Coffee: Maximizing Profit by Knowing the Cuppa’
Today coffee rarely conjures up the tune about waking up and "...Folgers in your cup.” Coffee geek squads abound and coffee culture broaches highbrow standards. Barista schools offer formal training (Nespresso’s among the most elite), pod espresso culture dominates the freshness game (Bialetti’s racy machines at the forefront), consumers assert allegiances to specific roasters and debates ensue about the pour-over versus the macchiato.
However, for most, coffee remains unexplored. Furthermore, in some establishments, coffee production and service lag. Beware: the consumer is catching on; be sure your coffee program is on par! Knowing the basics and how to sell your brand(s) of coffee adds to the bottom line while enhancing diners’ experiences.
It’s Good for Your Check Average and Your Till
Every sale results in a larger tip. The demands of a long service can wear down even the most tenacious, upselling server as the hours wear on. However, during the course of a nice meal, wallet clips should loosen, making the last approaches to the table excellent opportunities for a few add-ons. Specialty coffee drinks garner bigger tips, but even drip coffee adds up on a four-top. Imagine the results from a significant part of an entire section!
Nonetheless, tenured servers and sommeliers are very opinionated about how best to make their next buck. Jeff Porter of New York’s Del Posto and Babbo and his next-door neighbor on Tenth Avenue, Ryan Mills-Knapp of Colicchio and Sons, agree a “plain” coffee sell isn’t worth it. Unless, perhaps, it’s at the end of the night. Both prefer a spirit or sweet wine upsell. “Faster service and higher check contribution,” says Mills-Knapp. Working at snazzy Italian establishments, Porter in particular prefers promoting the caffè corretto, an espresso “improved” with a shot of booze. Porter says, “It takes some time to make coffee the right way. Make it worth that time.” All things being equal, both prefer seating the next table and selling the first glass of wine, despite coffee’s good margins. After all, those good margins are still on a lower priced item. In a different light, Andrew Myers, Sommelier at the Mandarin Oriental’s CityZen in Washington, D.C., points out the customers’ perspectives. “By the end of the meal (at least at upscale joints) you’ve been up sold on water, wine and luxury ingredients (truffles, Wagyu beef, caviar, etc.) all night. It is common hospitality to offer the best possible cuppa at the end of the meal, but in the end, you either want a cup or you don’t.”
Not surprisingly, other levels of nuance surface with additional conversations. Jason Ferris, General Manager of Barclay Prime in Philadelphia, made a point about service speed and clientele savvy. For example, beware of free, drip coffee refills that encourage lingering and a slow table turn. Also, Ferris says, “It’s frustrating to put time and effort into a coffee program with amazing options and brew methods plus training then have wary consumers ask, ‘Don’t you have regular coffee?’”
Finally, while it is considerate to offer caffeine at the end of a meal, New Jersey restaurant owner Francis Schott demands the coffee be good once offered. He and his partner, Mark Pascal, test every employee standing behind their espresso machines to guarantee the color, mouthfeel and aroma of their cofees are just right.
The Coffee and Wine Connection
Like wine, coffee is an acquired taste that holds many paralells to wine. If coffee only conjures up the idea of a hot, black and bitter brew, just compare coffee and wine production techniques:
As with wine, soil, altitude, slope and climate affect coffee flavor. Premium sites produce the best. Only 10% of both coffee and wine production is truly the crème de la crème.
The Voyage of Coffee to the Present
Coffee was discovered in Ethiopia then extended to Arab countries, reaching Europe in the 18thCentury. Today, coffee is big business. It is the second largest US import commodity after oil and the world’s most-traded agricultural product. Coffee is grown in 56 countries worldwide, but only five countries produce 70% of the world’s supply.
Generally considered an export crop, coffee consumption in coffee-growing countries in on an up-tick. The Specialty Coffee Association of America reports that Brazil may oust the US as the world’s largest coffee-consuming country over the next few years. The burgeoning middle classes of India and China are also pressuring supplies, resulting in higher coffee prices and more competition for premium beans.
Arabica and Robusta are the two primary coffee types. Despite the fact Arabica produces lower yields and is the finer of the two (another wine parallel!), it constitutes 65% of world production. Other than lacking flavor finesse, Robusta packs more caffeine punch – about twice as much.
Coffee “beans” are the seeds of the coffee tree’s round-shaped fruit. These fruits bear two seeds except in the case of peaberries, or single seed fruit. Peaberry beans have more concentrated flavor.
