Café design: five common mistakes to avoid

Don’t make these café design mistakes!
Get your interior design right with our expert tips and café design ideas.
By Rob Clifford


It’s an exciting time: planning the start of your new (or refurbished) café. The decisions you make at this stage that will have crucial ramifications for your business.

I’ve worked with countless restaurants and cafés that have spent thousands on design and interiors only to later realise they made plenty of simple errors that proved costly to fix later. It’s important to get these decisions right at the onset.

Café design mistake #1: too much space

Having an over-long service counter and large display cabinet produces food waste and increases service labour coverage. Staff tend to hide behind larger counters so don’t give them too much space to congregate unnecessarily. Similarly, a large empty dining space is off-putting for consumers. A few smaller breakout spaces can make a larger space more inviting.

Your counter area should be relative to your business levels, which can be very difficult to estimate before you open. However, understanding the needs of your target market can help. Are they busy commuters wanting to grab a coffee and dash? Or parents needing highchairs and lingering over coffee? Having a strategic knowledge – not a guess – will help you find the right ideas for your café interior design.

Café design mistake #2: lack of seating

The size of your tables and your seating capacity is a key driver of restaurant revenue. Whilst shared tables may be cool, they are not the choice for small groups. The secret to successful seating plans for any café is flexibility. Tables that can be pushed together for large groups or pulled into smaller tables for two is practical and smart. Funky oversize couches look fabulous but they’re not easily moved around the room, so keep these stylish interior design options balanced with a range of more lightweight chairs that can be moved easily.

Café design mistake #3: poor lighting

Lighting can create a warm welcoming atmosphere in your café or totally ruin the mood. Dim lighting is perfect for a late night cocktail bar, but will make a café seem dark and dingy. Similarly, an overly bright café will seem more hospital cafeteria than charming local eatery. It can be tempting to get distracted by the fantastic design features of your lighting without considering the actual lighting effects they create. Make sure you highlight the service area and cabinets to entice customers to inspect your wares. And in contrast, your tables should be featured with dimmer, ambience style lighting for a welcoming feel.

Café design mistake #4: bad customer flow

Customers sit at the tables, staff serve them – simple, right? New owners are often surprised at how much footfall there is in a café. Your café design should allow people to feel confident moving in the space. The takeaway crowd need designated zones, so they don’t get in the way of your dine-in customers. Similarly, your wait staff need to navigate the floor quickly and easily without having to run around customers queuing to pay. Customers are chasing kids around, looking for the bathroom, and (hopefully) coming up to order seconds of your amazing florentines, so carefully consider the ways they’ll be moving. Create channels for them to follow that allows more functionality of your space.

Café design mistake #5: poor comfort levels

Comfort is all about the dwell time, and dwell time is good for business. Customers who linger order another coffee, and help create that full, in-demand look for those passersby wondering if they’ll give your place a try next time.

A crucial mistake many café owners make is forgetting to regularly test out their seating and tables as a customer would experience them. Sit in the chairs for half an hour, test the air temperature and assess the vibe. Nothing empties a café faster than a freezing cold café in winter or steaming hot room in summer. Invest in the best heating and air-conditioning you can afford. Watch out for those little incidentals like squeaky doors, wobbly tables or dusty corners – customers notice and judge everything.

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