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How to Open a Drive-Thru Coffee Shop

Entrepreneur experienced in setting up a successful coffee and chocolate shop.

Could a drive-thru coffee business be the money move for you?

Could a drive-thru coffee business be the money move for you?

Starting a Coffee Stand

Many people get to a certain stage in their life when they start thinking of alternative ways of making a living outside of working for the boss. Many wish to become the boss themselves and open a small business, often a coffee shop. People think of moving to a picturesque area and opening a cafe or tea room, which is a great thing to do. But opening a coffee shop is not without its stresses.

With any coffee shop business, you would be tied to regular opening hours, on top of which will be the time devoted to cleaning, maintenance, marketing, and administration. A drive-thru makes some of these time demands, but on a smaller scale. In addition, the costs of running a drive-thru are likely to be lower.

One way of cutting these overheads would be to open a drive-thru coffee shop.

Way back in 2007, the papers were full of the fact that the U.K. was about to get its first drive-thru coffee shop, a Starbucks, just outside Cardiff. The U.S., of course, has had drive-thrus for years. The press informed us that there were 21,000 drive-thrus in the U.S. and that drive-thrus account for half of Starbucks stores in the domestic market. This was in 2007, so I guess things may have changed since then.

Once the Cardiff drive-thru opened, the business was brisk, with people traveling for miles to sample coffee on the hoof, so it's clear that this is a tried and tested business model that can reap good profits.

Now, in 2019, coffee kiosks and drive-thrus are everywhere; you can get a coffee to go in even the tiniest of high-streets. The British Coffee Association states that we drink 95 million cups of coffee per day in the UK, and "The gross value-added contribution from the UK coffee industry to the economy is estimated to be £9.1 billion."

Some might suggest that this is a crowded market, but when looking to open a business, it's wise to look at something tried and tested—and the British taste for coffee doesn't show signs of slowing down any time soon.

Drive-Thru Coffee vs. High Street Coffee Shops

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it's that the world can change in the blink of an eye. Takeaways and mobile food and drink businesses proved to be resilient compared to other businesses in the lockdown landscape. This is definitely something to consider when looking at this business model.

Rent and Staffing

One of the benefits of opening a drive-thru coffee shop is that the overhead running costs are lower than those of a high street coffee shop. Whether you choose a static coffee kiosk or a mobile one, there are start-up costs just as there would be with a high street cafe, but the running costs are fewer.

The main cost of a drive-thru is the place itself. I'm not sure the business concept is mature enough yet for there to be drive-thru premises for rental, so buildings would likely have to be bought or converted. Likewise, I doubt there are many second-hand mobile coffee kiosks, but watch this space in the future as the model expands.

However, there are internet sites that actually let you download drive-thru building plans for free, so it's worth doing some online research in order to make a financial saving.

Staffing is usually less expensive for a takeaway coffee business. Most units are small, staffed by one or two people rather than a whole fleet of workers. Often drive-thrus start as 'owner-run,' then expand over time.

Customer expectations vary depending on your location. Someone stopping at your drive-thru on their way to work, for example, probably won't expect the same variety of products that a customer at a high street coffee shop might.

Customer expectations vary depending on your location. Someone stopping at your drive-thru on their way to work, for example, probably won't expect the same variety of products that a customer at a high street coffee shop might.

Facilities and Supplies

With a regular high street cafe, you need tables and chairs, other furniture, substantial heating or air-conditioning (as hopefully, the door is opening a lot), debit/credit card facilities, waiting for staff, food prep staff, chillers, freezers, dishwashers, crockery, coffee machine, display cabinets, dry goods store, pot wash sink, hand wash sink, prep area, entertainments license (if you don't want the place to be as quiet as a morgue), waste removal contract, restroom facilities for customers, separate facilities for staff . . . and the list goes on.

For a drive-thru, you need a smallish building with two serving hatches, one for taking orders and the other for serving drinks and snacks. You will also need a coffee machine, dry goods store, chiller/freezer, restroom for staff, food prep area, pot wash sink, dishwasher, handwash sink, dry goods store, waste removal contract, and that's pretty much the basics.

With both business models, at least one person on-site would need a food handling certificate.

As far as equipment goes, most coffee wholesale companies will lease and maintain coffee machines and chillers, providing you buy a certain amount of stock from them.

Customers expect a good range of coffees, teas and hot chocolates, with all the froth and trimmings, plus a decent range of cakes and maybe a few continental pastries, which may be brought in frozen and baked on-site.

The aim of drive-thru customers is to have a quick coffee and a cake on the run, so they won't expect such an extensive menu as a high street coffee store.

Location, Location, Location

As with a high street coffee shop, you need to choose the location for your drive-thru carefully. Finding a location with a high footfall (or tyre fall) past your hatch is vital, so the best places are at business parks, near convention centres, at motorway service stations, on A road lay-bys or in car parks.

If you are looking at parking your mobile coffee kiosk in a car park or roadside, you will have to discuss plans with the local council first, who may well extract a small fee for the privilege.

Rural locations are generally a no-no. However, Dartmoor has many successful coffee kiosks, such as the one permanently parked at Hound Tor, called 'The Hound of the Basket Meals'. Rural drive-thrus will always be the exception rather than the rule.

"The Hound of The Basket Meals" coffee kiosk, Hound Tor, Dartmoor

"The Hound of The Basket Meals" coffee kiosk, Hound Tor, Dartmoor

The Rise of the Mobile Coffee Shop

If a static drive-thru or drive-up business model doesn't appeal, many people now choose the mobile option.

Costs can be limited to your budget. While the costs of a fully fitted out vehicle can run up to £25,000 to buy, innovative entrepreneurs have kitted out tuk-tuks, bicycles, caravans, retro vans and trailers into successful coffee shops. A pedal-powered coffee business would cost under £10,000 fully kitted out.

These are generally owner-run, so overheads are limited to your own time, costs of goods and taxation. There may also be some licensing fees for certain vending spots, but the local council will inform you about these.

If you are anywhere near a business park from mid-morning to late afternoon, you'll definitely hear the sound of mobile coffee units selling their wares. Some of the more sophisticated fitted vans will also serve hot food.

There's little doubt that this is a business model with enormous financial potential; one that is well worth considering if you want to be your own boss, but aren't too fussed about living in a pretty rural idyll.


Marie Alana from Ohio on February 12, 2013:

I love this article. Yes, you would need a food handling license or certificate, but beyond that there are so many possibilities. You can buy anything on Amazon these days. Some peopl even do coffee shops on a bicycle. Here is so more information about mobile coffee shops:

Georgina Crawford (author) from Dartmoor on February 11, 2010:

Thanks for that coffeenista, I'll check it out now.

coffeenista on February 10, 2010:

Great article!

I'd like to share an article I found on the net as well regarding how to open a coffee shop.

All the best!

Georgina Crawford (author) from Dartmoor on January 30, 2010:

Thanks Mike - If I were opening a coffee shop again, I'd seriously consider a drive through. Quick sales and low, low overheads. It's a growing market I think.

Mike Chronos on January 29, 2010:

I think drive through coffee shops are perfect. Starbucks and McDonalds are making a killing from on the go business people who just want a cappuccino to go!