Updated: Jan 27, 2020
I’ve seen coffee shops do all sorts of different things when it comes to what equipment they choose. The more experienced companies will choose items that are consistent with their own brand and value proposition. Less experienced coffee shop owners might choose equipment that is too cheap, or maybe too expensive. They don’t really know what their audience wants and what fits their brand.
Yes, I know I talk about branding a lot. It is VERY IMPORTANT. Go read my article on creating a coffee shop brand that stands out, I give explanation to why I think it’s so important.
1. Espresso Machine
Your espresso machine is the backbone of your coffee shop. Without it, there is no coffee shop. Having a good reliable machine is essential.
Your machine should be new. This is one piece of equipment you don’t want to take any risks on buying used. If you are running a smaller operation (coffee trailer), or this is a second machine, it may be alright. You want to know the machine’s history, performance, and maintenance. It can cost as much as a small car, so you want to minimize your risk as much as possible. A major difference is that it’s said our cars spend about 95% of the time parked, but the espresso machine will see a lot more use than that!
Also, know what machine you’ll need. I advise a 2-group La Marzocco espresso machine. These machines are the gold standard in the coffee industry. And they are workhorses. Do the regular maintenance on them when needed and they will last a long time. Choosing a 2-group machine will produce enough espresso to get through a morning rush in a coffee shop. Having only one group on your espresso machine most likely won’t work for any mid or high volume shop. They can work for coffee trailers or catering services, but I wouldn’t put one in a full size shop. Nuova Simonelli also makes great commercial espresso machines.
My personal opinion is that anything more than 2-group on a machine doesn’t add enough value to justify having. There are machines with 3 and 4 groups, but I believe that there’s not enough room at the espresso machine to get enough baristas in there to work. You’d be much better off with two 2-group machines, than a 3- or 4-group.
As with most things, don’t get the cheapest and don’t get the most expensive. Your espresso machine should be a double boiler, not a single boiler - meaning one boiler for the steam wands and one for the espresso groups. This is a major difference between home and commercial level espresso machines.
Do you want your espresso machine to just do its job, or do you want it as a focal point and statement piece in your coffee shop? I’ve seen bright yellow espresso machines on top of the counter, first thing you see when walking into a shop. If it’s a statement piece, make sure your statement is something that affirms your brand (like in your brand color) and make sure your customers notice. Don’t spend extra money on something your customers can’t see. Also, don’t spend extra money on something that won’t add to your customer experience. An espresso machine that is twice as expensive as the next, probably makes espresso 99% as good. Don’t overspend on this category. It’ll most likely already be your most expensive piece of equipment.
There are many brands out there. But check out your favorite coffee shops and see what they use. If you don’t see the brand name on the back or side of the machine, ask the barista.
My Recommendation: La Marzocco 2-Group Linea. Perfect balance of durability and function.
2. Coffee Brewer
This piece of equipment is important because part of your business should be large takeaway orders. Many businesses, churches, and other organizations are looking for someone to provide a high quality coffee experience for their people. Being able to meet these demands will give you the flexibility to diversify your revenue streams. Rather than depending on daily foot traffic, you have the opportunity to provide coffee for bigger organizations on a recurring basis.
I mention this because it can be a trend to focus on the espresso machine and let drip coffee fall to the wayside. Some shops may not even offer batch brew drip coffee, but only offer manually brewed coffee. Understand that your espresso drinks are really only for single customers. Espresso doesn’t scale like drip coffee. The customers at your counter are the most important thing, but having a takeaway offering for bigger organizations will help your revenue.
Anyway, your drip coffee brewer doesn’t have near the complexity, horsepower, or usage of your espresso machine. Because of this, it is safe to look at used options. You still want a commercial grade coffee brewer that is able to make a couple gallons of coffee per hour. I have only used the Curtis Gold Cup Series coffee brewer, but I have never run into any issues with it. This is a side-by-side brewer that can brew into two gallon-sized coffee urns at the same time. It’s also programmable and has a touch screen. Ask your coffee roaster about their suggested brew settings for drip coffee and they should be able to help you out.
