Design a Great Coffee Shop Experience

I am in the process of transcribing, digitizing, and archiving 10 years worth of the notebooks. It’s laborious but a lot of fun to revisit old ideas, observations from Raleigh and beyond, and the evolution of my beliefs.

Last night I noticed that each notebook contains at least one spread dedicated to the analysis or improvement of coffee shops. There are notes from Raleigh, Prague, Chicago, Savannah, Asheville, Berlin, Puerto Rico, Seattle, Bar Harbor, Boston, and on and on. Even my preliminary pitch and ideas for a consulting job with Helios in Raleigh–but I was too late, he shut down last winter.

Once I find a  coffee shop I love, I’m a customer for life. The design of the coffee shop has a lot to do with it, and I don’t mean the furniture, colors, and fixtures. How customers are treated, how they are forced to move around the space, and how easy it is to make decisions affect the entire experience.

Here is a brief list that I want to share with all the cafe owners and managers out there. (This list can also apply to other retail experiences.) My favorite spots have a good mix of these qualities, especially #6.

  1. Pay your employees well. Rude employees are the aren’t the norm for cafes, just cafes where they are working for $2 per hour, plus tips. A living wage will keep your employees happy, and quality customers will support a change to higher prices. If employees are rude, get rid of them.
  2. Signage. Where do I order and pay? Where do I pick up? What’s on the menu? How much does that cost? — No customer should have to ask these questions! Install a menu board, print paper menus, hang a sign. It will also stop the time-consuming hemming and hawing at the counter. (Bonus points for illustrations.)
  3. Flow. Think about each decision point and how customers move after each decision. Long lines at peak hours, customers milling about waiting for their order, and others adding cream, sugar, honey, cinnamon, and whatever nonsense to their drink. Don’t make customers double back on the line after they pick up their drink to get a to-go lid.
  4. Clean.  Clean. Clean. Especially in high-traffic areas. Especially at the condiment bar. Especially where customers can see. And always wipe down tables when customers leave. (Cleanliness is tied to #1. Nobody cleans well for $2/hour!)
  5. Be Consistent. Set up a training program to ensure everyone is making the drinks the same way, to the same standards. A medium almond milk latte with hazelnut should taste the same way every time, no matter who makes it. If a menu item isn’t up to your standards, don’t put it on the menu. (Or, if your drip coffee is terrible, make sure it is consistently terrible. People will come back for that.)
  6. Build Community. Cafes are our 3rd place. Encourage interaction, host events once in awhile, and give back to the neighborhood.
Illustrated Coffee Menu from Prague

I can’t speak Czech, but I had no problem pointing to items on this illustrated menu. Illustrations are also great for customers who don’t know the difference between espresso drinks. (Photo by CRH)

Continue Reading

PARK(ing) Day in Philadelphia, Roots in San Diego

I love PARK(ing) Day because it showcases how quick, cheap, and mobile solutions can vastly improve our quality of life. By reducing vehicle speeds and reclaiming streets as people spaces, these temporary parklets build community and prove that a tiny respites from city life is welcome.

Philadelphia’s PARK(ing) Day includes 52 businesses, designers, and organizations co-opting asphalt for tiny parks. You can see their google map here or download their printable guide: Park(ing) Day Philadelphia 2015_Map.

This strong showing is just another notch in Philly’s belt. There is a history of activating underutilized spaces with community initiatives as seen through the work of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society, Grounded in Philly, the Mural Arts Program, and the Philadelphia Orchard Project. If you know of any more organizations, please comment below!

Here are a few parklets seen on my morning walk:

IMG_4467 copy

Zipcar has a pumpkin-painting station and real turf

Continue Reading

Using Design to Address Homelessness through Transitional Housing

Last spring Activate14–an outreach initiative I co-founded–jumped on the tiny home craze in an effort to address Raleigh’s underserved homelessness community. We wanted to prove our belief that good design is accessible to everyone and can radically change a community.

The transition out of homelessness is more successful when services like job training, medical attention, and other support are provided through temporary housing, rather than providing services alone. The housing community model allows someone to build a steady job and income without worrying about their safety, belongings, and where they will find shelter.

Not surprisingly, a transitional housing community is more cost-effective than letting the homeless stay on the streets. Increased hospitalization, overnights in jail, and emergency shelter cost taxpayers upwards of $40,000 per homeless person per year. Imagine the savings if we could transition people from homelessness to self-supporting lives through $1,500 to $30,000 tiny homes with community space. 


