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Food Service Coffee:

In the annals of coffee marketing, there is a rich history of sharpshooting at one’s own feet. Again, something this writer knows well and can therefore point to with some assurance. Right up there in this coffee marketing hit parade of perforated footsies is the sales proposition to restaurateurs that the foodservice operator should not look at his or her coffee cost on a portion basis but on a monthly basis, almost as if the coffee supplier were a utility like the water or gas company. That this led to the commodification of coffee was as certain as night following day. Yet, it must be assumed, that every roaster thought that they alone could find the cheapest possible blend and still be able to call it coffee without giggling too much. So, while chefs and restaurateurs buy every item they sell their guests on a cost-per-serving basis (including bottled water), they have been trained, by the coffee industry, to think of coffee as part of their overhead and to believe that they can cheapen it without harming its quality. No wonder most chefs don’t like or even respect coffee or its place in a meal.

An outgrowth of the “My product is a commodity” sales pitch is the one wherein the restaurateur is told that a particular coffee, as lousy as all the others on the face of it, has special magical properties either by virtue of the way it was roasted, ground or in some other way transmuted into “Supercoffee” which can be brewed at incredibly low ratios of coffee to water and still taste just as bad, er, good as any other coffee while saving the greedy, craven operator even more money. Getting foodservice operators to believe such fanciful tales is perhaps profitable in the near term. In the longer term, though, it has led many chefs and managers to take a very cynical yet complicit view of their coffee supplier. A lot of, “Oh yeah, special magical properties, now, how much money will I save?”

But certainly the worst idea to ever cast its shadow over the lowly cup of coffee in the foodservice arena is the idea that restaurants not only should look at coffee as a commodity but that they should view the final delivery vehicle for this commodity (i.e. the coffee brewing equipment) as the responsibility of the supplier. This has ensured that restaurateurs and small quality roasters are forever separated and that only large, very well capitalized companies can play in the foodservice arena meaningfully.

Knocking such existing marketing stratagems like the three just mentioned is easy, but it is much harder to devise pitches that might convince an operator to upgrade, even though it is probably in his or her best interest. Serving a great cup of coffee could be the best and cheapest PR any restaurant manager could engage in. Further, a great cup of coffee makes the diner feel welcome - welcome to order dessert and welcome to come back - thereby ensuring repeat business and a higher average check. Great coffee, a seemingly small priority on the menu, assures the diner that the restaurant’s management really does care about every last detail.

When coffee is mentioned in the foodservice context it should be remembered that a lot of decaf is drunk outside of the home, especially at night. This brings us to Castle’s Theory of Decaf Resonance. When couples dine out it is most often he decaf-only drinker who decides whether or not to stay and enjoy a cup of coffee. The mistrust that decaf drinkers have for restaurants serving them regular coffee is legendary and is well known by such rituals as jokingly asking for the waiter’s or busboy’s home phone number so that the diner can call and wake them up if they themselves cannot sleep due to being served regular instead of decaf. If the decaf drinker trusts the establishment enough to order decaf, then the rest of the party go ahead and order decaf as well, and perhaps even dessert. It has been this writer’s contention for years that if restaurants served a decaf coffee that was recognized and trusted, then it would increase not only sales of coffee but sales of desserts and after dinner drinks as well - even regular coffee.

To summarize the basic reasons why foodservice coffee is so bad today is a daunting endeavor, the list is long and imposing, but here is an attempt:

