Brand Experience Brief: Caffe Bene

(Here’s the latest brand experience brief.  In each of these short videos, I provide an audit and analysis of a new or interesting restaurant or retail concept.)

Cafe Bene has become a coffee brand with excellent cafe design. Caffe Bene may be to Starbucks what Smashburger is to McDonald’s — a niche competitor with a distinctive product and memorable experience.  Check it out:

Brand Experience Brief: Caffe Bene (by Denise Lee Yohn) from Denise Lee Yohn on Vimeo.

other brand experiences:


This brand experience brief is about Caffe Bene a coffee shop concept that may be to Starbucks what Smashburger is to McDonald’s.  It’s also the latest in what seems to be a Korean invasion into US culture.

Korean brand Samsung has become very popular thanks in large part to its Galaxy SIII which has proven to be a serious iPhone challenger. Psy’s Gangnam Style was the first video ever to reach one billion views on YouTube.  Americans have discovered Sriracha sauce,  better known as Rooster Sauce, the spicy tangy ingredient that’s been showing up in  restaurant kitchens like Momofuku and snack foods including Lay’s potato chips – and now there’s Caffe Bene.

Having saturated its home country market opening over 800 units in 4 short years, Caffe Bene has turned its attention to other markets and currently has a handful of units in the U.S.  My visit to its Manhattan location has convinced me this concept has the potential to become a beloved brand, albeit a niche one.  Here’s why:

The product is excellent.  The menu includes the standard coffee, tea, and hot drink choices a well as more innovative holiday flavors including Red Velvet Lattes.  It also sells smoothies, frappes, and iced teas, as well as Misugaru, drinks made with whole grains and barley that taste infinitely better than you’d expect and offer a host of health benefits.  Caffe Bene offers a selection of food products including gelato, baked goods, and prepackaged sandwiches that are all prepared fresh daily. Its signature product is its Belgian waffles – thick, warm, and just the right texture, they come in creative flavors like Black & White and Coconut Pumpkin with either sweet or savory toppings – these waffles are not only delicious, they’re distinctive.

The service at Caffe Bene stands out as well.  The servers are friendly and real, and the fedoras that are a part of the crew’s uniforms suit their unique style.  I loved that the staff adorned my mocha with coffee art.

That’s just one of several special touches at Caffe Bene.  Its visual identity, grounded in a light blue color reminiscent of Tiffany’s and a playful font, is eye-catching and consistently executed, down to the color of the straws.  Its messaging also conveys a playful, yet upscale feel.  Décor such as old fashioned bottles and light bulbs and a library-style wall of books, give the store a distinct sense of place.  And there’s some theater in the experience with a waffle making station where you can see the delightful treats being created.

I’m not the only own that’s impressed by this concept.  Despite being nearly 6500 square feet, the store was packed on a random winter afternoon – and Caffe Bene has gotten many favorable reviews from customers and tastemakers alike.

Having said all this, I realize that simply having a great coffee shop concept is hardly a ticket to success – if that were the case, Caribou Coffee and Peet’s would be able to slow down Starbucks at least a little. But there’s reason to be a bit more bullish about Caffe Bene than these other concepts.  First, the Korean culture invasion I described earlier provides a strong tailwind for Caffe Bene.  Second, the company’s founder and CEO Kim Sun Kwon is an overcomer and very mission-driven – he also seems quite savvy – the chain’s popularity skyrocketed in Korea when he made a deal with one of the country’s biggest entertainment and talent companies to use its shops in return for a share of profits.  And my final reason for optimism for this chain is that Caffe Bene is much more clearly distinctive than other Starbucks rivals.  With its broader menu, signature items, and design ethos, it gives lots of people lots of reasons to choose to go there.

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