From bean to buzz: How to design a cafe that works

Great design:: Two Boys Brew, in Phibsborough, Dublin 7
3FE’S COLIN HARMON KNOWS A THING OR TWO ABOUT CAFE DESIGN, HAVING OPENED FIVE PREMISES AND ADVISED COUNTLESS CAFE OWNERS IN IRELAND AND ABROAD. HERE HE SHARES SOME TIPS ON HOW TO GET IT RIGHT

New cafes are opening every day as more and more people get into the business. How important is good design when planning a new premises?
When we set up our first cafe we threw it together with a very small budget, but in 10 years it feels like the barrier to entry is getting higher and higher. There are two aspects to good design, the functional and the aesthetic and there are many mixes of these two considerations, some that score highly in both and unfortunately some that consider neither. You can spend a fortune or be quite frugal and achieve the same thing, but a lot depends on your experience and skillset. The unfortunate thing is that if your business is successful it may get to a point that it’s not functional anymore because you’re dealing with larger volumes of people who are behaving in different ways than they used to. In terms of the aesthetic you can also be sure that some day you just won’t look the part anymore and will have to freshen things up. It’s a constant battle on both sides.

What does the perfect cafe look like?
To me the perfect cafe looks welcoming, that’s what the coffee business is all about. A cafe needs to attract you in and make you feel welcome to stay, and there are many different aesthetics you can use to achieve that. People often make the mistake, and I’ve done this myself, of trying to make a space seem exclusive when what you should really be doing is making it inclusive. Coffee is a really social business and coffee shops are filling the void that banks, post offices, pubs, markets and churches used to fulfil in Irish communities.

When you walk into a cafe what is the first thing you look for?
I’m probably atypical in that I look at what coffee they’re serving, what equipment they’re using and, most importantly, what kind of skillset they have. You can tell pretty quickly what the quality is going to be like by watching someone make coffee, you can smell badly roasted coffee straight away and although it sounds ridiculous, you can even hear coffee being made badly. By the time I’ve reached the counter I usually have enough of a grasp on the place to know if I’m going to order a coffee or chicken out and order a tea.

Colin Harmon of 3fe Coffee. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Colin Harmon of 3fe Coffee. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Is there a perfect ratio of staff to space to customers that helps a cafe flow and makes people feel at home?
An understaffed bar is a nightmare for customers and is unsustainable for lots of reasons. Its also unfair on the staff and you can be pretty much assured they’re gonna leave if they’re constantly overworked. What’s surprising to many though is that an overstaffed bar is equally inefficient. Whenever there are too many people working a shift there are always more mistakes, people end up coasting through service and spend more time talking to each other than to customers. I’ve been that staff member so I know what it’s like. The best bars have just enough staff on to ensure everyone feels a bit of burn in service to keep the focus, but equally everyone gets a lunch break and nobody needs to work overtime.

Tables and chairs or benches and stools?
A mix of all! A wide range of seating and tables is a good thing but I definitely have a soft spot for benches. People are reluctant to share tables but oddly have no issue doing it once they’re high tables, and the same can be said of long tables with benches. The way you pick your seating will have a massive influence on how your customers behave but also how many customers you can fit in.

Starbucks set the trend for sofas and comfy armchairs that customers can loaf around in all day. Can the sole cafe owner afford to offer that kind of luxury?
I’ve never been mad on them because they’re a really inefficient use of space. Where you have one person hogging a couch you could often fit four tables of two. I avoid round tables for similar reasons; they look great but they’re a poor use of space and are bad for conversation when they’re made for more than three people.

Is there an aspect of design that cafe owners consistently seem to forget about?
Workflow is often the last thing they think about and sometimes it is evident from day one that things aren’t going to work out. In saying that, sometimes you put lots of thought into workflow, open your doors and your customers behave a completely different way to what you expected. The key thing is to build your cafe in a way that it can be easily swapped around and modified because sooner or later it’s gonna be unfit for purpose.