Processors dry coffee beans before shipping them to roasters around the world. Roasting develops the beans’ flavors throughMaillard reactions (the caramelization of beans’ sugars), the oxidation of their oils and the release of volatile aroma compounds. Too light a roast results in vegetal aromas and too dark a roast contributes a singed character. Roasting also decreases acidity and increases body.
After roasting and cooling, beans are allowed to de-gas (or release carbon dioxide) to further develop aromatic potential. The oxygen parallel to wine decanting is too irresistible not to make here. Granted, this interaction with oxygen is much earlier in the process for coffee.
Major Coffee Regions
Brazil has lead global coffee production since the end of the 19thcentury, despite the fact the coffee was a non-native plant. A significant portion of the production is Robusta.
The second largest coffee-producing country in the world is one that enjoys less visibility, partially due to the fact that 98% of its production is Robusta.
Third on the totem pole is Columbia, which produces two harvests per year, all Arabica.
This Latin American country gets the vote for “most balanced”, similar to St. Julien in Bordeaux. Both are just a little bit of everything.
Coffee is Guatemala’s largest export. Surprisingly, it is less well-known despite its reputation for rich flavor.
Jamaica and Hawaii
Jamaican Blue Mountain and Hawaiian Kona are immensely popular, flavorful and expensive. Hence, it’s not unusual to see “Jamaica Blue Mountain-style” or “Kona-style” sold at a lesser price.
A sophisticated coffee producer, Kenya has an AOC-like style of grading bean size. Though second largest, Kenya AA garners the highest prices.
The birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia produces a wide array of coffees, some of which – like Yirgacheff – fetch premium prices.
Indonesia and India
These countries produce a significant amount of Robusta though Indonesia grows about as much Arabica as Robusta.
How to “Cup” Coffee
Three checkpoints are required for cupping, or tasting, coffee. First is the visual inspection, including noting the color and, for espresso drinks, the crema, which is a combination of carbon dioxide formed from the roasting process as well as the water vapor resulting from the extraction process. The crema should be consistent across the cup and neither too light nor too dark. The former indicates under-extraction and the latter overextraction, which degrade the coffee’s aromatic effusiveness. Preferably, the color will ressemble blanched almonds, and the crema should stick to the coffee spoon.
Next comes the olfactory observation. The crema holds the main aromas. The nose should have good freshness, regardless the origin and roast.
Lastly arrives the gustatory moment, when the cupper looks for overall balance of moderate acidity, good body and no to minimal bitterness. Temperature, as with wine, is also key and should be at 67° Fahrenheit. As with wine, air should be aspirated through the mouth when tasting coffee to volatilize its flavor components.
Pairing Coffee with Food, Water and Spirits
Coffee pairings work best with foods containing little to mild acidity and a bit of sweetness. This harmonizes any bitter edges and elevated acidity in the drink. There’s good reason we accompany coffee with breakfast and dessert. Still, not all sweet foods work in harmony with coffee. Fruit is a fine example. A pastry made with sweetened cherries will work just fine, but a bowl of cherries will not. The high acidity of the cherries elevates the coffee’s. However, lower acid fruits, especially bananas, can pair well.
In the dessert category, chocolate reigns. A simple piece of dark chocolate is lovely, but its chalky texture can accentuate bitterness and tannins. A soft, creamy option, like a warm, moist brownie or a molten chocolate cake, creates the ultimate mouthfeel. In this category, tread caution with brightly acidic combinations like lemon custard pie, which heighten acidicty.
Still, savory pairings are possible, too. Grilled or roasted poultry latch onto coffee’s torrefaction notes. Ham’s sweetness can be complimentary, too. Mayonnaise and aioli work well, too, rounding out coffee’s acidity and tannin.
When it comes to matching beverages, a number of things count. Temperature is one, but minerality, acidty, bitterness, texture and body must match, too. The more minerality a water has, for example, the longer its finish and – generally – the better its match with espresso. The rounder feel of a water like Evian tends to obscure a coffee’s finish.
Granted, even in the dining mecca of New York City, restaurants don’t seem to train specifically for coffee pairing. Half a dozen top beverage directors echoed AvroKO Beverage Director Jesse Webster’s comment. “We don’t train on pairing but rather on techniques of offering, making (well) and serving coffee.” Perhaps coffee is the next – and not far away – pairing frontier? Every restaurant is looking to further distinguish itself, whatever accolades and expertises it has to its name already.
However you decide to focus your upsells at the end of a meal, just be sure to do so! Whether you prefer to sell an espresso, a caffè corretto or just a plain ole cuppa, consider how much coffee can add to your check average and your restaurant’s bottom line.