x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Atmosphere matters at UAE coffee shops such as Starbucks

As Starbucks refurbishes its leading Abu Dhabi and Dubai outlets, it appears that coffee shop design is more than just comfy chairs and newspapers on tap.

Starbucks at Al Wahda Mall, Abu Dhabi. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National.
Starbucks at Al Wahda Mall, Abu Dhabi. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National.

It’s hard to keep up with the ever-changing landscape of the UAE coffee shop industry. And with outlets popping up seemingly overnight, competition is fierce.

As consumers, we’re picky about where we sit and take our cup of java. One study by Lisa Waxman of Florida State University, for example, found the top five design characteristics of the ideal coffee shop include appealing aroma, adequate lighting, cleanliness, comfortable furniture and an outside view. The design of a coffee shop is therefore crucial in creating the right ambience and atmosphere for customers.

Starbucks, it seems, recognises the importance of a fresh, current design to keep the customers rolling in. It has been busy refurbishing its high-profile stores across the Middle East as part of its mission to enhance its experience.

UAE outlets already refitted include Shangri-La and Al Wahda Mall in Abu Dhabi, and its branches in The Dubai Mall and Mercato Mall, also in Dubai.

“We constantly review our stores and regularly refurbish them to enhance the customer experience,” says Rana Shaheen, the regional communications and CSR manager for Starbucks Coffee Mena. “As part of this, Starbucks has set out on a journey of innovation, creating exciting new looks for high-profile stores across the Middle East.”

Ms Shaheen explains how each renovated store has design facets to make it special. The objective is to incorporate local elements into the design. For example, The Dubai Mall outlet bridges a modern cafe setting with Arabic coffee heritage through customised decoration and furniture design ranging from café or lounge to banquet-style seating.

“Starbucks design studios are located around the globe so that our designers can fully understand the communities they serve,” says Ms Shaheen. “We are also interested in the way design can connect us all and provoke thoughtful questions and engagement with the designed environment.”

A community feel appears to be an aspect some independent coffee shop owners are keen to tap into.

Duaa Anwar, the owner of Bean Machine – a gourmet coffee house and American-style bakery in Business Bay that opened in September 2013 – says the main theme of the outlet’s design was “community”, as she wanted to move away from the generic coffee shop chain theme and create a space where people are happy to linger and take a moment away from the bustle of the city.

“The approach was to create something for everyone, hence the comfy sofas as well as upright chairs and tables for those who want to work at their laptop or eat,” says Ms Anwar, adding that crucial elements of coffee shop design include creating a welcoming colour scheme, as well as a feeling of privacy even in an open plan area. Wi-Fi is also available.

“We looked at existing coffee shops, both here as well as in the UK, and settled for a design that was fairly popular with independent coffee shops in London.”

Ms Anwar says the aim was to make the coffee shop an extension of people’s living rooms.

“A second home, if you like, where people can unwind and relax, even if it’s just for 20 minutes in the middle of your busy work day,” she says. “Cosy is very subjective and very personal. Our personal preference is for comfort and a relaxing atmosphere, with the gentle white noise of conversation, or easy listening if the shop is empty. Our big sofas contribute to this, and our staff are instructed to leave people in peace and quiet, though of course they are always around to talk if required.”

The UAE’s coffee scene may appear to be dominated by big chains. However, unique independently owned stores are opening, each with its own design characteristics and ambience.

One example is The Magazine Shop – a cafe that launched last year with branches in Media City and DIFC – that specialises in high-quality coffee and independent magazines. The staff source thought-provoking, unique magazines from around the world, and design-wise, both outlets are clean and simple. “Our goals are to continually accommodate the different needs of our customers, and this is best done by having a flexible space to work with,” says the operations manager May El Calamawy.

Ms El Calamawy explains how both shops, which also offer Wi-Fi, have been purposely designed in a simple manner to make the magazines the centrepieces. “These magazines are art that speak for themselves and are displayed in a manner where they’re recognised for their individuality,” she says.

Ms El Calamawy adds that most coffee shops in the UAE share common design characteristics, and she hopes The Magazine Shop’s design comes across as more individual. “It reflects our independent spirit,” she says. “We would like to see more coffee shops embracing their quirks and the different cultures we are surrounded by.”

business@thenational.ae