A while ago, my friend and I were discussing food with the owner of Village Coffee. We thought good was a loss leader, one of these things you have to have but doesn’t make any money. She argued that her food actually helped her business and was profitable. I found that interesting, because anyone who has worked in a coffee shop and has had to clear out the expired pastries knows that a lot of it goes in the garbage.
So I ask, how important is food in a coffee shop?
For me personally, food is not that important. I go to a coffee shop for coffee, and that’s about it. I may work on my laptop or meet up with friends, but it usually isn’t to have lunch. It’s to have coffee. I think the majority of people are that way too. I see the cost and size of the pastries and usually think it is a rip off, which makes sense, because you have to pay for convenience.
I would say the primary reason for me buying food at a coffee shop is either the need for something sweet (yeah, I have a sweet tooth) or for a review. That’s about it. I don’t have lunch at coffee shops and I have a hard time thinking my coffee would go well with a sandwich. (I will admit that Az doesn’t have a lot of opportunity for this, so I could easily be surprised.) I can easily believe that a lot of people are like this as well.
I did some poking around the interweb and found this article that I liked a lot: http://drinks.seriouseats.com/2011/08/opening-a-coffee-shop-advice-for-cafe-owners-tips-mistakes-to-avoid-small-business-owner.html. The core of the message is keep it simple. There is value to having food because a lot of foods bring out flavor in coffee. I would keep it simple though. Rather than have 20 different types of pastries, I would only have a few that pair specifically with my coffee. Then have a few constants that have longer shelf lifes and sell quicker (chocolate chip cookie, biscotti, short bread cookies, etc).
This article lists some food items coffee shops are known for: http://www.lamag.com/digestblog/12-coffee-shops-that-also-serve-great-food/. I noticed a couple of things here. 1) A big draw is that coffee shops partner with local pastry companies to team up and be mutually beneficial. I see this as a win-win. That companies reputation and advertising would push people to my store. That is like free marketing. I may also be able to minimize risk by allowing the pastry company rent the space in my shop. That could reduce my margins but also reduce my loss as well. I would really have to dig into this to determine the best approach. 2) Most of these shops are known for something specific. They pick something and do it well enough to be recognized for it. If you are going to have food, it needs to be a draw by itself. Then you can create add-ons. The coffee people will try a pastry and the pastry people may add a coffee.
I do believe food is important. I think it needs to be balanced with the core values of the shop and try to be a different company within a company. It also has to be managed well. If it isn’t managed, you will basically just throw money into the garbage. Keep it simple and do it right (not half way).