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Jane Motorcycles in Williamburg, Brooklyn.
Jane Motocycles

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In-Store Coffee Shops Give Boutiques a Jolt

Selling customers coffee is the fastest way to sell lifestyle

Jane Motorcycles’ slogan is something of a joke: A sandwich board sign outside a sweeping glass facade reads, in marquee caps: FREE ESPRESSO WITH PURCHASE OF MOTORCYCLE.

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While Adam Kallen, one of Jane’s co-owners, will tell you about their "stupid slogan" with a fully self-aware laugh, the message comes in earnest. ("Of course we’re more than happy to give someone a free espresso after they buy a bike," he assures me over the phone.) Both products, after all, promise to give your slogging life(style) the jump it needs.

The famous Jane Motorcycles sign. Image: Jane Motorcycles

Jane’s owners’ greater hope is that, hey, if you’re not in the market for a motorcycle right this second, maybe you’ll stop in for a cup of Counter Culture Coffee, or a leather jacket, or a currently-very-popular acai bowl, or a cozy beanie. Jane offers all of this (and more!) in pursuit of both a lifestyle brand and a financially sustainable retail operation that can satisfy anybody who walks by with a wallet and one of many sorts of hunger.

A few streets down, you’ll find Parlor coffee, where you’ll have to walk past a number of men in leather chairs getting haircuts in order to order their morning cortado. At Saturdays Surf NYC across the river in Manhattan, you can sip an iced latte and browse surf boards and apparel, rain or snow or shine. In San Francisco’s Mission District, a visit to the beloved Heath Ceramics building isn’t complete without a New Orleans iced coffee (and a cookie, if you’re smart) from the Blue Bottle Coffee outpost nestled into their entryway. In Copenhagen’s Atelier September you can can purchase a pourover and then look at handmade furniture. Our cities’ coffee shops are slowly morphing into boutiques, and vice versa; in the right hands, it’s not a bad thing. And in case you had any doubt, their collective Instagram game is on point.

Offerings from Stone Fruit Coffee + Espresso. Image: Stone Fruit Coffee + Espresso

Selling things and also selling coffee is nothing new, particularly at independent bookstores or upscale department stores. But the coffee at these places has never been particularly great, never so carefully paired with the aesthetics of the shop itself (unless the overall "look" is "college bookstore," may it never change, mediocre cookies and all). This new wave of coffee shop-cum-boutique is taking its espresso as seriously as its merchandising, proving that coffee culture is quickly becoming an essential facet of every lifestyle brand, and that coffee shops are all their own lifestyle brands.

It’s true for both the boutiques moving cafés into their spaces and the coffee shops diversifying their product offerings. Of course, Jane has a different objective than, say, The Mill, the San Francisco coffee shop-slash-bakery-slash ceramics store that’s famous for its toast, and owned by the Four Barrel Coffee Roasters. The former is looking to hook the style set that’s interested in coffee, or at least interested in Instagramming a cortado set against a crisp leather jacket, and capitalizing on the fashion industry’s current eye toward food. The latter is going in on every aspect of the small batch economy: bread and jams made in-house, ceramics made around the corner, coffee roasted up the street, locals looking for a neighborhood spot that feels both homey and much nicer than their own living room.

What is new, says Counter Culture Coffee’s Jesse Kahn, is the lifestyle branding of coffee.

At my local aesthetically-driven Brooklyn coffee shop (whose name, Stone Fruit Coffee + Espresso, pointedly eschews the passé ampersand), their merchandise has evolved since the store's opening about a year ago. First it was whole-bean coffee (Stumptown), then chocolate (Mast Brothers). Then it was candles. A month or so ago, natural face scrubs and body products appeared. It all felt very new, very California, very trend, like a beauty-focused spin on The Mill. It felt like coffee shops and boutiques — be they beauty or apparel or home goods — were all bleeding into one. But it turns out the concept isn’t that new after all; what is new, says Counter Culture Coffee’s Jesse Kahn, is the lifestyle branding of coffee.

