Starting a coffee business is not for the faint of heart. It will bring blood, sweat, and tears (plus a lot of caffeine).
Yet, there’s still something that makes the pursuit worthwhile.
And as the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. So what better way to truly learn what it takes to successfully build a coffee business than to turn to those who know best?
The editors at Bond Street asked individuals behind some of America’s best cups to share what they wish they knew before opening their coffee shops, or other caffeine-infused operations. The result is 33 pieces of advice that all aspiring entrepreneurs would benefit from knowing.
From mistakes made to tricks of the trade, you’re bound to discover at least one nugget of wisdom that will save you time, money, energy, and quite possibly your sanity — or all of the above.
“I wish I had become more of a handyman before launching my business.” – Peter Brown, Six Shooter Coffee (Cleveland, OH)
“Hire a good bookkeeper! It’s my #1 piece of startup advice. They say ‘what gets measured, gets done.’ If you can’t trust your numbers, then you can’t really measure your business. Good information is critical to making good decisions. We’ve spent the better part of a year cleaning up the mistakes we made when managing our own books.” – Matt Bachmann, Wandering Bear Coffee (New York, NY)
“I wish I had known that you could lease equipment, and they come with service contracts.” – Jonathan Rubinstein, Joe Coffee (New York, NY)
“I think the thing I wish I had known was how many little decisions I would have to make! What kind of light bulbs, how many chairs? What kind of wood do we use, how far apart should the lattice be spaced? Do we use brown screws or black screws? What kind of patio furniture do we buy? The list goes on and on; I can’t even remember them all anymore!” – Elle Taylor, Amethyst Coffee Co. (Denver, CO)
“Starting an online business with no previous experience with an online store, I wish I had known more about operating tools like Shipstation that are available to help small businesses. Learning that there are tools to help online stores get off the ground and find competitive pricing was game changing. We could have saved a lot of time and money if we knew that from the beginning! We would have also benefitted from choosing a large online store platform from the beginning. BigCommerce and Shopify are worth the learning curve in the long run.” – Lacie Mackey, Caveman Coffee Co. (Albuquerque, NM)
“I wish I had known to work with an accountant BEFORE the first dollar was ever put into a bank account.” – Colby Barr, Verve Coffee Roasters (Santa Cruz, CA)
“If you’re going to hire 3rd parties, contracts need to be made as airtight as possible before work begins. Include ratchets for failure to deliver on time or not meet specific project requirements. Clearly define milestones along the way with explicit penalties. The more granular you can get contractors to be in the breakdown of their bids, the better. This helps you understand the cost of work for each piece of the project and detect arbitrary markups.” – Matthew Tervooren, Pourt (New York, NY)
“I wish I had known how important taking the time to eat proper meals and exercise could be for managing stress. When you are run down or not feeling well, no one is going to take care of the business for you. It is imperative you do all you can to try to stay as healthy as possible.” – Caroline Bell, Cafe Grumpy (New York, NY)
“I wish we would’ve known how much we truly didn’t know! Equipment, supplies, accounting, payroll, HR best practices, tax laws, scheduling, ordering and even water filtration systems. The list can go on forever.” – Janine Awan, Woodcat Coffee Bar (Los Angeles, CA)
“I wish I knew that when we first got our La Marzocco machine in the shop, it was probably not a good idea to take 10 double shots of espresso a day to “train” as a barista!” – Adam Kallen, JANE Motorcycles (New York, NY)
“I wish I would have known that people will drink specialty coffee above 14th Street [in New York City]. I spent years listening to naysayers who said you had to be in The Village or Brooklyn — I wish we had opened earlier on the UES, Midtown, UWS.” – Jonathan Rubinstein
“There are several things that I wish I had known prior to launching our business, most of them relate to proper budgeting and truly understanding the City [Minneapolis] processes.” – Caleb Garn, Five Watt Coffee & Big Watt Bev Co. (Minneapolis, MN)
“I recommend spending a good amount of time with your architect and your city planning department, prior to securing funding or signing a lease on a space that may end up costing more than you know.” – Joe Shafer, Slow by Slow (Boise, ID)
“Whatever dollar amount you think you need to get everything done… double it! The most expensive thing that you will ever deal with in your business is ‘time,’ and it will cost you a lot of money.” – Caleb Garn
“There’s a lot that goes into making a business successful. But if you aren’t financially smart, it will be doomed. We had to do a lot of course correcting, optimizing, and leak plugging since we opened. I wish I had done a lot more research into costs, the profitability of certain offerings, and overall, a more refined business plan.” – Marco Suarez, Methodical Coffee (Greenville, SC)
“I wish I would have prioritized having working capital in the bank when we opened to have room to grow once the dust settled after our first 6 months.” – Lindsay Windsor, Lord Windsor Coffee (Long Beach, CA)
“I wish I had known to not underestimate our growth. I had started with a small, 6-pound batch size San Franciscan. I was forecasting slow, but steady growth at the beginning. Very quickly, I found we were roasting 30+ batches (10+ hours) per day! It took us a few months to secure and install a larger roaster, and those few months of being ‘at capacity’ slowed our growth. We couldn’t really take on more customers during that time (even though they were there waiting for us) as we didn’t have the staff to handle them and couldn’t roast for them!
