[W]alk into one of your neighborhood retail stores, like the gift shop or clothing boutique down the street, and you might find shelves lined with coffee table books, cool and kitschy mugs, an assortment of attire, and . . . a barista manning an espresso machine? As brick-and-mortar shops continue to compete with online retailers, a growing number of small businesses are partnering with coffee and tea bars to bring their customers the ultimate “sip while you shop” experience, one that both relaxes and revitalizes customers in a way only caffeine can. We’re not talking about your neighborhood bookstore offering a bland cup of coffee—savvy storeowners are teaming up with established independent coffee and teashops to provide sophisticated sipping in a retail setting.
In Tampa, Florida, the Oxford Exchange occupies a multiuse retail space that’s become a destination for the city’s chicest residents and out-of-towners. The building houses an upscale gift shop, bookstore, and restaurant, along with separate coffee and tea bars staffed and run by two well-known Tampa brands, Buddy Brew Coffee and TeBella Tea Company. Rather than establish a more common wholesale arrangement, Buddy Brew and TeBella sublease space from Oxford Exchange. “By bringing in small businesses to independently own and operate under one roof, Oxford Exchange allows us to really do what we’re good at while still maintaining a community feeling,” says TeBella owner Abigail StClair. “We’re a part of this amazing atmosphere and energy while still specializing in our own brands.” Patrons can order from either drink bar to sip while they shop, or enjoy Buddy Brew coffee and TeBella tea at the Oxford Exchange in-house restaurant.
Subleasing isn’t the only option for retail partnerships. Take Maketto, in Washington, DC, an innovative retail and restaurant space that opened in the hip H Street Corridor. It’s built to mimic an airy and boisterous Asian night market. Opened last year, Maketto encompasses a sixty-seat pan-Asian restaurant, a slick retail space slinging fashion-forward clothing and accessories, and an upstairs café area with a coffee bar. The coffee bar was created in partnership with Chris Vigilante, owner of Vigilante Coffee. Instead of subleasing from Maketto, Vigilante says that for the first six months after Maketto’s opening he pulled a salary as “coffee director.” Now, the relationship has evolved into what he calls a very close wholesale partnership; Vigilante still comes in to roast beans on-site, with Vigilante Coffee branding and signage used at the bar. Vigilante is also a minority owner in the project, which, he says, means he has a vested interest in seeing all three of Maketto’s concepts—restaurant, retail, and coffee bar—succeed.
The benefit of partnering with high-quality coffee and tea bars is obvious for retail shops; offering customers amenities like steaming cappuccinos encourages them to stay in the store longer and linger, increasing the chance they’ll actually make a purchase. But why are coffee and tea businesses choosing to place outposts in retail spaces, rather than opening a new shop in a high-trafficked part of town? Primarily, to get their names in front of a new audience.
“Partnering with Oxford Exchange is one of the single greatest things to happen to Buddy Brew,” says David Ward, the company’s co-founder. When Oxford Exchange first opened its doors, Ward was worried that having a Buddy Brew outpost inside would cannibalize business at their flagship location, which is less than a mile down the road. “The complete opposite has happened,” says Ward. “There’s no doubt that being in Oxford Exchange has driven new business to our roastery. At our headquarters location, we’re now capped by our ability to park people at the store, since the lot is always full. That’s an amazing problem to have, and a lot of that has been driven by Oxford Exchange.”
Major marketing and public relations efforts by Oxford Exchange have increased exposure to the Buddy Brew brand; Ward says he’s even been interviewed by a Denmark-based airline and a London architecture company. Attention has also come from the unique events that Buddy Brew has been able to host in the large, flexible space, including a screening of a coffee-focused documentary and latte art competitions. These events have opened huge doors for the roaster, like the barista competition that Ward organized shortly after Oxford Exchange opened; the competition hosted twenty participants from cafés around town, and over 120 spectators. One competition observer was a representative from Whole Foods, who came to see what Buddy Brew was all about after repeated requests by customers to carry the brand. “After the throw down,” says Ward, “the rep approached me and said, ‘We need to get Buddy Brew in our stores.’ Now Buddy Brew Coffee is sold in every Whole Foods store in Florida.”
