How to make your coffee shop appealing to hipsters
by Ranim Elborai
I won’t waste time defining the term “hipster” here because these days you can’t walk two steps without bumping into one. They may be the genuine article, or someone who’s just adopted the aesthetic. Usually it’s the latter because it appears that variations of hipster styles have become drivers of many current fashion trends. Plenty of their hallmark fashion statements have crept into the mainstream, e.g., the oversized horn-rimmed glasses in plastic frames, skinny jeans, and the now ubiquitous plaid button-down shirt.
This kit is a little out of date: I would replace the ironic moustache here with a big walloping beard.
There’s no two ways about it. Hipsters are cool, and if you want your coffee shop to be considered cool, or at least cooler than it currently is, your place has to appeal to that aesthetic. I’ve outlined a few suggestions on how to make your business a little more appealing to that crowd, and as a result, to everyone else.
The massive crowd at Allpress in Shoreditch — look at how cool they are and how much fun they’re having. They’re probably having the best conversation ever right now.
Why am I doing this? Hmm. First of all, I’ve always wanted to run a coffee shop. I like good coffee, and going to the neighbourhood coffee shop to study or get some work done is a nice change from being cooped up at home or, when I was a student, the library. It’s very humanising—that small dose of contact with other humans, whether it’s a bit of chit-chat with the barista or the general hubbub of people around you—can help a student or someone who works primarily from home make it through some of their bleakest, loneliest days.
Secondly, I’d say I’m a good authority on the subject. In a typical noveau-Bobo fashion, I’ve straddled the hipster/mainstream divide for years. My more strait-laced friends think I’m edgy and quirky, whereas my hipster friends think I’m endearingly conventional and bourgeois. I’ve also lived in areas that are home to massive hipster populations, have been to many hipster parties, and frequented hipster bars, restaurants, not to mention coffee shops. I’ve walked streets that enjoy a constant stream of hipster traffic. I’ve observed the hipster in his and her natural environment. So I know what I’m talking about.
So, struggling café operators, listen up! And if you just stumbled upon this post or have been pressured by my incessant pleas via various social media to visit my blog, you read this too!
Your coffee must be delicious
The coffee you serve has to be good. Period. Hipsters pride themselves on being sophisticated consumers with respect to the certain things they deign to spend money on. Coffee is one of the big ones. In fact, this is good advice for any coffee shop owner. If you’re going to serve brown, brackish water, people may as well spend their money at that massive chain coffee shop on the high street with the generic furniture.
Extra tips: make sure your baristas are well trained and don’t hesitate to shell out for a high quality espresso machine, like a La Marzocco—coffee connoisseurs will be duly impressed.
Personable, and preferably cool staff
Your staff is your face. Not only do they have to be skilled baristas, they have to be nice to customers, even when it gets busy and stressful. Willing to chat and not rush a customer off. I had a four-minute chat a while back with one of the guys behind the counter at my local hip coffee shop (also known as my office). Sure, that may hold up the line on occasion, but if your coffee is as good as it should be, customers will wait. Also, most folks are sensible enough to realise that the morning coffee rush is not the best time to have a chew the fat with the cute girl behind the counter.
Now we’re done with nice, let’s talk cool. You want to hire guys with beards or moustaches, or girls with short hair. Failing that, you want staff with visible tattoos (intricate sleeves = GOOD, outdated douche tattoos like tribal symbols or meaningless Asian glyphs = BAD), and/or piercings, and/or big glasses. Failing that, just make sure that they’re genuinely nice people who you wouldn’t mind having a chat with. There has to be an unspoken dress code too. No uniforms, because uniforms are reactionary. Ratty old band t-shirts or plaid button downs, sneakers, and skinny jeans, as long as they’re clean.
