"No matter what café in Montparnasse you ask a taxi-driver to bring you to from the right bank of the river, they always take you to the Rotonde," Ernest Hemingway wrote.
To walk into Café la Rontonde, Le Dome, or Les Deux Magots in the 1920s, would be to walk into Hemingway, Picasso, or F Scott Fitzgerald. One can imagine them sitting around a small bistro table outside sipping on a single malt or un café express, discussing their next great artistic feat – still unknown to them - as all of Paris passed them by. The Parisian café is arguably the most important contributor to 20th century creativity. They were the very birthplace of ideas that have become immortalized in fiction and on the canvas. Social, restorative, inspiring – the café’s function for the creative was entirely multifaceted.
Fast forward to 2016. Even with the rare cozy leather armchair or the familiarity of a brew that smells of home, it would be hard to picture Hemingway and Stein discussing plot lines under Dunkin' Donuts’ florescent lights or crafting “one true sentence” under Starbucks’ green awning.
As flex hours become more popular and people again start using coffee shops as their office, their boardroom, or their study, independent coffee shops have a chance to bring back the essence of the Parisian café as a place for creativity, observation, and connection. So how do we turn a coffee shop into, not just an experience, but also a culture in the age of the takeaway cup? Here are a few ideas to explore.
Creating the Ideal Atmosphere
Atmosphere in the café world is synonymous with its brand. More than anything else, even beyond the coffee served, the atmosphere of a café can make it or break it. Everything from the concept, to the staff, to the music, to the décor should work towards evoking a certain feel.
Not to kill the romance, but this is technically called sensory branding. Essentially, it’s a means to evoke the senses to forge emotional bonds in the customer’s mind so they become loyal to the brand and, without beating around the bush, buy more.
When it comes to sound, “brands with music that ‘fit’ their brand identity are 96% likelier to prompt memory recall,” says Martin Lindstrom, author of Brand Sense: Sensory Secrets Behind The Stuff We Buy. He’s mentioned a few enlightening statistics about our senses and consumer habits.
About smell, he says, “Test results have shown a 40% improvement in our mood when we’re exposed to a pleasant fragrance—particularly if the fragrance taps into a joyful memory.” On sight, he asserts that not only is 83% of the information people retain received visually, but the shape of that visual information influences buying as well.
While sensory branding can be construed as a tad manipulative when you think about it in terms of corporate agendas, coffee shops come by sensory branding almost naturally. Think about it. The coffee shop experience is an extraordinarily sensory one. The smell of a fresh brew, acoustic cover music playing gently in the background, the clicking of computer keys, eclectic local art featured on the walls, a Moroccan mint tea warming the cockles of your heart… sighhhh. Creating an atmosphere using sensory branding is essentially just making sure all these things match and work together to fit your customer’s needs.
So what should you consider when determining the atmosphere of your café? While there’s no one size fits all solution, here are a few things to consider, according to RestoBiz.
Natural vs. artificial light. Cold bulbs vs. warm bulbs. Low light vs. bright light. Sleepy vs. creative. Romantic vs. productive; the light quality changes the visual vibe of your establishment so ensure that your bulbs and their placement are setting the right tone for you café.
From the type of music you’re playing, to the volume of the music, to the number of patrons you have at a time, and of course, the type of patrons you attract, these factors all add to the auditory sensory experience and the first impression a new customer receives when they walk in the door. Is your place a nice working environment with Nora Jones playing along side the click clack of laptop keys or is it more of a meeting and social vibe, filled with conversation and indie music?
Do you want a tight knit space, workbench environment? Or do you want to develop a space for intimate conversations by leaving more room between tables?
From your tables to your coffee cups, RestoBiz suggests that, “natural wood grains, soft leather and fabric suggest comfort, just as slick metal, stone and glass can energize a space. However, some materials (such as granite) give the best of both worlds – the rich depth of visual texture, with a slick hard tactile reality.” Do you want people to linger? Or is your intention to have them grab and go?
This one seems obvious – the smell of coffee is anything but understated and lucky for you, it’s a warming and comforting smell for most. Mix in the smell of fresh baked muffins and cookies, and you’re almost guaranteed a win, whatever your ideal atmosphere is.
Giving Your Customers the Warm Fuzzies
Once you’ve mastered the vibe, to keep your café culture strong, the key is to keep customers returning. You want regulars. Joan Simon of Full Plate Restaurant Consulting once said, “Regulars pay the rent. From a bottom-line standpoint, they’re critical.” And she’s right. One National Restaurant Association survey reported that repeat customers make up 71% of sales at quick service restaurants and 68% of sales at fast-casual operations. So how do you get your regular game on point and foster a community within your café? Here’s three big places to start:
Beyond excellent customer service and friendly staff, when someone starts frequenting your café, recognize their patronship and use them to get feedback on things like your atmosphere. Simon says, that regulars can act as a sort of focus group. When regulars are recognized and appreciated, “the relationship that results enables the operator to get critical feedback. It’s great to be able to go to your customers and say, ‘We’re thinking of doing x, y, z. What’s your opinion?’ Or, ‘We’ve just added something new, have you tried it? What do you think?’ They’ll tell you what you’re doing right, what you’re doing wrong, what you could be doing that you hadn’t even thought about. That type of feedback will come most reliably from your regulars.”
Your restaurant should provide benefits for frequent customers that fill their needs. If your target is a working professional, free and unlimited WiFi is a necessity. If your customer base is largely comprised of artists, feature their work on the walls, or have open mic nights or poetry readings. Give them a freebee now and then… just because.
The previous two points also work to create a community within your café. Bringing together your customers in an open mic night might result in new relationships amongst your patrons, so they’ll recognize each other the next time they come in. Every successful community needs a common bond, a linchpin. When a community forms at your café, that linchpin becomes your establishment.
With the perfect mix of elements, your quaint establishment might be saluted in a work of fiction or a song. Or it just might lend itself to a creative endeavour silently. Foster a community and you never know what might happen. To conclude with the words of Hemingway, perhaps the inspiration for creating an inviting and memorable café culture can be found in the following prose:
“It was a pleasant cafe, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old water-proof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a cafe au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write.”
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