How to design a cafe that works


New cafes are opening every day as more and more people get into the business. How important is good design when planning new premises?
When we created our first cafe, we launched it on a very low 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 mixtures of these two considerations, some that score high in both and unfortunately some that consider neither one nor the other. ‘other. You can spend a fortune or be quite thrifty and achieve the same thing, but a lot depends on your experience and skills. The unfortunate thing is that if your business is successful, it may get to a point where it’s no longer functional because you’re dealing with more people behaving differently than they were before. In terms of aesthetics, you can also be sure that one day you won’t look the part and have to freshen things up. It’s a constant battle on both sides.

What does the perfect coffee look like?
To me, the perfect cafe looks welcoming, that’s what the cafe business is all about. A café should appeal to you and make you feel at home, and there are many different aesthetics you can use to achieve this. People often make the mistake, and I did, of trying to make a space exclusive when what you really should be doing is making it inclusive. Coffee is a truly social enterprise and coffee shops fill the void that banks, post offices, pubs, markets and churches used to fill in Irish communities.

When you walk into a cafeWhat is the first thing you are looking for?
I’m probably atypical in that I watch what coffee they serve, what equipment they use, and most importantly, what kind of skills they have. You can tell pretty quickly what the quality will be by watching someone make coffee, you can immediately smell the poorly roasted coffee and even though it sounds silly you can even hear the poorly brewed coffee. By the time I reach the counter I usually have enough idea of ​​the place to know if I’m going to order a coffee or a chicken and order a tea.

Colin Harmon of 3fe Coffee. Photography: Brenda Fitzsimons

Is there a perfect rapport between staff, space and customers that helps a cafe flow and makes people feel at home?
An understaffed bar is a nightmare for patrons and unsustainable for many reasons. It’s also unfair to the staff and you can be pretty sure they’ll leave if they’re constantly overworked. What is surprising to many is that an overstaffed bar is just as inefficient. Whenever there are too many people working shifts, there are always more mistakes, people end up going through the department and spending more time talking to each other than customers. I’ve been that staff member, so I know what it’s like. The best bars have just enough staff to make sure everyone is feeling a little burnt out on service to stay focused, but everyone also has a lunch break and no one needs to work overtime.

Tables and chairs or benches and stools?
A mix of everything! A wide range of seats and tables is good, but I definitely have a thing for benches. People are reluctant to share tables, but oddly enough they have no problem doing so once they’re up high, and the same can be said for long tables with benches. The way you choose your seats will have a huge influence on the behavior of your customers, but also on the number of customers you can accommodate.

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

Is there one aspect of design that cafe owners seem to consistently overlook?
Workflow is often the last thing on their minds and sometimes it’s obvious from day one that things aren’t going to work. Saying that, sometimes you put a lot of thought into the workflow, open your doors, and your customers behave in a completely different way than you expected. The main thing is to build your coffee in such a way that it can be easily swapped and changed, because sooner or later it will be unsuitable.

What new design trends are likely to land next?
I think there was a time when good coffee was a niche, artisanal and specialized business. As technology, awareness and appreciation have improved, it has become much more feasible to get good coffee in more places. The next 10 years we will see the best coffee appear in hotels, airports, shopping malls and football stadiums, among others. I see the next generation of cafes as aspects of existing spaces, not just standalone cafe businesses.

Do plants in a cafe work?
Absolutely! Middletown in Ballymena is a great example of a coffee that loves plants and truthfully I wish we had done a better job.

Is it worth investing in a better cup and saucer design or does it matter?
The design of the cup is crucial and as a general rule if you buy cheap it will cost you in the long run. There are a lot of things you need to consider: color, shape, pourability, as well as the durability and composition of the mug. People tend to focus on the thickness of a cup, but density is really more important because that’s ultimately what’s going to retain the heat. A busy cafe will always brew cups simply because of the amount of abuse it takes, but it’s a worthwhile investment.


Bang Bang, Phibsborough, Dublin 7

Bang Bang, Phibsborough, Dublin 7

bang bang Phibsborough, Dublin 7 This neighborhood cafe has a lot of heart and the bric-a-brac design gives it a welcoming feel from the start. It may not have been built with a huge budget, but its lack of investment more than makes up for its character.

Coffeeangel, IFSC, Dublin 1

Coffeeangel, IFSC, Dublin 1

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

Coffeewerk + press, Galway

Coffeewerk + press, Galway

Coffeework + Press Galway Possibly the prettiest cafe in Ireland, Dan Ulrich’s town center cafe offers a host of great coffees from around the world as well as some really great print and design pieces to peruse.

Established, Belfast

Established, Belfast

Established Belfast Bridgeen and Mark not only run a beautiful cafe, but also a busy one. The clean lines and industrial nature of the design contrast beautifully with the warm and friendly service you get during your visit.

Fallon and Byrne Rathmines

Fallon & Byrne, Rathmines, Dublin 6

Fallon and Byrne Dublin There’s probably no better place to buy food in the city, and the Parisian-style cafe is a great place to grab a coffee before picking up something interesting for dinner.

Middletown Coffee Company, Ballymena, County Antrim

Middletown Coffee Co, Ballymena, County Antrim

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

O'Neill, Skibbereen, County Cork

O’Neill, Skibbereen, County Cork

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

Rift, Limerick

Rift, Limerick

Rift Cafe Limerick A wonderful little place in the heart of Limerick city featuring great coffees, delicious natural wines and one of the cleanest cafe logos.

Soma, Liege

Soma, Liege

Soma Cork This roast cafe is one of the coolest openings in recent years. There’s good food to be had too, 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 are brewing Phibsborough, Dublin 7 Taurean and Kevin are perhaps two of the coolest cafe owners in the country, and their cafe in Phibsborough is probably one of the most Instagrammed cafes in Ireland. The layout was done by the highly acclaimed Terry Design, and it’s absolutely hopping seven days a week.


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