Starbucks’ and its peers’ success is no accident. People like a good cup of coffee and will pay a little more for an espresso or latte. Churches can accomplish similar results, but more in terms of people and spiritual success vs. profit, though profit can be applied to ministry as well.
A third-place café ministry is not the same initiative as a greeting ministry that includes coffee. Like the secular world, a church’s successful cafe ministry won’t be an accident, either, and it requires a few steps that mimic the Starbucks and Seattle’s Bests of the world on a smaller scale. Also, some of those steps seem obvious, but sometimes the most obvious requirements are initially overlooked—such as just letting people know it’s there.
Michael Trent, founder and idea engineer at Birmingham, Ala.-based Third Place Consulting, frequently contacts churches to suggest exploring a coffee ministry only to find they already have one. The church just hasn’t included the café ministry in its website, weekly bulletin or other marketing efforts. Equally easy, the café needs to be mentioned consistently in the pulpit and pastors and staff should always be using the café’s mugs, regardless of the beverage therein, Trent says.
“I see a majority of churches that dedicate the time and space and finances for a space like this and then don’t tell anyone about it,” Trent says. “We’ve created all these things to attract people and enhance guests’ experience and then don’t tell them about it. If you will look at this through a lens of investment rather than [as] an expense, everything will make sense. Don’t make a café an afterthought. Be intentional with that environment.”
In the beginning, there was coffee
From the outset—and like every other ministry from the nursery to seniors—a café needs to be aligned with the church’s vision. Before design and layout, construction, infrastructure and staffing, the effort has to be aligned with the church’s overall mission and goals.
“Before you do anything in the church that expands your ministry, you need to understand what your core ministry is,” says Mark MacDonald, creative director at PinPoint Creative Group in Clemmons, N. C. “Your coffee ministry has to be an extension of who you are or you’ll have the tail wagging the dog. If you know who you are, it can really help you expand the vision and reach into the community.”
Similar to the church campus, a café should be master planned, Trent reports. With a clear understanding of the overall vision, design, construction and operation become clearer. One of the biggest first mistakes Trent encounters is “we got a guy”—the church member who may have significant experience in the operation of a café/coffee shop but probably doesn’t have the design and implementation background to get the operation up and running successfully.
Getting the design and flow right can be a make-or-break proposition, says Mike Bacile, president of Dallas-based The Daily Java, which provides equipment, product and training and advises churches and secular institutions on design and implementation of cafes and coffee shops. With a congregation predominately 40 and under and a location off the sanctuary, a café can expect to attract 25%-30% of congregants, according to Bacile.
At churches with large congregations, flow and seating can become increasingly complicated. The café’s location is integral to design and flow, but you also have to determine how long you want people to congregate in the area and when to serve. If the café is immediately off the sanctuary, do you want people hanging out around the café during worship services? Conversely, the greater amount of time guests spend in the café interacting with members and finding commonalities, the more likely they are to consider joining the church or bringing Christ into their lives. Portable yet sturdy and comfortable furniture can help solve this problem, creating a place to gather and share that, if required, can temporarily be put away during worship.
As for the café, a smaller space requiring fewer steps behind the bar leads to a well-orchestrated operation, Bacile says. That operation also requires staffing for consistency and some level of adult supervision, both of which may lead to a mix of paid staff and volunteers. It almost goes without saying, but, as MacDonald points out, staffing also requires incredibly friendly, positive people who can handle a rush of patrons effectively. After all, the church café will face one issue that its secular peers will not: everyone wanting it at once immediately before or after worship services. To further enhance flow, keep menus simple, accessible and easy to read, if possible avoiding chalkboards and the strain on older eyes they bring. Create a clear and open path to the coffee bar and point-of-sale register. If offering prepared food, put the display before point-of-sale/checkout, and, if you charge, be equipped to take credit and debit cards, Bacile recommends.
“If it’s set up correctly and in the proper location, it’s not that difficult to successfully operate a cafe,” he says. “The community wants it to be successful, but you have to create something that they will be proud of.”
Creating the environment
Similarly, a successful church café operation can be as good if not better than any secular outlet, says designer Lisa Masteller, owner of Sassafras Studios in Raleigh, N.C. Masteller likes to implement two or three different seating options and a mix of overhead, table and pendant lighting to create an inviting atmosphere, as well as charging stations for electronics and smart phones.
She also likes to find creative ways to link the café to the community and its history and traditions. Her current project, at The Bridge’s Princeton, N.C., campus, will be incorporating a “Vintage Farm Industrial” look mixed with a clean modern style. Items like tractor seats, as well a large-scale art piece will incorporate the town’s street names. These and other industrial pieces give a nod to the area’s rural heritage.
“When developing a café, it needs to make a complete statement aesthetically,” Masteller says. “It’s very important that you bring the perspective of your congregation to the space, and in so doing, establish a clear and concise look and feel all its own—a snapshot of the church’s DNA.”
When it comes to pricing, there are reasons to charge for prepared beverages and reasons to offer the drinks for free. On the gratis side, people may not expect to be charged for prepared beverages at a church—and a free drink is nice incentive for guests. Alternatively, charging for products can cover operational costs and raise funds for missions, and branded mugs can work as a sustainable marketing touch within the church and beyond into the community. If the café operation is outsourced, make sure you stay within non-profit guidelines, MacDonald suggests. If the drinks aren’t free, keep pricing near secular coffee shops’ prices to fight the perception that it’s an inferior product, Bacile adds, noting that most successful church café operations simulate the secular world in design and pricing, just not in the overall mission.
“Coffee is a means to an end,” Bacile closes. “It’s about building fellowship and a Christian foundation in the community. It gives the community an added reason to go.”