By John Burgman
As indoor climbing has flourished and city gyms have honed in on urban professionals as viable clientele, the sport has found itself increasingly united — both in geographic proximity and in customer base — with the local coffee shop (whether Starbucks or hipster hole-in-the-wall).
It’s not surprising then to find that one of the industry developments of the past few years is for gyms to include a café space (tables, chairs, WiFi, food, drinks) within the confines of their climbing facility. And this trend is not unique to the United States; from the Castle Climbing Centre in England to Grizzly Coffee & Climbing in Japan, “coffee culture” has spread to all corners of the world, and so too has this coffee/gym combo.
The Atmosphere Advantage
There are a number of benefits to having an in-house café—a refreshment space that offers customers more than just Gatorade and Clif Bars—and the one that stands out most is the friendly, social atmosphere that a coffee shop adds to the whole gym.
“Coffee has always been a focal point of two people connecting,” says Cyrena Lee, Senior Creative Manager of Brooklyn Boulders. “It’s the fastest and most natural way to arrange a quick meeting, and has become embedded in our culture so much that many people need their caffeine fix to fuel their days.”
The fact that so many people need that daily caffeine fix means that access to coffee at the gym can enhance the overall customer experience. And for gym owners, coffee is a way to diversify revenue, particularly related to what retailers refer to as the captive market—those customers who are already in a gym to climb.
That’s why Bolder Climbing, a new bouldering gym in Calgary, Alberta has included a hip coffee shop with beans roasted in-house by the Bolder Coffee Company. Bouldering gyms are a natural place for social spaces which is why Southern California-based Vital dedicated valuable space to a coffee and tea café in their new Oceanside bouldering facility. Even full-service sport climbing gyms are getting in on the action. The new Cliff Hangers in Mooresville, North Carolina put in a beautiful café and lounge complete with HDTV’s.
Jason Bogroff speaks of this coffee/climber connection when discussing Rock Your World, a coffee and climbing facility in central New Jersey that is still in the planning stages. “The original business plan was based on buying land and building an optimal building to house a unique and differentiated climbing experience,” Bogroff says, noting that the coffee and climbing union seemed like a logical move because he was passionate about climbing and his wife was passionate about running a café.
Beyond a personal interest, Bogroff is getting analytical and looking at his target market demographics—a must for any gym owner considering the addition of a coffee shop. “Our local target market is very focused on fitness and health,” he says of Flemington, New Jersey. “Health food, organic farmers’ markets, and niche restaurants do well.” From that observation, Bogroff figured a climbing gym with a specialty café would be a suitable addition to the neighborhood.
Although a friendly atmosphere and an enhanced customer experience are difficult to quantify, there are tangible benefits of a café as well. From a managerial perspective, an in-house coffee shop offers an area that is conducive to discussions when holding interviews with prospective employees or planning sessions with routesetters. Also, beverage coupons (“Free hot chocolate!”) create synergy by attracting climbers into the café—and those coupons also make easy prizes during gym comps and promotional giveaways.
Big in Europe
One of the most notable gyms to have a coffee shop fully incorporated to its identity is Café Kraft, founded by Hannes Huch in Nuremberg, Germany, in 2011. In name and ethos, the gym nods to the region’s coffee and climbing history. (An eatery with the same name was the meeting place for famed European climbers, including Wolfgang Güllich, in the 1980s). Huch, who opened a second Café Kraft in Stuttgart in 2015 and is now the franchise’s Chief Marketing Officer, says a coffee shop entices patrons to stay at the gym much longer, and he estimates that perhaps as much as 50 percent of the climbers who visit his gym also use the café for drinking, eating, or relaxing.
“It’s really nice when you spend some time on making it a really cozy place,” Huch says, pointing out that it’s important for gym owners to give a café the attention it deserves. He also notes that creating a space that is closed off from the gym’s climbing section is important: “I would never do it if the café is not separated with a glass wall from the climbing walls; otherwise you have chalk on your pizza and the whole gym smells like pizza,” he advises prospective owners.
Another European gym that has taken that idea of separating the coffee shop to a literal and figurative level is The Castle Café, a recently refurbished part of The Castle Climbing Centre in London, England. In addition to offering food and drinks to patrons on a mezzanine that features three tables and twenty bar-style seats, the café also has fifteen bar-style seats in its downstairs level—and fifteen employees working the café and kitchen to keep the whole operation going. On a given weekend, especially during the chilly months of January and February, the café might serve as many as 850 customers in a single weekend. But aside from the in-house action, The Castle Café also maintains its own blog, actively supports local farming, and even caters events—all of which are activities that detach the space somewhat from its original climbing context.
