An Interview With Philippe Bloch of Columbus Cafés (cont.)
J.B.: How many Columbus Cafés are now in operation?
P.B.: There are 17 as of today, including: four street units in Paris, one store in a Paris mall, 10 Fnac Cafés by Columbus (food-in-shop), one cybercafé (Vivendi Café by Columbus) in Paris, and one café in the DDB agency headquarters in Paris
However, in the quite near future - before Summer 2001 - we will be having several additional openings. By the end of this year we’ll have approximately 30 stores, including a few abroad.
J.B.: Are store layouts, decor, menus, etc. standardized?
P.B.: Columbus Cafés are all technically designed and organized in the same way, but look different depending on where they’re located. All the street and mall units are similar, but food-in-shop units, like those in Fnac, Vivendi, etc., vary a lot in terms of atmosphere and architecture. These are completely integrated in our partners’ style and look.
We offer the same beverage and muffins menu everywhere. The exceptions are the food-in-shop units, which are the only ones offering the possibility of an entire light meal - sandwiches, salads, pies, soups - in addition to the regular drinks and muffins.
J.B.: Since you do not roast yourselves, what coffee are you serving?
P.B.: We began with IllyCaffe. But naturally in time we have developed our own distinctive house blend - that is essential for a chain such as ours. Our Barista Blend is dark roasted exclusively for us by a French roaster… perhaps it is our greatest achievement!
J.B.: Remind me of the espresso machine brands used in Columbus Cafés.
P.B.: For the past two years we have been using La Marzocco in all our stores. It suits our needs perfectly because its two boilers are absolutely necessary given the amount of steam we need to foam tons of milk!
In fact, we’ve introduced La Marzocco in France. Since it had such a small market share here it didn’t even have a maintenance system. We set that up ourselves.
J.B.: How much staff does a Columbus Cafe require? How do you train and keep your people focused on coffee?
P.B.: Depending on the size of the store and its hours of operations, an outlet needs anywhere from two to eight people. But on average we count on using five baristas. We have developed our own intensive training program.
As for focus, that’s easy, we simply talk about coffee quality all the time. It’s never out of sight. I regularly send press articles about coffee to all our managers. We also refresh them every week on all the basic techniques when we evaluate each store. And during these weekly inspections we always comment on the taste and look of the espresso.
J.B.: What do you stress most with employees about making and serving coffee?
P.B.: We say to them, “Taste it, love it, talk about it. Pay constant attention to details. Clean your machine all the time. Adjust your grind every 2 hours.” Cardinal rule in service, “Throw the espresso away if it has not been served in the first 60 seconds.”
J.B.: What measures have you implemented to keep control of the bars, their conditions and product quality?
P.B.: Columbus Cafés operates a weekly evaluation system that includes 100 criteria. This is linked to a bonus system for everyone - baristas, assistant managers and managers. We are in a service industry, so the first emphasis is on service quality, then coffee quality, food quality, the barista’s work habits, overall cleanliness, back office management. This evaluation weighs for 50% of the bonus system, the other half being the sales objectives.
J.B.: How many espresso cups daily must a store push across the counter in order for you to count it a success?
P.B.: I don’t think in terms of cups anymore, given the amount of coffee drinks and pastries we now sell. Instead we count in terms of daily transactions. Based on that criteria, I’d say that a successful store runs an average of 300 transactions per day. Our most successful stores are serving up to 1,200 customers per day.
J.B.: Who dominates - by sex and age groupings - in your client profile?
P.B.: Women make up 60% of our customer base; 60% are less than 30 years old; 20% are between 30 and 40; 20% over the age of 40. 70% are French, 15% American or Japanese, 15% non-French European. Like Paris, we are very international.
J.B.: What branding are you doing; heavy or light?
P.B.: Branding is a big issue at Columbus Café. I even see our brand as our biggest asset. Our logo and web site address are present everywhere - cups, napkins, brochures, “special offers,” we even put the .com sign on the façade of our street stores, our web site address is present on our windows, etc. People seem drawn to the bear in our logo. We’re even working on offering Columbus Café premium ice creams in our stores.
J.B.: Do you count on rush flows or more constant and consistent flows?
