7 ways independent cafes can beat the chains

We paid a visit to Caffe Culture Show 2019 to discover all the new & exciting developments in the coffee shop world. Amongst a range of seminars and talks, our highlight was a talk held by Claire Bowen. She’s an independent coffee shop specialist and cofounder of cafebusinesshub.com who runs the business with her husband Andrew. 

With a wealth of experience, here are Claire’s 7 tips on how independent cafes can beat the chains.

Here’s BARI$TA

B – the basics 

  • Poor hygiene is one of the main reasons customers do not come back. Keep your toilets squeaky clean, clean each table after each use and make sure your counters are spotless. Essentially, ensure everything your customer sees, is clean, tidy and stocked up!
  • Good signage!!! Don’t write in small letters, they are difficult to read. McDonald’s are great at signage because customers can spot the fast-food chain miles off. Coffee shops need to be noticeable from across the street, so clear signage can increase footfall. Find out more here. 
  • Your cafe layout has to be right. This starts at the very beginning when you are designing your cafe. Your customers need to know what you’ll have on offer without asking for it. Use the menu’s and signage to tell customers exactly what you have on offer. 
  • Do you offer table service? Where do they stand when ordering? Don’t make your customers feel awkward because they don’t know how to act in your cafe. Control your temperature inside, too hot or too cold will put them off. And poor ventilation steams up your windows and looks awful from the outside and the inside. 
  • The colours. The noise. The space. The music … it all needs to go with your brand. You have to control everything! 

A – advertising

Advertising isn’t a dirty word. On a local level – you can beat the chains! Your regulars will become super fans, and start promoting you to their friends and family. Whereas blowing your own whistle isn’t a bad thing either… by utilising advertising in a non-traditional way you can really get the word out. 

  • You can beat the chains by utilising social media at a local level. Choose the channels carefully and for your brand. The independents are smashing Instagram – the chains are struggling to keep it personal. 
  • Try to encourage third-party endorsement from your customers – whether its video or written testimonials that you can then share across your channels. Simply ask your customer, would you do a testimonial for us? 
  • Use Trip Advisor!!! And make sure you reply to every single post! Customers will see that you care and will be less likely to give bad reviews. 
  • Google!!! Use your google listing to add your location to, promote special offers and build trust with customer reviews. 
  • Create a company website. It brings everything together for your coffee shop. It collates your social, opening hours, trip advisor reviews and also your story (backed up with good photos)! In London 54% of coffee shops didn’t have a webpage – so take back control of your online presence. Also, start capturing leads via your website and start communicating to them on special occasions.
  • There 3 ways customers will find you:
    • Walking past 
    • Word of mouth
    • Google 
  • By utilising each channel, you are covering off each instance someone can find you.

R – Reliability

  • If you don’t make the rules, your team will. Systems and processes will have to be in place to ensure everything runs smoothly when you’re not there. The same goes for food. If you don’t have agreed recipes how do you know how much to buy, how much to charge and the profits each dish makes? 
  • Good service starts with your team. Employ people to become amazing! You can train them to make a great coffee but you can’t train people to have the hospitality gene. The gene to provide great service! 
  • Write job descriptions for your staff to ensure each person involved knows their part and their service responsibilities. The employee at the till is the first person seen, the coffee maker controls the amount of time to make drinks to allow for food orders or rushed customers …. it’s all part of a science. 
  • Talk to your customers and start building relationships – chains can’t do that. 

I – Innovation

  • As an independent business, you can just implement whatever technology you want it. You have no large departments to go through and get approval from. Small businesses never used to be able to do what the big boys did but now all these services are available to everyone. Use the technology to make your life easier, or get a virtual assistant. But don’t fall into getting things overly complicated and getting systems that will be under-used. 
  • Don’t forget about your menu. Ensure you innovate with what you have on offer, but if the menu has too many things on, the customer will have too much to choose from and might not believe everything is fresh. Make sure it’s clear and easy to read and order from.
  • You can be fresh. Fresh food and fresh service. Be dynamic with what you offer and wow your customers with that.
  • Experiment and monitor your success. Try it because you can!

$ – is for Money 

If you don’t get the metrics right, if you don’t employ the right people, if you don’t open in the right place, if you don’t have the right products and margins – you will never make any money. So get your numbers right. 

T – talking points

  • As an independent, you have a story that’s unique to you. Talk about your story, whatever it may be. Talk about it on your website, tell your team to share your story. But make sure when your team tell it, they have a broad script to follow, rather than making it up as they might get it wrong and share incorrect information.  
  • Where does your coffee come from, where do your food ingredients come from? Talk about these things and share with your customers!
  • Have a hero product. What do people think about when they come to your cafe? Build on that. M&S are great at it… ‘It’s not just a chocolate pudding, it’s an extra special Mariska and Spencer chocolate pudding’. By making your products sound more special, you can charge more. 
  • Charity! Support local and join forces with local charities. You can then talk about it across your website and social media – it’s a great way to show that you’re supporting local. 

A – own your Area!

  • As an independent you can own your area, corporates can’t because they’re too big. Talk to non-competing businesses around you to build community and relationships. Consider giving all your local businesses a discount, and furthermore ask them to give their customers a discount in your cafe. Become the local hero so they all start recommending you. 
  • Support your locals and they support you. Local cycling, running and mum & baby groups. With cycling groups, you should spread out to a wider radius to mark yourself as their halfway stop. 
  • Local radio and newspapers. Become the local expert by sharing your stories and expertise with them. They will then further get your name out to the local community. 
  • Don’t pay for advertising space but ask for an advertorial by giving out an offer. An offer gets people in through the door, and then use all the tips above to really WOW them! 


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