My Recommendation: Curtis Gold Cup Series. Simple and efficient.
This is one where I've seen some hype recently. This means some company will release the "latest and greatest" grinder that is a small percentage better than the last, but much more expensive. Don't fall into the trap of buying the new shiny piece of equipment here. Your customers will most likely never notice the difference, but your budget will.
Coffee shops use grinders made with sets of burrs instead of blades, which you might find in cheaper home options. Having commercial grinders will make one of the most significant impacts on your coffee. These machines are designed to be precise and consistent. You will need at least two grinders - one retail/drip coffee grinder and one espresso grinder.
The retail grinder will most likely be "doseless," meaning if you turn it on, it will keep grinding until you turn it off. This is necessary for grinding larger doses of coffee, like for the batch brew drip coffee brewer, or for a customer that purchased a bag of coffee beans and wants it ground at the shop. I would always offer to grind coffee for customers who bought coffee beans. Many people know that they are supposed to grind as close to the brew time as possible. However, it is my assumption that most people don't have a high quality grinder at home. Therefore, using the grinder in the coffee shop might yield better coffee for them.
The other grinder is an espresso grinder. These typically have large hoppers, and they have saddles that perfectly fit a portafilter. This way they can grind directly into the portafilter when pulling a shot of espresso. These machines have two settings - one for the grind size, and one for the does time. The machine will have a button near the saddle to be pushed by the portafilter. This will activate the grind, and it will grind the coffee beans only as long as the time setting is set for. This way, you will have a much more consistent weight when pulling espresso. Making the espresso process much faster.
Both of these machines are basically big powerful motors attached to the burrs. The burrs need to be replaced every 6-12 months. Therefore, I think it is OK to purchase used grinders. When you buy a used grinder, just make sure to replace the burrs, and you should be good to go!
Keep in mind, that you'll need to grind decaf espresso in a separate grinder. So, that probably means you'll need three grinders. However, there are some grinders with side by side hoppers that can do the job, and cost less than two individual grinders.
This becomes very important when laying out your bar. The barista will need quick access often to the refrigerator. Most popular is a True under-counter refrigerator. This sits just about counter height, and the top surface can be used for prep. Commonly, it has two doors, so it is wider that it is tall.
However, a tall commercial refrigerator with a sliding glass door that can be quickly opened may also work well. This could also save on floorspace if you are limited. If you choose this option, you will need to make sure that it can be accessed by the barista in a quick, unobtrusive manner. This means, it will need to be as close as possible to the espresso machine.
Since commercial refrigerators are necessary in any food business, they are easy to come by. This is another piece of equipment with a very basic job, so getting a used one will work just fine.
My Recommendation: True Undercounter Refrigerator. A simple staple.
5. Point Of Sale
If you’ve stepped into any coffee shop in the past 2 or 3 years, you’ve probably seen the sleek, white, simple design of the Square Point Of Sale (POS).
Many coffee shops choose Square because they are perfect for small businesses, particularly coffee shops. They have a minimal setup fee - which is actually just the cost of the hardware, and can be paid out in installments. I switched to Square from a more traditional POS system and was able to use the same iPad I had been using. My costs for the Square stand, new cash register, chip reader, and receipt printer was less than $300. This is a huge deal when other POS systems may charge upwards of $2000 just for setup. Square has no monthly fees (compared to $200/mo for my previous one), they charge a low flat rate from each transaction (compared to a higher rate, much more complicated rate), they are integrated as a Credit Card Processor as well (meaning you don’t have to set up with another company to process credit cards after you’ve taken their order), they are super easy to use and setup (for only $75, they set up all my products, modifiers, etc. from the menu and online ordering system on my website, this saved me at least 20 hours worth of work), and they are able to capture customer data like email addresses, for you to use in marketing campaigns.
I love Square. Can you tell? With just an email address, it was simple to setup and send invoices when I had a large catering order or sold a piece of equipment.
