How Small Coffee Chains Can Compete

When it comes to competing against the likes of Starbucks and Dunkin’, it can seem like a David versus Goliath mismatch. Yet, at the outset of 2024, there are a few smaller coffee chains making a name for themselves and finding ways to stand out. recently highlighted five chains gaining momentum – Colectivo Coffee, Black Rifle Coffee Company, PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans, Ziggi’s Coffee, and Black Rock Coffee Bar. Each of these chains has found success despite the colossal competition in the coffee market. Some of the keys to their success, according to, include finding their own unique market and niche, and staying true to their roots.

The Food Institute spoke with Kathryn Bleeker, director of marketing at Ziggi’s Coffee, and Matt Sawicki, vice president of franchise sales for Scooter’s Coffee – another thriving chain – about what smaller chains can do to find success.

What are the keys to success for a chain your size?  

“I think a lot of our success through the years has come from how our company founders, Brandon and Camrin Knudsen, built the foundation of our business, which was truly going with their gut instincts, wanting to build meaningful relationships with their customers and communities,” Bleeker said of Ziggi’s.

“They weren’t trying to become something that felt inauthentic.”

From there, that authenticity filtered through various aspects of Ziggi’s business, from the products and vendors it partnered with to the franchisees and employees it introduced into the chain’s growing system.

According to Sawicki, Scooter’s success is because it adheres to its core value of integrity, above all else.

“We focus on listening to our customers as well as being the best version of ourselves. Being intentional every day with how you approach your customers is key.”

What do smaller chains need to do to compete against powerhouses like Starbucks? 

It’s imperative to focus on the individual connection with customers, Bleeker said.

“When our baristas remember our customers’ orders and details about their lives, we’re set apart within the industry. We build genuine connections and make every customer feel like they’re part of our community.”

Sawicki feels the key is to stop worrying about the competition and focus on your own brand.

“Be easily accessible to your customers,” Sawicki says. “When you listen to your customers, they will tell you their why, why you, why not. Focus on that.”

In the competitive coffee industry, smaller chains can thrive by prioritizing customer service, said Michael Podolsky, CEO of

“Unlike larger chains, where customer feedback often highlights issues like rude and poorly trained personnel, small coffee shops have a unique opportunity to offer superior service and high-quality experiences,” he said.

“Smaller chains should focus on ensuring each visit is memorable and exceeds expectations.”

What are some common pitfalls that chains fall into? 

Coffee shops occasionally end up becoming too niche in their approach to product, service, and their overall brand experience, Bleeker said.

“When you strive to be a place that wants to be a staple in the community (like Ziggi’s), it’s important that you serve your core customer, but also leave room for expanding on the opportunities to welcome more people to your business whether that’s through products, service, locations, etcetera,” Bleeker added.

Of course, providing convenience is key, too.

“During the pandemic, coffeehouses and kiosks with a drive-thru saw a major boost,” Sawicki said. “A drive-thru only model allows owners to save on startup, payroll, and maintenance costs.”

Modern consumers also value the simplicity of choosing drinks and food from a streamlined menu.

“Add in the benefits of a mobile app,” Sawicki added. “This saves time and adds in an additional layer of convenience.”

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