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Make Mine a Decaf! (cont.)

Once Again, as has often been observed in these pages, a healthy decaf program is essential to a vibrant coffee program. While many still insist that a cup of decaf is a cup of “Why Bother?” smart marketers and seasoned strategists quickly grasp that great decaf is essential to any great coffee business, especially in the U.S. and Canada as the North American population ages. Not only is a great decaf program essential to the ongoing growth of an individual roaster, it is essential to the coffee industry overall, especially as its richest, most discerning and increasingly numerous consumers become less and less tolerant of caffeine as they age.

Footnote: In talking to restaurant managers and coffee wholesalers about decaf, it became obvious that an are of even greater concern looms on the horizon - decreasing sales overall. On the West Coast at least, there is great concern that many restaurants may not make it through the current economic slump. Wholesalers dependent on the foodservice sector may want to take note.


A Modest Proposal

Coffee, when it was first placed on the menus of formal dinners in European homes and palaces, was not included with dessert, but was featured at the very end of the meal, entirely by itself. It was thought that coffee was a digestive that could aid settling the stomach, especially after a long, rich meal. Besides, desserts, if they were served, were usually paired with a sweet wine. “Coffee can often destroy the flavor a delicately-flavored dessert and originally was not served with dessert at all,” notes Becky Sue Epstein, author of “The Dessert Course,” an as-yet unpublished book on the history and place of dessert in a meal. It was probably first in the U.S. that the custom of sweet wines with dessert first fell out of favor. Another wine, much less a sweet one, was seen as excessive indulgence, and sweet wines have not been well accepted in the U.S. market for well over a generation. (Many U.S. wineries are now reporting increased interest in these wines, however, and they are responding with more and better dessert wines.) Serving coffee with dessert is a tradition that also probably had its start in the U.S. We Americans are usually in more of a hurry and would rather compress the dining experience as much as possible - it’s just more efficient to drink coffee with dessert rather than eat dessert and then drink coffee.

Restaurateurs, therefore might be well advised to consider promoting the sales of dessert wines and then offering their customers a special pot of coffee, either French Press, or brewed to order (at a very special price) to conclude the meal. The coffee might even be served away from the table, in the bar, or in a separate lounge, to allow for the table being cleared or for excess service staff to get off the clock at the end of the evening. This might seem counter-productive to the cause of increasing coffee sales but it would actually allow diners to appreciate a great cup of coffee all the more, by itself, with no distractions.

Further, even though, properly consumed, the additional amount of alcohol that a small and appropriate serving of dessert wine would provide should not be significant, a “coffee break” at the end of a fine meal might allow diners without designated drivers the time to assure themselves that their blood alcohol levels are adequately low enough to safely drive home.

Then again, if the previously noted decline in business for foodservice establishments proves to be more than a blip, it may become essential to maximize the sale to each diner that does walk in the door. A great dessert wine program combined with a very special coffee program could do a lot toward offsetting a possible decline in overall attendance.

As one chef of a well known hotel dining room in Los Angeles noted, “To do everything we would need to do to properly serve a cup of coffee, decaf or regular, to our customers, we would really need to charge between five and ten dollars. It’s not the cost of the coffee, but the cost of the service staff brewing and pouring that coffee, and it’s the cost of the real estate, of their occupying that space in my restaurant.” Perhaps, if that coffee was allowed to stand on its own, and was made fresh, to order, it might have a chance to justify that price.

The concept that the flavor of coffee, and a decaffeinated coffee in particular, might be good enough to sing solo is almost shocking. People in the coffee business aren’t used to asking for so much of a spotlight for their lowly product - but maybe it’s time they did.


Tea & Coffee - July/August 2001
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