Top 7 Things To Look For In A Coffee Shop Near You

Top 7 Things To Look For In A Coffee Shop Near You

You might be a “home” barista and have a superb in-house setup where you make perfect coffee for yourself every day. Or maybe you have a daily ritual of stopping by your neighborhood cafe in the morning. You could just be wondering why there are so many coffee shops in your area, and what makes one better than others. If you’re like me, you have a standby method for at-home brewing BUT can only go so many days before you have to scratch your coffee shop itch. No matter how good your coffee is at home, there is something very special about going to a brick and mortar store to get a specialty cup of coffee.

If you’re truly looking forward to your little treat for the day, you don’t want to blow it on a cafe that’s subpar. Let’s look at some basic things that add up to whether a coffee shop is great or not worth your time.

1. What kind of beans do they use?

Well this may not shock you, but the biggest thing to consider in a cafe’s quality is their coffee! Check the shop’s drink menu or retail shelf to find what beans they use, or their website or facebook if you’ve not made the trip in person yet. Are they using popular third wave favorites? Think roasters like Intellegentsia, Counter Culture, Stumptown or Blue Bottle. If they serve one of these coffees, it’s a good sign because these large specialty brands have high standards for quality and consistency. Many will even send out trainers to work with the baristas who will be using their beans.

If they don’t sell beans you are familiar with, don’t immediately discard the shop! The wonderful thing about the coffee industry is that it’s always changing and there is always more information to learn. I have been working in coffee for eight years or so, and I’d say the more you know, the less you know. New roasters are popping up all the time. I actually just found out that a specialty roaster with an impeccable reputation is located 30 miles north of me, and I have never tried their coffee! A quick Google search will tell you some information about the coffee roaster. Things to look for in a good roasting company include:

  • Having fair trade beans, or working directly with coffee farmers. You don’t want to support coffee “middle men” who profit off the backs of poverty stricken agriculturists. When a roaster goes out of their way to buy directly from the farmers, the farmers receive all the money their product is worth.
  • Offering single source, or single origin, beans. This means they will have year-round or seasonal offerings of beans from one region in particular. This term is strictly geographical; for example, one whole batch of beans is from Costa Rica. But I’ve served beans that were from one small farmer’s harvest that had it’s own qualities varied by the time of harvest, the climate of the growing season, and the variety of the trees. When the roaster showcases single source beans, it shows that they will go out of their way to provide quality and variety. You don’t want beans from all over the world to be thrown together and blindly roasted, although blends of 2-3 different coffees are common and very acceptable.
  • Having a list of “locations” that actively sell them. If a roaster has been established for some time, there should be more than a few cafes that use their beans.

The more you visit cafes and get a feel for your tastes, you will be able to spot quality coffee beans. If there are two shops; one with your favorite tried and true beans, and one with strange beans that look promising, try the unheard of coffee once in a while. You’ll have more awareness and expand your palate.

2. Rise of the Machines

As much as I try to promote simple, accessible third wave coffee, there are some things that just won’t cut it when you opt for “cheap” over quality. Sure you can get a good espresso or latte from a generic brand espresso machine, but in my experience a good coffee shop will invest in the appropriate equipment.

You want the shop to have a specialized Italian machine, and what better than a La Marzocco? It’s been called the Cadillac of espresso machines. They make a wide range of different sizes and models. It should have two or three “group heads” or ports in the machine which push pressurized water through the espresso to extract it. Each group head connects to a “portafilter” which is a metal basket of ground espresso, leveled and tamped down, with a handle attatched.  I think almost all of my favorite shops have a La Marzocco, but there are other quality brands out there.

The “Cadillac of espresso machines”.

Along with the espresso machine, should be one or two separate espresso grinders. These are the ones with a large funnel shaped hopper on top that’s filled with espresso beans. Most shops have one for regular espresso and one for decaf. These will grind the beans so finely and consistently that they will produce exquisite espresso every time.

You can keep an eye out for high quality drip coffee brewers as well, but in my experience they don’t need to be too fancy. A standard Bunn coffee grinder and brewer provides good drip coffee, as long as it’s kept clean and maintained.

3. Traffic

A good indicator of a successful cafe is how many people go there. Aside from off hours like at opening or closing, there should be a steady stream of people going in and out of the shop. People have been there before and liked it so much they go back. Even if there are mostly students or professionals camped out at tables on their laptops, it’s a good sign they enjoy being there. Have you ever been to a cafe or other store where you’re the only one there? It can feel like the beginning of a horror movie.

4. Atmosphere

It’s not scientific, but “vibes” do exist. A cafe should have a welcoming, comfortable setting enough so that it leaves a good impression. Sometimes you can’t put your finger on why a place might turn you on/off, but you can’t deny it. After working in several, and patronizing way more, I can tell you a few things about what I love and hate about coffee shops.

