What Makes a Great Coffee Shop?

I spend a lot of time in coffee shops. I go to coffee shops to read and write. For work, I regularly meet students and colleagues in coffee shops. I even got engaged in a coffee shop. I’m a coffee shop connoisseur, a java junkie, a free wireless wonk. Here, then, are my top coffee shop quality indicators.

Tables—variety is key here. For the record, I’m a fan of six person tables, perfect for bigger meetings, but they need to be balanced with ample two person date/study tables. In my humble opinion, round tables aren’t good for laptops (which aren’t round). It’s best to give people options of table shapes and sizes.

Couches and comfy chairs. Yes. Do this, but let’s not get carried away. Lounge chairs are great for reading. Couches are great for folks who just want to talk. But, the regular table and chair should always be normative. Similarly, bars and bar stools are fine, but can be overdone. Special note: distance between tabletop and chair height is important to encourage healthy laptop posture.

IMG_0668Free (fast) wireless internet. It’s 2013 people! Enough said.

Music is important, but it should not get in the way. Silence, in this case, is not golden. Yet, thou shall not blast Christian rock. Sirius Radio commercials are for radio buffs, not coffee shop customers. When in doubt, let the baristas choose their favorite tunes.

Loyalty/punch cards. If you run a good place, I’ll be back either way. It’s a nice bonus, but only a perk. If you do have a frequent customer program, keep it simple.

Coffee. Of course, quality is key. I give huge props to shops who know their product and care how the coffee company treats their farmers. “Tea?” you ask. Who drinks tea when coffee is available?

Here mugs. These are super important and, tragically, often overlooked. My biggest pet peeve: as one who orders medium (sometimes large) drinks, tall mugs are much better than short wide ones. Wide-mouthed mugs don’t keep coffee hot enough! Coffee shop owners everywhere: do your due diligence and invest in quality ceramics.

Flair. Go for it, but remember it can get in the way. My favorite shops host local art, musicians on the weekends, and have big walls for local posters.

Don’ts (all, annoyingly, from personal experience): Don’t ask patrons not to plug in their laptops to save on the electricity bill. Don’t berate customers for putting their bag, momentarily, on a table. Don’t allow smoking at outside tables. Don’t serve espresso shots to four year-olds. Don’t use Styrofoam cups. Don’t close before 10 p.m. Don’t only allow 1 hour of Internet use. Don’t serve lukewarm coffee.

I could go on for pages, but I won’t. Shout outs to my favorite coffee shops: Java Monkey and Kavarna in Decatur, Georgia; Atomic Coffee downtown Fargo; Goodbye Blue Monday in Northfield, Minnesota; Costa Coffee in Ayr, Scotland; and Black Dog Coffee in Tallahassee. What are your favorite shops and their best qualities?


  1. Mary Beth Jones says

    And while we’re on the subject of electricity: adequate access to plugs. I also second the bar stool limit. They’re uncomfortable to sit on for us middle-aged folks, and they make me nervous when unattended children climb on them.

  2. says

    I’m not sure I’d add to this list but blame you for reminiscing about Townshend’s Tea (yeah, I went to a tea shop for a while, it wasn’t bad, atmosphere nailed) and Lone Pine Coffee Roasters both in Bend. Lone Pine was a little small but I loved it and the folks that ran it.

  3. says

    The Perfect Cup in Hockessin DE has some of your “musts” Adam, but what it lacks in musts in more than makes up for in great, hot coffee and atmosphere. It is a real community center in the middle of this small town. The “big table” is used to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries.

    And, I love Costa Coffee in Ayr! I’ll have a cup there in your honor, Adam!

  4. says

    Wow, impressive list and thoughtfulness! As a fellow coffee shop connoisseur who has toured the West Michigan java trail, I recommend Lemonjello’s (lemonjellos.com). Their one flaw is limited space (and therefore no comfy chairs), but this is largely due to the unanticipated success of the store. An added bonus: they attract an eclectic bunch of people in an otherwise suburbanesque downtown area. From college profs, to tattooed teens, to pastors, to old daily newspaper dudes, to families praying their kids don’t cry – ah, yes.

  5. Bruce says

    I’d invite Adam to Calvin’s Coffee Hse, a ministry platform of the Presbyterian Univ. Ctr., Tallahassee for coffee comparison & other hospitable purposes, too. Using his criteria, Calvin’s may rival his Black Dog….–we’ve been told Calvin’s serves the finest cappuccinos in TLH…try Carribu (?) in Tally also; good reports. Apart from good coffee & Barsta technique, I vote “ambiance”, however intangible or subjectively defined. Calvin’s wood fires & hearth-y home-like-ness on a damp, low-ceiling, N. Fla. winter morning may be unsurpassed….leather sofas & chairs included….and thanks, all for the ideas that we’ll use to align Calvin’s anew more still.

  6. says

    Daytime-only hours notwithstanding, Java John’s here in Decorah is pretty great. I can’t write a sermon anywhere else, including my office. Good coffee, good ceramic and glass vessels for stay-here drinks, internet, outlets, a “reading room” with couches and comfy chairs, lots of four-person booths, two-person tables, and a big table in the back for larger groups. Bonus: a great mix of Luther students & professors, townies, pastors, families, retirees, and visitors – a true community space. For a small, small-town coffee shop, it’s pretty darn great.

    Also…Blue Mondays might just be my favorite coffee shop anywhere, ever. :)


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