Almost 10 years after throwing in the towel with restaurants, Conscious Coffees now sees 35 percent of bean sales generated from them. And, these restaurants are serving Golden Cup quality coffee. What does it take for other roasters to tap into this market and get restaurants to brew it right?
By Mark Glenn
The first business plan I wrote in 1995 for a wholesale coffee roasting operation included three prospective customer types: restaurants, specialty coffee retailers and natural food grocers. I projected 50 percent of bean sale revenues to be generated from restaurants, 30 percent from coffee retailers and 20 percent from grocers.
In the first three years of business, we surpassed our original restaurant projections. However, our vision was incomplete because despite the success with projected volumes, it was almost impossible to get a really good cup of coffee from any of the restaurants we supplied. After all, we got into the business so we could have a variety of local places to go and enjoy a tasty cup of coffee.
It was around this time that I signed up for a training seminar at the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s (SCAA) annual Exposition entitled “Golden Cup Certification Program.” The goal was to understand coffee from a very technical approach, which would lead to the ability to consistently brew a perfect cup. This was my turning point. I learned about water quality, grind consistency and particle size, brewing ratios, uniformity of extraction and countless other variables including what that nasty flavor was when I pulled a cup from a dispenser that had been sitting for two hours after brewed.
When I finally realized how each of my coffees should taste when properly brewed and served, we formed a company policy that remains one of our strongest to date. From that time on, we would require each customer to adhere to a preparation and serving protocol, which would enable them to brew and serve Golden Cup quality coffee.
From 1998 to 2000, we attempted to convert all customers to the new protocol. All of the coffee retailers upgraded equipment and implemented new preparation methods. The natural grocers who brewed and served our coffee also got on board. The restaurants, on the other hand, were a different story. They chuckled when I asked their willingness to weigh and grind each batch of beans prior to brewing. It got worse when I asked if they would commit to discarding any un-sold coffee from the dispenser older than 60 minutes. The timing was not right for our coffee in restaurants and, by 2000, we lost 95 percent of them.
For the next five years, we refused to take on any restaurant accounts, despite their sometimes large coffee volumes, location or hype. It may still be this way if it weren’t for the persistence of Hugo Matheson and Kimbal Musk. Here were a couple of culinary fanatics opening a new concept restaurant in Boulder, Colo. The Kitchen Café was going to be that truly local bistro, which not only sourced locally but also took the preparation methods to another level. Everything was going to be represented with precision and integrity. Naturally, I rejected their first couple of telephone calls when they were inquiring about a business relationship. After all, I gave up on restaurants. Finally, they convinced me I needed to sit down and talk. They explained their concept and asked, “what will it take to get your coffee in here.” I laid out the entire process, including capital equipment requirements as well as extensive training requirements for both drip and espresso preparation. To my surprise, they embraced it!
Almost 10 years after throwing in the towel with restaurants, we are back up to 35 percent of bean sales revenue generated from them. However, now times are very different. Each of our restaurant accounts is serving Golden Cup quality coffee, including exclusively single origin drip selections and United States Barista Championship quality espresso beverages. So, once you’ve landed your restaurant account, here are some things you should teach a restaurant.
First, start with an in-line water filter. If you plan to brew with a drip brewer as well as an espresso machine, use separate filters per unit. This will ensure more consistent water pressure during brew cycles. Also, espresso machines require additional water softening, to reduce the scale build up that results from hard minerals in water. Drip brewers actually produce quality extractions with minerals left in the water. Most important, aside from choosing the proper filter, is keeping up with cartridge replacement.
Next, if brewing with a drip brewer, choose the right brewer for the location. Familiarize yourself with the brewers available that meet SCAA brewing standards. Some features include maintaining precise water temperature, ensuring complete saturation and uniformity of extraction, and programmable pre-infusion. Multiple size batch options are crucial. Ultimately having the operator brew just the right amount of coffee at any given time is the key. You do not want to serve a coffee that has been brewed more than 60 minutes ago. In the same breath, you will end up losing the account if you discard excessive amounts of coffee. Implement a solid plan that maximizes brew quality and minimizes waste, and always brew into a clean, pre-heated dispenser and timing each post-brew.
Coffee service must be efficient. A healthy alternative to the pre-ground portion pack is a scale and bulk grinder. Institute a program which includes pre-weighing the multiple size batches and storing in individually labeled air-tight containers. These will be ready to dump into grinder for each brew cycle. Most important, aside from ensuring roasted coffee is always fresh, is maintaining the cleanliness of the grinder and sharpness of the burrs.
Implementing a world-class espresso program in a restaurant is extremely challenging and incredibly rewarding when done right. These days, we have tons of training material available through the Internet, including videos of United States Barista Championship and World Barista Championship performances, which exemplify technique and presence. The key is to implement an ongoing training regimen that continues to empower the operator and improve beverage quality, efficiency and social presence. No one should know a roaster’s espresso better than the one who developed it. She/he is the one that should continuously taste and evaluate beverages coming from the restaurant’s coffee program and promptly troubleshoot less than exceptional quality beverages.
Certainly, there’s room for growth within the restaurant sector for specialty coffee. To be successful, we must provide a final cup of coffee that is equal to or better than the food being served. This will require properly maintained equipment that meets requisite criteria for brewing perfect coffee. Without one or more folks dedicated to the ongoing critiquing of coffee in foodservice accounts, training the coffee service operators will only go so far.
Without training, specialty coffee will only go so far. Without specialty coffee, we continue to be presented with inferior quality coffee to accompany the meals we enjoy in restaurants.
Mark Glenn is the owner/roaster of Conscious Coffees in Boulder, Colo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.