3 Cups — Doing more with less

Last week I was in Chapel Hill, NC for a family event. Ever since the lamented closing of Fowler’s in Durham a few months ago, I haven’t had a favorite coffee hangout in the area. Now I’m glad to say I do again.

I tried to visit 3 Cups for the first time a couple months ago, but the place turns out to be closed on Sundays. This time around I made a point to drop in when it’s open. My family and I stopped in on a busy Saturday afternoon to find the shop near UNC buzzing with people.

I already knew 3 Cups serves Counter Culture Coffee, as does my current employer, so I was looking forward to trying their espresso. I was in for a surprise: no espresso machine! The only coffee on 3 Cups’ menu is drip and French press, with an emphasis on the press. Cafes au lait are available for people who really want a milk drink, but otherwise it’s all about the coffee.

This is a cool approach to running a coffee shop. I’m sure the many other shops in the area surrounding UNC all sell espresso. By choosing not to, 3 Cups offers less than its competitors. Yet by offering less, it offers more.

First of all, serving only drip and French press coffee puts the emphasis on the kind of coffee customers can make at home. This fits with their goal of becoming their customers’ favorite coffee retailer. People love espresso, but except for the rare enthusiasts who invest in expensive equipment and put in lots of practice, the stuff they make at home is always going to disappoint compared to what they get from the pros. Anyone can make traditional coffee with a little care, and with the equipment and excellent selection of beans available at 3 Cups, they can recreate the taste experience at home.

Secondly, coffee fits in better with the shop’s focus on single origin, artisinal products. Espresso is pretty much always blended and it’s rare for a shop to switch blends very often. Very few customers are going to drink straight espresso anyway; most of them are going mute its flavor with a lot of milk. Coffee, on the other hand, comes from a practically endless variety of origins, making it easier to communicate the differences among them.

Finally, skipping the spro makes running the shop a lot easier, leaving room and time for complimentary goods. Serving espresso entails making space for the machine, grinders, and beans, paying at least one barista to be on duty, and devoting a whole lot of time to training. My guess is that sticking to simpler brewing methods allows the staff to be better informed about 3 Cups’ other offerings: tea, chocolate, and wine.

At most coffee shops, even really good ones, tea is something of an afterthought and chocolate and wine may not be available at all. 3 Cups has all three items in abundance, all with extensive information available. I didn’t get to spend too much time talking to the staff, but they seemed to be just as informed about these other products as they are about the coffee; the guy I talked to was definitely into the chocolate part of the business.

3 Cups doesn’t offer much food, but they have a cozy relationship with the neighboring SandwHich, an artisinal sandwich shop selling some delicious fare. A hallway connects the two places and customers, dishes, and employees are free to pass back and forth. They also share a courtyard. The friendliness between the shops is a great solution to the problem of fulfilling customers’ wants without getting distracted from one’s core mission. Why have a great sandwich shop with bad coffee and a great coffee shop with bad sandwiches when you can just put a door between them and enjoy both?

(SandwHich got nice write-up in the local press here. The chips sound tasty but they were sold out by the time I got there. That’s how you know the place is good: the owners would rather sell out of fresh stuff than only sell things they can guarantee to always have on hand.)

Visiting 3 Cups reminded me of the less is more design philosophy espoused by the 37 Signals crew. By taking away a feature that almost every other coffee shop puts at the center of its business, this shop has really set itself apart with its simplicity and focus. I like it — so much so that I even forgot to see if they have wi-fi. Either way, I’ll be sure to drop in from now on whenever I’m in town.

[Cross-posted on Smelling the Coffee.]


5 thoughts on “3 Cups — Doing more with less”

  1. Jacob, my Corporate Strategy professor would love you. I think you have a future as a Corporate Caffeination Consultant.

  2. Er, make that Competitive Strategy. I’m only 2 weeks into the semester–can’t be expected to remember all of my course titles, right?

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