The seed that sowed Starbucks, after all, was Torrefazione Italia, a Seattle coffee shop that also sold handmade Italian ceramics and porcelain. The company was bought by the Seattle Coffee Company, which was then bought by Starbucks, which was soon run by Howard Shultz, who was once a salesman for a Scandinavian housewares company.

For many small business owners, it’s simply a matter of selling what they like. The Mill was, from the concept’s outset, always going to sell merchandise — the deep wooden shelves that line one vast wall were an integral part of the space’s design. "We always wanted to have beautiful things for sale there so it would be a curated project," explains co-owner Jodi Geren. "We have one employee who is very stylish and she does all our purchasing for the shelves; it has become her creative project."

Coffee hangs around the city. Taken with @moment wide. #shotonmoment

A photo posted by Vincent Carabeo (@alohacrabs) on

When they first opened in 2013, the coffee shop-slash-lifestyle boutique was rare in San Francisco; it’s grown commonplace since."The biggest thing that’s happened recently is what we can loosely define as lifestyle branding of coffee," Kahn explains, "And over the last decade of growth in specialty coffee, the better that it’s been lifestyle-branded, the more opportunities there have been for it to be a part of boutiques and products and lifestyle — leather goods, skateboards, things that define lifestyle: people are bringing coffee into it."

Aside from diversification and personal taste, there’s another important reason that these owners want to offer everything: it keeps people inside longer, and keeps them coming back. Says Geren, "We always wanted [The Mill] to feel really cozy and homey, like a kitchen — so we wanted ceramics and textiles and plants on that wall." And while she tells me that ceramics aren’t a big profit driver, there’s still a clear potential to turn a $5 purchase into a $25 or $50 purchase.

"Over the last decade of growth in specialty coffee, the better that it’s been lifestyle-branded, the more opportunities there have been for it to be a part of boutiques and products and lifestyle."

At Jane, on the other hand, Kallen and his partner wanted a boutique that didn’t foist guilt on shoppers who didn’t feel like making a purchase. "We wanted to build a community of people who would come back the next day and feel welcome," Kallen told me. "And if you don’t buy something at a regular store, you would feel weird coming back the next day and hanging out. But if you buy a latte and sit down, it gives you an excuse to hang out." As urban real estate prices rise and margins shrink, casting a wide (but tightly curated!) net is bound to catch you more customers. Give them a cozy place to sit (and maybe a wifi password) and some trendy things to put into their bodies and a cool space to Instagram, and they will come back. Jane recently added food to their menu, because according to Kallen, "we didn’t want to lose a customer because of what we didn’t have."

As these shops proliferate, the coffee industry’s tentacles are reaching and spreading into every lifestyle-defining act and product the market offers us. Want to go camping? Pick up this $125 Camp Coffee Kit from Stumptown and Poler! Considering a stay in a fancy hotel? You can easily find one with a hip coffee shop. Want to buy a Slouchy Winter Hat? Head to Intelligentsia! In the mood for an American-made heritage bicycle? You can get one in Chicago with a latte sidecar.

Intelligentsia Coffee in Pasadena. Image: Mel Melcon/Getty

The value proposition of small-ish coffee companies — from Stumptown to Intelligentsia to Four Barrel to Blue Bottle — has come to include the brand’s ability to define you as a (stylish, tasteful) person. These boutiques become nesting dolls of lifestyle messaging: the coffee roaster sells you their own lifestyle brand (you care about fair trade and flavor profiles and also maybe Portland!) and the shop sells an idea that builds on that: shop here and you will be a person whose tastes contain multitudes, who can both sniff out the berry notes in this Ethiopian espresso blend and pick out the season’s most perfect culotte. Your hair looks great today, by the way.

We may soon come to expect a well-pulled espresso from a locally run boutique of any sort the way we expect a wifi password and a clean bathroom from our coffee shops. This is more evolution than trend, a smooth blending of the borders between café and boutique and identity badge, a stretching of the definition of the word "curated." Wait for Shopbop and net-a-porter to start selling coffee gear; after Urban Outfitters’ pizza chain purchase, it isn’t far off.

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