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The New Sellers in Restaurant Coffee Service

by Kate Lapoint

Last spring, the 15 members of the SCAA Board of Directors resolved that the theme for the 2000 SCAA Conference would be “Bridge to the 21st Century - Quality, Sustainability and Social Responsibility.” Easson begins her three-part series - an in-depth look at how these and other issues impact the specialty coffee industry - with a focus on quality in this new era of opportunity.


It’s about time!” You can almost hear the chant rumbling through the coffee industry and through crowds of coffee lovers alike. Coffee service in restaurants is evolving - see for yourself. Go out for dinner tonight, whether to a four-star white tablecloth establishment or a to neighborhood diner, and you will likely be asked by your waiter, “What coffee would you like?” Yet, less than five years ago, you probably would have been asked simply, “Would you like coffee?” says Mike Ferguson, communications director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America in Long Beach, California.

Trends to follow - and encourage - include the beaten horse of specialty coffee being marketed and enjoyed more like fine wine. Not only are restaurants continuing to serve a wider variety of beverages - lattes, cappuccinos, espressos, brewed coffees, and other signature coffee beverages - they are beginning to offer a selection of origins. The day may come when it is commonplace to have one’s waitperson recommend a specific coffee to complement a dinner or dessert, such as certain wines are sold on the suggestion that they pair well with particular dishes or specials of the day.

Customers sample coffees at DeCafe Coffee House in Merrick, NY

Not only are choices in restaurant coffee rapidly expanding, but the quality of the beverage is also on the rise. Jesse Sartain is national director of American Tasting Institute (ATI), America’s largest network of professional chefs in the U.S. Based in San Francisco, ATI judges thousands of products each year for quality for the benefit of restaurant buyers and consumers. “My father, who was a chef, always said, ‘The two most important things a restaurant offers are bread and coffee. Bread, because it’s the first thing your customer tastes and coffee, because it’s the last,’ ” Sartain recollects. “Where price used to be the first consideration by most restaurateurs when selecting a coffee, now it’s one of the last. Chefs and restaurant buyers are more in tune with the flavor, aroma, and body of the coffee they serve as well as with the service and expertise of the company providing it,” says Sartain.

Of course, as with any product, value is a consideration. Most restaurateurs choose their coffee based on a delicate balance between variables. The Cappuccino Café has three locations in Michigan in the Okemos and in the Lansing areas. Raeann Vogl, owner, says she works very closely with her roaster (The Coffee Barrel) and says she chose her coffee for all three locations based on flavor and service first, and then on price.

Reputation and service are what made me choose my coffee,” says Linda Labriola, owner of DeCafé in Merrick, New York. She uses Barrie House Gourmet Coffee. “I definitely didn’t want the cheapest coffee, because products served are a reflection of one’s business. My customers love my coffee. I can run out of quiche, but if I run out of my house blend, Look out!” Labriola also says she chose her coffee supplier based on the fact that they are local, so her coffee is always fresh, and because they spent countless hours training her on everything from coffee origin to equipment maintenance.

DeCafe Coffe House's attractive display
Some chefs are a little stauncher in their choices. “Flavor was the only consideration when I chose my coffee,” says Thierry Rautureau, chef and owner of Rover’s in Seattle. Multiple award-winner Rautureau is one of Seattle’s premier chefs and is a dedicated user of Illy coffee and espresso. “I love my coffee - that’s all that matters.”

Taking their coffee service a step further, Yarrow Bay Grill and Yarrow Bay Beach Café in Kirkland, Washington, chose their coffee supplier, Torrefazione Italia, based on blind tastings and on the fact that the coffee is able to complement the restaurants’ cuisine. “If you choose the right coffee, it should pair well with just about anything your restaurant serves,” says Allan Aquila, general manager of the restaurants.

Certain regions may call for different criteria when selecting a coffee to feature in one’s restaurant. Norman Higashi, foodservice manager of Outrigger Waikoloa Beach Resort in Waikoloa, Hawaii, says that in Hawaii, restaurants most often feature a 100% Kona coffee as well as a blend. “We chose Kona Blue Sky Coffee as our supplier of 100% Kona coffee because they offer an excellent product at a good price and with a guarantee that the coffee comes directly from their estate in Holualoa-Kona,” says Higashi. In addition to serving the coffee in the hotel’s main dining room and in the V.I.P. lounge, the hotel penned an agreement with Kona Blue Sky Coffee Company to open a coffee bar in its main lobby, filling the entrance of the hotel with the wonderful aroma of coffee.

In addition to aroma helping to sell coffee at any location during any time of the day, presentation is key. Most sources say that presentation is everything, next to taste. “People buy, eat, and enjoy visually,” says Aquila. That’s why his restaurants serve coffee in large, high-quality ceramic mugs. Yarrow Bay Grill’s coffee is also served with accompaniments such as fresh whipped cream, shaved chocolate, and natural and white sugar. Aquila says they have even included coffee as a visual part of their dessert trays. “We ran a special dessert-menu promotion of coffee and Sambuca served in beautiful hand-painted ceramic cups. We sold a ton of those because people love items with personality,” states Aquila.

Al fresco sipping ay the Yarrow Bay Grill in Kirkland, Washington
French press service is a big hit among most restaurants surveyed. Since restaurants lose the “created especially for you” effect that is so appealing to customers of espresso bars, French press service proves to be the most elegant way to bring this special touch right to patrons’ tables - not to mention the fact that it makes a rich, unique tasting cup of coffee.

What does the future hold for our beloved beverage in the restaurant setting? Restaurateurs will continue to view coffee as an integral part of their fare rather than as just another product, and menus will reflect this, according to SCAA’s Ferguson. “We hope to one day see coffee menus that are similar to wine lists,” says Ferguson. “Not only will customers have a wide range of beverage choices, but they will also be able to select different coffees by origin.” Along with this expansion of the coffee menu, wait staffs will be well-trained and should be able to suggest a particular roast or origin as a complement to any customer’s order.

Outrigger’s Higashi says cooking with espresso and coffee is the next big trend in restaurant service, “We have developed a signature 100% Kona coffee breakfast pastry, and we use the coffee in our tiramisu and sauces as well.”

In addition, ATI’s Sartain believes we will see more in-restaurant merchandising of coffees, with custom blends in whole bean or ground form available for customers to buy and enjoy at home. “I also predict, and pray, that we will see a continued move away from non-dairy creamers as part of restaurants’ coffee service,” Sartain muses.

Altogether, customers and restaurateurs are discovering better and better coffee all the time. Perhaps the day will come when we “coffee snobs” will not be too scared to order a coffee beverage in a restaurant, or when we won’t be forced to return one because it’s unsatisfactory. Perhaps then there may even be hope for world peace….

Kate LaPoint is owner of To The Point Business Imaging, a company specializing in marketing, public relations, writing, and editing for companies primarily in the specialty coffee industry. She can be reached at Tel: (206) 985-0063, Fax: (206) 985-0064, or Email: kate@tothepointbi.com.


Tea & Coffee - February/March 2000
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