Coffee Startups: How To Build A Coffee Menu From Scratch

Opening up a coffee shop is exhilarating. Between managing the build-out of your soon-to-be cafe space to hiring a team of dedicated baristas, there’s a lot to accomplish before opening your doors.

In all the hustle, there’s one key step that’s often rushed right at the very end, but deserves a more strategic approach: creating your coffee menu from scratch. 

We’ve helped dozens of coffee startups develop a menu that not only meets the business’s needs, but keeps customers coming back for more. And, we’ve compiled our decades of specialty coffee experience into a solid, repeatable system you can use to plan your coffee menu.

By following our system, you’ll learn:

  • How to map out your coffee menu (+ the decisions you’ll need to make along the way)
  • Why defining concrete business goals is the key to a well-crafted menu
  • Where to source the right coffees for your menu

By the end, you’ll be prepared to create an enticing coffee menu for your new venture.

Step 1: Develop a Coffee Menu Map

From the outside, building a coffee menu seems simple. However, the process involves far more than picking a few drinks and pulling prices out of a hat.

Before diving into logistics and pricing, it’s all about determining your beverage list and what you want your coffee drinks to taste like. Broadly, this map contains two main categories:

  • Beverage Choices — Ask yourself: what coffee drinks do you want to offer? Will you keep a simple menu of drip coffee and espresso drinks? Will you live life on the edge with nitro cold brew and a pour over bar? List out the exact drinks you’ll be serving.
  • Coffee Flavors and Types — Specialty coffee boasts immense natural flavors like sweet black cherries, tart apple, smooth caramel, and tree nuts. You can roast long for a rich and deep flavor, or opt for a lighter and brighter profile. As the business owner, you have control over what your drinks taste like via the coffees you select.

A successful coffee menu system begins by building a coffee menu map between these two components.

Let’s dive in.

Also Read: Why Coffee Shops Should Start Roasting Coffee In-House

Start With a Detailed Beverage List

From tried and true drip coffee to classic espresso drinks, signature beverages to hand-crafted pour over coffees, coffee menus are ever-evolving to meet the preferences of their customers. 

When creating a menu from scratch, begin with the basics. There’s no need to develop signature drinks or exquisite offerings from the get-go. 

Start by writing down the standard drinks you’d like to offer. These will be the drinks you’ll sell year-round and are the foundation of your menu.

Among the most common beverages are:

  • Batch brew. Also known as drip coffee, this is the cornerstone of every coffee menu.
  • Espresso drinks. Lattes, cappuccinos, and mochas all start with the basics: quality espresso and expertly steamed milk.
  • Pour over coffee. Many coffee companies also sell a selection of hand-brewed coffees made with various brew methods
  • Decaf drinks. Providing a range of decaf menu items ensures your menu appeals to a wider audience.
  • Cold coffee. Some customers prefer to only drink cold coffee. From cold brew growlers to iced lattes, cold coffee drinks are a coffee menu staple, too.

Now that you know what you want to sell, it’s time to dive into the fun part: imagining what those drinks will taste like.

Identify Flavor Expectations

Once you identify the drinks you plan to offer, it’s time to pair them with the right coffees. The key is to identify your flavor expectations. Tackle this hurdle by answering the following questions:

  • What’s your style: approachable, adventurous, or both? The ethos and goals of your coffee startup will guide your coffee decisions. Do you want to offer mellow and approachable flavors that cater to all customers? Or, are you the coffee shop that offers experimental and rare flavors from coffee origins across the globe?
  • What don’t you want to sell? If you know that the local clientele prefers a medium-dark roast drip coffee, you don’t have to offer a light roast option. The same goes for narrowing down your beverage list. You have full control over the menu boundaries you set for your shop.
  • What coffees/tastes aren’t offered in your area? Take a good look at your local competition. Is there an opportunity to introduce a new world of coffee flavors to residents? Analyze what the local coffee roasters and shops are offering as well as what they aren’t.

Also Read: The Complete Guide to Setting Up Your Coffee Ecommerce Store

Blends, Single Origins, Roast Level: Which Works Best for My Menu?

The final step in plotting your coffee menu map is determining if your company should offer blends or single origin coffees (or both!) and at which roast level.

  • Single Origin Coffees are a great way to explore the diverse world of coffee flavors, keep your menu fresh, and are enjoyed by both casual and more adventurous coffee lovers. They’re often used on pour over bars and as secondary espresso options. However, some specialty shops also choose to have a rotating single origin coffee on their batch brew menu too.
  • Coffee Blends are ideal for consistent offerings that appeal to a more average customer, like your standard espresso or drip coffee. Most coffee customers appreciate the reliability of blends and will come back again and again for the same consistent, delicious flavors.

