How to Introduce Third Wave Coffee to New Customers

For some people, third-wave coffee can seem like a new, exciting, and potentially intimidating industry. Flooded with the myriad beverage options of second wave coffee shops and the efficiency of drive-through kiosks, it can definitely take some time to adjust to the style of a third wave coffee shop. Yet, how your business introduces third wave coffee to new customers can make them believers and, perhaps, even regulars.

Written by coffee professionals, this guide offers some best practices for introducing new customers to third wave coffee in a way that will encourage them to return again and again.

Recommended: Read our full, in-depth How to Start a Coffee Shop Business guides, inspired by coffee professionals, they will help make your coffee dreams real, from sourcing beans to hiring baristas, choosing a POS system, forming an actual company, and everything in between.


Make It Accessible

Most people have some familiarity with the “too-cool” barista stereotype — the person who scoffs at anyone who doesn’t know the definition of a traditional macchiato. This stereotype is responsible for a lot of nervousness around specialty coffee because no one wants to feel stupid.

Yet, specialty coffee doesn’t have to feel like an exclusive club. In fact, the success of this industry depends on the number of people who participate. To make specialty coffee more accessible, cafe owners and employees must educate others about their product. Most customers want to learn what your business has to offer — if you communicate about it in a way that’s informative and helpful.

Another way to make your coffee more accessible is to provide hard copies of your drink menu for customers to review before ordering. Go the extra mile and include a short description of each drink as well as its total volume in ounces to make ordering a new drink an easy, pleasant experience. By listing a drink’s overall volume, you give customers a hint about which drinks follow a more traditional style. For example, your cafe may offer just one size of cappuccino rather than the three typically seen in second wave coffee shops.

Incorporate Some Second Wave Options

Customers new to third-wave coffee often have some experience with second wave coffee shops (think Starbucks or Peet’s Coffee®) and likely find much to enjoy at these establishments — including flavored syrups and other sweet additions to coffee drinks. While specialty coffee cafes typically don’t offer sugary lattes, it doesn’t hurt to provide a few second wave options to help new customers ease into drinking third-wave coffee.

Here are several ways you can accomplish this:

  • Develop Specialty Drinks You’re Proud to Serve. Use local, seasonal ingredients for an artisanal touch.
  • Make Your Own Syrups. Don’t love the typically uber-sweet syrups carried in second wave coffee shops? Make your own in-house varieties using quality sugar and other ingredients. You can easily infuse flavors into simple syrups, and you can add this task to your employees’ regular duties.
  • Find Drink Additions That Compliment Your Coffee. You may think a syrup is a syrup, but the flavor notes in the syrup or chocolate you choose for your shop can either enhance or muddy a beverage. If you plan to offer sweet additions, you might as well make them as complementary as possible to your star product — your coffee.

Know What to Recommend

Customers will most likely ask, “What do you recommend?” or “What’s your favorite drink?” when they aren’t sure what to order. Knowing what to recommend can mean the difference between a customer enjoying their first third wave coffee experience and deciding it’s not for them.

To help new customers understand that everyone can enjoy third wave coffee, recommend coffee with lower acidity and less brightness. If a customer’s coffee background mainly includes Starbucks espresso drinks, for example, the acidity of some third wave coffee may come as an unpleasant surprise. If you have a blend, a medium roast, or a coffee with flavor notes like chocolate or stone fruit, these typically make good options.

In addition, recommend new customers start with a latte. Toning down the taste of coffee with milk is a great way to introduce third wave coffee. This approach not only takes the edge off the initial taste of espresso, but also engages customers with the visual appeal of latte art.

Pro Tip: If you use one of your coffees on your espresso bar as well as for cold brew or drip coffee, let your customer try a small sample. While the extraction process will affect the taste a bit, sampling the cold brew or drip coffee will allow the customer to test the flavor notes on their palette.

Know What to Ask

To help you determine what a customer might enjoy drinking, you’ll need to ask some questions. But, choose your questions carefully. You want to efficiently find the perfect drink for them, not conduct an interrogation. Here are three key questions to ask:

  • Would You Like That Hot or Iced? Asking this question first will eliminate some options and bring you closer to a beverage your customer will enjoy.
  • What Do You Typically Drink? This helpful question not only gives you an idea of what the customer usually orders, but also if they prefer a sweet, strong, or milky beverage.
  • Do You Want a Coffee-Forward Flavor? This is a good question to ask before you recommend something like a macchiato or an espresso. If the customer says, “no,” then you know they want something a little on the lighter side.

By asking the right questions, you can quickly hone in on what a customer might enjoy drinking while starting a conversation with someone interested in learning about — and trying — something new.

Start a Conversation

Once your new customer has a chance to try their drink, ask them what they think. Open up a dialogue about their likes and dislikes — and respect their opinion. The goal of this conversation isn’t convincing them to like their beverage, but conveying that third wave coffee is all about exploration and learning.

Starting a conversation also gives you the opportunity to suggest other drinks for your customer to try. You can work with them to find the aspects of third wave coffee they’ll enjoy while providing a stellar customer service experience. If your customer has a specific coffee in mind to try, consider using a manual brew method because these typically produce a clean, clear flavor profile. That will help your customer experience the specific tasting notes in the coffee you’re discussing.

Believe in It and Share Why It’s Special

Ultimately, all of these best practices support the goal of showing your customers why you believe third wave coffee is great. The best way to introduce something you care about is with enthusiasm — not only for the coffee, but also for the chance to share your knowledge about your product.

Here are a few ways to proudly demonstrate your enthusiasm for third wave coffee:

  • Offer Samples. Give customers small samples of a coffee or specialty drink you’re excited about.
  • Include Customers in Your Tastings. Maybe you just used an AeroPress to brew some of the new coffee you recently ordered. Invite interested customers to taste the product and provide feedback.
  • Share Information and Involve Customers in the Conversation. Don’t assume that because a customer doesn’t know something, they aren’t interested. Share your wealth of knowledge with people new to specialty coffee.
  • Showcase Employee Recommendations. Feature a barista’s favorite coffee or drink weekly for customers to try.
  • Use POS System Reports. Analyze your POS sales report to find out what customers like to purchase and cater the specials around the unpopular items. 

Specialty businesses face a unique challenge: introducing new customers to a product typically outside of their comfort zone. Implementing these best practices can help you make that introduction a little smoother.

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