funding consideration.

Luckily, there are several options for business loans for a cafe, and whether you're looking for funding to start your coffee shop or want to leave the option open for expansion down the road, having a solid business plan from the start will make the process easier.

Step 3: Find the right location.

This step can not be glossed over and you should take your time and consideration when completing it. The location of your coffee shop can make or break it in terms of success. There are some things to look for when looking for a coffee shop location. Coffee shop location considerations:

  • Size: You want to make sure enough people can fit in the space without feeling cramped. Coffee shops are relaxing areas where people tend to hang out with friends or colleagues and you want the space to be accommodating.

  • Accessibility: Make sure your cafe is accessible and anyone can enter.

  • Parking: Will you be dependent on foot traffic? If not you're going to want to make sure there's somewhere for your customers to park either a lot or street parking nearby. If biking is popular in your area, consider adding a bike rack.

  • Seating: Will customers be limited to seating indoors or is there some outdoor seating you could set up when the weather is right for it?

  • Rent: This should be one of your top considerations when deciding on a location. How much a business location will cost you is going to be a significant chunk of your budget and you should be sure to include this in your business plan.

Step 4: Register your business and get the proper licenses and permits.

The city or county where you plan to open your coffee shop will dictate the specifics of registering your business, what taxes you'll be responsible for, any necessary licenses and permits, and more. The details of registering a business vary from state to state, but you will need to apply for an employer identification number (EIN) and establish your business structure before you can start the registration process.

You also need to make sure that since you'll be serving coffee, and most likely some food, that you have the right business licenses and permits for that, as well. Usually, health licenses and permits are necessary for serving food. Other types of business licenses include building, zoning, and land-use permits. Be sure you consult with your local business resources so you have the proper documentation in place before you open your coffee shop.

Step 5: Find suppliers.

Customers are looking for a quality experience when they come into your coffee shop. That means quality ingredients and coffee, but also quality service and experience.

While it’s tough to produce the same quality every time, this is crucial in the coffee business, especially in a time when people are becoming more knowledgeable about specialty coffee. Having consistent and quality providers, from the beans to cups and everything else customers interact with can help keep your coffee shop running smoothly and customer experiences consistent.

When you're first starting your coffee business, don't be afraid to spend the necessary time finding the right coffee supplier for your business. Though if you're starting a franchise, they'll take care of this step for you by having their specific grounds. You may have to try a lot to find the right one that will work for the products you want to offer, at the right price, with the perfect taste.

The other way to create consistency is by training employees extensively. If you want patrons to walk past all the other coffee shops on the block and go into yours, you need to offer consistent quality.

Step 6: Create a warm, inviting environment.

A coffee shop is never just about a good cup of coffee. Many people frequent coffee shops as a place to do work, catch up with friends, or to take a break from the workday.

You want your coffee shop to have a warm and inviting atmosphere that's conducive to meetings, relaxing, and chit chat, but also one that's easy to keep clean and orderly. When choosing how to design the shop, be sure to take into account how many people you want the shop to fit and the kind of atmosphere you're looking to create for them all.

Remember when we were talking about the location of your shop? Here's where that comes in because the location can only do so much work for you. The work you do to design the cafe on the inside will also greatly matter. You're creating an entire atmosphere that also serves a purpose.

Step 7: Adopt a good inventory system.

Pay attention to your inventory. At first, you won't really know how much you need when it comes to things like beans and baked good, you probably won't even know how many cups you need a day. So track these things carefully at first so you can get a good handle on how much you're using.

There are a number of inventory management apps available to small business owners who need a way to manage their inventory and budget. Some point of sale systems also offer inventory management, which is something you might want to consider when choosing one. There are specific coffee shop POS systems out there to consider.

No matter what you choose, you want to make sure you have a way to manage what you need for your business so you don't run out of customer favorites or over-order on what you don't need.

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How much does it cost to open a coffee shop?

We've gone over many of the expenses you'll face when opening a coffee shop. The rent of the location, everything for the interior design, the machinery, the supplies like beans and cups, employees and more will all add up. Some of these things may cost far more than you're expecting them too, a good espresso machine along can run you up $20,000.

In all you can expect that opening a coffee shop will likely cost you upward of $200,000 when all is said and done. This goes for some franchises as well, Dunkin' for example, requires that you have $250,000 in liquid assets to start a franchise with them. You could consider starting smaller, with a coffee cart or a small pop-up location if you're unsure of the cost or if you don't want to dive in headfirst. But know that none of these options will be cheap or require no money up front.



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The bottom line

Running a small business is no easy feat, but for all of those coffee enthusiasts who have dreamed of opening a cafe of their own, now might be the time. Consumption and interest in the specialty coffee culture has increased steadily in recent years and doesn’t seem to be stopping any time soon.

While competition from bigger chains might have been a problem at one time, modern consumers prefer to support local neighborhood shops—especially if they’re offering what the big chains can’t. So if you've been wondering how to start a coffee shop, start thinking about the above steps to see if this is a feasible business venture for you.

This article originally appeared on JustBusiness, a subsidiary of NerdWallet.

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