Green Business Ideas: Drive-thru Coffee Stand & Espresso Shop

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We’re mad for coffee these days. And not just a simple cup of joe, either, as many of us enjoy a wide variety of espresso drinks, and are choosing to buy coffee made from Fair Trade, shade-grown, or organically-grown coffee beans instead of run-of-the-mill conventional coffee.

If you fancy yourself a coffee connoisseur, and enjoy making and serving espresso drinks and supporting sustainable coffee producers and roasters, then starting a drive-thru coffee stand and espresso shop might be the green business idea you’re waiting for. By selling something that we all can’t seem to get enough of, coffee, in a drive-thru setting, and by selling only ethical and eco-friendly coffee products, a coffee stand could be a socially and environmentally responsible business.

1. What is a sustainable drive-thru coffee stand & espresso shop?

This kind of business is typically a roadside purveyor of sustainable coffees, tea, and other drinks.  There is no interior space for people to hang out, like a sustainable coffee house, but rather people simply drive through the coffee stand and order beverages.  Typically, these types of restaurants are very small, in many cases more like a booth with the espresso and coffee machines, space for one person, and a window through which to serve drivers.

The business can be made more sustainable when it serves organic, fair trade, and shade-grown coffee (triple certified) and other similar drinks, and uses the best possible take-out materials.  It can also give a discount to drivers who bring their own mug, or to drivers of Prius’s or other eco-friendly vehicles.  You might also have an innovative program with reusable/exchangeable sealed thermoses for cyclists who bike through on their way to work, offering substantial discounts to those that have the lowest carbon footprint commute.  These can be branded with your logo, where bike commuters bring their used ones to you, exchange them for a clean, full thermos, and you take theirs back, wash it, and reuse it for the next bike commuter.  This kind of program would be innovative and fun enough to capture media attention and to generate a good deal of repeat business and customer loyalty.

Triple certified coffee costs more on the wholesale level, but with margins for coffee and specialty-coffee drinks as high as it is, this cost can be fairly negligible in the grand scheme of your business.  Triple certified coffee provides an economic incentive for rainforest conservation by providing decent jobs to workers in third-world countries where most of our coffee comes from, for a product that is grown underneath a rainforest canopy that is allowed to remain, as opposed to being cleared for row-cropping, as many traditional coffee farms have been.

2. What required knowledge or skills are necessary?

Food service experience is helpful for this kind of business, but not a necessity.  Knowing how to operate and maintain an espresso machine, as well as knowing how to make each different menu option, from a straight espresso to an Americano to a decaf triple latte with low-fat soy milk and a shot of flavor, is essential. The work can be extremely busy at times (think rush hour) and dead at other times, so you need to be ready for a boom and bust cycle daily.

3. How much money is required to start?

$$   (on a scale of $ to $$$$$) The overhead costs for a drive-thru coffee stand vary quite a bit, depending on whether you rent a space that’s already built for it, or whether you build, buy, or rent a mobile version on a trailer that can be relocated as necessary. Purchasing a good espresso machine and coffee grinder, and all of the accoutrements needed to make a range of different drinks, is at the core of the startup costs, as is acquiring some form of refrigerated storage for perishables. If you plan to serve iced coffee drinks, an ice machine is required. You will also need to cover the costs for business registration and health inspection, as well as any other local permits required for a food business (or a mobile food truck), and for a mobile operation, there may need to be some discussions about compensation with the owners of the properties where you’ll set up the business.

4. What is the income potential?

$$   (on a scale of $ to $$$$$) Adding a variety of baked goods, either made by yourself or from another local business, can add to your sales, and offering some snack food items or grab-n-go sandwiches for lunchtime, might also increase the average sale.

5. What is the best location for a drive-thru espresso shop?

Urban (best), semi-urban (very good), suburbs (very good), rural (poor).
*In general, any area with a lot of vehicular traffic will work just fine, as 95+% of your business will come from people driving by.

6.  Three best questions to ask yourself to find out if this business is right for you (if you can answer yes to all three, this business might be for you):

  • Do you consider yourself to be very good at making specialty food items, like lattes or mochas?
  • Do you thrive in an environment that can fluctuate from hectic to calm and back again in minutes?
  • Are you able to work by yourself, and on your feet, for long periods of time?



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