Revised and updated October 19, 2019.
You might wonder why a list of the top 25 coffee franchises of 2020 is lacking the most obvious company of all – Starbucks! The reason is because Starbucks is not a franchise. You can’t buy a Starbucks franchise in the United States (although Starbucks partners with foreign companies for its international locations). The company owns all 13,000+ of its locations in the US (it has 29,000+ locations globally). But the good news is that entrepreneurs who want to buy into a coffee franchise have lots of other options to examine.
Did you know that the average person in the US spends more than $20 every week on buying coffee? Or that coffee is the second most popular beverage in the US, outranked only by water? Or that the number of people who drink regular “drip” coffee has fallen to only half of all coffee drinkers? Yes, America is a land of highly-caffeinated people, and they like to buy espresso-based coffee drinks at coffee houses. In fact, the projection for coffee house sales is expected to grow to $28.7 billion by 2021.
From seasonal offerings to cold-brewed coffee to an ever-changing stream of new specialty gourmet flavors, some say we’re entering a “third-wave” coffee movement. First-wave coffee was viewed as a necessity. Second-wave coffee made it a luxury, which greatly increased the variety and quality of coffee. The third wave is all about how consumers drink and think about coffee. Direct trade arrangements where roasters buy directly from coffee growers are on the rise, often allowing retailers to boast about their relationship to coffee farm communities and greater sustainability – all of which comes with a premium price tag for consumers. There’s also even more of a focus on the customer experience.
Most coffee shops also offer an extended menu of both beverages and food items along with whatever specific ambience they have cultivated to appeal to consumers. Here are the 25 best coffee franchises of 2020:
Dunkin’ (yes, it has now dropped “donuts” from its name to reflect its increasing emphasis on coffee and sandwiches) is by far the world champion of coffee franchising, and their motto that America Runs on Dunkin’ appears to be true. The chain’s parent company, Dunkin’ Brands, also owns the Baskin-Robbins brand of ice cream shops.
Dunkin’ dates back to the mid-1940s when William Rosenberg opened a coffee and donut shop called Open Kettle, then changed the name to Dunkin’ Donuts in 1950. The brand is in a major “refresh” effort that’s making a big bet on additions like espresso machines and cold-brew coffee beverages on tap.
Founded in 1948 and franchising since 1955, the number of locations has continued its steady upward march from 8,082 in 2008 to the current total of 12,957 (an increase of 281 from last year), none of which are company-owned and 3,458 of which are located outside the US in 32 different countries.
2. Tim Hortons
Tim Hortons is a full-blown quick-service Canadian restaurant chain, but is best known for its coffee and donuts. It recently rolled out meat imitation products from Beyond Meat, but has already pulled the products from most locations, though it says it may try again at some point.
Started by Canadian ice hockey legend Tim Horton back in the 1960s, the chain has also gained attention with its annual Smile Cookie campaign in which the full $1 from the sale of each cookie is donated to local charities, hospitals, and community programs.
According to the company’s annual report, at the end of 2018 there were 4,846 locations (up from last year’s 4,748), of which only seven are company-owned.
3. The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf
The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf puts a lot of effort into sourcing its coffee and tea in socially-conscious ways, building direct relationships with farmers and growers. Its motto of “impacting lives from seed to cup” includes the company’s Caring Cup initiative supporting local schoolchildren in the US, company employee development, and improving the communities and lives of the people who grow the coffee and tea. The chain was recently acquired by Jollibee Foods Corp., the Philippines’ biggest restaurant company, for $350 million.
Founded by Herb Hyman in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles California in 1963, there are now more than 1,200 locations around the world, with US locations in seven states and the District of Columbia, and international locations in 29 other countries.
4. Gloria Jean’s Coffees
Gloria Jean’s Coffees presents a menu featuring a wide array of both hot and cold gourmet coffee beverages along with retailing a selection of its ground coffees through a subscription service emphasizing flavored coffees. The company sources all of its coffees directly from locations across the globe, and handles all roasting itself in its Southern California headquarters. In 2014, the chain was purchased by Australian company Retail Food Group, which began an aggressive push for international growth.
Founded by Gloria Jean Kvetko in Chicago, Illinois in 1979 and franchising since 1986, the number of locations currently stands at 859, none of which are company-owned and 800 of which are located outside the US.
5. Biggby Coffee
Biggby Coffee is making waves with a new mini-location model for franchisees called B Cubed. The drive-thru/walk-up units are modular, taking up only 350 square feet, and can be installed in just 48 hours.