Each coffee has advantages and disadvantages:

Single Origin CoffeesCoffee Blends
Pros:
  • Can separate your coffee menu from the local competition with an emphasis on rare, exclusive flavors and origins
  • Appeal to an audience that appreciates the nuances of specialty coffee
  • Educate consumers on the variability and seasonality of specialty coffee through different coffee origins and flavors profiles
Pros:
  • Offer repeatable, consistent flavors that customers can come to expect from your coffee shop
  • Versatility: can often be used to make drinks ranging from batch brew to signature espresso beverages
  • Year-round offering creates the opportunity for brand-building around specific blends
Cons:
  • The seasonality of single origin coffees means they are not available year-round
  • Constantly rotating single origin menus require your staff to regularly dial-in new recipes and educate customers about new offerings
Cons:
  • Blend profiles need to be altered to meet seasonality changes while also maintaining consistent flavors
  • Might not offer the flavor variety many adventurous coffee drinkers crave

When thinking this decision through, ask yourself:

  • Do I want to offer a core, consistent blend year-round?
  • Will my audience appreciate the seasonality of single origin coffees?
  • How much flavor diversity is important to offer at a time?
  • Which coffees accommodate my intended drink line-up?

We recommend most roasters start with:

  • A standard house blend for drip, your go-to “regular coffee” 
  • A blend exclusively for espresso
  • Two or three rotating single origin coffees
  • One good decaf (single origin or blend)

And, after you’ve selected your company’s coffee blends and single origin coffees, you have one last flavor decision to make: roast level.

Both blends and single origin coffees are available as light, medium, and dark roasts.

  • Light roast coffee is roasted to accentuate the natural flavors and characteristics of the bean. Light roast coffees can boast vibrant flavors, crisp acidity, and a tea-like to juicy mouthfeel. Coffee shops looking to excite customers with a variety of flavors will fare well with at least one light roast menu option.
  • Medium roast coffees have a sweeter, more developed flavor profile thanks to the extended roasting time and caramelization process. These coffees also have a more mellow acidity but a creamier body. Medium roasts are a great, approachable option for those looking to appeal to a wider audience.
  • Dark roast coffee boasts deep, hearty flavors like cedar and walnut. They’re often described as “bold” or “intense” due to their heavy mouthfeel and smoky aromas. Coffees from Central/South America and Indonesia are delicious when roasted as a dark roast.

When evaluating specific roast levels, always consider the purpose behind the coffee. For example, a light roast coffee from Kenya will taste outstanding as a pour over, but may not shine in your espresso drinks. It’s often a matter of trial and error to identify which coffees work best with different brewing methods.

Also Read: Essential Items For Your Coffee Roasting Business

Generally speaking… 

Light roast coffees work best for:

  • Batch brew coffee
  • Pour over bars
  • Iced coffee (flash-brewed)
  • Decaf coffee

Highlight a medium roast coffee in drinks like:

  • Espresso
  • Batch brew coffee
  • Cold brew
  • Nitro cold brew
  • Decaf coffee

Choose a dark roast coffee for:

  • Batch brew
  • Decaf coffee

Of course, there’s no definitive science behind building a coffee menu. You’ll need to sample several coffees and recipes to nail down exactly what you’ll sell at your coffee shop. 

Pro Tip: Don’t be afraid to visit neighboring coffee shops and evaluate what types of coffee works best, what can be improved, and what opportunities are available for your shop. When you’re creating a menu from scratch, you won’t have previous sales data to analyze customer trends so use these opportunities to gain market insight.

picture of the XO espresso bar

Step 2: Define Your Business Goals

A coffee menu is more than a list of drinks. It’s a means to accomplishing your business goals and objectives.

As you piece together your coffee menu map, ask yourself: “What is my true business goal?”

For some business owners, these goals may look like:

  • “I want to sell rare, exclusive coffees.” Businesses in areas with coffee adventure seekers might have an opportunity to triumph over the local competition by honing in on a rotating menu of high-quality single origin coffees. Focus on building a menu that highlights these premier coffees with offerings such as a pour over bar and single espresso shots.
  • “I want to drive repeat customers.” If your business is located in a congested area with multiple competitors, building a loyal customer base and community will be the key to success. Concentrate your efforts on finding a consistent, repeatable—and most importantly, delicious—coffee you can offer year-round.
  • “I want to wholesale my coffee in the future.” As your business expands, you may think about pursuing wholesale opportunities as an additional revenue stream. With this in mind, keep a dutiful eye on the coffees your customers buy. Their preferences indicate what flavors and drinks the local market is fond of. In turn, this influences what coffees other coffee shops and grocery stores will purchase from you in the future. 
  • “I want to offer a variety of signature drinks. Fun seasonal drinks are all the rage. From coffee cocktails to fancy espresso drinks, coffee shops can get creative with their signature drink menu. However, this requires using a coffee that you can rely on and also mixes well with each new signature drink recipe. To achieve this goal, match the seasonality of specific single origin coffees with your rotating drink menu for the best results.

