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The Ultimate Cafe Opening Checklist

The Ultimate Cafe Opening Checklist

Cafes are attractive to everyone from students to office workers to artists. While Starbucks may get all the attention, any mom-and-pop breakfast and lunch joint, or mid-sized cafe, can compete with the right location, coffee, food, service and ambiance. With this cafe opening checklist, we’ll show you how.

To become a go-to spot and make money, a plan to get those elements right can be totally undone without quality accounting and a good cafe POS system. However, something as simple as a cafe checklist can go a long way. You don’t have to follow every step all at once in this checklist, but it’s a great starting point. 

Want to build a 5-star cafe team?

With the Lightspeed guide to Best Practices for Building an All-Star Restaurant Team you can learn how.

18-step checklist for opening a cafe

Step Checklist Item Details
1 Make a business plan Essential for prioritization and attracting investors. Helps in defining the venture’s path, despite real-life deviations.
2 Select a location Consider factors like foot traffic, proximity to other businesses, infrastructure for electrical and plumbing, and rent affordability.
3 Focus on coffee and tea Establish a robust supply chain for high-quality coffee and tea varieties to stand out and attract enthusiasts.
4 Don’t forget the rest of the menu Offer light meals like soups, salads, sandwiches, bagels, and baked goods. Ensure the menu reflects your unique brand and culture.
5 Obtain all permits and licenses Secure local permits and state food and beverage licenses. Start this process early after registering your business.
6 Purchase equipment Essential items include a cafe POS system, cash register, espresso machines, coffee grinders, refrigerators, cooking devices, blenders, security system, and storage. Consider secondhand options to save costs.
7 Hire employees Look for reliable individuals with outgoing personalities and a passion for coffee. Use restaurant-specific job boards and referrals for recruitment.
8 Choose a smart cafe POS system Select a POS system that is reliable, handles internet outages, and provides fast checkouts and data-driven insights for business improvement.
9 Establish a marketing plan Start marketing before opening. Tactics include local advertisements, press releases, free samples, loyalty programs, influencer partnerships, social media marketing, and eye-catching signage.
10 Design your cafe’s interior and exterior Creating a welcoming and visually appealing space is crucial for attracting customers and enhancing their experience. Consider factors like layout, seating arrangements, lighting, music and decor. 
11 Build a strong online presence Establish a strong online presence to reach and engage with customers. Develop a professional website that showcases your menu, location, hours of operation, and any special events or promotions.
12 Develop a sustainable business model Implement eco-friendly practices throughout your cafe operations, such as reducing waste, conserving energy and water, and using recyclable or biodegradable packaging. 
13 Adhere to health and safety regulations Familiarize yourself with local health codes, sanitation standards and food safety protocols applicable to cafes and foodservice establishments. 
14 Explore financing options Consider various financing options, such as loans, grants, cash advances, or investor partnerships, based on your financial needs, business plan, and creditworthiness. 
15 Implement inventory management strategies Use inventory tracking systems or software to monitor stock levels, track sales trends, and streamline ordering processes. 
16 Community engagement and local partnerships Building strong ties with your community and collaborating with other local businesses can improve your cafe’s visibility, credibility, and customer loyalty. 
17 Plan for growth Plan for scalability to sustain success and adapt to changing market conditions. Evaluate and refine your business strategy, menu offerings, pricing, and customer experience based on feedback, market trends, and competitive analysis. 
18 Seek expert advice Consult industry veterans for advice on creating a mission statement, customer research, listening to feedback, and having an exit strategy. Personalities and customer service are crucial. A tip from Daniel Steyskal: “Put salt in the coffee” – a secret used by many major coffee places
  1. Make a business plan
  2. Select a location
  3. Focus on coffee and tea
  4. Don’t forget the rest of the menu
  5. Obtain all permits and licenses
  6. Purchase equipment
  7. Hire employees
  8. Choose the right cafe POS system
  9. Establish a marketing plan
  10. Design your cafe’s interior and exterior
  11. Build a strong online presence
  12. Develop a sustainable business model
  13. Adhere to health and safety regulations
  14. Explore financing options
  15. Implement inventory management strategies
  16. Community engagement and local partnerships
  17. Plan for long-term growth and scalability
  18. Seek expert advice

1. Make a business plan

Like any business venture, you need to start with a written plan. Whether it’s to woo investors or just to help you prioritize and determine what you’re going to do, a business plan is crucial to the success of any commercial venture. (Even if real life inevitably ends up very differently.)