San Francisco-based Ritual Coffee Roasters also credits their partnership with a local retail store for putting their brand in front of new faces—and some famous ones to boot. In 2007, Flora Grubb Gardens planned to relocate its sprawling garden and floral shop in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood, and approached Ritual about putting a coffee bar inside their new location. “Having an outpost in Flora Grubb Gardens allowed us to offer a completely different experience from our other cafés. Customers could sit outside with a coffee—which is pretty unique in San Francisco—or explore all the shop’s nooks and crannies where treasures can be found,” says Eileen Rinaldi, Ritual’s owner. “Plus, the garden shop is definitely a destination within San Francisco. We’ve served coffee to Natalie Portman, Seal, Martha Stewart, and even Bill Clinton.” Aside from the honor of serving the famous, Rinaldi also says they’ve landed five or six wholesale accounts through their Flora Grubb Gardens location. (See how Ritual has undergone a rebranding that started with their flagship café on page forty-six.)
StClair, of TeBella, echoes the value of new audience exposure through retail partnerships. “Our flagship TeBella location is a dedicated teashop. Very few people wander in off the street just to look around—we’re a destination,” explains StClair. “So we’ve definitely benefited from Oxford Exchange’s heavy foot traffic. Tea is such a niche market, but we’ve been introduced to people who wouldn’t consider themselves tea drinkers, and now they’ve become our regular customers.” In addition to gaining new customers, StClair has also been approached by more restaurants about heading a tea service. “The Oxford Exchange restaurant’s full tea menu has become something they’re well known for. Because of that, we’ve really become hugely sought after to develop restaurant tea programs, as other restaurants have seen Oxford Exchange’s success,” she says.
Partnering can particularly benefit young brands when the other partner is an accomplished business owner. Ward, for example, was approached by Oxford Exchange founder Blake Casper—a London School of Economics grad and CEO of Casper’s Company, which owns and operates more than fifty McDonald’s across Florida—about partnering just six months after he and his wife opened their first Buddy Brew location. Similarly, Vigilante was still in the development stage with Vigilante Coffee when he was approached about partnering by Maketto’s founders, chef Erik Bruner-Yang of Toki Underground and Will Sharp of men’s fashion brand Durkl. Sensing the benefit of aligning with such-well respected DC brands, he signed on immediately. Plus, there was rent to think about. “We never saw DC as an affordable rent place for just a coffee shop. This allowed us to make it work in the city while we were still at a young stage as a company,” he says.
While both Ward and Vigilante were approached by their partners rather than seeking the partnership out themselves, the requests to team up weren’t made totally out of the blue. The coffee purveyors got to know their future partners as customers first (Ward in the first few months after he opened Buddy Brew’s first location and Vigilante while he was still a barista at another establishment) and cultivated those relationships, building trust and a solid reputation for quality through each cup of coffee served. Roasters and coffee shop owners interested in partnering with other merchants or restaurants would do well to look first to their regulars—people they have already formed personal relationships with who are clearly fans of their product—since they’ll be most receptive to graduating that personal relationship to a professional one.
Entering into a partnership with other business owners, though, requires a high degree of flexibility—and, occasionally, compromises. StClair, for example, pared down her menu offerings to just what StClair calls TeBella’s “greatest hits,” instead of offering their full lineup of single-estate and single-origin teas. “We wanted to appeal to a wider audience, to casual lunch goers, so we stuck with fewer teas so people wouldn’t feel overwhelmed,” she says.
Partners sometimes overlook simple logistical issues. “You have to make sure your hours are symbiotic,” says Rinaldi. “Most retail shops don’t open until eleven or twelve, but most coffee is consumed before eleven. Before you partner, you have to think about how to manage that.” At Maketto, Vigilante worked around the later hours by offering an alcohol menu in the evening—but that came with another concession. “I had to compromise on the height of the coffee bar, which we had to make a little higher to serve alcohol,” says Vigilante. “But you have to be prepared to make sacrifices when you have multiple partners in a project and be willing to meet in the middle on things.”
Ultimately, the success of both the retail shop and coffee bar hinges on the strength of the partners’ relationship. “Make sure your visions align, plan for the long term, and seek out opportunities to build trust before you partner—collaborate on an event or do a pop-up,” suggests Vigilante. “It’s kind of like a marriage, so you’ve got to make sure you pick the right person to partner with.”
—Emily Matras is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.