Is the “Coffee Shop” market too saturated for your cafe? | Lessons from Respire and Elixir Bunn
The “coffee shop” experience has drastically changed in the last few years. Cafes used to be a place where people meet to drink coffee, or pass by to pick up their drinks. Today, the purpose cafes service has scaled way up. People go there to meet, work, study, gather, and practice their hobbies!
In Saudi Arabia alone, the cafe industry is now one of the largest and fastest growing where Investment has reached SR221 billion. In addition, the number of commercial records for cafes has tripled between 2017 (5K records) and 2020 (15K records).
Seeing and reading these numbers could either encourage or intimidate new investors and business owners from entering this market.Is there still space for new coffee shops (especially in the main cities)? Or did your moment to jump-in pass?
The market in large cities such as Jeddah, Abha, and Dammam is still growing, so there’s definitely room for more spaces over there! However, Riyadh had over 7K cafe commercial records in 2019 alone! And it does not take an expert to see that cafes are almost everywhere around the city.
Now, let us ask a more specific question: Can you still open -and grow- a new cafe in Riyadh?
If we look at the Quality of Life Program (one of the Saudi Vision 2030 Realization Programs). The program aims to reach 1032 cafes/1M individuals around Saudi Arabia by 2030. In support of this, Riyadh Alzamil (member in SMEs trustee board at RCC) told AlArabiya in late 2021: “We are still under the international rates of cafes per individuals”.
Yes, there is still space in the Riyadh market, and we can see that by the number of new/old cafes that have opened, sustained, and even grown recently in the market. However, the competition is high, and the challenge is tough. You can’t just open a “specialty coffee” place and call it a business anymore. There are far more options around the city for that to be enough. In addition, new places are opening left and right, but people are only going to a selected number of them regularly!
How? And why?
It all comes down to brand identity!
What exactly do we mean by “Brand Identity”?
Brand identity is a combination of elements that deliver and emphasize the message of the brand. When talking about a competitive market such as coffee shops, the core of the identity is Its selling point/strength. What is it exactly that is so special about your cafe? Is it the coffee? ambiance? products and services? additional perks (work/study rooms, gift shop…etc)?
Once that point is decided, every other component of a brand’s identity will align to strengthen this point and sell it better.
Those components include:
- Visual identity (designs, colors, decor…etc).
- Delivery of services and products (self-serve, waiters / home delivery, in-store only, drive-thru…etc).
- Target population/customers.
- Brand tone (usually observed in communication and marketing).
- Accessibility (are reservations needed?).
With this in mind, let us explore some case studies: cafes (old and new) that have opened in Riyadh and have managed to sustain the business through strong brand identity:
Respire | Ar Rabi – Riyadh | 2021.
You can tell a lot about Respire’s brand identity just by the name. This identity becomes clearer once you look at their social media pages, their interior design, and their products and services.
- Sloga: Pause to respire
- Colors: Warm, neutral.
- Space: wide, lots of trees, tables are well-distributed.
- Menu: “gathering” options, coffee and dessert, salads, sandwiches, breakfast, and snacks.
- 1st Instagram highlight: “Our message”. Its content covers a corner in the cafe that is used interactively for any important events.
- Instagram content covers promotional pictures, meditative questions, and environmental awareness posts.
- Weekly gatherings are held for yoga groups, discussion groups, and painting groups.
All of the aforementioned points are more than sufficient for you to get the identity of Respire: a place that serves a message. After you visit the place, you’ll get a better understanding of what that message is: sustainability, and environmental awareness.
We reached out to one of Respire’s family members (literally and figuratively); Fahad. We asked him about Respire’s identity, and what sets it apart from other cafes:
Respire started in November 2020 and was operating by 2021. The message and idea behind it are clear and simple: raising awareness of sustainability, and environmentally-friendly tools and technologies through a coffee shop.
The derive behind this message is the founders’ experience living outside of the country for several years, during which, they experienced a sustainable living style that centered around eco-friendliness. As a result, they were able to recognize the national gap we have here when it comes to environmental awareness: A topic that is heavily discussed internationally, but is barely mentioned in our national communities (by the general public). Notably, sustainability is one of the main targets of the Saudi 2030 vision.
From there, Respire was born to help fill this gap through a community-friendly approach: open a place that people will want to visit and use every corner to try and raise awareness of this issue in an approachable manner.
Now, Respire serves 2 purposes:
- Providing products and showcasing environmentally friendly tools and technologies for individuals and businesses to adapt.
- Raise awareness of sustainability, and be a place where those interested in this topic can find a community.
