[Series Description: The Lemonjello’s Way posts are an intricate look at the many things that went right (and a few things that went wrong) in the story of Lemonjello’s Coffee in Holland, MI. It’s hard to build a successful shop with longevity. My initial lack of experience led us to try some out of the box things that worked. My eventual experience allowed me to tweak and refine those things.]
Differentiation is hard.
There’s the expectation to have certain menu items if you’re going to be a “real” coffee shop.
But there’s also the need to stand out and not be accused of copying the place down the street.
On the other side, you have to be careful. If you start out serving milkshakes, people will get mad if you stop serving milkshakes later on.
Whatever you commit to, you have to be in it for the long run (or at least a decent while).
I have 2 stories about menu items.
Bubble Tea: A misadventure
In the middle of the first year Lemonjello’s was open, I started dating someone. She was obsessed with Bubble Tea. She had recently visited Ann Arbor, MI (a couple hours away from Holland) and gone to place called Bubble Island. They had hundreds of combination options and she tried many of them. Then she found a reason to take me to Ann Arbor and made me go.
I really liked her, so I listened to her rave and looked at the data that said Bubble Tea was a growing US trend. We started offering it in the shop. We did a big launch and had a reasonable amount of options. It sold well. It grew to a point. Then it stopped.
We kept making it for a couple of years, making enough to break even on it. We had sodas and milkshakes and smoothies and a decent tea list, so it didn’t not fit our menu. But it always bothered me that the loyal followers were few but really really loyal. I didn’t want to break their hearts.
Fast forward to the month we were going to phase it out due to a big drop in sales. The local newspaper decided to run an article on Bubble Tea. Everyone else in town had stopped making it, so it was a half page article on us with some big pictures of my baristas and Bubble Tea. Sales went way up. It became profitable for the first time. I thought I was stuck.
A couple more years passed and it started waning so I cut it. This time I was just plain done with it. It took a lot of prep time. I couldn’t get the supplies from any of my usual vendors. My staff hated it.
But those loyal few folks would get it every day. I lost a few customers. Most of them found something else to like.
What I learned was that committing to a menu item or a menu category like Bubble Tea takes both passion and enough sales. It also requires the long run. Have weird menu items, but make sure they can be there with longevity.
The Green Army Guy Soda: Creating the Cool Kid
I always ordered CDs from the labels of my favorite bands or from the local shop a few doors down. One day I got some records in the mail. Like usual, this label included some other things. Stickers, buttons, and a green army guy.
I had just opened a few months earlier and I was really into creating drinks of the week at the time. We also carried every flavor of Jones Soda (to differentiate from the shop down the road) and sold (at the time) the most on our side of Michigan.
I created a drink of the week called The Green Army Guy. Jones Green Apple Soda, a (sanitized) plastic army guy in it, and some strawberry syrup over top. When the syrup swirled around and through the cup, it looks like camouflage. Pretty cool.
It became so popular that I started having to buy army guys in bulk from supply houses for folks that build battle recreations as a hobby or for museums. Thus it never came off the menu.
It was weird but it was cool and approachable. Kids loved them. High Schoolers and College kids became fans and would collect the army guys. Even adults would try them.
They were a gateway for those not yet into coffee to have something sweet and refreshing while hanging out at the shop with the coffee drinkers. Many of them grew up and became coffee customers. And even then, many of those people still order them sometimes for nostalgia.
Thirteen and one half years into Lemonjello’s, The Green Army Guy is the top-selling non-coffee drink on our menu historically. It has been a social media darling. It is the resident cool kid. It has been profitable. It has not been duplicated by a competitor. And it’s not going away unless Jones drops that flavor. It even has a sister, The Hot Pink (cream soda colored with berry syrups), that also sells well.
Does it belong on a coffee menu?
Is it fine to be there?
It’s just about summer. Maybe it’s a good chance to branch out and try something weird.
It might work. It might not.
I’ve experimented a lot with mixed results over the years, but it’s almost always better to take a risk when something tastes good and people like it.
We might all be sheep but we also want to order the thing that makes us stand out and seem special.
Let it separate you.
Let it be a reason your customer has to come to your shop to get their fix.