Also Read: How to Start Selling Wholesale Coffee to Grocery Stores

Without setting and acknowledging goals, your menu is simply a list of drinks. Your business objectives are the compass guiding your coffee menu map in the right direction.

Beyond Functional Goals, Identify Brand and Value Goals

Step away from the practical for a moment and get in touch with your deeper mission. There’s a deeper reason you’re building a coffee startup than just selling coffee—you want your beans to align with that mission and your values.

We suggest making a list of the value-oriented goals you have for your coffee. Many of our roasting partners have goals like…

Our industry has long been an advocate for these values, but when it comes to practicing them via responsible sourcing, much of that talk has turned out to be lip-service. Customers can see through it though, and brands whose ethics and products align not only perform well amongst competitors, but make our industry a healthier and more responsible place.

Step 3: Follow the Path Toward Success

By pairing your drink ideas with your business needs, you’ll discover the formula for creating the perfect menu for your coffee company.

It may seem overwhelming, but if you take it step-by-step using this system, you’ll find it’s not as big of a challenge as you thought!

  1. Pick a coffee beverage you want to sell
  2. Think about the coffee flavors & characteristics this drink should have
  3. Identify the business objectives it helps you achieve
  4. Select a coffee bean that’s aligned with your vision

Let’s take a look at a few examples in action:

Scenario 1: Espresso

  • Drink: Espresso
  • Desired Flavors/Characteristics: Sweet and nutty, with a subtle fruit note to elevate all espresso-based beverages
  • Business Objective: Retaining new customers to develop a loyal fan base

To keep customers coming back for more, the coffee used for your espresso drinks needs to provide a consistent flavor experience. Opt for a medium-roast blend to suit these criteria and meet your goals.

Scenario 2: Iced Coffee

  • Drink: Iced Coffee
  • Desired Flavors/Characteristics: Unexpected flavors like nutmeg, raspberry, hibiscus, or apple
  • Business Objective: Attracting new customers with a seasonal iced drink

With the goals of enticing new customers in mind, a light-roast single origin coffee brewed over ice will do the trick. Experiment with coffees from different countries such as Ethiopia, Zambia, Colombia, or Costa Rica as well as different iced pour over recipes to find the right flavors for your seasonal iced coffee.

Also Read: How To Launch Your Coffee Subscription

barista at the forum

Head’s Up, Your Coffee Menu Will Evolve

As a new business, you’re not basing your menu decisions on concrete sales data. Instead, you’re taking intuitive actions with your target audience, business goals, and coffee preferences in mind.

However, after you open your doors and spend a few months getting to know the ins and outs of your business, your menu will evolve—and for several reasons.

  • Customer preferences and expectations will guide your menu as time goes on. Tailor your coffee offerings and beverages to meet their flavor preferences or expectations of your shop.
  • Coffee seasonality plays a major role in the products a coffee company can sell. Planning your menu around coffee harvests is a great way to set clear expectations with staff and customers alike.
  • Market price changes will also dictate what coffees are on your menu. If the price of a coffee from a specific region suddenly becomes out of your budget, you’ll need to adjust your menu to accommodate this change while still maintaining flavors and consistency.

The important thing is to be flexible while simultaneously mindful of your sales figures. 

Be ready to adjust your menu as you learn more about the type of drinks your customers want and what coffees work best for your drink recipes.

How to Find the Right Coffees for Your New Menu

After you’ve followed our step-by-step system to build out your ideal coffee menu, it’s time to go out and find these coffees!

But, as a new coffee startup owner, do you have time to evaluate importers, cross-check your sustainability values, research coffee offerings, sample roast, and cup seemingly endless amounts of coffee? Probably not.

That’s why you can rely on the Bellwether Green Coffee Marketplace to help you identify the best coffees for your menu, values, and business goals.

Our Green Coffee Marketplace is your coffee menu in a box. We’ve taken care of the sustainable sourcing (with receipts!), quality control, and traceability of top-tier coffees from around the globe—all you have to do is roast it! Fortunately, the Bellwether Roaster makes roasting coffee in-house a breeze. 

We’ve made sure everything you need for a successful coffee menu is right at your fingertips.

👉 Discover how the Bellwether Roaster and Green Coffee Marketplace can streamline your coffee menu.