Obviously, you can swing the other way and have too much capital tied up in a roaster that’s too large right off the bat, and then you are in a position where you have to grow (and quickly). That’s a problem, too! There’s a balance, of course, but I think it’s better to be a bit over-prepared and grow into your capacity than to play ‘catch-up.’ Lesson learned.” – Micah Svejda, Bootstrap Coffee Roasters (St. Paul, MN)
“I wish I had known that an expensive accountant that is good is much cheaper than a cheap account who is bad. We had two accountants that were really horrible and cost us dearly. We got audited, and rightly so, by the IRS for mistakes both had made. It ended up being far more costly in both time and money than bucking up for a quality accountant from the get go.” – Geoffrey Meeker, French Truck Coffee (New Orleans, LA)
“I wish I had known the importance of hiring great people — even if it meant spending a bit more than I was comfortable with. Bad employees end up costing a business much more in the long run.” – Josh Zad, Alfred Coffee (Los Angeles, CA)
“I know it feels responsible to buy a used espresso machine — don’t! You don’t know the service history of that machine, what water it was connected to, how it was stored…. resist the urge! Pay for the security and peace of mind of a warranty and service contract with a respectable technician. And always, always use properly filtered water.” – Christopher Feran, Phoenix Coffee (Cleveland OH)
“I wish I had known how vital it was to learn and grow from other leaders earlier in my career. I wish I would have started asking questions earlier and spent time really developing myself. I can’t imagine how much farther along I would be if I had spent intentional time developing my skills as a leader.” – Stevie Hasemeyer, Arcade Coffee Roasters (Riverside, CA)
“I wish I’d started out with a more focused grassroots marketing effort. The allure of a business is that you open it and people shall come ‘just because,’ kind of like the field of dreams. But, it’s just that: a dream. People do business with people. When establishing a new business, you want real life people to interact with you and your products, and they aren’t always going to come to you. Find networking groups, find business mixers, and find coffee lovers. Have them try your stuff, and more importantly, have them able to buy it on the spot (if they won’t, that is a red flag). This experience invaluable and should be constantly focused on. It will help get the word out, it will help you better develop everything from pricing to marketing campaigns, and it will help you make partnerships with other businesses in the community. Get video customer testimonials. Get referrals. Get business owners willing to share their customer and employee bases with you.” – Alex Moen, Match Made Coffee (Oceanside, CA)
“I wish I had known to put more stock in the feedback we get from our customers right from the start. I had lots of my own ideas, but the customers (for the most part) have an even better idea as to what is providing good service to them.” – Will Shurtz, Methodical Coffee (Greenville, SC)
“If I had to do it all back knowing what I know now, I wish I had started with a proper board of directors or advisors. A good board can guide you to make smarter and more efficient decisions, which is key in a competitive market.” – Steven Sutton, Devoción (New York, NY)
“There can be a temptation early on to believe that everything is riding on your shoulders, from ideation on to opening day. And while, absolutely, everything ultimately comes back to you as the business owner, there’s a tremendous amount of freedom to be found in offloading certain responsibilities onto other qualified partners. Whether it be your accountant, architect, coffee roasters, or another partner, find people you can trust, allow them to do their job, and focus your energy on the areas where you can have the greatest impact.” – Jonathan Riethmaier, Mammoth Espresso (New Orleans, LA)
“…One thing that I didn’t consider was how isolating it is to be at the top. An owner is under a lot of pressure and is constantly putting out fires and managing personalities. It’s important to have a mentor, a good friend, or even a therapist, to be able to share what you’re going through, too, and hopefully get some guidance on difficult decisions.” – Camila Ramos, ALL DAY (Miami, FL)
“I wish I knew that when you’re starting out, it feels like for every two steps forward, you take one step back. That’s just the name of the game — it’s all about cultivating patience and celebrating those little victories!” – Noushin Ketabi, Vega Coffee (Estelí, Nicaragua / New York, NY)
“I wish I had known that there’s no such thing as a silver bullet. You often think, “if we could only do this,” or, “if we could only buy this equipment,” everything will change. None of those will save you. It’s always going to be the accumulation of many things that move needles.” – Marco Suarez, Methodical Coffee (Greenville, SC)
“I wish I would have thought ‘big’ from the start. In other words, it takes just as much energy and effort to think big as it does to think small.” – Casey Goch, Shreebs (Los Angeles, CA)
“This might sound weird, but I don’t have any “I Wish” moments. I feel everything we set out to do, we did it with a sound mind and it was all part of the experience.” – Mark Vollmer, Theory Coffee Company (San Antonio, TX)
“I wish I had taken the time in the beginning to celebrate all the wins, even the small ones, along the way instead of moving on so quickly to the next issue or task at hand.” – Chris Campbell, Chameleon Cold Brew (Austin, TX)
“Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and should you need to make a big decision that costs you money, don’t be afraid to look like a fool and save yourself from financial heartache.” – Xavier Alexander, Metric Coffee (Chicago, IL)
What advice would you give to someone just starting their own coffee business? Share your tips in the comments below.
Images via Bond Street