The chain has also received media attention for its co-CEO Mike McFall, who started out as a barista and worked his way up through the ranks. He drinks as many as 14 espressos on a daily basis. He dreams of one day owning the Detroit Red Wings. And he wants the chain to be the first coffee shop to operate in space – maybe on the moon.
In addition to coffee beverages, the menu includes bagels, bagel sandwiches, muffins, Kind bars, cookies, donut holes, and yogurt parfait.
Founded by Bob Fish and Mary Roszel in East Lansing, Michigan in 1994 and franchising since 1999, the number of locations has expanded over the past decade from 95 in 2008 to the current total of 237 (up from last year’s 231), none of which are company-owned and all of which are located in the US.
6. Xpresso Delight
Xpresso Delight brings its coffee to customers’ workplaces through its automated gourmet espresso coffee systems. The chain aims squarely at high-end corporate customers with easy-to-use coffeemakers manufactured in both Switzerland and Italy to produce high-quality cappuccinos, lattes, and espresso drinks in just 30 seconds.
Headquartered in Australia, the company was co-founded by Paul Crabtree and Stephen Sptiz in 2003. Since then, it has become a fast-growing franchise throughout Australia and New Zealand, with more than 200 franchisees around the world, including 13 units sold in the US with seven in and around New York City; two in Washington, DC; three in Charlotte, North Carolina; and one in Florida.
7. Scooter’s Coffee
Scooter’s Coffee is a drive-thru coffeehouse chain committed to high-quality coffee drinks and customer-focused speedy service as captured in the company motto: Amazing People, Amazing Drinks…Amazingly Fast! Each and every coffee drink can be served up hot, iced, or blended, and the menu also includes tea and smoothies along with a selection of pastries, sandwiches, and burritos.
Founded by Don and Linda Eckles in Bellevue, Nebraska in 1998 and franchising since 2001, the number of locations has nearly tripled in the past decade from 76 in 2008 to the current total of 207 (up from last year’s 187), of which 15 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
Cafe2u might be the perfect choice for people who want to get involved in a coffee franchise at a lower initial investment. The Australia-based mobile coffee shop concept uses vans equipped with coffee-making equipment to serve up all manner of coffee drinks anywhere and everywhere.
The first prototype of its espresso and coffee van was launched in Sydney, Australia back in 2000. The company website mentions 167 locations (with 115 in Australia and another 52 operating in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Ireland), though it’s not clear if this is up-to-date information, or if there are any US locations yet.
9. Maui Wowi Hawaiian Coffees and Smoothies
Maui Wowi Hawaiian Coffees and Smoothies was started with a mission to offer up healthier alternatives to the sugar-heavy, fat-laden products offered by others. It also emphasizes a laid-back, “flip-flop attitude” while at the same time emphasizing “Ohana” or family-oriented community among franchisees and customers. Their smoothies feature proprietary non-fat yogurt recipes, fruit juices from exotic locations, fruit purees, and all-natural flavorings.
Founded by Jeff and Jill Summerhays in 1982 and franchising since 1997, the number of locations has been in decline in recent years from 370 in 2010 to the current total of 144, none of which are company-owned and five of which are located outside the US.
10. Hard Bean Coffee
Hard Bean Coffee isn’t so much a franchise as a pathway towards starting your own independent coffee house with lots of support. Founder and CEO Scott Bortz helps people plan, build, and open their own independent coffee shops for a flat fee without ongoing royalty payments. Owners can give their shops whatever name they like as long as they use the tagline “Powered by Hard Bean Coffee.” The company also has The Buying Co-Op, which allows coffee shop owners to leverage their collective buying power to purchase coffee and coffee-making equipment.
The company website says Hard Bean Coffee has helped to establish more than 100 different independent coffee shops over the past 20 years. The name comes from the type of coffee beans roasters call “hard” – more flavorful and typically grown at higher altitudes.
11. PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans
PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans celebrated its 40th anniversary by opening its 100th location. It positions itself as a competitor to Starbucks and has a similar menu, but prides itself on better beans, superior roasting, and an overall passion for coffee-making. It serves up a wide variety of iced, frozen, hot, cold brew, and nitro-infused coffees using only the very best Arabica beans, along with organic tea and breakfast pastries. The chain was purchased by Atlanta-based Raving Brands in 2002, but subsequently returned to New Orleans in 2008 when it was acquired by Ballard Brands.
Founded by Phyllis Jordan (“PJ”) in the Carrollton neighborhood of New Orleans in 1978 and franchising since 1989, the number of locations has grown in recent years from 52 in 2012 to the current total of 100 (up from last year’s 84), none of which are company-owned and four of which are located outside the US.