If you want to exude a more sophisticated look, the uber-chic Stumptown Coffee Roasters attached to the Ace Hotel in New York had all its baristas dress in an old-fashioned way on a regular basis. Tweed pants or stiff dark denim for the guys, the occasional bowtie, and crisp plaid shirts; I recall lots of brown tones, and the occasional hat. The girls seemed to have more leeway. Facial hair seemed to be a must for most of the guys and some of the women working there rocked old-fashioned rock-a-billy-style hair-dos or bangs (a fringe for you British readers). Tattoos were pretty much mandatory, and occasionally a piercing or those ear-gauge things that seem to be a thing now. Mind you, this dress code didn’t seem to be in force every day—I saw the occasional white or black t-shirt there, but it when in force, I think the yupsters staying at the hotel enjoyed the experience.
Stumptown Coffee Roasters — I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that it’s kind of like a dress code.
You’ll cull your employees from two varieties of applicants: aspiring creatives (singers, artists, actors, etc.) who need a day job until their big break, or dedicated life-long baristas who harbour a serious passion for coffee. Well, there is a third category—the people who are happy to work at a more relaxed, non-corporate job to make a living but don’t want very much in the way of career advancement. Oh, and of course, how could I forget to mention students who need a part-time job. Anyway, I suggest trying to hire at least one person out of category 2—they’ll know the gears and provide great on-the-job training for the rest of your staff.
A little-known fact: nicely put together lesbians are really cool. I mean, gay men are fabulous, but a barista lesbian is the epitome of cool. If you come across one, and it seems like she’d be good at the job, lock that shit down.
And another tip: a good-looking barista behind the counter is always a plus, but always choose talent, diligence, and personality over looks.
Ambience—the atmosphere is effortlessly “just so”
Now to discuss one of the core elements of hipsterdom: nostalgia. Hipsters tend to nurse a strong sense of appreciation for the past. Thus there is very often a nostalgic motif underlying the atmosphere of the venues where they gather. If you’re fond of the cozy look, your coffee shop should tap into that love of the past.
I’ve observed that there are various subcultures within the main hipster movement. For some hipsters, that cluster whose men-folk like to wear tweed jackets and scuffed cap-toed lace-ups, there is a longing for classicalism. Their venues, traditional on the interior, tend to be punctuated by antiques (usually in poor condition) and, if the place is trying to be really edgy, taxidermy. Taxidermy really blew up a few years ago, and you shouldn’t be surprised if a mounted deer-head gazed at you intently from across the room the next time you go to dinner.
There’s bad taxidermy, and there’s good taxidermy. Then there’s genius taxidermy.
The other cluster of hipsters are more preoccupied with nostalgia from the not-so distant past. These guys usually wear vintage-style high-top sneakers and seem to never take off their hoodies. Venues catering to this crowd may have walls plastered with posters and photos of personalities from the late 70s, the 80’s and possibly the 90’s. There is a lot of irony at play here. The walls of the coffee shop where I do most of my writing happen to feature the Bee Gees, George Michael, Vanilla Ice and Margaret Thatcher, to name a few. In the loo, a full-sized image of a Storm Trooper (circa the first set of Star Wars films, of course) targets your now-vulnerable private parts. A poster of Hannah Montana recently joined him–very apt given all the bad press Miley Cyrus has been enjoying as of late.
Yes, I was on the loo when I took this photo. Stop judging me.
There’s no need to overdo nostalgia—over-decorating is heavy-handed and obvious, and you may end up catering solely to one brand of hipster to the exclusion of the other. The point is, you’re trying to exude effortless cool. “Oh, this antique compass from the 1900s? I think I just found that in my parents’ attic. Nice huh?” “Oh, this original-release Ms. Pac Man arcade machine? My neighbor had it just sitting in his garage for years, sold it to me for $22, can you believe it?”
If cozy isn’t what you’re aiming for, go minimal. I can heartily recommend a bare, industrial look. It’s sophisticated and appeals to everyone. This is the sort of place where people don’t linger, or if they do, it’s to read the paper over coffee, not to bang away at their laptop, “working on their blog.” These sorts of places tend to not have WiFi, and it’s just as well. Some of these coffee shops go so far as to lack customer toilets—which is ludicrous. If you run a coffee shop, please put two and two together: coffee is diuretic and it will send people to the loo. So put in a damn bathroom; even if it’s a tiny, dinky one. I’ll only excuse a lack of facilities if your place is a true grab-and-go, with only 3m2 of space for customers to come in and order.
