Archive for the ‘coffee’ Category

I’m just back from nearly three weeks in the US and spent considerable time in New York – it is, as ever, just about the most stimulating city on the planet.

I saw some amazing retailing and some inspirational restaurants but I have to say the quality of the coffee bars (that I saw anyway) wasn’t going to set the world on fire. But one of the things that Hugo and I preach endlessly is to take ideas from other industries and see how they might work in our industry and specifically in your business.

The Abercrombie and Fitch store on Fifth Avenue is the most breathtaking example of a business understanding exactly who their customers are that I think I have ever seen. And, it’s worth bearing in mind, at the age of 41 – I ain’t one of their target customers! But i still walked around in awe at what they were doing and the level of thought that had gone into it.

Basically the store is laid out and created like a nightclub. You have to queue to get in at any time of the day but this is nothing more than the classic nightclub policy of making the place look busier than it actually is. The twenty or so people queueing outside could easily be accomodated within the four floors. The queue moves very quickly. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t busy – it is. Very.

The “doormen” are model boys and girls, with one of the boys standing with his shirt off showing off a body like you might find on the front of Men’s Health. These boys and girls are so beautiful that some of the customers are asking to have their photos taken with them. Inside it’s a similar theme – lots of beautiful but extremely pleasant and friendly model boys and girls welcoming you and manning the tills. At the top of each flight of stairs there is another model waiting to greet you in a genuinely friendly fashion. The music is loud – nightclub loud and the lights are so low you really can’t even see the colours of the clothes. To someone in their forties it’s irritating and seems pointless but to an aspirational teens and twenty something it is amazing and boy were those tills working.

Have a look at their “casting video” here and you can see just how deep this concept goes. You can’t be an Abercrombie model usless you actually work in the stores. So in today’s model and fame obsessed world they must have the beautiful people lining up to work for them and perhaps taste their “fifteen minutes”. All the plain and normal customers are just lining up to buy and take away a little slice of this lifestyle. Even my wife and the wife of my friend were going in to “just have a look at the boys” – in my twenties I’d have been in every day in life to look at the girls. The only reason I wouldn’t do it now is for fear of being branded a “dirty old man” ūüôā

This clearly didn’t happen by accident – there has been some incredibly detailed work going on in the background to help create this experience to support the sales of clothes.

  • How hard do you work to create a really great experience for your customers?
  • How well do you actually know exactly who your customers are or are you trying to be all things to everyone?
  • Have you really sat down and worked out how to attract great staff or are you just doing what everyone else is doing?

Food for thought.


Interested in free one hour consultation? Every week I offer two free one hour consultations where we can deal with any aspect of your business that is causing you problems. If you’d like to get on the waiting list please email me at John@thecoffeeboys.com and briefly list out your biggest challenge. I’ll get back you as soon as possible with some potential dates.


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I’m increasingly obsessed with this concept since it applies to such a large extent in so much of our lives.

Why does Tiger Woods want to keep getting better at golf for example? What drove Michael Schumacher, despite so many years at the top of Formula One, to still work harder than anyone else and even in his last year still be fitter than any of the other guys? Why is one coffee shop owner happy with one site while another needs to grow a huge chain to be content?

Recently I seem to have come across a disproportionate amount of people who regard life in the Coffee Business as the ultimate goal for their lives. It can take some fairly harsh questioning to discover the real “reason why” they are setting up their business and make them understand that the reality is very different from the dream whilst still trying to help them keep their enthusiasm.

The reality is we all have different motivators and different “reasons why” we do anything. But ultimately if you don’t have a strong “reason why” for your customers to visit then they won’t. And your idyllic dream will be brutally shattered.

The harsh reality is that most people think they have a decent reason for customers to visit but they simply don’t.¬† Too many operators expect to be able to offer mediocrity and get away with it and with a potential “tough time” ahead of us in the market they simply won’t survive.

So here is my, by no means exhaustive, list of “reasons why” customers might want to visit you – and keep visiting!