12. The Human Bean
The Human Bean is largely a western chain (though it is slowly creeping eastward) where customers enjoy drive-thru espresso and coffee beverages. The company is proud of its own coffee sourcing program, Farm Friendly Direct, in which it builds long-term relationships with coffee farmers, and encourages them to adopt sustainable growing methods. The company also pays them above-market prices to allow for investing in their communities by funding local infrastructure improvement projects.
The company does not charge franchisees any ongoing percentage-of-sales royalty or marketing fees, earning its revenues instead from the sale of coffee and supplies to franchisees.
Founded in Ashland, Oregon in 1998 and franchising since 2002, the number of locations has risen over the past 10 years from 47 in 2008 to the current total of 93 (up from last year’s 79), of which 13 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
13. Dunn Brothers Coffee
Dunn Brothers Coffee is committed to daily small-batch, in-store roasting of coffee beans to achieve a richer, fresher quality. The roasting can only be performed by roasters who have completed the Dunn Brothers Coffee Certified Roaster Program. In addition to its coffee beverages, the menu at most locations features all-day breakfast with a build-your-own sandwich and hearty oatmeal, lunch offerings of sandwiches, salads, and soups, and fresh-baked pastries any time of day.
Founded by brothers Ed and Dan Dunn in the Twin Cities in 1987 and franchising since 1994, the number of locations has declined over the past 10 years from 96 in 2008 to the current total of 75 (down from last year’s 79), of which five are company-owned and all are located in the US.
14. Aroma Joe’s Coffee
Aroma Joe’s Coffee is another drive-thru coffee chain that operates on three laws of service: No intercoms. No mistakes. No attitudes. It caters to a relatively young demographic with its hot and cold coffee drinks and its own branded Rush energy drink. Its “…proprietary coffee blend, roasted in Maine, uses only the best Arabica beans and is sustainably grown, ethically sourced and craft roasted in Maine by award-winning roasters” and is also 100% Rainforest Alliance Certified.
Founded by brothers Marty and Tim McKenna and their cousins Brian and Mike Sillon in New Hampshire in 2000 and franchising since 2013, there are currently 67 locations (up from 59 last year), only one of which is company-owned and all of which are located in the US.
15. Coffee Beanery
Coffee Beanery was a pioneer in serving up specialty coffees back in the 1970s when it was a new concept. In addition to coffee and tea, the menu features smoothies and other beverages along with a selection of breakfast sandwiches, toasted signature sandwiches, paninis, and specialty wraps.
Founded by husband and wife team JoAnne and Julius Shaw in Dearborn, Michigan in 1976 and franchising since 1985, the number of locations has declined over the past decade from 112 in 2009 to a low of 60 in 2018, but is now beginning to rise again and currently totals near 75, one of which is company-owned and 19 of which are located outside the US.
16. Café Barbera
Café Barbera is still a family-owned company after 148 years. It serves premium, authentic Italian-roasted coffee with its beans sourced from seven of the world’s finest varieties, which are slow-roasted separately and then blended into the company’s original recipe. In addition to hand-brewed coffee beverages, the menu features Italian-inspired panini sandwiches, Mediterranean-style salads, and light croissant breakfasts.
Founded by Domenico Barbera in 1870 in Italy but only franchising since 2004, the company website currently lists 39 locations in 16 countries, including one in the US in Tampa, Florida. There are an additional 15 locations listed as “coming soon.”
17. It’s a Grind Coffee House
It’s a Grind Coffee House serves high-quality gourmet coffee, espresso beverages, better-for-you healthy cold drinks, and a range of home-baked foods in a comfortable, community-focused neighborhood environment. Locations feature a blues and jazz theme along with wingback chairs that allow customers to relax.
Founded by husband-and-wife team Marty Cox and Louise Montgomery in Long Beach, California in 1995 and franchising since 2000, the number of locations declined from 36 in 2013 to a low of 17 in 2016, but the brand has since added several new locations, bringing the grand total to 26, none of which are company-owned and eight of which are located outside the US.
18. Sweetwaters Coffee and Tea
Sweetwaters Coffee and Tea offers customers a classic café experience of coffee and tea drinks with diverse and creative global influences. The menu also includes a selection of frozen drinks and other beverages, pastries, desserts, and light fare such as quiches, sandwiches, salads, and yogurt parfaits. Sweetwaters also retails its own coffee blends and bottled teas.
Founded by husband-and-wife team Wei and Lisa Bee in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1993 and franchising since 2004, the company website currently lists 24 locations open now and another 13 listed as “coming soon.”