I was once killing time in a town I didn’t really frequent, and saw a bagel/coffee shop nearby. I stopped in and ordered a coffee. I am very guilty of judging a cafe from the customer side of the counter, I can’t help it! But aside from a generally unorganized coffee and espresso station, I noticed the milk steam wand on the espresso machine. That thing had about half an inch of dried, burnt old milk crusted on it, for who knows how long. Any beginner barista can tell you that you ALWAYS wipe and flush out the steam wand after using it, every time. I was so disturbed that I still think about it, years later. And no, I never went out of my way to go back.

If the state of a cafe is so messy and dirty, it may be more than a sign of high volume of customers. Shops that are kept neat and clean are more likely to be kept that way by customers and workers. If a place is usually trashed and not cared for, customers won’t care either. A messy cafe can turn normal people into frenzied animals, throwing straw wrappers anywhere but the trash, leaving food/dishes on tables and floors, and doing unspeakable things to a public restroom. Who wants to go back to the dumpy coffee shop? If you see the cafe has put effort into it’s appearance, you will have more respect for it. You will have a better impression of it in your mind’s eye, being more likely to return.

There are those that want to go into a place, get their amazing coffee, and leave. Others want to sit and lounge. For the latter, a dining area in a cafe should have bright natural lighting, lots of comfy chairs, and spacious tables for laying out computers. All without being too crammed together, because who else hates sitting inches from strangers?

5. Baristas With (The Right) Attitude

You want the employees taking your order and making your drink to be knowledgeable and helpful.

Oh look, a smiling barista!

If they give off an air of not wanting to be there, you won’t be going to them for questions or recommendations (therefor trying new things, that’s what cafes are for!). So an intimidating barista will hinder you from getting the most out of your experience, but there is another reason why I stay away from these types of shops.

I was once in a couple of unfortunate situations while working for horrible business owners. I knew all about making delicious, picture-perfect lattes, how a cafe operates, and superior customer service. But I wasn’t getting the support I needed from negligent bosses. For example, one owner never replacing the tank for our Nitro coffee kegerator because he was never in-store, and I was the one who had to tell regulars everyday that we STILL didn’t have Nitro available. I was the one receiving the frustration from loyal patrons, not the owner. Being constantly out of inventory, working with broken equipment, and other bad or dangerous conditions got me down. I could see my service skills dropping off because I was unhappy.

Poorly ran cafes don’t have workers who can just spout off about how much that place sucks, so I try to read between the lines. I want to support businesses where the workers are happy to be there, and are clearly treated well. Happy baristas make the best drinks and provide the best service. They make you feel like your patronage is wanted and welcomed.

Find out what it’s like working as a barista.

6. Food

I said that I am the type to run in a coffee shop, get my coffee, and leave. Often though, I do need a bag of carbs to go with my drink. Everyone has a favorite pastry or snack that just goes so WELL with their coffee. A buttery blueberry scone being washed down with coffee can absolutely make your morning. Maybe you have a full day of errands to run and grabbing a coffee is first on your list, but you know your stomach will rumble in a couple hours. You choose to go to the shop with the GOOD {insert your baked good} over the alternative that has superior coffee but Costco-type muffins in their pastry case.

If a cafe has been well-established and successful, it will often invest in providing artisanal baked goods or sandwiches. Often the food will be delivered daily from a local bakery. Sometimes the cafe will have an in-house baker or off-site baking facility, but that can be too expensive for many small businesses.

A specialty coffee shop will focus first and foremost on that- coffee. Food is usually secondary, but it can definitely play a part in why you will go to one place instead of its competitor.

7. Time Is Money

Now for the usual scenario of standing in line at a coffee shop, eyeballing the person ahead of you at the counter, and wondering why they are taking so long. Waiting in line for good coffee can be unavoidable; it is the price you have to pay to get excellent coffee. But some cafes’ wait times are longer than others, and it does make a difference!

There is one coffee shop in my local downtown area that serves the best, highest quality, technically made, in-house micro roasted coffee. Hands down, it’s what most people in the city will mention when asked about good coffee. But I went there once and waited for what felt like forever for a cappuccino to be made. I won’t deny it was a great drink, but I haven’t been back.

It’s a cruel Western way of life, but we hate waiting a long time for service. Speed is a contributing factor to where you want to go. If time is a major issue for you, you can look up the shop on google on your phone. You can look at the busiest times of day and average time spent there.

No Right Or Wrong Answers

There are qualities you have to ask yourself what you want in a cafe. For you, taste and quality could be number one on that list. It could be a combination of wanting the area’s best cold brew and a place with a nice public bathroom, who knows? There is no true answer to what coffee shop is the best, it’s purely subjective and up to you. These are the main points to think about when trying someplace new or deciding which place will be your go-to.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. I totally agree with you that the biggest thing to consider in a cafe’s quality is their coffee. I would like to find a nice coffee shop near my area since I just moved here. thanks for the tip on looking at the drink menu to find what beans they use.

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