Caffe Ambiance: How to Create
a Memorable Experience for your Customers
Story and Photos by Bruce Millletto
President Bellissimo Coffee InfoGroup
Founder, The American Barista & Coffee School
The dictionary tells us ambiance is “the character and
feeling of a place.” But does ambiance affect your coffee
business? More than you know! The ambiance you create is one
of your best marketing tools. The look and feel of your business
and the brand you create is your signature, and it’s one
of the most important reasons customers will choose you over
the competition. Whether your café is already open or
you’re in the beginning stages of planning your business,
there are many things you can do to create an ambiance that will
make a visit to your café a memorable experience for your
As companies grow larger, they commonly hire a market research
firm to find out what their customers like and dislike and what
additional products or services they desire. This is often done
through the use of focus groups. A multinational company we worked
with pulled together a series of such groups to explore a new
coffee concept the company was planning to develop.
This client had a very unique concept. The company’s goal
was to bring the spirit of a certain foreign country to America.
The individuals involved in the project knew this country well,
and they were very familiar with the likes and dislikes of its
However, to successfully import the culture of this country to
the United States, they knew they also must learn about the likes
and dislikes of the people who lived in the zip code in which
they planned to build their first location. To this end, the
client held more than 10 focus group meetings, covering myriad
subjects from food to seating to ambiance, with the intent of
tailoring their concept to fit the needs and desires of this
particular American audience.
There is no reason you cannot poll customers in your area in
the same way large multinational companies do with great success.
Focus groups can be helpful if you are already open or just beginning
to plan your business. It is in your best interest to know if
you are giving your customers the products, services and ambiance
they desire. You need to find out what your customer’s
needs are and fulfill as many of them as possible.
To start a focus group, first ask a variety of people in your
area if they are willing to participate. Then, create a list
of topics and questions to discuss, such as:
What type of food would you like us to serve?
What hours would you would like us to be open?
How do you/will you use our space? Will you conduct business
meetings at our cafe? Will you primarily come alone? Is it important
for us to provide reading material? If so, what kind? How important
is a wireless connection to you? Is it important for our operation
to have a child friendly space? Would you use outdoor seating
if it is available and if weather permits?
What type of beverages do you enjoy in addition to coffee?
If our operation is open evenings and weekends, would you visit
our business twice in one day if we served a selection of beer
and wine in addition to coffee?
How important is music? Would you pay a small cover to listen
to live local artists? What type of music do you like to listen
to when in a coffeehouse setting?
What colors do you find most relaxing?
What kind of seating do you prefer?
The list could go on and on. Many of the questions you will come
up with will be specific to your location and overall concept.
After you analyze the information you have received from your
focus group, try to incorporate the best and most workable ideas
into a unifying theme that will define your coffee business and
create its ambiance.
After the focus group meets, it is important to express your
appreciation for each person’s participation. You might
offer each participant a $25 prepaid swipe card embossed with
your logo. Many of these people could become your best customers
because they have had direct input into your business.
You Can Take the Opposite Approach of a Chain
Always remember that no matter how many large chains operate
in your town, you have the capacity to out market all of them.
You know the needs and desires of people in your area better
than is generally possible for the large corporate players. The
largest chain stores often look the same in New York City as
they do in Manhattan Beach, Calif.—the same colors, the
same look, the same products. It would be difficult for a chain
operation to redesign each store for every location, so they
have developed a formula for ambiance that will work anywhere.
They also must keep their “brand” alive by maintaining
a consistent look and feel. The design of a chain store must
be one that is general in nature; it must be middle of the road
so it will work almost anywhere. The chains find locations that “fit” their
style. You have a much easier task. You know your area and can
tailor your café and its feel to fit your customers—the
exact opposite of what the chains do.
What Creates Ambiance?
What should you consider when developing ambiance in your café?
The list is endless, but following are some of the most important
Yes, your menu is part of your ambiance. As we always tell clients,
You must first and foremost be known as a coffeehouse. You do
not want to confuse people about who you are by marketing a varied
menu that will have customers scratching their heads and wondering,
Great place, but what is it? A gelataria? A lunch spot? A bar?
By no means does your mission to be known as a coffeehouse mean
you have to limit your menu. Instead, it means you must present
your menu in such a way that it will create a coffeehouse feel
even though the menu may be expansive.
> Your employees and their knowledge of coffee
The way your customers are treated during their visit to your
business is also a critical element of your ambiance, as is the
overall knowledge your staff has about your menu and coffee.
A knowledgeable and customer service-oriented staff will make
your customers feel they are frequenting an establishment that
The way your employees dress is also important. Will you require
them to wear khaki slacks or shorts with black polo shirts and
black hats? The appearance of your staff is a critical part of
the overall feel of your establishment.
> Your seating
This is a big one. In most neighborhood or even business district
cafés, you should provide a number of different seating
scenarios: one for those who come in alone, one for those who
want to linger for awhile on a couch and other setups. You can
create a low ceiling area with a soffit that may feel private
for those coming in for both coffee and a meeting. As mentioned
earlier, outdoor seating may be important, especially in areas
that have weather that is conducive to being outdoors much of
the year. If your budget allows, building a couple of levels
for seating can divide spaces appropriately and render a unique
> Your signage
Never underestimate the importance of professionally designed
signage. From your storefront sign with your logo to menu boards,
countertop and retail signs, to unique tabletop tents, each component
of your signage should be professional, distinctive and thematic.
