What Makes a Good Coffee Shop?

“I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy coffee shop, asking him the design team to love her for dim lighting, over-sized, comfy couches by a roaring fire that I can curl up in.” -Notting Hill/ Julie

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I’ve been spending a lot of time recently in coffee shops since my main focus for this semester is writing my thesis. I quit working full-time last spring and have just been doing very part-time design work and consulting for a few other designers since then, so I don’t have a real office. I do have a desk in my room, but I have a hard time working in there–I don’t like my sleeping and working spaces to be one and the same. So on most days, you can find me at my local Starbucks.

Living in the DC suburbs, there aren’t a plethora of locally owned, small coffee shops that don’t mind you sitting in them for 17 hours on end mooching off their wifi, so unfortunately I have to continue to feed the beast of chain coffee shops.

I’ve been listening to a the Around the Table podcast a lot in the past few weeks, and on a recent episode they talked about their ideas on what makes a good coffee shop. Here are my two cents, with more of a design view of things.

A good coffee shop can be your third place. A few definitions of third place, from around the web:

“In community building, the third place (or third space) is the social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace.” –Wikipedia

“Oldenburg identifies third places, or “great good places,” as the public places on neutral ground where people can gather and interact. In contrast to first places (home) and second places (work), third places allow people to put aside their concerns and simply enjoy the company and conversation around them. Third places “host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.”” –Ray Oldenburg, Ph.D.

A third place is where you can feel relaxed, not rushed, a place where you feel at home.

My main haunt is a Starbucks about 10 minutes away from me–there are two closer Starbucks and two other coffee shops along the way, but this particular one is worth the drive for a few reasons, mostly all related to the ambiance, layout and design of the building.

A good coffee shop is warm and welcoming.

One of my favorite parts of my Starbucks is the fireplace, as you can see pictured above. I am a huge proponent of fireplaces–I think they are appropriate in just about every space. (Doctor’s office? DMV? Sure why not!) If I were to design my dream home there would be a fireplace in every room. I think they are fine in warmer weather regions–you can buy ones that don’t emit heat. They give off the impression of “home” that just automatically makes you feel welcome.

Another coffee chain, Caribou, which had several locations throughout metro DC was taken over by Peet’s several months ago. I was super bummed Caribou and their amaaaazing milk chocolate hot chocolate went away, but excited for Peet’s to come to the area because I’ve heard great things about their coffee, but… THEY GOT RID OF THE FIREPLACE. I just want to sit down and talk to their design time and ask them “why… how could you do this to me.” I understand Peet’s has their own brand and design they implement in all their stores, but if there is already a beautifully designed fireplace in a store, you keep the dang fireplace. (Rant over.)

Another must is temperature–they talked about this in the ATT podcast, but freezing cold coffee shops are, in the words of Liz Lemon, a deal breaker. I don’t expect coffee shops to be as warm as I’d like them, roughly the temperature of the inside of a space heater on full blast, but if I am chilly even with a sweater on, sorry coffee shop, it’s not happening.

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A good coffee shop has dim lighting.

…But also spaces that are not so dim, because normal people need normal people lighting to see/ talk/ interact/ work. I like spaces with little overhead lighting and lots of ambient and task lighting, but I know that is not for everyone. However, there is absolutely, without a doubt, no reason or need for tube fluorescent lighting in a coffee shop (or anywhere, it’s the worst, but that’s my irrational issue). While the light that human brains are used to and drawn to–incandescent is quickly being phased out, LED lighting is becoming the norm is just about every space, residential and commercial. LED lighting, and lighting design in general is changing so fast, that there have been huge improvements since I took my lighting design course a year and a half ago. LED lighting is constantly being tweaked and made better so that it not only is super energy-efficient, it also puts out a really soft light. (I am really passionate about lighting in commercial spaces. Have an hour or 57? I will talk your ear off about good lighting.)

A good coffee shop is quiet, but not too quiet.

I’m not sure if someone fell in the and hit the volume button at my favorite Starbucks, but the music has gotten really loud, making it harder to concentrate while here. Which is another reason that spurred on this post, I’ve been thinking about breaking up with my bestie Starbucks in search of a quieter one.

On the other end of the spectrum, you don’t want a shop so quiet that it is uncomfortable and you can hear the customer on the other end of the store chewing. Soft music in the background is a necessity.

Not helping the noise level at all at my favorite ‘bucks is the fact that there are very little soft surfaces in this store. Lots of tile and wood combined with the fact that this Starbucks is two stories means that sounds aren’t absorbed but rather amplified and echo. Which leads me to…

A good coffee shop is designed using a variety of materials.

Wood, tile, upholstered surfaces, window treatments… use them all. If you are going to use hard surfaces on the floor, as opposed to carpet–there needs to be ample soft surfaces to absorb noise as well as create a softness to the space.

A good coffee shop has a variety of seating options.

An important part of any well-designed space is the ability for the user to make adjustments to their environment. Adjustable height desks are a huge trend in office design (and one that is here to stay I’m guessing), and it’s because we are recognizing that we all are shaped differently, work differently and need varying options for seating in order to be productive. I would be happy with a coffee shop full of oversized sofas, but that’s not for everyone. Communal tables, two tops, four tops, round tables, square tables…. BANQUETTE seating, oh my, let’s not forget banquette/ booth seating. Customers need to have a variety of seating (upholstered/ non-upholstered) and table options.

A good coffee shop has a well designed ceiling.

Really any well designed space should have a carefully thought out ceiling design. In a coffee shop, really tall ceilings are not the best idea. If a space has high ceilings, a well designed coffee shop would drop the ceiling in various locations. Lowered ceilings make a space feel more comfortable and safe. A space with high ceilings gives the impression of awe and grandeur (e.g. Cathedrals, museums, etc…). Since we humans spend the first 9 months of our existence comfy cozy inside our mom, we naturally feel more comfortable in cozier spaces. A really tall ceiling can feel very daunting and intimidating, which does not lend itself well to having a cup of coffee with a friend.

A good coffee shop has many, many outlets.

This was another thing the girls (I say as if they are my BFF) mentioned in their podcast. Coffee shops need quad outlets at least every four feet in the walls, and several locations on the floor. And really coffee shops designed today need to have outlets with USB ports in them.

And last but not least… A good coffee shop has fast wifi. And free wifi. Amen.

 PS- Coffee shop chains, if you are reading this, you have GOT to get on the coworking train. Shops with rentable by the day/ week/ month, secure office spaces….I (and start-up businesses/ freelancers) would be ALL OVER THAT. I will design them for you!

Over and out.

Oh, and… I’ve decided to close comments on my posts for a plethora of reasons (maybe I’ll write a post on this…). Feel free to drop me a line on twitter or via the contact page above if you have a comment. Thanks!