  • Location – a great location is always a bonus but is not, as I often preach, essential. But generally make life easy for yourself with a great location. But NOT if you end up having to pay huge rent and rates bills.
  • Great Coffee – obvious really. But these days it has to be really great to stand out from the crowd. And you really need to have exceptional consistency too.
  • Great food – again it’s obvious but so often overlooked in the coffee bar business. Sometimes there is this perception that focusing on great food takes the emphasis away from great coffee. Which is, of course, total and utter elitist nonsense.
  • Great staff – people who really care about the product AND care about remembering the customer’s name and their drink. It’s probably the biggest challenge we all face but the clients who really care about recruiting, training and retaining great people are always those with the best businesses. (I’ll give you some tips on this in the next few days too)
  • A great atmosphere – do you provide somewhere that is really special? Do you have an environment that people instantly relax in?
  • A great story – is your business one that people can really “buy into”? A coffee shop stands for so much more than somewhere just to get a drink in many people’s eyes. Increasingly I find with clients, all around the UK, that locals are using them almost like a Post Office or a classic English “local” pub. Do you help to provide this?
  • Something genuinely new and different – do you have something properly unique about your business? How many star products do you have that people talk about and become “raving fans” of? If you don’t have something that is unique and really fires up your customers then you’re doomed to failure unless you have an exceptional location. I have the “mother of all star products” to show you in the next few days from one inspirational client who operates down a little alleyway off the High Street in their town.

You don’t need to be perfect on all counts but you do have to tick a few of these boxes. It’s not about being all things to all people but you have to have a few key areas that really provide a strong reason for customers to visit in the first place, return a second and third time and ideally tell their friends about you.

Why should customers visit your business? What do you do that is so great that they might tell their friends?


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On Sunday and Monday of this week Hugo and I were speaking at the Hotelympia show in London.¬† Ultimately both talks went very well and we had good audiences at both but it was a graphic illustration of the need to have a strong “reason why” in terms of promotion.¬†¬† There had been very little promotion for the talk and we were simply billed as “Ireland’s Coffee Boys – John Richardson and Hugh Gilmartin“.¬† The first days talks were all delayed and we ended up speaking nearly an hour after our billed time.¬† This meant that people who had specifically come to see us had to rearrange their day to fit in with the disrupted schedule.

But we were the lucky ones.¬† The lack of “reason why” meant that the previous speaker ended up speaking to the grand total of two people.¬† When you’re Donald Trump you can rely on people turning up for your name alone but for the rest of us you must provide some clear benefit to spending the time to sit and listen.¬† Our “reason why” is that we help people to make more profits with less time working in the business of coffee and when clearly articulated it’s a strong message.

But exactly the same principle applies in your business too.¬† You have to provided a clear, articulate message about why customers should visit you.¬† We spoke to a great many people at the show who simply weren’t busy enough in their businesses.¬† We put together a questionnaire to establish what the main problems operators are having and I will be publishing the results of it on here in the very near future.¬† A quick glance on the plane back home revealed no surprises though.¬† The big issues are:

  1.  Not busy enough.  Not enough customers, not enough turnover, not enough profit.
  2.  A difficulty in recruiting and keeping great people.

In both cases “reason why” is a big issue.¬† When pushed and questioned more closely most of the people we talked to clearly were not providing their customers with a strong enough “reason why” to spend money or a strong enough “reason why” for great people to come and work for them.

Times may very well be tough for the next year or two but even as it stands it is a very competitive marketplace out there for coffee bars.¬† You simply won’t survive if you don’t provide a clear reason for people to visit and spend money with you on a consistent basis.¬† Likewise it is impossible to expect great people to work for you if you don’t provide a great job and your expectation is that they should be lucky to have a job at all and that you pay 10p more than the average rate.¬† Those days are long gone.

So why should people visit your business?¬† What is it that differentiates you from the competition?¬† What is it that you do so well that the sales rep makes a 5 mile detour just to get the chance to buy?¬† What is it that you sell that is so great that the office worker in the building across the road cannot concentrate on her work because she can’t stop thinking about the taste of it?¬† What is it that makes people walk past Starbucks in their prime location to visit you in your location which is a little bit further down the road?

And likewise why would somebody want to work for you?¬† What is it that makes your business a great place to spend eight hours a day?¬† What do you provide that makes the person working in the big chain down the road think “I’m fed up here, I’m just a number, I’m going to see if XXXXXX have any jobs – apparently they’re a great place to work”

I’ll give some examples of great “reason whys” in the next couple of days but in between the frantic “doing, doing, doing” of today try to grab five minutes and watch your customers to observe why they might give you money.¬† Also ask your staff why they like working for you.

Johnnie Richardson 

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Coming through Edinburgh airport for the second time in as many weeks I was again struck by just how superb a job the West Cornwall Pasty Company do. They have the last stand in a long line of food and coffee operations but their branding and use of great images is so brilliant that you feel compelled to walk all the way along to sample their offer. But it’s stronger than that – you actually want to be part of what they do. Of course, surf culture very compelling – goodness knows how much surf gear has been sold to people who never have and never will hold a surf board but so is coffee culture so don’t immediately dismiss it as being “different” from what we do.