2. Select a location

Storefronts in busy downtown areas have higher rents for a reason: higher foot traffic equals higher turnover. Other factors to consider include whether a location is central and close to other restaurants and shops, if the space has the right electrical and plumbing infrastructure and how affordable the rent is relative to these other factors.

3. Focus on coffee and tea

Coffee and tea are the lifeblood of any cafe, and Americans are increasingly discerning, so it’s important to establish a robust supply chain. Decide on the different varieties of coffee and tea you’ll sell to ensure your cafe stands out. High-quality tea and coffee beans cost more but may draw tea and coffee enthusiasts from further afield.

Source high-quality ingredients 

High-quality tea and coffee beans cost more but may draw tea and coffee enthusiasts from further afield.

Basically, ingredient quality impacts the taste and reputation of your cafe’s offerings. So how can you go about sourcing good ingredients? Here are just a few ideas:

  • Establish relationships with local farmers, suppliers and distributors to source fresh, seasonal and ethically sourced ingredients
  • Prioritize organic and locally sourced products whenever possible to support sustainability efforts and appeal to conscientious consumers
  • Conduct thorough research and tastings to ensure the consistent quality and freshness of your ingredients
  • Be transparent with customers about your sourcing practices to build trust and loyalty

Close up of someone pouring latte art.

4. Don’t forget the rest of the menu

Cafes typically offer light meal options, such as soups, salads, sandwiches, bagels and sweet baked goods. Keep it simple, get feedback on all items before you open and make sure your menu evokes your unique brand and culture.

5. Obtain all permits and licenses

Along with local permits, which are usually fairly straightforward to obtain, a cafe requires state food and beverage licenses. State licenses can be considerably more difficult to obtain in some states than others, so start the application process as soon as you’ve registered your business.

6. Purchase equipment

A cafe won’t get far without the right equipment. Some of the hardware you’ll need includes:

  • A cafe POS system and a cash register
  • Espresso machines
  • French presses
  • Drip coffee makers
  • Industrial coffee grinders
  • Refrigerators and freezers
  • Ovens/toasters/other cooking devices
  • Industrial blenders
  • Security system
  • Storage and shelving systems

All of this can be expensive, so it pays to track down secondhand options when possible.

7. Hire employees

A reliable person with an outgoing personality and a positive, can-do attitude is more important than experience. Coffee-making skills can be taught—a bad attitude or taciturn personality is much harder to modify. That said, a knowledge of, and passion for coffee is a big plus. Restaurant-specific job boards and referrals are good places to find baristas and cooks.

For more information on hiring best practices, check out our ultimate guide to hiring restaurant employees.

A barista hands a coffee drink to a woman sitting at the counter working on her laptop.

8. Choose a smart cafe POS system

Quality cafe POS systems are reliable, can handle internet outages, and enable fast, efficient checkouts. The best include comprehensive data-driven insights for a bird’s-eye view of how to improve your business operations.

Consider a system that offers multiple tools and features to make it easier to run your operations from one place. Lightspeed POS and payments for cafes, for instance, allows you to personalize your service to increase customer satisfaction. It also offers a range of features like reporting, loyalty programs, multiple contactless payment options and simple online ordering. 

cafe opening checklist

Lightspeed customer Table Rock Coffee Roasters, which produces small batches of roasted coffee, needed a flexible system when they opened. 

“Having the ability to program Lightspeed to be intuitive is a big deal,” says owner Chris Richard. 

They juggle drive-through and onsite orders, and needed technology that made it easy to train and onboard staff. “My staff has a lot going on and we needed to be able to navigate the POS easily in a way that makes sense.”

With Lightspeed, they were able to customize their POS and ordering flow to match their needs. 

9. Establish a marketing plan

Your marketing program should begin before the cafe opens its doors. There’s plenty of ways you can do it, such as:

  • Advertising your grand opening in local newspapers and magazines
  • Issuing a press release announcing your opening date
  • Offering buy-one-get-one-free coupons and free samples
  • Starting a loyalty program that you can run through your POS system
  • Approaching local food bloggers and Instagram influencers for exposure
  • Creating a social media marketing program
  • Hanging eye-catching signage

10. Be intentional about your cafe’s interior and exterior

Creating a welcoming and visually appealing space is crucial for attracting customers and enhancing their experience. When you’re newly opened, customers’ first impressions are a big factor in your success, and visuals are a big part of that.