19. Euro Café
Euro Café has a menu that features a range of both hot and cold coffee and coffee alternative beverages, frozen drinks, fruit smoothies, breakfast sandwiches, salads, wraps, hot and cold sandwiches, hot paninis, burgers, soups, rice bowls, kebabs, and other food items.
Founded in 1997 and headquartered in Virginia, there are currently 22 locations, of which 15 can be found within Hudson News and Hudson Bookseller locations inside airports in the US and Canada. There are also two standalone Euro Markets that include Euro Cafés, as well as locations on five campuses of the Northern Virginia Community College system.
20. DRNK coffee + tea
DRNK coffee + tea offers a wide selection of both hot and cold organic coffees and teas, handcrafted organic espresso drinks, raw squeezed juices, nutrient dense smoothie blends infused with superfoods, handmade organic Acai bowls, and a variety of fresh-made breakfast items, paninis, wraps, and salads. It has a greater emphasis on quality teas than most coffee shops, and focuses on organic and ethically-sourced products.
Founded by Thomas Nariman in 2013 and franchising since 2015, there are now 12 locations open, none of which are company-owned and one of which is located outside the US (in Saudi Arabia). The company website also lists another 17 locations as “coming soon.”
21. Ziggi’s Coffee
Ziggi’s Coffee emphasizes sourcing its coffee and food ingredients from local vendors whenever possible. The menu features coffee, coffee alternatives, frozen “blenderz,” fruit smoothies, and a small selection of food items. Store formats include double drive-thrus, café with drive-thru, and just a café, although the primary emphasis has always been on the double drive-thru model.
Founded by husband-and-wife team Brandon and Camrin Knudsen in Longmont, Colorado in 2004, the company website currently lists 19 locations (17 in Colorado; one in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and one in Chandler, Arizona) and another four are listed as “coming soon.”
22. Classic Rock Coffee Company and Kitchen
Classic Rock Coffee Company and Kitchen can be described as the coffee shop version of the Hard Rock Café, and is definitely catering to a Millennial-friendly hipster-focused target market. Upbeat classic rock is always playing as customers enjoy coffee, frappes, smoothies, protein shakes, pastries, sandwiches, flatbreads, salads, and more. Electric guitars and album covers feature prominently in the décor, along with collections of classic rock albums patrons can thumb through.
Founded in Springfield, Missouri in 2011, the company website currently lists 13 locations open, with 9 in the US and four abroad.
23. Rock ‘n’ Joe Coffee Bar
Rock ‘n’ Joe Coffee Bar is another “Hard Rock Café” approach to coffee shops. The chain features specialty coffees from Dillanos Coffee Roasters, sandwiches, wraps, salads, and pastries along with plentiful rock music and memorabilia in a laid-back setting that gives the feel of an exclusive backstage lounge. Its artisan coffees include such creatively-named options as Velvet Underground, Sledgehammer, Unplugged, and Black Dog.
Founded in New Jersey in 1993, there are now seven locations (one less than last year), with four in New Jersey, two in Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh area), and one in Lincoln, Nebraska. In 2013, the chain was purchased by Ablak Holdings with plans to take it nationwide.
24. Bottoms Up Espresso
Bottoms Up Espresso is the “Hooters” version of a coffee shop, but with a focus on a different part of the female anatomy. The company’s unique coffee beverages are served up by sexy baristas in bikinis. The menu features an array of classic coffee drinks, smoothies to which customers can add soy or whey protein, and “Twisted Energy” fruit-juice drinks to which customers can add an energy shot.
The company also markets a large selection of company merchandise that includes apparel, drinkware, outerwear, hats, and accessories. Founded in Modesto, California in 2011 and franchising since 2015, there are now six locations, all in central California, which is one less than last year, and all are listed as being for sale.
25. The American House
The American House is focused on organic and natural products. It places as much emphasis on retailing its 400 loose leaf teas, 75 gourmet coffees, herbs and spice products in bulk as it does on serving prepared drinks to customers. The store ambience and decor are carefully crafted to make customers feel like they’re stepping back in time to the 1850s. It positions itself as an alternative to the “overly-commercialized” coffee shops of other chains and caters to the growing segment of consumers looking for more natural and healthy products.
The first location was established in San Diego, California, and though the company’s franchising program has been underway for more than two years, there is still just the one location.
The franchises on this list were ranked according to the number of units in the franchise system. If you are a prospective franchisee searching for franchise opportunities that meet or exceed certain performance benchmarks for sales, profits, and return on investment, please check out this list of America’s Most Lucrative Franchises.
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