At the start of the line you are met with this:

West Cornwall Pasty Co 1

Your attention is grabbed but you still have a long way to go.

But in the distance, past Caffe Nero, EAT and the bar you can see this…

West Cornwall Pasty Camper Van

Now that clearly wasn’t cheap and clearly wasn’t easy to do. In fact I bet it was one of those situations where they went to a variety of shopfitters and were told point blank “it can’t be done“. But it was – and more to the point they did it.

So there it is – a super-sized Volkswagen Camper Van housing a fully functional Cornish Pasty shop – just brilliant. Utterly brilliant.

But they didn’t stop there. The branding extended to many other areas. They had cool old surf photos on the fridge and the menus was listed on a surf board. All the staff wore surf wear and even looked like surfers.

West Cornwall Pasty menu

even the lights were in the shape of a surf board…

West Cornwall Pasty lights

And they were busy and the company seems to be growing at a ferocious rate:


So how does your branding compare?

How hard are you working at making sure you have something wow that lures people in?

Success in what we do is part of a long and complex equation but you need to get all the parts right. You simply can’t reply on a great product any more. Or great people and a great location. You need to have all parts of the jigsaw slotted together and a crucial piece of that jigsaw is branding. Creating a clear, coherent and compelling brand that actually drives people to want to be part of what you do. And never forget that applies to bankers, potential employees and suppliers as much as customers.

Have you bought our book yet? It’s available through Amazon here:

Coffee Boys Book

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(Sorry Рlong winded post alert.  But please bear with me.)

I was passing through Edinburgh last week meeting some new clients and had some time to kill before I took my plane home. As usual my intention was to trot round all the coffee outlets I could find and see what was interesting and maybe pick up a few ideas.

But the problem was I was tired. I had been up late the previous night, perhaps drank a little too much red wine with my clients and I had not slept well in my hotel. So my enthusiasm for new ideas was flagging. What I wanted was peace and quiet, a good cup of coffee and something nice to eat. In short I wanted what most customers want. I didn’t really want innovation or the effort of seeking out something new and exciting. The effort of seeking out something innovative can, and often does, end up in disappointment.

So the lure of the “Big Boys” was strong. Edinburgh, like almost every other city or town in the UK seems to be infested with the big chains and I was sorely tempted to simply slump in a Caffe Nero or a Starbucks and not experiment. I wouldn’t have the most exciting experience in the world but at least it would be reliable and I could be assured of consistency and hopefully a “trained-on” smile. Hopefully they would at least pretend they were glad to see me.

But then I noticed a little coffee bar that was a bit more interesting. It seemed to be very busy and very different to the sterile branding of the big chains. I peered through the window and there seemed to be a diverse crowd – lots of students but also lots of business types conducting meetings.

So that was my dilemma – would I take the safe option of the big chains or be a little brave and try the new and different option? Where I might potentially make a mistake and maybe have no table to sit at? Of course, by the nature of what I do, I tried the new place. And the minute I stepped inside it was all okay. Maybe I didn’t know exactly where to go, maybe I couldn’t see the menu properly and maybe I wasn’t even sure if it was table or counter service (all factors that run through the mind of every new customer) but I was met with a smile and a smile makes nearly everything better.

So I sat at my table, happy with my bravery and glad that I wasn’t sitting in the sterility of the chains with their faux character. But as ever it made me ponder the psychology of the customer. Generally we simply do want what is safe and known to us – it’s human nature. As Oliver Burkeman writes in the Guardian this weekend “When things get confusing and uncertain, tension is created and we feel urge to get rid of it by grabbing onto something solid and unambiguous” What we want in these situations is what psychiatrist Milton Erickson first figured out, is an overwhelming need for “cognitive closure“. In short we don’t like confusion and we like to feel certain about our environment.

Burkeman goes on to quote the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron – “People have so little trust in their ability to rest with negativity and uncertainty that whenever they detect a hint of paradox, or not knowing, they become afraid, and do all sorts of conformist, fundamentalist things to become secure again.”

In the coffee bar sense this means that we crave the familiar and the certain. We crave those places that know our name and we know the system. Starbucks are brilliant at making a clear simple path through their shops to allow you to never feel foolish or out of the loop. Hip coffee bars, just like the hippest bars and night clubs, are great at making you feel a little awkward and perhaps a little nervous about exactly what you do and how you order.