A suggestion: set up a small bench outside your shop front so your customers can enjoy the sun when the weather decides to cooperate.
Another suggestion: nothing says “counterculture” like bathroom graffiti. Gently encourage your patrons to leave a little message on the wall. There’s no need to be overt about, i.e. leaving a marker in the toilet—your staff can surreptitiously start the trend and the customers will follow suit.
If you took the task of hiring cool staff seriously, music should present no problem. Simply have your baristas plug in their iPods. Hipsters usually care a lot about music and tend to have large collections on their mp3 players. Often they’ll have eclectic taste, so one playlist may have some Motown and Disco on it, while another may be loaded with tunes from the early Punk era, and yet another, some indie Hip Hop and Electronica. Embrace this diversity. Unless they begin to play current mainstream pop songs, un-ironically. If you can’t trust your staff’s taste in music (it’s too experimental and off-putting, or they’re not hip enough and genuinely think The Killers and The Kings of Leon are at the forefront of cool), it’s time for you to do your own research.
Bonus points: Record players and record collections are both cool and evoke nostalgia. But I must warn opting to use a record player as your musical medium generates a bit of extra work—unlike an iPod you on which you just press play and enjoy, a record side will often only last 15-20 minutes and must be flipped, not to mention the whole hoopla of changing records. Records are also delicate and require extra care when being handled.
Free tap water that customers can help themselves to is a must! Coffee is dehydrating. Hipsters are usually wallet-conscious and/or environmentalists, and dislike being made to buy bottled water when the tap water in the particular locale is perfectly potable. You can have bottled water as a purchase option, of course, but as a courtesy to your patrons, you should provide tap water at the ready. Put it out in jugs with clean glasses or disposable cups beside it, and they’ll be very pleased to help themselves to it.
People who aren’t meeting anyone or engrossed in writing a screenplay like having something to do while they take a break at a café. Thumbing through a magazine beats staring at your smartphone, hoping someone will text you. It doesn’t have to be exclusively highbrow stuff (although that would earn you bonus points obviously)–an array of magazines, the morning paper, the neighborhood circular, and old quirky books are all acceptable.
Try to use organic milk and milk alternatives, as well as organic/free trade coffee. If all the big chains are doing it these days, you should too, because as an independent business, your ethics should be more exacting. This applies to food as well, if your shop serves any. If you serve baked goods, list the ingredients beneath the label—you don’t want to unwittingly ignite anyone’s nut allergies or wrath at having been duped into eating something that wasn’t gluten-free.
Hipsters like bikes. Most of them seem to own one and use it as their primary means of transportation. So it would be nice if your coffee shop is conveniently located near a bike rack. In fact, I think that hipsters are drawn to locations that bikes are parked in front of, like moths to a flame. This applies mostly to vintage style-bicycles and road bikes—particularly fixed gear bikes. There’s not much else I have to say about this.
Have you got any more observations about what exactly it is that makes your neighbourhood coffee shop so cool? Or any insights on the appeal of hipsters to normal people like you and me? Do you think I’ve left something vital out? Then share your thoughts with me in the comments section!
 If you do need a definition, Urban Dictionary does an exceptional job of defining the term. http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=hipster
 Yupsters are the older hipster crowd living an upper-middle-class lifestyle. Many of them, again, just adopted the aesthetic and only tangentially touch on the credo; some of them are, or were at one point, the real deal. The big concept here is that these people made it financially. Their app or start-up or artisanal furniture company really blew up etc. They can afford to stay at expensive boutique hotels when they travel to Portland, Seattle, NY and SF. They like organic food and recycled toilet paper, shop at Whole Foods and Margaret Howell, and can afford the finer things in life. Thus, they combine the concepts of the “Yuppie” and the “Hipster.”
 I may be making this up, but one coffee shop in New York is reported to have a ban on laptops. That’s a bit extreme, but that’s what I remember.
 I used to frequent a place like this on the way to the gym back when I lived in the East Village. The owner was often the one making the coffee, and it was outrageously popular. Great place. (You can visit Abraco Espresso yourself if you’re anywhere near East 7th and 1st Ave in Manhattan!)