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Who's the Culprit?

By Shea Sturdivant Terracin

Let’s do a few word associations: Starbucks-dark roast coffee; Dunkin’ Donuts-medium roast coffee; fast food restaurants-light roast, no roast, burned, like-drinking-brown-water-coffee. Why can’t fast food restaurants serve a good cup of coffee? After all, it is just a question of buying good coffee, brewing it strong enough, and serving it by the cup. It’s not brain surgery, is it?

There isn’t a remark you can make about any category of foodservice coffee that I haven’t heard and, for the most part, each complaint is valid. The coffee is weak, it has been on the burner too long, and it wasn’t good coffee to begin with. However, the complaint should be directed toward the operator, not the roaster, who supplies the large fast food chains.

Before we can get into a discussion of fast food coffee, we have to understand what exactly fast food coffee is and is not. A fast food establishment is generally where a customer walks up to a counter or goes to the drive thru, reads the menu, places the order, and in a matter of minutes receives the order and generally takes the order out of the building or sits down and quickly consumes the purchase on premises. By nature of the definition “fast food,” little if no lingering takes place over the purchase.

This definition of fast food would now apply to Starbucks as well as other coffee chains. It has always applied to doughnut shops like Dunkin’ Donuts, and it certainly applies to chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and even upscale convenience store chains. By no means am I comparing the cup of specialty coffee purchased at a coffeehouse to a cup of coffee purchased at a hamburger place. I am simply pointing out that “fast food coffee” should only be considered a delivery system and not an automatic insult.

For years I was involved in two industries: specialty coffee and commercial coffee. As an owner and operator of a specialty roast house and an officer in the Specialty Coffee Association of America, I was heavily involved with the specialty end of the business. As a gourmet coffee specialist employed by a large foodservice roaster, I was involved in the commercial end of the business. Because of my involvement in these two areas, I have a unique perspective.

The large roasters who supply fast food roasters do not set out to provide a product that is synonymous with a bad cup of coffee. They are however, dealing with a segment of the foodservice industry that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to deliver a cup of coffee that will please every customer. Why is this segment such a challenge? Because large fast food outlets, with thousands of locations across the country, deal with millions of different customers with wide varieties of taste preferences.

Some negotiations for the coffee contract with a large fast food establishment begin with price; some begin with the customer suggesting a desired taste profile. If a fast food establishment is serious about upgrading their coffee, they will come to the roaster, and sit with the green coffee buyers at the cupping table, and let them suggest taste profiles based on industry trends. The customer and the cupper then sample coffees and narrow down the selection to two or three.

At this point, price is discussed and involves not only the quality of coffee, but also the amount of coffee used to brew each 64-ounce pot. It may also include a discussion of having the coffee ground and premeasured into packets, or delivered whole bean. Although the buyer may say that they want their taste profile similar to Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, they are generally not willing to spend the money required to use over three ounces of coffee to brew each 64 ounce pot. They are also usually abject to financing the purchasing of grinders like the ones these two companies use. The buyers are also usually surprised that the quality of coffee they liked so much at the cupping table costs more than the quality of the coffee they currently use.

Let’s assume a best-case scenario. The buyer really wants to upgrade the overall quality of their company’s coffee, so they pay more per pound to get a better product. At the same time, they increase the brew weight from two ounces to three ounces of coffee per 64 ounces of water. They even listen to suggestions to use good water and to brew the coffee into a shuttle system or large commercial thermos to protect it from the heat. If the coffee must be brewed into a glass carafe, they agree to throw it away 20 minutes after brewing. They further agree to keep the brewing equipment clean, and to throw away the coffee grounds after brewing.

At this point, everything is in place to upgrade the quality of the fast food restaurants’ coffee program. But the last remaining challenge can make or break the transition from an awful cup of coffee to a good one: training the employees. If fast food restaurants really want to upgrade their coffee program, they must train tens of thousands of employees to brew a better cup of coffee.

The commitment to improve coffee quality must include field training specialists, bi-lingual visual and written training materials, videos, seminars, spot field inspections and enforcement of quality control standards. It also requires the commitment of the operators of the individual restaurants to improve the coffee program. The members of the senior management team who decide to upgrade the program are not going to be people preparing the cup of coffee the customers drink-hourly employees will shoulder that responsibility.

Now that I have presented the process and the challenges, let me say getting a good cup of coffee at a fast food restaurant is not impossible. I firmly believe this is so because as consumers become more aware of what is a good cup of coffee and are willing to pay more for it, fast food restaurants will upgrade the coffee and delivery system to fulfill that need. After all, restaurants are in the business of making money. It has already started happening at fast food locations that include breakfast as part of their day-part menu.

McDonald’s advertises all-Arabica coffee as well as cappuccino. Convenience stores tout 100% Colombian coffee, dark roasted coffee, as well as cappuccino in their radio spots. Cold coffee beverages are becoming more commonplace, and even Coca-Cola is planning to test-market a cold, smoothie-type coffee beverage. Their focus will be to sell the drink at the away-from-home market though-not in bottles or cans.

Let me restate my position: I do not think fast food coffee can ever compare to the coffee purchased in your local coffeehouse. The customer base of fast food restaurants is too broad, and the challenges of training are tremendous. I do, however, think it can be better, and a lot of the responsibility in making it better rests with the customer.

If customers pull through a fast food drive-in to get breakfast with a cup of coffee and the coffee is bad, it should be sent back. These restaurants make their money on repeat business, and if customers repeatedly complain about the coffee, someone will eventually notice. Fast food coffee is a delivery system, not an insult.

Shea Sturdivant Terracin is a past officer of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, a partner in The Coffee Associates, an international consulting firm bringing coffee solutions and education to the marketplace, and a member of the Business Administration faculty at Bauder college in Atlanta, Georgia. You can contact her by e-mail at coffeelady@mindspring.com

Tea & Coffee - December/January 2001
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