With the desire for most coffee businesses to become this oft-quoted “third place” we need to tread a very fine line between confusing the customer and yet still creating something innovative and appealing that is different to the big boys and can comfortably stand on it’s own feet as an interesting alternative.

It’s not easy to find the solution but a friendly smile, as was the case this time, nearly always makes a huge difference. Are your staff smiling, genuinely smiling, at every customer that comes in?


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“Believe nothing just because a so-called wise person said it. Believe nothing just because a belief is generally held. Believe nothing just because it is said in ancient books. Believe nothing just because it is said to be of divine origin. Believe nothing just because someone else believes it. Believe only what you yourself test and judge to be true.”


Buddha“Just an espresso for me. I don’t want to get hyper”

One of the keys to starting or running any business is the ability to ignore the vast quantity of ill-informed (but often well-meaning) advice. Friends, family, suppliers and even customers are all only too eager to offer advice. I’ve lost count of the number of times a customer has said to me

What you should do is…

Whereas what you should do is actually ignore what they’re saying and only do the things that YOU really know to be true and to work for your business. The reality is that our customers (and we as consumers) very often don’t know what we want and aren’t very good at articulating it truthfully when asked. I’ve conducted focus groups over the years and, if I’m honest, learnt very little of any real value from pure discussions.

As Henry Ford memorably said:

“If I had listened to what my customers believed they wanted…I would have made a faster horse”

In the coffee business this translates into testing and trying out a variety of products and ideas and judging the results, not by customer or staff reactions, but by the money in the till. Ultimately that is what counts. That is what, to paraphrase Buddha, brings you to a state where you can judge the truth.

I watched a fascinating talk by Malcolm Gladwell entitled “What you can learn about spaghetti sauce” which explains this very point. The gist of the talk is that only by actually trying a huge variety of spaghetti sauces on consumers did they come up with the concept of an “extra chunky” spaghetti sauce. The consumer would argue that they wanted spaghetti sauce just like the Italians eat it but only by really testing did they discover that this is simply not the case. And lo they sold $600 million of chunky spaghetti sauces in 10 years.

$600 million from testing and trying new stuff and not just by asking!

He also makes some interesting points about coffee. Not least of which is the fact that when questioned most people say they like a dark, rich, hearty roast. The reality is very different – most people like a weak milky coffee. But obviously that doesn’t sound as good as saying “dark, rich, hearty roast”.
We need to be very careful about forcing our opinions and tastes on our customers. And we need to be very careful and really make a big effort to ensure that our customers really are drinking a coffee they really love.

We need to spend time with them to help work that out.

And once we have helped them to work that out – we need to remember it.

And once we’ve remembered their coffee we need to remember their name… (but that’s for another post)

We need to, as Gladwell eloquently puts it, create coffee that makes them “deliriously happy“.

Johnnie Richardson

More great tips in The Coffee Boys book available at Amazon:

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According to a recent Mintel report the market for branded coffee shops will increase by 52% from 2006 to 2011.  The profile it follows will be something like this.

  • 2006 – ¬£675 million
  • 2007 – ¬£736 million
  • 2008 – ¬£801 million
  • 2009 – ¬£874 million
  • 2010 – ¬£948 million
  • 2011 – ¬£1.02 billion

The big three – Starbucks, Costa and Caffe Nero currently make up nearly 60% of the shops and I see no reason why they won’t continue this split as we move forward.¬† But that only provides a bigger opportunity for small local cafes and small chains to prosper.¬† The joy of being small is you can move faster, work more creatively and provide a friendlier option for the coffee consumer – but, and it’s a big “but” only if you can manage to stand back and work hard on your business and not work in it relentlessly.

The Big Three are simply going to get better at what they do.  They are going to improve every aspect of their business since they have whole departments dedicated to this.  Their human resource departments are working hard to train and retain better staff, the marketing departments are working hard to keep the brand in front of the customer and the finance and buying departments are constantly striving to buy cheaper and put more money to the bottom line.  Whether you have one, two or twenty sites you must keep thinking the same way.

So that’s the good news – those are the good facts about our growing industry.¬† The bad facts are that small operators are closing down every day and, although there are no clear statistics for this yet, we have to assume that our closure and success rates are very similar to the classic restaurant business.¬† i.e. 85% – 90% of them will fail.

So once again you have to make sure this isn’t you by working your business all the time.¬† You must stand back and realise that it is a business and not a hobby.¬† The first three chapters in our book drum this home and then drum it home again.

Make sure you are part of the ¬£1 billion statistic in 2011 and not part of the 90% failure statistic.¬† Failing in business isn’t fun.¬† I know.


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