Coffee shop pic indoor at counter with coffee machine

Beating the Chains as an Independent Coffee Shop

The coffee shop world is constantly being turned over with exciting, novel ideas, and you just have to walk down the high street to see it. No matter what new trends come and go, however, one thing remains the same: people like things they’re already familiar with, and tempting them from their usual order at the nearest chain coffee place will never be easy.

We know how challenging running a business can be, and have worked with countless independent cafés, retailers and other small businesses over the years. Here’s what we’ve learned about facing Goliath as a smaller independent business.

People can tell a lot about your business based on the products and offers you choose to advertise, and external and internal signage are a great way to keep your customer base well-informed. Among all of our other takeaways, the main thing we’ve found is that if a coffee shop isn’t one that passers-by will necessarily have heard of (i.e. if you aren’t the CEO of a multinational chain), your signage really needs to make everything you have to offer a potential customer visible.

Illuminated Menu Light Box Display - product example

A non-illuminated poster or sign will do far less to promote your business than a promotional poster or corporate sign presented in a display light box, which uses a combination of colour and light to catch a potential customer’s eye. This is the only way for your signage to have its full effect. Menu light boxes, light box displays and pavement signs are widely accepted to be some of the most effective advertising mediums available today.

Now let’s look at some more tips…

You Got This - illuminated Sign

Talking Points

  • A unique company story is one of the many advantages an independent coffee shop can hold over a chain. Whatever your story is, use it. Tell the team to share your story and tell it in full on your company website.

  • Create a signature product that people will come from all over to try. When they see your café, what do people think about? You can also charge more if you make your products more interesting and memorable.

  • Charity! Support local and join forces with local charities. You can then talk about it across your website and social media – it’s a great way to show that you’re supporting locals.

  • Where does your coffee come from, where do your food ingredients come from? Talk about these things and share with your customers!

Chalkboard sign in a tea room displaying menu


  • You can use whatever technology takes your fancy because an independent business has no wider set of rules to adhere to. Everyone is now able to access services which were once only available to larger companies – make the most of this time of freedom!

  • Keep it fresh. Make sure you have plenty of fresh ideas to go with your fresh food. Wow your customers with exciting new experiences.

  • Experiment and monitor your success. Try it because you can!

  • Don’t forget about your menu. Ensure you innovate with what you have on offer, but if the menu has too many things on, the customer will have too much to choose from and might not believe everything is fresh. Make sure it’s clear and easy to read and order from.

Read more: Are you getting the most out of your menu?


It’s not dirty or dishonest: advertising is just how you communicate your message to potential customers. With good advertising, you can beat the chains on a local level. The friends and family of your regulars will all hear about your business, and are bound to visit after your super-fans have raved at them enough. You can also get the word out through your own actions – blowing your own whistle isn’t a bad thing! Consider non-traditional ways of advertising.

Student in coffee shop on laptop having coffee

  • At a local level, it’s easiest to beat the chains if you make good use of social media. Your brand should always be on your mind when you choose the channels to use. Chains can really struggle to keep it personal, but loads of independent businesses have really made a splash on platforms like Instagram.

  • Make use of review sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp. When someone reviews your coffee shop, make sure you reply. You’ll receive fewer negative reviews if customers can see that you care about their experience.

  • Have an online presence. On top of social media and review sites, a company website can bring everything about your café together in one place. Backed up with good photos, a website creates a clearer image of your social accounts, opening hours, trip advisor reviews and company story.

  • There are 3 ways customers will find you:
    • Walking past
    • Word of mouth
    • Google

    • By utilising each channel, you are covering off each instance someone can find you.

  • Google! Use your google listing to add your location, promote special offers and build trust with customer reviews.

  • Try to encourage third-party endorsement from your customers – whether it’s video or written testimonials that you can then share across your channels. Simply ask your customer, would you do a testimonial for us?

COFFEE sign in drink shack takeway

The Training Wheels

All the flashiest latte art in the world won’t help you if you don’t have the basics down pat!

  • One of the main reasons a customer might not come back for a second visit to a coffee shop is poor hygiene. Make sure your counters are spotless, set up a foolproof bathroom-cleaning rota and clean each table after use.

  • Make sure you have an easily navigable café layout. From the very beginning of your design process, you need to keep this in mind. Customers don’t like having to ask where they can find the bathroom, the wifi password or the water – make it clear.

  • Your branding needs to be present in everything from the colour scheme to the noise levels, the space to the music. Everything needs to be deliberate and controlled.

  • Do you offer table service? Where do they stand when ordering? Don’t make your customers feel awkward because they don’t know how to act in your cafe. Control your temperature inside, too hot or too cold will put them off. And poor ventilation steams up your windows and looks awful from the outside and the inside.

