[O]ne of the obvious ways to increase traffic to your shop during lunch hours is, simply, to offer lunch. Well, the idea is simple. The execution is not. That’s a major reason—maybe the reason—American coffeehouse culture has long limited itself to a drink menu and pastry case. We’re entering an era, though, where a few coffeehouses are choosing to distinguish themselves by offering a well-built food menu. Of course there have always been cafés that serve lunch, but this new iteration marries the zealous attention to coffee that customers expect from a great coffee shop with the limited menus of modern restaurants.
These shops have shown that great lunch and great coffee can be found in one place. If you’ve thought of adding lunch, what can you learn from these coffeehouses? What does it take—in time, in equipment, in staffing—to create a full brunch menu? A sandwich or toast menu? A single soup offering everyday? Here’s a primer to get you started.
Determining the extent of your food program begins with deciding how much real estate you’re willing to give to it and how much you’re willing to alter the identity of your café. If you have the room, infrastructure, and funds for a full-blown kitchen, you could produce a restaurant-sized menu. But would your café still feel like a coffeehouse if the size of the food menu overshadowed the coffee menu? Would coffee-only customers be comfortable sitting without food? Blank Slate Coffee and Kitchen, a new shop in Manhattan, offers a robust food menu, but the space declares itself a coffee shop: the espresso machine commands the bar, the seating is comfortable but communal, and the drinks menu, while featuring fewer items than the food menu, is physically just as big. The kitchen is hidden away behind the bar.
David Buehrer is the co-owner of Greenway Coffee Company and a café called Blacksmith, both in Houston. He decided from the outset that Blacksmith would find a niche between restaurant and coffeehouse. “When the average customer wakes up in the morning, they may love coffee and tea, but they want something to eat,” he says. That goes for lunch, too. Blacksmith is aimed at that customer, and that customer wants some options, so Blacksmith needed a kitchen along with its full coffee bar. Buehrer recommends that anyone attempting this model do so from the get-go. “I think it’s really important to start with the program. There is a lot of build-out involved with a kitchen,” Buehrer says. “We had to build in a ventilation system and a bigger grease trap system.”
Most likely, though, you don’t have the space for a full, even if small, kitchen. And what if your café is up and running already? Your options may be limited, but places like the Rose Establishment in Salt Lake City have shown that rejiggering the bar and creating a prep space with limited culinary equipment can allow a small but varied lunch. Everyday at the Electric Brew, a roaster-retailer in Goshen, Indiana, the café offers a breakfast item and then one or two sandwiches and soups for lunch, all of which are made in-house on a prep space that’s just six-feet long. At the Electric Brew, lunch does not make the café’s identity. “Whether we have lunch or not does not determine who we are,” says owner Myron Bontrager. “We do lunches because it drives a bit deeper our relational concept.”
No matter what model you land on, you’ll likely be working with a limited space that restricts your equipment options. (Local regulations also influence this.) “There’s nobody who says they have enough kitchen space,” says Bontrager. Blacksmith has a 250-square-foot kitchen in their 1,250-square-foot café, allowing an oven with a six-burner stove and a flattop, an immersion circulator, a salamander (a versatile braising tool), and blenders. Blank Slate has a similar setup, and because they have no range hood for fire prevention they can only use electric equipment, which includes a convection oven and induction stove. These limits inform both cafés’ menus. “We built our menu around not having a hood,” says Ashley Jaffe, co-owner of Blank Slate. “We don’t have burgers or fries because of that.”
At the Electric Brew, once the prep has been done, soup warmers and a panini press are placed on the prep board, making that the only equipment used for lunch. The shop bakes its own pastries and bread, so a stove is available to their lunch staff, but except for making soup it’s rarely used, and a hotplate could do the job if need be. Creativity is a must in any kitchen. At Black Eye Coffee in Denver, the chef uses his panini press to cook eggs and bacon.
Any café will have a fridge, but it’s likely you’re already fretting over whether you have space for another milk alternative, chai, or cold brew. Walk-in refrigerators offer the best access and most storage, but also require invasive space and installations. With a few extra fridges, the Electric Brew is able to hold a week’s worth of product for both the coffee bar and the lunch menu.
If you simply have no room for extra equipment or you’re not willing to overturn your space, renting space at a commercial kitchen might be for you. These businesses supply you a full kitchen, and often storage as well. Many offer shared spaces that can cut costs. Rates are usually based on hourly use, but setups vary. Menu components can be prepared at the commercial kitchen and transported to the café. Along these same lines, a nearby restaurant might rent their kitchen during hours it’s not in use.
Chef and Staff
At many cafés that serve great food without sacrificing their coffee program, the two parts of the business are largely separated. Blacksmith has a culinary team and a coffee team, and they keep to their own worlds. Blank Slate does the same, with a runner acting as the go-between. This division of labor is strange in the limited world of a coffee shop, but it’s how any restaurant runs.
If you intend to offer a lunch that draws its own attention, you’ll want to hire a chef, at least to advise the menu creation. After that, a cook can be hired to prepare the food. Both Blacksmith and Blank Slate did this.
The Electric Brew’s lunch, while solid, is not the café’s focus. Their lunch person, who does all the planning, purchasing, and production, is simply a food enthusiast. She’s also the lead barista. She’s able to pull both jobs, though, because lunch only runs from eleven to one thirty and her menus aren’t technically challenging.
Of the cooked items you can serve for lunch, soup offers the easiest entry point. Soups can be easily made off-site and kept hot in warmers that don’t take much space from your café. Even better, they can be served without the addition of more staff. Cooking a decent soup, even one from scratch, can be accomplished by someone with limited home-kitchen experience. Stocks and broths from Pacific Foods, among others, make a solid base to build any soup imaginable. If even that’s a heavy lift, taking a pre-made soup and adding vegetables or meat to it can provide customers a meal option. Be careful on that road though: discerning customers will sniff out a pre-made soup.
Sandwiches and Salads
Limiting your menu to sandwiches and salads allows the simplest lunch setup, needing just a work space and fridge. Most likely, you’ll need a staff member dedicated to the task. Sandwich assembly tables (think the counter at a Subway) can give you both, with the benefit of extra fridge space for the rest of the café. With a narrow table on its front for assemble, these setups also provide space for prep. With a panini press or just a toaster, you can offer customers toasts, most likely the easiest entrance into a lunch program. And it can be a tasty, elegant one, too.
—Cory Eldridge is the editor of Fresh Cup.