P.B.: Our food-in-shops units offering sandwiches obviously experience rush hours at lunch time - we have needed to put a second till in some of them, in order to move the lines more quickly. Unsurprisingly, our street units experience morning rushes.
But what is surprising is that all our stores are very busy in the afternoon, especially on Saturdays. Our busiest time of the day is usually from 3pm to 7pm. That’s when up to 60% of our sales can be made in some stores. Such peaks aside, our business is nevertheless usually quite steady and non-stop.
J.B.: Are you seeing take-away developing? It is commonly held by many that this is a major barrier to fast food coffee chains in Europe, where there is no take-away tradition.
P.B.: It’s developing in a big way! For us the trend really started in January 1999 when we opened our store in the Marais quarter in Paris. Very well located in a very trendy street with up-scale tourists, it immediately attracted a young and fashionable crowd, which gave Columbus Café the exposure it needed. Once accustomed to take-away coffee, these customers showed the way to more traditional French customers. Given the small size of the store and its limited number of seats, they had no other choice anyway but taking their drinks away.
Today, 50% of our sales are made: “to go” in our street units. Although lower in our food-in-shop stores, the proportion of take-away sales there is also growing regularly.
J.B.: Is office worker traffic becoming an important factor? Again, this question has for some been a major qualification for success of such outlets as Columbus Cafés.
P.B.: I would say: “not really.” And I don’t think it’s so important in Europe. The coffee bar is developing differently here.
Anyway, the French have not become completely American yet. Only a few of them think to go to such places as Columbus Café first thing in the morning to pick up a cup of coffee and bring it to the office. Most offices are well equipped with coffee machines, serving bad but cheap drinks. Vending machines are a huge market here.
However, we do get a lot of business from office workers who come to us for a coffee break, or to hold informal meetings at Columbus.
J.B.: Overall, what drinks are you serving the most?
P.B.: In our street stores, 20% of coffee beverage sales are espressos, 80% are of our coffee drinks. Our Columbus Caffé Latte is the most popular drink. In summer, our PercoLatte [Columbus Cafe’s version of Starbucks’ Frappuccino] is a major best-seller.
J.B.: Where do you think public service coffee is going in Europe?
P.B.: In my humble opinion, ten years from now, Starbucks will remain the world leader, including then in Europe too, both in volume of coffee sales and number of stores. Starbucks will probably have one - maybe two, but no more - major European competitors operating all over the continent. But each country will still have hundreds of small brands operating locally, in towns, cities and regions. Our own ambition is to be one of Europe’s key players by 2010.
J.B.: So, you do have a long-term growth plan for Columbus.
P.B.: To my thinking there is enough room for at least 500 Columbus Cafés in France, and that our brand has a very strong potential in Europe (name, logo, image, design, values, reputation, pastries, etc.), even considering all the local emerging and competing brands. I don’t foresee at this time there being any major threat to our kind of concept from Nescafé, SSP’s Ritazza, Scappucci Café, McCafés, etc. We are also thinking of establishing a partnership with a major roaster in order to introduce our coffee in supermarkets, which will make the brand even stronger and more recognized. We’ve already been approached by one of them.
J.B.: What has this experience taught you about human nature?
P.B.: These may sound like clichés, but they are true for me. Never trust market research before starting a new concept or business. Customers don’t know what they want until it is offered to them. Nobody knows if they’ll enjoy a product or a service that they don’t know. Hire the best people - trust them, empower them and always worry when the best ones go. Work until you drop. France is one of the toughest markets in the world for a business such as ours - considering its social laws, holidays, social charges, mentality, café culture, lack of entrepreneurship, anti-Americanism, etc. - and so having money here is just not enough to make it!
J.B.: Meaning, you need to be very smart and have at least a little luck?
P.B.: [Other than a smile, no reply]
Tea & Coffee - May/June 2001
Tea & Coffee Trade Journal is published monthly by Lockwood Publications, Inc., 3743 Crescent St., 2nd Floor, Long Island City, NY 11101 U.S.A., Tel: (212) 391-2060. Fax: (1)(212) 827-0945. HTML production and Copyright © 2000 - 2013 by Keys Technologies and Tea & Coffee Trade Journal.
Terms and Conditions of Website Use.
HTML Copyright © 2001 by Keys Technologies and Tea & Coffee Trade Journal. All rights reserved.