  • Consumers don’t know or care its bad and don’t complain about it. Not only are they used to it, they think they like it;
  • Since restaurateurs don’t get many complaints they see no reason to change their coffee, or spend more money on it, or devote more resources to it, either in labor or equipment;
  • Since restaurateurs don’t own their equipment, it is difficult for them to change. Small, quality-oriented wholesalers often don’t have the capital to go in with offers of equipment and service on top of providing great coffee. Large roasters and distributors aren’t interested in rocking the boat. The tradition of providing equipment with coffee is one of the most corrosive forces acting on the quality of foodservice coffee in the market today;
  • Even if a restaurateur could or was willing to buy great coffee for his dining room, he would hesitate, thinking that good coffee might slow his table turnover or increase his labor costs;
  • Foodservice distributors and roasters tell restaurateurs their coffee is great and they believe it (because they get no complaints);
  • Even when a restaurant manager buys great coffee and then ruins it by using poor equipment or untrained personnel, the supplier won’t tell him for fear that he will say, “Oh, not only is the coffee more expensive but I have to get fancier equipment and train my employees differently? Forget it!”;
  • Roasters and/or distributors believe that it is almost impossible to sell a restaurant a better coffee and are afraid to rock the boat by upgrading their customers. Further, they can make the same or better money selling low quality coffee; A good question at this point might be, “So what?” Everybody’s making money (except the farmer) and no one’s complaining, (except that farmer again but he or she’s not here right now) so what’s the problem? Well, here’s another list:
  • Sooner or later consumers are going to figure out that they’re getting a lousy cup of coffee and the restaurants who let them know are going to benefit over the ones that have been skating on the customer’s ignorance and gullibility;
  • Coffee consumption is flat to declining and the bad coffee in restaurants is a daily reminder to consumers why they should prefer soda pop (which the coffee industry has been teaching them to do for decades now). What could have been the coffee industry’s most effective channel of communication and promotion has become the path of least resistance for our lowest quality product;
  • Coffee farmers in the better quality growing regions are today in deep trouble because there is not enough demand in the marketplace to keep them all in business. Roasters can (must, really) use lesser coffee because their customers don’t want anything better. Once these farmers go out of business, it will be almost impossible to restore the farms to their former quality, even if there were a market for it in the future. We will probably lose these better quality farms forever;
  • Finally, it’s a matter of pride. As industry members, we go out to eat all the time in a variety of circumstances, from basic to deluxe and we are told at every turn by restaurant managers that they don’t care a bit about our product, or our profession. Winemakers, chefs and even cheese and fishmongers get their 15 minutes of fame, but the lowly coffee professional has to be satisfied with “Coffee” on the menu and nothing more. It’s bad enough that the ignorant consumer puts up with it. What’s our excuse? Oh yeah, “real world conditions.”
One more list is obviously necessary, the “What We Can Do” list. It’s the shortest, as such lists always are:
  • First of all, everyone in the coffee industry can stop pretending that foodservice coffee is any good and that most modern brewing equipment is up to the task of brewing great coffee. Foodservice operators who have a genuine interest in upgrading their coffee often come to believe that there is something intrinsically wrong with coffee and that it can never taste particularly good, especially in a restaurant. If wholesalers and distributors at least told the truth about their product, then managers and chefs might trust them more and be tempted to trust them with an upgrade in the future. A “worse, worser, worst” description of the blends offered might be an interesting, trust-building exercise. It could then be followed by, “And, of course, we have some really good coffees, but they cost two to three times as much and most of my customers don’t want to hear about it. And, then there’s your brewing equipment, which would need to be replaced and you would need to pay for.”
  • Second, and last, we can all speak up and politely yet resolutely complain the next time we are served a bad cup of coffee in a restaurant. When the servers tells us that no one ever complains you can say, “I’m sorry, I thought I was someone, at the very least your customer, and I want a better cup of coffee in the future and I am not going to pay for this really bad cup today.” You should probably conclude by mentioning that it is usually the case that the existing supplier to a particular restaurant can do a great deal to improve the quality of coffee that the restaurant serves, if and when the wholesaler or distributor is made aware that the management of a particular restaurant actually cares. But that concern will never develop until the consumer cares even more. If we as an industry don’t first of all care as consumers, then we’ll all be drinking a commodity, and nothing more, for some time to come.

Tea & Coffee - March/April 2001


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