Are Too Many Menu Options Stifling Your Coffee Shop’s Success?

It’s opening day at the coffee shop you have put your heart and soul into. You wait anxiously for that first customer to come strolling into your meticulously designed café where you have spent months or even a year, scrutinizing over the menu and hand selecting the finest specialty coffees that would make any coffee connoisseur’s day.  You’ve invested in the very best coffee making equipment money can buy, and your staff have been through several days of professional barista training and coffee classes.  Your team is practiced and your specialty coffee program feels perfected.  Here it is – the moment you have been waiting for.

Your very first customer walks up to the register, doesn’t even glance at the menu (they must know their stuff!) and orders… a caramel macchiato.

While this situation can be frustrating for any hardcore passionate specialty coffee purveyor, it is a reality you will face when encountering the flocks of “green mermaid” familiars that will meander loftily into your store, and not return because you were such a radical departure from what they have been trained to expect, “dessert in a cup with a slight hint of coffee flavor.”

Weeks pass, and the numbers decline – the attraction of being “new” quickly fades away, and you’re left wondering if perhaps you should be jumping on the “green mermaid” bandwagon and offering those famous mystery chemical-infused syrup concocted drinks to appease such a large consumer segment.

Now every opinion you hear (i.e. “you should have a triple fudge cake chunk mocha”) gets inside your head, and you begin to question your entire plan. Driven to make a profit, you begin throwing a handful of new items on the menu to appease your customers without giving it much thought, other than “give the people what they want.”  The menu never stops growing because your customers are constantly in your head. At this point you’ve lost any of the core values you began this journey with, and you are in survival mode, just trying to keep afloat. When customers enter your coffee shop it takes them a good five minutes to read the novel of chicken scratch drink concoctions sprawled across the entire wall and on two folding sandwich boards and one chalk board sign. Your program has lost all focus and you are in the classic mom & pop coffee shop scenario struggling to make it month-to-month.  How did this happen?

Before we go any further, make no mistake, we are not even slightly suggesting you should alienate your customers or the market you are in. That would be a one-way ticket to being out of business. Instead, we are suggesting not trying to be all things to all people (because it is virtually impossible).  Don’t be mediocre at a lot of things  because you won’t be memorable, and you won’t have a reason for customers to go out of their way to come back to you. You are simply a stop between point A and Point B.  Instead, be truly spectacular at a few things. Be focused. Be famous for something that you do better than anyone else. Just make sure this thing you become famous for is something profitable, and something you actually love yourself.

It Starts With Why.

Getting things turned around and back on the right course takes some inward reflection. Take the time to step back and truly identify Why you are doing this coffee shop business in the first place?


  • What personal fulfillment do you hope to achieve from being in the coffee shop business?
  • What are you most passionate about and why does this get you out of bed everyday?
  • What specifically is meaningful and special to you about being in this business (i.e. Why a coffee shop and not a taco stand)?
  • What do you get excited to share with others, and why?
  • What do you want to disrupt in the marketplace (Meaning: What makes your concept memorable?  Why will people be talking about you?)

Whatever your answers are to these very tough questions, they will enable you to identify what is truly special about your company over any others. Believe it or not, entrepreneurs often get their core company values confused with their delivery tactics. Meaning, they think how they do what they do makes their company special. (i.e. “We buy the very best coffee beans, we use the best espresso machine, we have beautiful decor, etc”…) All of those “hows” can be easily copied by a competitor and the cool factor can wear off quickly because they are shallow.

It’s Why you do what you do that makes your company special. Your customers don’t just want to buy what you do (meaning what you sell), they want to buy Why you do what you do.  If you can take the time to identify your “Why” you can way more easily identify a more specific segment of customers that will be your most loyal and will get behind your point of view. Ask yourself, Who are the people that will not only stop in and make a purchase while driving between between point A and point B, but who will get excited and hopefully even passionately loyal to your business due to your company point of view and values you outlined above?  This segment of customers are who you want to focus your efforts around.  They are the people that not only stop in to buy What you are selling, but they also buy Why you are selling it. These are the people that will consciously pass by three other options for coffee to come to your establishment. They identify with what your company represents, what it stands for, and what it serves. Be all things to THESE people because they will be the people that line up outside your door just like a flock of Apple loyalists a week before a new iPhone release.

Reshape Your Menu Based on a Strategy, Not Emotions.

Now that you have identified your company values, and the customers that will get behind and support these values, have a look at your market/location. Is there a large population of these target customers, even in your market?  If not, you need to build your menu to suite the needs of who actually is in your market, without alienating why you started this business in the first place. Always be willing to fine-tune for your market, just be sure you never alienate your core values.  Otherwise you won’t ever look forward to getting out of bed everyday and you will never feel fulfillment from owning your own coffee shop business. (Ideally, you would do all of this thinking ahead of selecting a location, so you can ensure your business is smack dab in the middle of a large population of your target customers that identify with your company point of view and values so you can be doing exactly what you want with little compromise.)