> The equipment you choose
Many may question how the equipment you choose affects the feel
of your operation. A former client of Bellissimo built a beautiful,
well-thought-out coffeehouse where cost was not a major factor
in selecting the materials. However, when it came time to buy
an espresso machine that would be the focal point of his operation,
he chose an ugly, boxy two-group machine, totally out of character
with his upscale theme. We told him he needed a red Ferrari as
his centerpiece. He never regretted his subsequent purchase:
a larger, modern, colorful three-group machine that complemented
the character of his operation by adding to—not diminishing—the
look and feel he desired.
> Your small wares
If you decide to sell items such as French presses and other
brewing equipment, you will need to design a customer-friendly
area that is in full view of your staff. It should be visually
appealing and be kept fresh month to month with new displays
The type of china and even the paper cups you serve your beverages
in also affect your ambiance. Do your paper cups have your logo
on them, or are they plain white? The shape, size and condition
of your ceramic cups also define your ambiance. Do you use ceramic
cups imported from Italy or mismatched china? What feeling do
you want your business to convey? A hip, urban coffeehouse may
require mismatched retro china, while an upscale café in
the suburbs may choose a polished look for their glassware and
> Latte art
How do you present your lattes and cappuccinos? Do your baristas
pour beautiful hearts and rosettas that wow your customers, or
do they serve drinks with little thought as to how they look?
Pouring latte art affects your ambiance because it affects how
your customers feel about your product and your business.
We cannot imagine building out or redesigning a café with
ambiance in mind without putting a great deal of time into choosing
the right music to play at various times of the day. Upbeat music
that would be appropriate in the evening may not appeal to your
morning customers who have just gotten out of bed. If you have
an Italian-themed bar with the ambiance of Verona, you may want
to interject some Italian music from artists like Zuccero or
Eros Ramazotti. If your theme/branding and ambiance is geared
to a very hip, young audience, it will likely suit your customers
to include songs with a driving beat from cutting-edge alternative
and electronic artists.
Just as most coffeehouses are putting in a free wireless network
for their clients, they also are incorporating flat plasma televisions
into their operations. TV screens give you a lot of options when
it comes to creating ambiance. You can tune your television to
CNN in the morning, fashion or music channels in the afternoon
and possibly play black-and-white movies from the 1930s with
the sound off in the evening, using your stereo to play appropriate
> Materials / lighting / art
The materials you use to build out your operation will be a major
component of the ambiance of your coffee business, and the choices
are almost endless. Countertops can be concrete, marble, laminate
or of beautiful wood. Floors can range from acid-etched concrete
to terrazzo to granite. The use of wood can evoke a feeling of
warmth. Exposed pipes and air ducts can give your business an
industrial feel. Draperies can dampen sound and add texture.
It is important to have some flexibility in your lighting scheme
and have the ability to dim your lights during evening hours
to create a different mood than the one you have during the day.
Soft halogen lighting works well to highlight certain areas of
your operation and create focus.
In addition to your building materials and lighting, the art
you choose to put on your walls will make a huge impact on overall
ambiance. Local art, modern art, renaissance art or a hodgepodge
of all of them will help convey the ambiance you are trying to
Ask for Help
We have only scratched the surface of some of the aspects of
creating ambiance, which is crucial to your success. Over the
years, we have seen few coffee retailers who place enough importance
on this aspect of the operation.
Never be afraid to do your research, reach out and ask for help
if you need it. Few people who will open a coffee business have
all the expertise it may take to get each and every component
of ambiance correct. If you do not know how colors work together,
ask people who do. The same goes for decor, music, seating layouts,
fabrics, surfaces, etc.
Keep a notebook handy and write down things you like that you
see in other operations. Do not limit your explorations to coffee
operations. You can obtain wonderful ideas from many types of
Your ambiance tells customers everything about you and what you
stand for—it is the image you want to sell. Take the time
to do everything right.
Caffe Ambiance DVD Available from Bellissimo
Bellissimo developed "Caffe Ambiance" for coffee
business owners to play in their cafés or on their showroom
floors. The DVD is an expertly photographed series of coffee
joined together by fast-paced editing and accompanied by a hip
sound track of original ambient music, specifically composed
for each unique segment. For quieter times, the images speak
for themselves with the volume turned off. In addition to coffee-related
imagery from North, Central and South America, Europe and Africa, "Caffe
Ambiance" is sprinkled with beautiful fancy milk art pours
that will convince customers that a cappuccino is truly art in
The 60-minute DVD is formatted to repeat over and over, allowing
you to play "Caffe Ambiance" all day long without tending
to the DVD player. "Caffe Ambiance" retails for $79.95,
but is on sale for $69.95. Wholesale discounts are available. Click
here to order.
Bruce Milletto is the President of Bellissimo
Coffee InfoGroup and Founder of the American
Barista & Coffee School.