Quirky and unique cafes seem to be all the rage and we now see more frequently cat, cereal and even crisps cafes popping up all over Britain’s high streets. The popularity that these cafes are experiencing demonstrates that you don’t have to always go down the traditional cafe route to run a successful business.
It’s also not only London that we are seeing these innovative quirky cafes emerging. Throughout the UK we are seeing innovation on the local high street from crisp sandwich cafes in Belfast to a cat cafe in Newcastle.
So why is it a good business idea?
If the surge in cafe cult culture has yet to convince you of the market opportunity this sector holds then recent research should be able to convince you.
Euromonitor’s September 2014 study into the cafe and bar industry verified that specialist coffee shops were amongst some of the best performing within the entire food service market. The report also concluded that specialist cafes have had the most significant growth story and, that consumers now see cafes as more of a social setting with the consumption of coffee actually decreasing. As a result, by entering the niche cafe sector you will be entering a stable market which looks set to increase in demand over the next few years.
Niche cafes also benefit from the non competitiveness of the market. Despite there being over 16,000 cafes and coffee shops in the country, niche cafes aren’t forced to compete on the same terms as traditional cafes – their quirkiness is what makes them appealing. After all there are certain cereal cafes across the UK charging over £3 for a bowl of cereal! The diverse range of concepts and opportunities available for starting a niche cafe makes it an exciting business area to launch into.
Marshall Levine, owner of The Legal Cafe in London, had the vision to create a four way business model for his cafe business, “We wanted to combine a cafe, serviced offices, a legal practice and neighbourhood law centre.”
People are always engaged and interested in people doing something different from the norm. This really helps when putting your innovative cafe on the map and when looking to earn vital media attention for your business.
Starting a niche cafe or coffee shop also has the additional benefit of having no real barriers to entry. Anybody of any background and age can enter the market.
Ruth Rogers is the founder and trustee of a positive body image charity called Body Gossip and her motivations for starting her cafe stemmed from wanting increase the happiness within her community.
“I wanted to get people talking about their bodies, and I had an idea to take my white living room sofa around various events, like the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and the Vitality Show, and invite people that passby to write one sentence about their body on the sofa. What started as a cool way to tell people about Body Gossip became a beautiful, empowering and cathartic concept – people were telling the sofa things they hadn’t told their partners, or their parents, and it was opening up connections between people. I thought it would be amazing to have a whole venue that was a canvas for people’s ideas, thought, secrets and stories – which is where the idea for The Canvas Cafe came from.” Ruth unique concept for her cafe is that she has made the walls a blank canvas for her customers to share ideas, thoughts, secrets and stories.
Lauren Pears is the owner of one of the first cat cafes to set up shop in London, Lady Dinah’s. Lauren told us “I was ready to start something of my own and I missed having a cat. It seemed almost impossible, living in London, to ever have one in my life. I thought it would be nice to have a Cat Cafe in the city and then took it from there!”
Similarly Kate Charles-Richards, owner of Kitty Cafe, had seen the popularity of cat cafes take off in other countries and saw potential for the concept “My husband has always run businesses and we thought that this would be a great idea to have a business that involved not only cats but also has altruistic side by taking in rescue cats and rehoming them. My background is in social services and so I have transferred my skills to become almost a cat social worker!”
When it came to choosing location, The Canvas Cafe owner, Ruth Rogers decided she wanted to be in a location which was creative, vibrant and has a diverse community to suit the creative environment she wanted to provide. “I also wanted to be in a location that was well-served by transport links , so that our events could be available to people living all over London. I’m so lucky with our spot – 42 Hanbury Street, just off Brick Lane. We’re opposite one of the most famous street art walls in East London; a stone’s throw from brick lane; surrounded by creative and interesting people with beautiful things to write on our walls!”
It’s important to think about the long term when planning out your business strategy. Niche cafes can drum up a fair amount of media coverage due to the fact that they are usually quite gimmicky or have an unusual twist. However, bear in mind that gimmicks only last so long so you need to think about how you can ensure your cafe or coffee shop can attract regular custom.
Being in a tourist area of interest is another consideration when choosing the location for a niche cafe. This was a key factor for Lady Dinah’s owner, Lauren Pears, “the area of East London where we are is roughly where 3 of the top 5 most densely populated boroughs of London intersect. It’s also a tourist area of interest. This is a great spot to attract locals who are living in domiciles too small for pets, as well as tourists coming into town for a holiday.”
Having the appropriate building frontage can also be important when considering location. This was the case for Kate Charles-Richards, owner of Kitty Cafe “We knew we wanted to be city centre and so we spent a lot of time considering the correct place and the way in which the frontage would work for us. As you can imagine we get a lot of people stopping to stare in (I am sure we are the only business in Nottingham with a problem with forehead marks on the window) and so we wanted to maximise this. When we found the building it was a shell but it felt right and we went with it”.
Who else has started a niche cafe business?
Niche cafes don’t necessarily have to be quirky as a result of the type of products or service they provide. Cafes can be niche simply by the way they are run. For example, Shoreditch café Ziferblat charges their customers on the amount of time they spend in their shop instead of for the food and drinks bought.
Kate Charles-Richards, owner of popular Nottingham based cat cafe explained “We want to provide a comfy, calm and caring environment for both people and cats. We provide spread out tables with large sofas where both cats and humans can relax together. The space is designed for the cats and their comfort. Our concept is to provide a little bit of luxury whilst re-homing and rehabilitating cats and kittens. We have a group of resident cats owned by me who maintain the structure of the cat colony and animal behaviourists to monitor the group at all times.”
Lady Dinah’s ethos and culture is one which operates on values. “We value helpfulness, kindness, consideration, respects, and our performance reviews are centered around those values, not just focused on competence or sales volume as the only performance metrics of worth. Every person who works for me can contribute at any level, and I have loads of chats with them about ideas and suggestions.”
At the end of the day, despite niche cafes providing a quirky experience which engages and draws interest to their business, they are still running a hospitality services which means that the quality of products can’t be compromised. Owner of The Canvas Cafe explains “We focus on quality over speed; communication between staff and customers, generosity and friendliness. We make our own food including fresh pies and frittatas, salads and sandwiches, and we bake our own cakes, and our vibe is very homely.”
Making a business out of a passion or hobby isn’t without its challenges as Ruth Rogers discovered when starting The Canvas Cafe. “I have learned the real meaning of the words resilience and perseverance! I’m just coming to the end of my first year of owning The Canvas Cafe, and boy it’s been tough. Far tougher than I ever imagined. I’ve learned that, when you find a good team, you should nurture and support them, as they are your biggest asset. I’ve learned that managing cashflow is finicky but vital. I’ve learned that, when things are bad, you need a strong support network around – build you team, surround yourself with friends, and they will carry you through the toughest times.”
Marshall Levine, The Legal Cafe owner has felt that “Keeping local customer base loyal, maintaining lawyer revenue, encouraging evening and lunch bookings and maintain jolly, friends warm atmosphere” all at the same time to be the biggest challenge. This is something to bear in mind when starting your niche cafe, especially if the idea is to add an additional professional service. You are effectively running multiple businesses that need to managed simultaneously so make sure you and your employees are prepared for the time management challenges that are likely to follow.
If starting a cafe from scratch isn’t for you, there’s always the possibility of buying a cafe to get into the market. If you’re interested in buying rather than starting, you can find our cafes for sale here.