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Could a Coffee Shop With No Staff Work in Your City?

The Vault, located in Valley City, N.D., allows customers to pay on the honor system.

By Heather R. Johnson on November 4, 2014

The Vault, a self-serve coffee shop located in Valley City, North Dakota
Valley City / Courtesy of David Brekke

David Brekke is not surprised that the business model for his self-serve coffee shop works. In fact, he would be surprised if it didn’t. The Vault, located in Valley City, N.D., allows customers to pay on the honor system. Keep track of your drinks and snacks. Charge your purchases on the self-serve credit card reader or put the appropriate amount of cash in the box. A customer could cheat the system, but in Valley City, why would they?

“This is a small, close-knit community of people who favor honesty as a rule,” says Brekke, who opened The Vault in October 2013. “There is a heritage of honesty here. Why would people steal?”

In fact, they haven’t. Brekke reports that within the first seven months of opening, the shop averaged 15 percent more than the asking prices. That surplus continued through the one-year anniversary.

An Example of Adaptive Reuse

The Vault is located in the newly renovated Stavanger Building, a historic 1920s structure that last housed Farmers and Merchant Bank before sitting vacant for several years. Brekke joined building owner Paul Stenshoel in converting the space into usable living and working spaces. Brekke’s wife, Kimberly, moved her jewelry store into the building and Brekke opened The Vault, following Stenshoel’s vision of turning the great hall into a “coffee shop of some sort.”

Variety Even Without a Barista

For a coffee shop with no staff, customers have a wide selection of beverage and snack options at The Vault. Black coffee fills a commercial brewer, and a Keurig brewer provides decaf and flavored options, hot cider and cocoa. Various flavor shots, creamers and syrups allow customers to jazz up their morning joe. Kimberly Brekke supplies the pastries and other treats via her bakery, Kyly’s Kitchen.

Despite the lack of baristas, The Vault has yet to run out of coffee.

“My wife opens in the morning, and I close in the evening,” Brekke says. “We designed The Vault in such a way that we don’t need to restock. At the end of the day, we may run out of Doritos or individually wrapped ice cream cones, but we always have coffee and cocoa.”

Honor System as a Business Model

While the self-serve, honor system retail concept sounds simple, Brekke says the business model is actually complex.

“A lot of balance is required to make it work,” Brekke says. “You need to make sure the customer does not feel that they are being cheated. You do save money by not having a barista, but you do have to lower your prices because service is a product. You are selling not only the coffee but also the service. When you remove one of those elements, you need to lower the cost and replace it in some fashion.”

The Vault compensates for its lack of staff by creating an inclusive environment. Customers can throw a birthday party at the venue without worrying about reservations or a deposit. Just show up. Church groups, book clubs and other local groups can meet anytime. On most Saturday nights, The Vault hosts a movie night for $3.

“Someone described The Vault as ‘Valley City’s living room’,” Brekke says. “We encourage people to think of the shop as an extension of their own home. Which is great because we have an incredible mix of people here.”

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