  • Good signage!!! Don’t write in small letters, they are difficult to read. McDonald’s are great at signage because customers can spot the fast-food chain miles off. Coffee shops need to be noticeable from across the street, so clear signage can increase footfall. Light boxes can be used both indoors and out, allowing your business premises to make the most of its all-important signage. Signage products that are suitable for both interior and exterior use are rare, which is what makes LED light boxes so special.

A coffee shop with a strong sense of identity will always be a firm favourite for coffee lovers. If a customer is looking for a café that’s the same as 1,000 others, they’ll go to a chain.

Laptop Computer and Cup of Coffee

Read more: 4 Great Ways to improve your coffee shop with signage

Building Trust

When you go to a coffee shop, you’re looking to relax. Whether you realise it or not, you’re looking for a little reliability.

  • Your team will create rules for your café if you don’t do it yourself. When you’re not around, processes and plans need to be in place to ensure everything runs smoothly. If your business also serves food, additional rules need to be in place.

  • As much as you may want a chill vibe in your coffee shop, your staff need to know their service responsibilities and the role they play, so you need to write job descriptions for each member of your team.

  • Talk to your customers and start building relationships – chains can’t do that.

  • Good service starts with your team. Employ people to become amazing! You can train them to make a great coffee but you can’t train people to have the hospitality gene. The gene to provide great service!

Trip and Coffee Sign

Use Indoor Signage

Products to organise information such as literature stands are important as they help you to present your brand well. Other interior signage products are available in secure weather-proof alternatives. In essence, the purpose of interior signage is to ensure your customers are kept well-informed on everything your business has to offer. Pointing customers in the direction of what they’re looking for is much easier if you make use of indoor signage, which covers everything from leaflets about individual products to large menu boards.

OPEN - sign

You can guide a customer’s purchases with indoor signage, or just make sure they’re comfortable they know everything they need to know. Your signs need to be bold enough to stand out amongst products and crowded counters, but still needs to reflect your brand in a clever and attractive way. As “green” advertising grows in popularity across the UK, innovations in business signage have swiftly brought us towards a new world of LED light box solutions. Menu light boxes are becoming very popular in cafés and other dining establishments for this reason.

It may take some time to figure out which indoor signage will work best for you, especially considering the massive range of options available on sites like Red17, but the results are well worth the effort. If you can work to compliment or shadow your existing branding with your signage, it will be easier to build brand recognition and familiarity with your customers.

Read more: Signage: Inside or Outside?

Pavement Signs

By being placed directly outside of a business, a pavement sign is seen by anyone who walks past. There’s always the possibility of advertising a service or product to someone new if you leave a sign outside to engage pedestrian traffic as much as possible. A pavement sign can promote your business year round. If you have a special event or offer running, your sign can also be used to promote this.

Read more: How Big Should I Make the Lettering on My Pavement Signs?

Old Man in coffee shop doing crossword puzzle

Take Care of Your Finances

You will never make any money if you don’t get the metrics right, employ the wrong number of staff, don’t open in the right place and don’t have the right products and margins. It may not be the fun part of opening a coffee shop, but getting your numbers right is vital.

Print some Flyers

Leaflets are one of the most popular ways of getting the word out about your business without having to pay for upfront advertisement such as billboards or television adverts. Another huge advantage of using leaflets for your brand’s marketing process is that they last much longer than other forms of advertising. They give your potential clients something to hold in their hand and read when they’re traveling or waiting for something.

Black and White image of inside of coffee shop

Promoting your café in an inexpensive way is important if you’re only starting to make a profit. As mentioned earlier, leaflets are also cost-effective. A set of flyers for your business won’t cost a lot, but they’ll be a tangible way of promoting your product. Customers will pick them up and read them absentmindedly, so as much as society has embraced the digital age, a piece of paper can still be really effective.

And provided the information on them remains relevant, you can use the same run of flyers to promote your coffee shop time and time again. Basic company flyers will be able to help increase awareness of your café for a long time, while the low cost of printing a new run will make special event flyers a useful addition to any other promotional campaigns you may choose to run. And when not in use, you can just store them under the counter until you need them again!

Clear Leaflet Holder Menu Sign

Read more: How Leaflets Can Help to Promote Your Business

Inside modern coffee shop with customer at window seat

Embrace the Local

Owning your area is just one more way in which you can gain an advantage over the chains.

  • Corporate chains are too big to really create an affinity for the area in which they operate. Build relationships and friendships by talking to non-competing businesses on your street. Ask them to give their customers flyers that will give the discounts for your café, and consider giving all your local businesses discounts too.

  • Make ties with the local media. Share your expertise and experiences with them to become a local expert. The local community will then start hearing more about you and thinking of you as a reliable presence.

  • Don’t pay for advertising space but ask for an advertorial by giving out an offer. Use the tips in this article to really wow everyone who comes through the door as a result of your article!

  • Support your locals and they support you. Local cycling, running and mum & baby groups. With cycling groups, you should spread out to a wider radius to mark yourself as their halfway stop.

Cafe with Chalkboard

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cropped version of coffee shop main blog pic