Continue Reading

The Case Against Major-League Sport Stadiums in Urban Areas

Before leaving Raleigh, a conversation emerged around bringing a major-league sports team to the capitol city. Several people–all men–thought a football or basketball stadium near the amphitheater would be THE BEST THING EVER.

Let me tell you why it’s not:

1. Stadiums are dead zones. The NBA plays 41 home games per year, the MLB has 81 home games per year. What happens the other 324/284 days? Not much, maybe some concerts and big college games. And that’s not just an empty stadium, that’s empty parking lots, shuttered retail space, and a lot of dead sidewalk.

Have you been near a stadium during the day? I’ve seen Indianapolis, Charlotte, Seattle, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis stadiums first hand. It’s terrible. Parking takes up 3x as much space as the stadium itself. Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis covers 6 to 7 city blocks for the stadium, parking, and landscaping. These megablocks have poor walkability scores and rarely, if ever, include ground-floor retail.

Erik Weber has a great post on specific stadiums.


Dodgers Stadium (pink) and parking (orange)


Philly Stadiums (pink) and parking (orange)







Continue Reading

Dieter Rams’ Ten Principles for Good Design


Dieter Rams is an iconic German industrial designer whose design approach is “Less, but better”. In an interview with Icon Magazine, Rams says, “As designers we have a great responsibility. I believe designers should eliminate the unnecessary. That means eliminating everything that is modish because this kind of thing is only short-lived.”

He believes good design:

  1. Is innovative – The possibilities for progression are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for original designs. But imaginative design always develops in tandem with improving technology, and can never be an end in itself.
  2. Makes a product useful – A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic criteria. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could detract from it.
  3. Is aesthetic – The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products are used every day and have an effect on people and their well-being. Only well-executed objects can be beautiful.845738113db339d7910ad5955cc0c14a
  4. Makes a product understandable – It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user’s intuition. At best, it is self-explanatory.
  5. Is unobtrusive – Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.
  6. Is honest – It does not make a product appear more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.tumblr_mqci1erNXp1qjfk8po1_1280
  7. Is long-lasting– It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society.
  8. Is thorough down to the last detail – Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer.
  9. Is environmentally friendly – Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.
  10. Is as little design as possible – Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
–Antoine de Saint-Exupery

See more of Dieter Rams’ work with Braun.

Pop-Up Retail as Community Activism, Final Exam, and Celebration

Spine Regular LogoBy the end of the year, I will be leaving Raleigh for either Philadelphia or Durham – long story.

To cap six years in Raleigh, I decided to launch a temporary concept store to activate my community, test my experience, and celebrate my time here. SPINE is my last hurrah.

With a few months left, I’m putting all my resources into a retail concept that I am confident will thrive in downtown Raleigh. SPINE is a modern twist on the bookstore + cafe that is responsive and relevant to my community and celebrates the diversity of the New South.

SPINE will allow me to test an idea at a relatively low startup cost, develop a business plan, pitch the concept to people with $$$,  execute all marketing and branding in-house, keep the books, purchase inventory, and SELL. I’m pretty excited.


Do You Read Me, Berlin

SPINE is a pop-up space for literature, art, culture, action, and community in downtown Raleigh. The shop will stock magazines, periodicals, and dry goods. A simple cafe and event space will be included if resources allow. SPINE will encourage development and transformation through the arts, awareness, and advocacy.

As of this post, I’m still looking for space in downtown Raleigh with the help of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, Empire Properties, and other developers, property manager + owners, and pals. If you have any ideas or want to be involved, email me at catherine[at]

Follow SPINE:
Newsletter signup

Quick Ugly Housing = Future Affordable Housing?

Elan City Center Apartments Rendering (Greystar)


What it really looks like…

Is Raleigh getting ugly, or is it just me?

Raleigh is quickly looking like a second-tier replica city dictated by developer’s profit margins. All of our new housing developments are plywood wrapped in terrible materials; they’re poorly designed, unfriendly to the street, and, frankly, an eyesore.

Elan City Center could be one of those at Clark+Oberlin, on N Boylan, S Wilmington or N Person, by Trader Joe’s, or anywhere else in the country. It looks familiar because Greystar, a developer from Charleston, owns 44 complexes in Raleigh, Durham and the RTP alone, and they’re not the only developer in town. There are currently over 2,500 unit under construction in Downtown and Glenwood South.

The real problem is that none of these complexes offer affordable housing. With studios starting at $1,050, they have priced out singles making under $50,000 and couples making under $25,200 each (given a 25% income allowance for rent). How can the City of Raleigh champion itself as friendly and diverse at these prices?