What new design trends are likely to land next?
I think there was a time when good coffee was a niche, hand-crafted and specialist endeavour. As technology, awareness and appreciation have improved it has become far more achievable to get great coffee into more places. The next 10 years we’re going to see the best coffee appear in hotels, airports, shopping malls and football stadiums among others places. I see the next generation of coffee shops being aspects of existing spaces, not just stand-alone coffee businesses.

Plants in a cafe, do they work?
Absolutely! Middletown in Ballymena is a great example of a plant-loving cafe and in truth I wish we did a better job of it.

Is it worth investing in a better design of cup and saucer or does it matter?
Cup design is crucial and as a general rule, if you buy cheap it’s going to cost you in the long run. You need to take lots of things into account: colour, shape, how easy it is to pour into, as well as the durability and makeup of the cup. People tend to focus on the thickness of a cup but really the density is more important because ultimately that’s what’s going to hold the heat. A busy cafe will always churn through cups just because of the amount of abuse they take but it’s a worthwhile investment.

COLIN HARMON’S FAVOURITE IRISH COFFEE SHOPS

Bang Bang, Phibsborough, Dublin 7
Bang Bang, Phibsborough, Dublin 7

Bang Bang Phibsborough, Dublin 7 This neighbourhood cafe has lots of heart and the bric-a-brac design gives it a proper welcoming feel straight off the bat. It might not have been built off a massive budget but what it lacks in investment it more than makes up for in character.

Coffeeangel, IFSC, Dublin 1
Coffeeangel, IFSC, Dublin 1

Coffeeangel IFSC Dublin 1 The latest opening in the Coffeeangel portfolio is the go-to cafe in the city for the way it balances speed and quality. The cafe is built for speed but has a really chic modern feel that fits right into the fast-paced business district.

Coffeewerk + Press, Galway
Coffeewerk + Press, Galway

Coffeewerk + Press Galway Perhaps the prettiest coffee shop in Ireland, Dan Ulrichs city centre cafe has a host of great coffees from all over the world and also some really beautiful print and design pieces for you to peruse.

Established, Belfast
Established, Belfast

Established Belfast Bridgeen and Mark run not only a beautiful coffee bar but also a very busy one. The clean lines and industrial nature of the design clash wonderfully with the warm and friendly service you get when you visit.

Fallon & Byrne Rathmines
Fallon & Byrne, Rathmines, Dublin 6

Fallon & Byrne Dublin There probably isn’t a better place to buy food in the city, and the Parisian-style cafe is a great place to catch a coffee before you go rooting for something interesting for dinner.

Middletown Coffee Company, Ballymena, Co Antrim
Middletown Coffee Co, Ballymena, Co Antrim

Middletown Coffee Co Ballymena, Co Antrim Emma and Jonathan run possibly the friendliest cafe on the island but also indulge in their other great love, potted plants.

O’Neill, Skibbereen, Co Cork
O’Neill, Skibbereen, Co Cork

O’Neill Skibbereen, Co Cork A unique design in the tradition of an old Irish grocery shop, O’Neill is a modern take on a quintessential Irish retail unit.

Rift, Limerick
Rift, Limerick

Rift Coffee Limerick A beautiful little spot in the heart of Limerick city showcasing great coffees, delicious natural wines and one of the cleanest coffee logos to boot.

Soma, Cork
Soma, Cork

Soma Cork This roastery cafe is one of the coolest openings of recent years. There’s also great food to be had, and it’s a regular haunt for the burgeoning tech crowd in Cork city centre.

Two Boys Brew, Phibsborough, Dublin 7
Two Boys Brew, Phibsborough, Dublin 7

Two Boys Brew Phibsborough, Dublin 7 Taurean and Kevin are possibly two of the coolest cafe owners in the country, and their Phibsborough cafe is probably one of the most Instagrammed cafes in Ireland. The fitout was done by the widely acclaimed Terry Design, and it is absolutely hopping seven days a week.