Consider factors such as layout, seating arrangements, lighting, decor and ambiance. Your cafe’s interior design should reflect your brand identity and target demographic, while the exterior should entice passersby and differentiate your establishment from competitors. 

It’s also helpful to consider the area you’re operating in. Do you live near a university? Consider ample seating and access to electrical plugs to appeal to students. Are you on a busy street? Find ways to grab the attention of passersby. That could include bright signage, visually appealing color stories and more. 

Additionally, you can collaborate with experienced designers or architects to help bring your vision to life and ensure optimal functionality and aesthetics. 

Toronto cafe Liu Loqum Atelier, specializing in Turkish desserts, is a great example of a visually appealing space. They’ve optimized their seating layout to take advantage of the airy, open space and large windows. The modern interior has plenty of personal touches that reflect their branding. 


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11. Build a strong online presence

In today’s digital age, establishing a robust online presence is essential for reaching and engaging with customers. 

Create a professional website that showcases your menu, location, hours of operation, and any special events or promotions. 

Leverage social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to share enticing photos of your offerings, interact with followers and promote your brand. Consider implementing online ordering and delivery services to cater to tech-savvy customers and expand your reach beyond your physical location. 

A tool like Lightspeed Delivery, which seamlessly integrates with Lightspeed Restaurant POS, can make a world of difference for your business, presenting a new revenue stream. 

cafe opening checklist

12. Develop a sustainable business model

Being a sustainable business goes further than just ingredients. Sustainability is increasingly important to consumers and can also contribute to cost savings and long-term success. 

Sustainability may not be top of mind for an entrepreneur focusing on opening or expanding their business, but in the long run you’ll be glad you thought about it early on. It can inform the suppliers you choose and overhead expenses you’ll be paying. 

Here are just a few ways you can implement eco-friendly practices throughout your cafe business: 

  • Implement a strategy for reducing waste
  • Conserve energy and water
  • Use recyclable or biodegradable packaging and reduce unnecessary packaging
  • Incorporate sustainable design elements, such as energy-efficient appliances and materials, into your space
  • Explore partnerships with local environmental organizations to further your sustainability goals and demonstrate your commitment to responsible business practices


13. Understand the importance of health and safety regulations

As a food service establishment, you must always comply with health and safety regulations. It’s essential to ensure the well-being of your customers and employees, as well as avoid costly fines or legal issues. 

Before you open, you should familiarize yourself with local health codes, sanitation standards and food safety protocols. 

Further, create and put in place comprehensive procedures for food handling, storage, prep and cleanliness. Provide ongoing training to staff to maintain compliance and uphold the highest hygiene standards. 

Finally, inspect your equipment and premises regularly and stay up-to-date with any regulatory changes or updates. 

14. Explore financing options for your cafe

Securing adequate financing is essential for launching and sustaining a successful cafe business. 

Explore various financing options, such as business loans, grants, cash advances or investor partnerships. Keep in mind your financial needs, business plan and credit. 

Additionally, you can research government programs or incentives available to small businesses in your area. Consider consulting with financial advisors or mentors for personalized guidance and support. 

Prepare a detailed budget and financial projections to present to potential lenders or investors. A solid plan will demonstrate the viability and potential profitability of your cafe venture.

Did you know? Lightspeed offers cash advances exclusively to eligible Lightspeed merchants. Our Lightspeed Capital team verifies your eligibility based on your sales history and sends you an offer. It’s fast, reliable and the process is simple. There are no credit checks or lengthy applications involved.

15. Implement inventory management strategies

Effectively managing your inventory is critical for minimizing waste, controlling costs and ensuring product availability. 

One of the main ways you can do this is to use inventory management software. This way, you can schedule ahead and reduce waste. It also allows you to monitor stock levels, track sales trends and streamline your ordering process. 

Good software will give you the option to establish reorder points for key ingredients and supplies to prevent under or overstocking.

