Piecewise Coffee Co. - Building a Drink Menu
If you haven't been keeping up with our friends at Piecewise Coffee Co. be sure to check out their Bio and Selecting Equipment posts! Today we asked Stanton and Lindsey a little bit about how to build a drink menu for a coffee shop!
First off, from a “chicken or the egg” perspective, did you decide on a general menu before selecting equipment? Or did you decide on what equipment to purchase and then build your menu around that gear?
The answer I wish we could give was to knock out the menu first, but it was too tempting not to get caught up reading equipment descriptions and watching product reviews. Choosing the equipment was exciting, while locking in a menu was more-so work. However, we learned it is very difficult to build a shop without first thinking about the menu. Without it you can find yourself fighting to make the layout functional. We were fortunate to stumble upon a podcast by the SCA (Specialty Coffee Association) covering café startups and it helped give us a big picture focus on how equipment and menu influence each other.
Our menu doesn’t incorporate much onsite food preparation and a big reason was an attempt to make the startup cost more manageable. Eliminating equipment needs is an obvious answer to keeping cost low, but far costlier was the additional need for architectural designs and engineered systems. Take for example biscuits, we wanted to offer some as a secondary option to our other breakfast items and we started pricing out small ovens. Well the oven led to a ventilation hood which led to additional building penetrations for air flow which all lead to an increase in the size of the HVAC units. Our commitment level to that menu item changed quickly with those additional costs. Learning about things like insurance cost increases for using an onsite grease fryer or the sizing and placement of grease traps were part of the learning process for us.
It’s inevitable that menu and equipment decisions will impact each other but starting with the menu first can help keep changes to a minimum.
What kind of market research did you do for your area to make decisions about what kind of drinks to carry?
We visited a lot of local restaurants and coffee shops. We felt like anything within an hour’s drive was fair game for learning what products were already successful in our market. Asking waiters or baristas what the more popular products were was very helpful as was just asking for favorites from family, friends, coworkers or anyone who was interested in what we were doing with the shop. Learning their favorites made it more personal while still reaching out to our customer base. Our goal with this research was to help develop a perspective outside of our own for the drinks people want to see in any coffee shop. Generally, people were very open to share what they liked and didn’t, which was encouraging.
How much did your vision for a coffee focused shop affect menu choice? The assumption would be a lot, but I’d like to get at the “coffee identity” factor and how it relates to your menu.
With our goal to offer high quality in every drink, the shop’s menu won’t be overly extensive. We didn’t want to spread ourselves to thin starting off with a lot of options. Something about tons of choices, just didn’t seem like, “us,” right now. We aren’t minimalists in nature, but we do love to cut waste enough to truly enjoy what is in front of us. We live our lives that way and believe the same for our coffee shop and its offerings. With that in mind, we’ll offer the best of the basics, focusing on amazing taste every single time.
Do you think about food pairings when building the menu? Or was the thought to offer standby food options but build the drink menu independent of that?
For us, the food and drink menu were built independent of each other. We knew the size of our shop limited space for food preparation so we built the drink menu and then developed relationships with high quality food establishments to help on the food side. Pairing between the two comes into play, but it is a little further down on the decision tree for us than may be at some other shops.
How much does ingredient/coffee sourcing play into the development of your menu??
Sourcing hasn’t impacted the menu development as of yet! We are working with local stores, which has made most of our development more convenient.
How do you offset the desire to do something different with the need to offer a standard set of coffee drinks?
It’s definitely a balance act between the vision for the shop and maintaining the shop’s economics. Our vision was so intertwined with serving the community that we started from the desire to know how best to serve the customers already surrounding us. This meant providing the standard coffee offerings based off the market research mentioned earlier. We then looked at how we could advance specialty coffee in the shop. We settled on some highlights with the pour over selection and building in coffee education events. Knowing every customer won’t want to know the growing region of a bean or the solid particle distribution in their espresso shot keeps us grounded to high standards on the more traditional drinks while focusing on stellar service. We believe quality speaks for itself in any form.
Are you working with a specific roaster or seeking a wider range of roasts?
The bulk of our coffee offerings will come from a single roaster who is local to our city. This is in large parts to the quality and diversity of the beans they offer.
How did you settle on your roaster?
This was a big decision for us and a little intimidating at first. We started with several cold calls and email inquiries to regional and local roasters. Most were happy to answer questions we had and share about their range of products. Often they would send samples, and several allowed us to visit their roasteries. While the roaster’s bean quality was high on the list in making this choice, number one was having a relationship with the roasting company and knowing we could develop a good working relationship. You place a lot of trust into your roaster and knowing the people helped us feel settled in our choice. We are fortunate to have a great relationship with our roaster.
Are you looking to expand the menu in the future or specialize strongly in what you already have planned?
While we are open to making menu changes to meet our customer’s needs well, the plan is to stay within our current style of offerings or at least stay very near them.
How did you decide what you want to carry beyond coffee?
Great question! We’re still working on that lol. A great part about opening the shop is knowing that every decision doesn’t have to be made before opening. This is one of those items for us that is still developing. We knew we wanted the food selection to be classic foods with a gourmet bent that would elevate the shop’s experience, almost without noticing. We believe we’ve done that with the partnership we have. The rest of what we’ll offer is still in process!
How do you decide what to offer in terms of dairy and alternative milks?
We wanted some variety in the alternative milk options but stayed close to the types commonly found in most shops (soy, almond, etc.). We’re big fans of the current oak milk products due to the great taste and ability to steam them like milk.
One thing that always frustrated me when working in a coffee shop was general misconceptions about different coffee drinks from customers. Things like misunderstanding what a macchiato is, or not understanding the difference between a cappuccino and a latte, leading to customer complaints. Do you have any strategies for dealing with a customer that lacks coffee knowledge? How does that play into your drink menu?
We see this as such an opportunity to help our customers learn more about the products they love and how they vary. It’s not possible to expect each customer to “order correctly” when so many shops vary the recipes for the standard range of drinks. This is one flaw of the coffee industry that gets translated into the customer’s error. The goal is to serve each customer and have them know they’re being served. This includes covering ordering miscues and helping to ensure they get exactly what they hoped for when they came into the shop. With the drink menu, we anticipate having a few pictorial descriptions around the shop to assist with ordering and help prevent unnecessary waste.
Building some coffee drinks can be a challenge from a technique standpoint. How much does training and staff capabilities factor into building your menu?
We are working to build the training program and want to really break it down to a series of small skills that build on each other. The barista trainings by the SCA are fantastic and we plan to utilize them with our baristas. With a comprehensive training program and several quality control measures, we don’t anticipate having to restrict the menu.
Do you have any other recommendations for aspiring cafe owners on how to construct their menus?
Definitely get a subscription to a specialty coffee magazine or two. We’ve read about some fascinating and original drinks that may be inspiring.
We'll be back soon with more from Stanton and Lindsey!