CardboardBombay in Mumbai, India. Photo by Mrigank Sharma
Early in his career in the coffee business, Bruce Milletto received a piece of advice that’s stayed with him: “What people need to realize is it’s not about the coffee, it’s about the break.”
The long-time café owner and president of Bellissimo Coffee Advisors in Portland, Oregon, says those 15 words provided deep insight into how to be successful in the industry: by thinking about what customers would experience at his establishment.
Years later, it’s still a core message he teaches students at his coffee school.
“There’s 100 places you can go for great coffee,” says Milletto. “What else are you going to give the customer?”
The concept of doing something unique to differentiate your business and attract customers is what marketing professionals call the “unique selling proposition” or “unique selling point” (USP): the thing that makes you special so that people choose your café over the one down the road.
Author and coffee consultant John Richardson of Coffee Profit Lab in the U.K. observes that USP is more important today than ever before because there is so much more competition.
“A good coffee shop (12 years ago) did not need to have a strong USP. The USP was, ‘That’s the place you go to get coffee,’” he says. “These days, you have to have something different.”
What that different thing is varies by type of business, location, clientele, business objective, and competition. The unique element needs to complement the business’ identity, adds Richardson.
Your USP could be a superb location, a one-of-a-kind experience, a signature drink or product, a concept or theme, or your values interwoven into the fabric of the company in a special way. What it won’t be is a promise to serve the best cup of coffee.
The USP of a successful café is often something not related to coffee or product at all, says Tom Vincent, founder and president of the Texas Coffee School in Arlington. A former marketing professional, Vincent helps his students position their business so it resonates with today’s clients, many of whom thrive on experiencing something special.
“We’re not in the coffee business, we’re in the ‘selling an experience’ business,” he explains. “We are in a sea of sameness….I see the same menu items, same Instagram feeds, same everything. My goal is to plant the seed in [my students’] minds so they see bigger and more interesting possibilities.”
If the thing that makes your coffee or tea business more desirable than the coffee or tea business next door has little to do with the quality of your coffee or tea, how do you find the ingredient to make your business stand out? With the right mix of strategy, creativity, passion, and investment, you can find the unique story you want your business to tell, the story that will connect with the heart of your customers and get you fired up to lead your business through good times and bad.
Here, for inspiration, Fresh Cup has assembled coffee and tea businesses worldwide whose USPs make them stand out from the crowd.
Location, Location, Location
A great geographic location is a key component of a successful business. These businesses take location one step further by situating themselves in locales that draw people in, establishing their business in a space that’s not just a location, but a destination.
Crew Collective & Café
Montreal, Québec, Canada
Crew Collective & Café transformed the Florentine palazzo-style former Royal Bank of Canada headquarters, built in 1928, into a café and co-working space. The building’s architectural gems—grand marble archways, hand-painted coffered ceiling, mosaic floors, and ornate chandeliers—have all been preserved.
Asheville, North Carolina
Located inside a floral shop, Forage’s seating options are dotted between greenery: hanging plants, ferns, blooms in vases, and an elegantly draped arch. As one blogger wrote upon her visit to the café, “It’s just one of those places that you don’t want to leave.”
Built in the thirteenth century, Maastricht’s Dominicanen church features Gothic architecture, stained glass windows, and centuries-old frescoes. Today, the church, which no longer has religious ties, houses a bookshop that attracts more than 700,000 visitors a year, and the Coffeelovers chain established a café in the former choir. In a nod to the building’s history, you can sit at a cross-shaped table, surrounded by stone pillars with dappled light piercing the leaded-glass windows.
Lake Agnes Tea House
Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada
Hike two hours into the Canadian Rocky Mountains to visit this tea house, perched at 7,005 feet above sea level with views of the high-altitude Lake Agnes. Along the route, catch glimpses of Lake Louise, a glacial lake world-famous for its aquamarine waters.
Vampire lairs, cat cafés, motorcycle hangouts, cultural tributes—themed locales attract curious customers interested in having a unique experience. Deliver on your brand’s promise for something unforgettable, and enjoy soaking up the free advertising: These spaces are often havens for Instagram photos.
Walls, tables, chairs, chandeliers, accessories—it’s all cardboard at CardboardBombay. Everything in the space save the shell and kitchen appliances has been sculpted of corrugated cardboard, chosen to show the biodegradable material’s versatility, durability, and potential for modern architectural design. The space is an artistic and architectural feat.
