Remodeling Your Café


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[Y]our baristas constantly bump into each other, your cabinets don’t stay closed, and the customers trapped behind slow-moving lines are sending waves of palpable rage. Maybe you can hardly see your customers under the track lighting that used to be ambient but is now just obnoxiously inadequate. You look at your tired logo, the paint color that was all-the-rage in 2007, and you realize: it’s time to make changes.

Whatever your aha! moment, the realization that a renovation is imminent only leads to more questions: How much should you spend? How should you allocate your resources? Should you shut-down completely or try to sell coffee in the midst of construction? These considerations, and many more, are necessary for coordinating a smooth remodel. Even more important is how you will use the opportunity of a renovation to move your business forward; each change should play a role in strengthening your brand identity.

Setting a clear goal for why you are tearing down walls and asking customers to pardon your dust helps answer questions that arise along that way. Even better, a clear vision helps you commit to your project.

“You can’t half-ass it. You can’t reopen with old cups with an old logo, or tired old recipes within a new space,” says Jake Leonti of F+B Therapy. Leonti works with specialty coffee companies to plan build-outs, remodels, and rebranding projects. He operates by the philosophy that if you’re going to touch one aspect of your business, that’s your chance to touch everything. “Brand is always so much more than just a concept; it is truly a lens and a philosophy that they should be living by. And that means it affects everything you look at.”

As you focus the vision for your company’s brand and image, imminently practical elements of a remodel can’t be forgotten. Tom Palm owns Design & Layout Services. He advises keeping track of licensing as you build plans. “You better go down and see the health department, because if you change the menu and bring in different equipment, you’ve got to clue them in.”

Leonti stresses the importance of keeping in contact with customers during the remodel process, whether you stay open or not. “Social media, signage, engaging with customers; all those pieces are something that should be utilized,” he says. Construction projects provide fodder for in-person conversation and content for social media.

No universal guidelines govern café remodels or aesthetics (and thank goodness, otherwise it would be a pretty bleak industry). Every project presents unique challenges and opportunities to “touch everything,” as Leonti says, giving cafés the chance to redefine their image, boost revenue, and reach new customers—all the while giving their employees an improved work environment.

Here’s how four companies took on their remodels.

A barista pours at the new drink pick-up area at Water Avenue Coffee. (Photo: Cory Eldridge. Photo above: courtesy of Ferris Coffee.)

Project One: Rebranding | Water Avenue Coffee

It doesn’t take a sledgehammer to infuse drama into a renovation. An effective rebrand can achieve as much as knocking down walls and building a new bar. Brand is a business’s identity, and when Water Avenue Coffee in Portland, Oregon, approached their rebrand, they focused on more than just their logo. They revamped their interior aesthetic, bag design, merchandise, workflow, service style, and boosted their food menu. Coincidentally, some remodeling happened too.

“It all kind of culminated together with our rebranding, our new logo design, new merchandise, but also as a way for our staff to really understand that the company’s been through a big evolution and this is our defining year to continue to grow,” says Matt Milletto, vice president of Water Avenue Coffee and Bellissimo Coffee Advisors.

Milletto says that Water Avenue took the rebrand as an opportunity to do a lot of things they couldn’t afford to do when they first opened—from a hand-painted mural to small touches like cabinet doors. “We’ve taken this opportunity to really clean up and pay attention to every tiny detail now,” he says. “It’s just a reflection of our brand.”

For Water Avenue, rebranding also meant adding a lunch menu to bring in more traffic throughout the day. Noticing dips in their daily sales around lunchtime, they made the decision to bring in a chef to run a breakfast and lunch program. Employees now deliver food to customers. “It’s like coming to a new job,” says Milletto. While the employees were thrilled with the changes, it still required training and an adjustment period.

“I truly feel that the three most important aspects in retail are quality product, customer service, and then the environment that you’ve created,” Milletto says. Bringing in a chef and rethinking branding elevated all three of those aspects.

“We didn’t have to restructure a lot of the service area or bar flow,” says Milletto. “The bones were there, we just kind of gave it a face lift, as well as integrated some new elements.”

The plans included moving roasting operations to a nearby second location, freeing up floor space to add bar seating for guests and to allow chef Ryan Kennedy room to do his work.

Water Avenue managed to close for only two days to bring in a large sidebar that fills the space where their roaster used to be. “We actually had a coffee cart out front, just giving away free coffee and pastries for the two days we were closed, just for the inconvenience,” says Milletto.

Water Avenue Coffee. (Photo: Cory Eldridge.)

Project Two: The Flagship Remodel | Everyman Espresso and Ritual Coffee Roasters

For many new cafés, build-outs quickly become cost-prohibitive, limiting upgrades in the early days and months after opening. Especially for businesses taking over a functional coffee space, it can be hard to justify the expense when you have little revenue. New York’s Everyman Espresso inherited the espresso bar that became their East Village location. “Over the subsequent year we did everything that we could to make it our own,” says Sam Lewontin, general manager of Everyman. “There’s only so much you can do with existing infrastructure.” Everyman opened a second location in SoHo, providing another revenue source and the chance to finally make changes at their original store.