Respire serves both purposes with a lot of aesthetically-pleasing options that showcase sustainability’s adaptability to individuals (trees, solar-powered lights…etc), and businesses (recycling, using tap water…etc).
Respire is the first place in Saudi to use a reverse vending machine, which gives customers store credit/points for every plastic item they bring to recycle. They just insert it into the machine and get their points. People have been utilizing the machine so frequently that the manufacturers said Its use in this branch exceeds Its use in other countries according to their reports. In addition to that, Respire also gives rewards/points to those who use Electric cars or come to the place on their bicycles.
The place also uses a german desalination machine for its tap water. They use it in their coffee and offer it to clients to drink for free.
In return, they were able to attract a recycling company/organization, and a solar-panels manufacturer to work with them.
All in all, Respire is consistent when it comes to Its message and branding.
More specifically, Fahad told us:
“We were able to be an example for others. We are now able to show individuals and businesses that sustainability is doable and adaptable.
When you first start a project, you’ll notice that those interested will come to you. However, if you want to expand even further, you need to choose a vehicle that is more popular than your message.
If we were to open a gallery showcasing environmentally-friendly technologies, we would’ve been able to attract only those already interested in this topic and our exposure would have been very limited. On the other hand, utilizing popular vehicles and outlets will help you get your message across to a wider population.
Most importantly, be ready for the challenges you will face. As a business centered around sustainability, we still struggle with heating and cooling systems and electricity and finding sustainable technologies for them. Moreover, like a coffee shop, we wish to find an espresso machine that is environmentally friendly (something that incorporates recycling/reuse, or that takes up less electricity).
In addition to that, you need to create an environment that correlates with your message and identity. Respire is a family-based place. We incorporated experiences from our family members when it came to planning, operating, management, and products. Consequently, this was passed to our employees. They work together as a family, and in return, our customers have become part of this family. This harmony enhanced our brand’s strong identity and our message. It also made this a comfortable and favorable environment for many.
A healthy work environment starts and ends with your employees. Therefore, supporting your employees is one of the first and most important steps to building a collaborative and efficient team that helps your business and each other (Read: How to boost your sales? Change your employee’s schedule!). One of the ways you could support your team best is through flexible staffing. Flexible staff will help reduce the pressure on your team, and assist with demanding tasks.
3. Elixir Bunn Coffee Roasters | 4 Branches – Riyadh | 2015.
Elixir Bunn is one of the first specialty coffee places in Riyadh, and one its pioneers in Saudi. Its identity started and continued emphasizing the “cup of coffee”, and transforming it from a routine action to a holistic and enjoyable experience.
- Colors: Dark, earthy.
- Space: Wide, minimal, and mostly wooden furniture, emphasis on cultural items/prints.
- Offers coffee, and coffee-making products
- Instagram content focuses on the process of making coffee, and blog content focus on coffee-makers experiences.
- Language: Formal Arabic.
- The tone is professional, brief, and modern.
One of Elixir’s employees talked to us about the place, Its start, and identity:
Elixir started in March 2015, after one of Its founders tried a “specialty coffee” place during one of their trips.
From there, founders were on a mission to learn as much as they possibly could about specialty coffee and running a business. After several courses, trips, and experiences, they opened their first branch: Elixir Bunn – Al Nakheel District. A small cafe near King Saud University.
As they expanded to bigger and better things and branches, the main goal was still consistently followed: to make a specialty coffee at the best standards.
To maintain this mission, they have created their own training courses; educating all employees from their first day as new staff, and continuing as they continue with Elixir (Read: Guide: Onboarding and training for Retail and F&B staff from A to Z | Includes downloadable templates).
At Elixir, you will find a noticeable local touch at every branch and in every detail. Their beans are local from local farmers, 98% of their employees are Saudis, and the artists they collaborate with (architecturally and decoratively) are local.
Elixir may have had time on their corner (entering the market early). However, their ability to attract new customers and sustain the earlier ones still 7 years later is that they have a defined and clear identity: They are a specialty coffee place. And exceptional coffee is what you will get from them!
Each branch of Elixir’s is design differently. However, you could always tell It has Elixir’s spirit.
Another point that helps them expand their position in the market is the owners’ relationship with feedback. They, themselves, oversee all feedback and work on each one to make sure nothing slips through the cracks.
In short, elixir provides an experience that exceeds the cup of coffee, and it starts with Its special content.
The common denominator between all of these places is their clear identity.
If you focus on your brand’s strength/selling point (a message, a product, a service, or an experience), you will be able to channel all of your brand’s components to support that point. As a result, you will be more visible to those already interested, and attractive to those curious.