There are more POS systems getting into the game, but I was never disappointed with Square.
The “smart” tipping system even encouraged customers to tip more, so my staff was able to benefit as well.
One of the biggest points here is the low percentage of sales that they charge. I was able to save 1.5-2.5% of my gross sales revenue by switching to Square. These were just more fees that I was paying my POS system and credit card processor. Having that money back makes a huge difference for small businesses.
My Recommendation: Square Point Of Sale. Perfect for any small business, and getting better all the time.
I can’t tell you how many times I have been looking for somewhere to get some coffee and do some work on my laptop and had to pass on a coffee shop just because they didn’t offer wifi.
You should have wifi at your coffee shop. I know it’s trendy to be the coffee shop that doesn’t have wifi and “encourages customers to talk to each other.” But the reality is that many of your customers are people who need to work. It is a privilege that they have a job that pays them money, money that they can then spend in your coffee shop. These people may be remote software developers, or entrepreneurs with weekly business meetings, or maybe students from the college nearby.
Encouraging people to talk to each other is great - definitely not a bad thing. But these are coffee shops we’re talking about here. Next to bars, they are already the go-to place for having meetings, catching up with friends, and meeting new people. Train your staff to be friendly and engaging with customers, and this will most likely never be a problem.
All the being said, get the best wifi you can. You don’t want to discreetly discourage people from using your wifi by having a signal that’s slow as molasses. People will get fed up and leave. And most likely not return.
I was always amazed by the awesome things happening on our wifi. I know that sounds weird. But it was great hearing people say they just sent an email to a list of 200 donors for their non-profit. Or they just launched their new website they had been planning for months. Or they just sent the wedding photos they just finished editing.
Bottom line: get a good, strong signal.
My Recommendation: Enterprise level wifi, the fastest your ISP will offer, and possibly a Wifi Booster or Range Extender.
Where To Buy?
Here's a few of my suggestions for where to purchase your equipment.
1. www.prima-coffee.com - Great for all sorts of espresso machines, grinders, and anything coffee related.
2. https://www.webstaurantstore.com - Great for anything a commercial kitchen would need.
3. www.craigslist.org - Yes, CraigsList. A good, free, fast option when looking for used equipment and furniture. Restaurants going out of business frequently list furniture and fixtures here.
4. www.espressoparts.com - Carries all your espresso and coffee supplies and small bar wares.
5. www.espressosupply.com - Another great option for espresso and coffee supplies.
After getting into it, I want to give a few examples of well chosen and poorly chosen equipment.
There is a coffee shop here in Austin, TX that uses a double door refrigerator with clear glass doors and they put it right behind the point of sale - in full view of all the customers. Why? Well, it’s where they keep their milk. They use a really high-grade, expensive, organic, local, full fat milk for their espresso drinks. They want that brand to be right up front in clear view of everyone, because it is important to their brand. They want to position themselves as a coffee shop that uses the highest quality ingredients and cares about ethical and sustainable sourcing. This also helps justify the high prices they have to charge to maintain margins on their drinks. It looks really cool and gives some transparency to the customers as well.
There is another coffee shop that uses a Slayer brand espresso machine. The machine is beautiful. A true work of art. It also costs nearly twice as much as another great brand of espresso machine. But do most of their customers realize the difference? Does it make espresso and steam milk twice as good? Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great machine, but I think the money could’ve been better spent elsewhere.
Of course, there are countless other examples. One that comes to mind is the unfortunate case of a small coffee catering business that was getting off the ground. They had a great logo made up and got an espresso machine that would work perfect for their situation. But, one of the owners thought it’d be cute to get handmade custom engraved tampers for their espresso machine. Tampers like these can run upwards of $200 each. The machine already came with tampers that worked. Why spend so much extra money on something fancy that won’t make any difference in your product, or your customer experience? It’s a high price to pay just to “play business” and feel fancy.
Search out the equipment you'll need. Then add up the costs. Find where you can save a little.
Talk to coffee shop and restaurant owners. They often hear about used appliances for sale.