Don’t Try to Compete With the Corporate Chains:

If you come to realize you are in an area with very few people who identify with your point of view or overall company values, don’t immediately default to replicating  the Green Mermaid menu model. They will hands-down beat you at their own game every time.  And the thing is, there isn’t really even a competition.  Not to mention, they will be faster and better at their own model every time.  Why wouldn’t people just go to them, or the Golden Arches if the products are similar?

Be Authentic:

While consumers may still struggle with what defines “specialty” in terms of coffee, they have no problem connecting “specialty” with the experiences they felt in a local quality-oriented café environment.  In a survey conducted by the SCAA, consumers defined chain coffee shops as “’inauthentic,’ ‘uniform,’ ‘[having] extensive menus,’ [and] ‘fake words.’”  These types of shops resonated as being far from “specialty,” and were even associated with being “fast food.”

There is nothing “special” about fast food, so stay FAR away from anything that makes your coffee shop even appear to be in the same category of the coffee shops that come to mind when you read the definition above.

As partakers in specialty coffee we need to continue to find new and exciting ways to present our “beans and water” in a way that enhances the natural intricacies of this powerful seed, and not water down our values in attempt to “be all things to all people.”

latte art heart
Sell an Experience, Not Just a Beverage: 

Generating an “experience” means going beyond the heart-shape in our customers’ latte.

While some may be yanking their hair out trying to untangle the seeming conundrum that is the “specialty experience,” it could be as simple as putting fresh blueberries in their organic hibiscus iced tea, that is served in a mason jar with a lavender flower beautifully placed next to their drink, all of which is displayed and served on a wood tray.

Presentation, without sacrificing quality of beverage, is absolutely key.  The new generation of coffee drinkers desires something “selfie-worthy.”  They want a beverage they can boast about to their friends on the many channels of social media; they want a love-connection to their drink, and they want to tell the world about it.

You should already be serving beverages of the highest caliber, which is what you are proud of, but give your customers something to be proud of, something that will keep them coming back, and with their friends (and followers) in tow.

Embrace the Mermaid-Lovers

You want to avoid alienating your mermaid lover customers in your pursuit of authenticity.  Consumers do want sweet, but what they want even more is a creative and unique approach to the experience in a café when they are given a beverage in your store. Kick it up a notch from what every mom & pop coffee in existence has already been doing for years.

Being farther down the path of our consumers’ coffee journey, we need to understand that our future customers are people who began their coffee journeys at a corporate-modeled cafe, so their first order may very well be a “venti caramel macchiato” or something just as sweet and syrupy.

Be nice to them.  These customers may be your next “regulars,” and it is the job of your baristas to make these people feel at “home” as opposed to berating them with a multitude of comments that make them feel ostracized and confused.

They probably will not understand your menu, or the system you follow when you take their orders, but that does not mean you need to reduce the quality of your product simply because their is a demand for it.  You just need to join this consumer on their coffee journey because they will evolve, and you want them to consider you a viable product when they “move-up” on the coffee ladder.

Don’t Make Hasty Decisions and Rash Generalizations:

The temptation of any coffee shop owner is make hasty decisions and quick menu changes if sales are down. Don’t be quick to make more changes if you haven’t let the current changes run their due course.

First and foremost, if you want the new menu to be a success, you absolutely have to be marketing and promoting it, both in and outside of the store. Remember, if nobody knows about your new menu, it doesn’t matter how how great it is, because nobody will be coming in to try it!  Then sales suffer and you begin to question the entire strategy and you slip right back into old ways again or worse. Avoid this situation by promoting your menu heavily.  This will require a budget!  If you have some items that aren’t selling and you have been putting in the appropriate amount of effort and investment into marketing, try to figure out why it isn’t selling before removing it from the menu.  Talk to customers, do sampling with popular items vs unpopular items, don’t assume anything.  Slow sales on a certain item can be completely unrelated to how it tastes and completely a result of poor handwriting or placement on your menu board, or the weather outside. Make decisions based on research, not gut feelings.

Most importantly, give the new menu time to generate sales data (4 to 6 months) before making any further refinements. Otherwise you will likely not have enough data to base any future decisions on and you will be completely guessing and back to square one.


Over-complicated menus, countertops packed with syrups, and a wide range of cup sizes aligns you with a company model that has been deemed “fast food.”

This does not mean that you should not have any syrups, it simply means that you should use the same level of care and craft in selecting your menu options as you do in selecting your coffees.

The time and effort you and your baristas put into making beautifully crafted beverages will earn your customers’ trust, and help them in defining your shop as “specialty.”

Your challenge is this: be simple and extraordinary all at the same time.


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