Cape Town, South Africa
This Parisian café and crêperie uses a swan motif to create an elegant aesthetic and unique experience with waiters in Breton stripes and berets. Copper-colored birdcages function as eye-catching light fixtures, the warm rust color contrasting with the deep purple swan logo, gray floor, and large wall murals—purple-hued prints of artwork depicting the mythology of Leda and the Swan.
Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse
Set in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse was a gift from Boulder’s sister city, Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. Built between 1987 and 1990, it was constructed in Dushanbe by hand by a team of more than 40 artisans. The building was then disassembled, sent to Boulder, and reconstructed there. The 12 carved wooden columns, hand-painted ceiling, ceramic panels and colorful Persian artwork make this teahouse a living, breathing work of art.
Step inside the ultimate themed café and pass into a pastel fantasyland with unicorn wallpaper, stuffed animals suspended overhead, and multi-colored floor, ceiling, and furniture. Menu items are served on star-shaped plates, and the Galaxy Frappe comes in a star-shaped receptacle.
Look Mum No Hands!
One of the first cycle cafés, Look Mum No Hands! lives its values by placing cycling culture at the heart of all it does, intertwining a love of bikes with the café experience. With four bike mechanics working full-time in the workshop, the business also hosts special events like Tour de France screenings and book launches as well as cycle-themed art exhibitions and presentations.
Data from Consumer Technographics shows that consumers of all ages are increasingly gravitating toward values-driven companies. The coffee and tea industry brims with potential for matching a strong mission with café operations.
Red Bay Coffee
“Beautiful coffee to the people,” reads Red Bay Coffee’s tagline. The San Francisco Bay Area roaster-retailer, whose fourth location opened in June, was founded by artist and entrepreneur Keba Konte. With a mission of bringing diversity and inclusivity to the specialty coffee community, Red Bay seeks to hire people of all backgrounds, including those who have been incarcerated and those with disabilities. More than 50 percent of the management is made up of women.
Zavida Coffee Roasters
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
More than 500,000 trees have been planted thanks to Zavida Coffee Roasters’ coffee drinkers. The company plants one tree in rural communities in Africa for every 10 cups of coffee it sells and for every item purchased online. The trees are planted through a partnership with Trees for the Future, an American non-profit organization.
Dovecote Café hosts a weekly food rescue program providing free produce for those in need. Carrots, peppers, lettuce, beans, pineapple, grapefruit—all is provided by Baltimore Free Farm, a collective of gardeners committed to growing healthy food for all.
Shake up the management model, swap bricks and mortar for four wheels, change the way you interact with customers and take orders. Think different when it comes to setting up your company and create a unique model that speaks to your business’ values.
Cree Coffee Company
Maskwacis, Alberta, Canada
For years, Dylan Tootoosis has traveled across western Canada on the Powwow Trail to set up a concession stand and sell his coffee, made with beans purchased from indigenous farmers in South America. He launched Cree Coffee Company’s online store in June 2019.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Loyal Coffee is owned by six baristas, each bringing their own skills, talents, and experience to the table. Their business model is emblematic of their vision for the café: a place that creates community.
Slater St. Bench
Slater St. Bench upends the traditional user experience by eliminating the standard layout whereby a counter separates customer from employee. Inspired by a household kitchen, where adults, children, friends, and family can walk where they please and be with the person preparing the meal, Bench customers stand on the same side as the barista, a shift in design that contributes to a friendly, home-like environment where customers and employees are part of the same community.
Like the Arnold Palmer, the flat white, and the Caffé Nico, a signature drink can put a business on the map, especially when the beverage becomes synonymous with the brand. Some companies invent a new way to experience a classic drink; others are early adopters of a novel beverage, ushering it into the mainstream.
Full Bloom Coffee
Garner, North Carolina
Full Bloom Coffee is home to the Honey Brew, a blend of cold brew coffee and pure honey, available in two flavors, peppermint and cinnamon. Cold brew coffee has hit the mainstream; Honey Brew is a new take on an “it” beverage.
The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf
Los Angeles, California
Nitrogen is literally all around us, and now it’s bubbling up in our beverages. Nitro tea is a sparkling cold brew tea infused with nitrogen gas instead of carbon dioxide, the more traditional choice for fizzy drinks. The result is a tea with a creamy, foamier texture, with less acidity and more flavor, presented by a company that was also at the forefront of cold brew tea.
In partnership with Bellefonte Brewing Company and Brandywine Coffee Roasters, Delaware coffee chain Brew HaHa! produced a special edition black coffee IPA named “Bean Laughing.”