Everyman used ideas from their SoHo build-out to improve the flow of their East Village store, but ultimately their plans were driven by a desire to meet the needs of the surrounding neighborhood. “There were a bunch of bar-flow ideas that we implemented in the second location that worked very well,” Lewontin says. “We took a lot of those ideas and fitted them into the existing space and fitted them to what we knew our guests and our long-standing neighborhood wanted—what the neighborhood wanted from that café.”

Everyman relied on their second location while they closed down their East Village store for about a month and rebuilt from the ground up. They used a pop-up café at a tiki-themed bar in Tribeca to continue generating revenue and retaining employees.

The East Village store also happened to share a space with a theater. “A lot of the design elements that went into remodel were chosen with an eye toward better integrating the café into the lobby space,” Lewontin explained. This integration allowed them to better serve both daytime regulars and theater patrons.

Everyman reopened their East Village store three years ago to an overwhelmingly positive response from customers. “It is a better version of that café in basically every way,” Lewontin says.

By integrating successful elements from the SoHo shop, but prioritizing design for the needs of East Village, Everyman focused their remodel on giving customers the best possible experience at both locations.

“We were very clear about the fact that were were doing it for them,” Lewontin says. “To create a better café in which we could serve them better and faster and create a better and more welcoming environment.”

The newly remodeled Ritual Coffee Roasters on Valencia. (Photo: courtesy of Ritual Coffee Roasters.)

On the Left Coast, Ritual Coffee Roasters had a similar project with their flagship store in San Francisco’s Mission District. After nearly a decade in business, the successful café was showing signs of wear. Surfaces were hard to clean, doors would fall off their hinges, and baristas were cramped behind the bar. “It was kind of ridiculous,” says owner Eileen Rinaldi.

Ritual’s remodel lasted six months, but they shut down operations for only two days. The rest of the time they operated out of a modified space they affectionately referred to as Tiny Café. “We built a wall and turned our 1,800-square-foot café into a 400-square-foot café,” Rinaldi says. “We eliminated our pour-over bar and just did batch brew and espresso.” The day Ritual started construction, Rinaldi stood in the door and gave away coffee, letting people know what was happening. She also penned a note, then had it enlarged and posted it in the window of the shop so people would feel like they were hearing directly from her.

Getting away from the dark, cramped feel of their original space, the Valencia store now has an open floor plan that greets guests with a wrap-around espresso bar and naturally directs traffic through the store.

A remodel of a flagship store can mark the beginning of a rebranding across the business. Ritual opted to coordinate a phased remodel and rebrand. “For us, all of these things were connected,” says Rinaldi. The store still proudly displays red accents, calling back to the company’s original cup-and-star logo. But the splashes of red are one of the few design elements that survived the rebrand. Ritual recently launched a new website to match the look and feel of the remodeled store, including a new line of merchandise, all imprinted with the cup-and-star logo. (To read more about how Ritual has continued to redefine their business, check out “Cafés in Retail Spaces” on page sixty-eight.)

The outdated bar at Ferris Coffee. (Photo: courtesy of Ferris Coffee.)

Project Three: Total Overhaul | Ferris Coffee

Focusing the lens through which you view your business sometimes means changing the lens altogether. Just ask Ferris Coffee in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After nearly a century of business, the company conducted a self-evaluation and realized that they weren’t a match for the surrounding community.

“We saw this change in the neighborhood,” says David VanTongeren, director of retail for Ferris. “We realized that we didn’t have the right venue to host them.” VanTongeren says that Ferris recognized their coffee program and the café at their headquarters were in desperate need of an overhaul. There was also no seating for customers, a late-nineties aesthetic that screamed “out-of-touch,” and they had a decades-old reputation of being a coffee company that didn’t do craft coffee. So they tackled the task of transforming themselves into a specialty coffee company, including better sourcing practices, improved roasting techniques, and higher standards for preparation. And a whole new look.

Ferris took the idea of “touching everything” to heart. They renovated the entire building, including the offices. The exterior paint and lettering got a makeover and the downstairs café was completely gutted. Ferris completed the remodel, rebranded the company, and reintroduced themselves as a specialty coffee company.

Expanded seating at Ferris Coffee. (Photo: courtesy of Ferris Coffee.)

Walking into Ferris now, you’d never guess that the open, airy café used to house overcrowded shelves and tacky, decorative columns. Floor-to-ceiling windows flood the space with natural light. A large community table is just one of the many seating options available to customers. A glistening, three-group Synesso and a pour-over station sit on opposite sides of the L-shaped bar, welcoming customers to stay and talk coffee, or proceed to one of the shop’s many nooks to sip, study, and—most importantly—stay.

It’s taken almost two years for Ferris to gain their place in the specialty industry. In that time, they’ve worked diligently to show people their new business identity and invite the community into their new (stunning) space, volunteering to run brew bars at city events, and even running airpots of coffee out to college bus stops in the dead of winter.

VanTongeren acknowledges that there was certainly risk in such a dramatic change, but that it was necessary to move the company forward. “Obviously the point of a renovation is to get new customers. You can’t be afraid to lose a few customers in order to gain a new following.”

Ellie Bradley is Fresh Cup‘s associate editor.

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