Plus, try to negotiate favorable terms with suppliers to optimize purchasing and pricing. Conduct regular inventory audits to eliminate shrinkage and improve accuracy. Adjust your inventory management strategies accordingly to be as efficient and cost-effective as possible.

cafe opening checklist

16. Community engagement and local partnerships

Building strong ties with your community and creating local partnerships can improve your cafe’s visibility, credibility and customer loyalty. Of course, this will happen gradually as you operate, but it’s useful to think about from the beginning. 

Participate in community events, fundraisers or festivals to showcase your offerings and connect with residents and businesses. 

Collaborate with local artisans, musicians or organizations to host events, workshops, or pop-up markets at your cafe. Doing this can foster a sense of belonging and community spirit. 

17. Plan for long-term growth

While it’s super exciting to just launch your cafe, it’s essential to plan for long-term growth to sustain your success. Part of this is adapting to changing market conditions. 

Always evaluate and refine your business strategy, even if you’re an established entrepreneur opening a new venture. That includes refining your menu offerings, pricing and customer experience based on factors like customer feedback, market trends and competitive analysis.  

You can also explore future opportunities for expansion, such as opening additional locations and diversifying your revenue streams. It’s helpful to develop a strategic roadmap and timeline early on for achieving your growth objectives.

18. Seek expert advice

When all else fails (or, more accurately, whenever you get the chance), the best thing you can do is ask questions and get answers from the people who have opened their very own coffee shop before.

These cafe industry veterans gave us their best advice on how to open a cafe.

Fahmi Elabed owns Piccolo Trattoria in Philadelphia. He says it’s important to have a staff that works together, first and foremost.

“Have FOH and BOH work as a team,” he says. “Make sure you have a restaurant mission and a culture so you can create raving fans!”

“And listen to customers, especially those that point out something wrong.”

Billy Brophy agrees and adds that it’s important to have a restaurant mission statement for your cafe. Once you write that down, you have your guiding vision. “Every decision from there should be filtered through [the mission statement]. Then, plan how the business will help you live the lifestyle you want to have, who your target customers are and how it will differentiate itself from the competition.”

Listen to your customers

Daniel Steyskal notes how important it is to listen to your customers. “Do your research, does the area want this style cafe? And listen to customers, especially those that point out something wrong.”

“Too many owners surround themselves with people saying everything is great,” he says, and as a result, they may fail to see how the cafe isn’t performing.

Hank Dreyer has been in the restaurant industry for over 35 years and owned quite a few spots himself. He says it’s more important than anything to have an exit strategy. “You must have something in place to exit the business. Are you going to one day simply close the doors?”

Probably not, he says. “Have a goal to retire or sell. If you put in 400K and someone offered you 1.4 to sell and you walk with a million, is that enough? Have those questions answered prior to opening those doors. That’s the kind of goal you’ll want to work for,” he says.

“Hire personalities,” says Rocco John Giuliano, a restaurateur with over 20 years of experience. “Infectious personalities! Smiles are the most important part of your staff’s uniform.”

If you’re still wondering how to open a cafe, we’ll leave you with this final piece of advice from Steyskal, “Put salt in the coffee,” he says, “[it’s the] dirty secret every major coffee place uses.”

Start your cafe your way

It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to open a cafe. But with the right tools, resources and experts at your side, the process can become a little easier. Before you know it, you’ll be operating successfully. 

Looking for a technology partner that can grow with your new business? Watch a demo to see how Lightspeed can help.


1. What is the first step to open a cafe?

The first step is to create a comprehensive business plan outlining your concept, target market, menu offerings, location and financial projections.

2. How profitable is a small cafe?

Profitability depends on factors like location, overhead costs, menu pricing and customer traffic. With proper planning and execution, a small cafe can be profitable.

3. How do I start a mini cafe?

To start a mini cafe, focus on essentials like selecting a suitable location, designing a simple menu, sourcing quality ingredients and ensuring efficient operations with a small team.

4. How much money do I need to open a small coffee shop?

The initial investment for a small coffee shop can range from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on factors like location, equipment, renovations and licensing fees.

5. Is it hard to run a coffee shop?

Running a coffee shop can be challenging due to competition, staffing issues, fluctuating costs, and demanding schedules. However, with dedication, effective management and attention to detail, it can be rewarding.

6. What makes a coffee shop successful?

Several factors contribute to the success of a coffee shop, including quality products, providing exceptional customer service, creating a welcoming ambiance, establishing a strong brand identity, and actively engaging with the local community.

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More of this topic: Management & Operations