My hope is that in 10 years–when the facades are tattered, plywood floors bowed, and amenities dingy–there will be so many units empty that the prices will drop. Finally, Raleigh will have affordable housing downtown–unless the developer razes the building for bigger profit margins.

This is the only reason why I am glad we are not building like the Capitol Apartments anymore.

Capital Apts_web

Capitol Apartments. Photo by

If the City of Raleigh wants downtown Raleigh and the surrounding neighborhoods to be a hub of creativity, diversity, and innovation, then it needs to start acting more like a benevolent developer + leader and less like a doormat. I suggest that they give the Appearance Commission real authority and require all new developments offer a percentage of their housing available to low-income families, similar to the Town of Chapel Hill.

“The Town shall encourage developers of residential developments of 5 or more units to (a) provide 15 percent of their units at prices affordable to low and moderate income households, (b) contribute in-lieu-fees, or (c) propose alternative measures so that the equivalent of 15 percent of their units will be available and affordable to low and moderate income households;”

Until then, we can only wait until poor design and quality works in favor of lower socio-economic groups.

P.S. lol at the stock images on the websites for these developments.

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 3.58.48 PM


Uber Can Do Anything As Long As We Buy What They Sell

Uber is a private company. They set pricing, company values, and customer service. If a company run by a pretty awful bro turns a blind eye to assaults, has no respect for consumer privacy, and touts a price-gouging (dynamic) business model, then make the decision to not support them. Like every other private company, they will only be around as long as they have customers. It can be inconvenient, but every rider has the option of calling a taxi, which is simple with a smartphone.

Furthermore, I have 3 points in response to the Triangle Business Journal’s article on the NC Attorney General’s involvement after Halloween:

  1. Uber made the entire dynamic pricing model very transparent. I received several emails and notifications from Uber leading up to Halloween and how to avoid costly ride. Also, Uber required the passenger to confirm they understood the “multiplier” on 2 separate prompts.
  2. It seems that most of the complaints are coming from people leaving bars between the hours of 12:30-2:30am who knew planned on drinking and wouldn’t be able to drive home. It’s not Uber’s fault they were drunk and made a bad financial decision.
  3. Every Uber rider had the option of calling a traditional cab company and paying a price determined by city policy.

You can protest Uber by not giving them your money. It will send a powerful message.

Photo by

Food Truck Proposal for Raleigh’s Moore Square


The City of Raleigh is spending $12 million to revamp Moore Square, one of two downtown green spaces. While the space needs an upfit to reflect the world-class status Raleigh is working towards, I believe there are smaller steps the city could take to attract crowds and increase revenue.

Restaurants, shops, and a children’s museum face the square on the west end. To the east are empty lots and storefronts. There is no reason to walk through the center of the square. Currently, the square is known for its homeless population that are attracted by public transportation and a variety of services aimed towards people in need.

I suggest the city allow two food tucks to serve from the middle of the square. Area food trucks are eager to run in downtown Raleigh, and are willing to pay for the opportunity. Each truck would easily pay $100 per shift. After a few weeks, the city would have enough funds to buy picnic tables and other amenities to create a more enjoyable experience.

Other cities proved that the presence of food trucks aren’t detrimental to other businesses; they increase interest and foot traffic. People will take lunch breaks in the square, visit after work, and spend time outside. Furthermore, the square will feel more safe with a greater public presence.

Sure, a city employee will have to schedule food tucks and process payments, and other employees will have to empty the trash can more frequently, but I think 4 food trucks per day will generate enough revenue to cover it.

C’mon Raleigh!


Activate14: Architecture + Design Event Series


What started as intra-office conversation on hosting architecture and design events quickly turned to reality when Frank Harmon Architect decided to sponsor the inaugural summer event series at the AIANC Center for Architecture and Design (CfAD) in Raleigh, NC. Planning quickly commenced with the AIANC Program Committee. We decided to bridge the events by focusing on issues facing North Carolina cities: sustainable foodways, alternative transportation, and urban housing.

Within 2 months we had started the framework for Activate 14 (a play on the address of the CfAD), released a Design + Build Competition Call for Entry open to North Carolina architects, architecture students, and artists, and started planning for 4 summer events.

Activate 14 is an annual event series that instigates conversations with the public about current architecture and design issues shaping our communities. It is free, public event series in downtown Raleigh, utilizing the entire grounds of the CfAD with cascading events to feature educational components, food, drink, music, children’s activities, and art.

This has been my primary focus for the past 2 months and I’d love for you to check out the website and give me some feedback, especially if you live in North Carolina!