“We like to offer more than a coffee and snacks, as people come for a whole day here—and we want them to be able to fuel themselves with some healthy food to keep going,” says Jojo Heather, manager of The Castle Café. She adds, “Everything we do at The Castle—we consider the environmental impact and look for the most sustainable way to do it. The café showcases what we do best—using our vegetables from the garden and our homemade herbal tea blend. We support independent farmers and local produce as much as we can, as we want to show people it can be done.”
Heather says that climbers, while varied in preferences, tend to be a good customer base because climbing always makes for an easy and logical topic of conversation when they are being served. And distributing a quick survey or questionnaire to clientele can easily help determine what they want from a café. Heather also points out that the café can appeal to a wide base. “People come for our ethical, tasty food or to visit the building, but mainly the majority of customers are climbers,” she notes. “We also get people who hang out in the café while friends and family are climbing.”
A small café’s presence in a larger gym comes with caveats—most notably that people are accustomed to quick, efficient service at coffee shops, and such pacing might be something that gyms aren’t used to. For example, Huch notes that on certain weekend days at Café Kraft, it’s not uncommon to sell 300 coffees in just a few hours. The challenge therein for managers is not simply to meet such a high volume of output, but also to invest in equipment and train the baristas so that quality standards are always being met with each drink served. “A lot of gyms have beautiful, classic Portafilter [espresso] machines—but no one who can handle them properly,” says Huch—who notes that his gym has opted for an automatic coffee machine. “I had so many mediocre, lukewarm cappuccinos from manually operated espresso machines in other gyms. I’m super happy with our fully automatic one.”
On the customer’s end, just as a convenient cup of coffee can positively supplement a gym experience, a bad transaction in the café can reflexively blemish one’s opinion of the entire climbing facility. And if a coffee shop is to offer snacks in addition to coffee, it’s imperative that the menu be updated frequently to hone in on climbers’ diverse and ever-changing eating habits.
“Food is more of a problem than drinks,” says Huch, who points out the importance of dropping items from the menu that aren’t popular. “[Café Kraft] tried to offer salads, as we thought that every climber loves salad. But we hardly sold them—no salad anymore,” he says.
With food and drinks also comes additional regulation and routine health inspections. Depending on city or county laws, a gym owner will likely have to become certified to handle and store food in the coffee shop area. But, as Jojo Heather notes, cafés that cater to climbers will always reside in a unique realm: “Running a café in a climbing gym is not like running a café elsewhere—the rules here are different to all other cafés,” she says. “How many cafés do you go to where people walk around in bare feet and shirts off?”
Variations and Alternatives
The costs of starting a coffee shop can vary wildly, but most estimates put the absolute minimum upfront capital—which goes towards high-volume brewers, refrigeration equipment, sinks and drainage, countertops, and furniture, among other necessities—at $10,000—$15,000. As a big expense for any gym, it is important that the space be the best iteration for the money—meaning, gym owners shouldn’t be hesitant about branching out from the traditional coffee shop model if doing so would better align with their own expertise and the customer base.
For example, Bogroff altered Rock Your World’s original plan—something he calls “refining the café concept”—and currently aims to branch out and serve kombucha tea (while still offering coffee). The decision jives with the health-conscious target market that he observed. “In the past year my wife has started a kombucha company,” he says. “Multiple local restaurants are selling it, and she has a bunch of monthly growler members. Now the café plan is to have The Kombucha Bar at Rock Your World Climbing Gym. It will be a separate business that subleases space from the gym.”
Having a coffee vendor sublease is an option with a lot of upsides. “The café being separate means the café owner would be responsible for the buildout, permits, inspections,” adds Bogroff. In other words, subleasing takes nearly all of the burden—both financially and operatively—off of the gym’s shoulders. Beyond that, a gym that is open to subleasing a café can attract eager upstart vendors and local coffee brands that lack the initial funding to build their own shop or rent a brick-and-mortar store. This option was exemplified by Triangle Coffee, which began in 2015 as a mobile coffee stand inside Brooklyn Boulders Somerville, and moved out after a year to open shops elsewhere.
No matter what iteration a coffee shop takes on once it is brought to life in a gym, it joins a long list of experiential opportunities that make up that coveted 3rd Place zone—a place for people to congregate outside of their homes and jobs. And once a gym embraces that notion broadly, the options for specifically augmenting the customer experience—via everything from TED Talks to cooking tutorials to concerts inside the gym—are endless. “We create and curate experiences that involve art, speakers, bands, DJs, panels, plays,” Cyrena Lee says of Brooklyn Boulders, “and whatever else people can imagine.”
Conveniently, a cup of coffee goes well with all of the above.
John Burgman has been writing about climbing for nearly a decade. He is a Fulbright journalism grant recipient, a former magazine editor at Outdoor Life, and the author of two books. He holds a master’s degree from New York University and bachelor’s degree from Miami University in Ohio. In addition to writing, he coaches a youth bouldering team.