Marc Halperin: Resident F&B Expert | December 2012 | By Marc Halperin

Grounds for Change

How to court legions of Latino coffee consumers.

Quick serve operators can reach Latino customers through beverage innovation.
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If you’re reading this column in a bleary-eyed, early-morning fog, I recommend a piping-hot cup of coffee to kick-start your day. You might even make it a double.

Once you’ve downed your morning Joe, wake up to this eye-opening tidbit, courtesy of market research firm IBISWorld: “Despite difficulties during and following the recession of 2009, buying power among Hispanics continues to escalate steeply,” the firm wrote in an August 2011 report. “Over the next five years, the nation’s buying power is projected to grow 27.5 percent, to $14.7 trillion, while that of the Hispanic population is forecast to grow 48.1 percent, to $1.6 trillion.”

And if that’s not quite enough to get your motor running, here’s another morning jolt: A September 2012 report from the National Coffee Association found that nearly three-quarters of Hispanic Americans drink coffee daily, compared with 62 percent of other Americans. In addition, the association reported that Hispanic Americans appear to drink more premium coffee beverages than non-Latinos. Forty-six percent of respondents said they drink gourmet coffee beverages daily. The rate for non-Hispanics was 29 percent.

For quick-serve and fast-casual operators who are actively working to court Latino consumers, evidence of this sort of culture gap should be inspirational stuff. Not that Hispanics’ love of coffee has been previously undocumented, but the size of the disparity in this study was revelatory.The pertinent question is, Are those Latino consumers with the skyrocketing buying power being served, and served well? This challenge, coincidentally, was one of the topics I discussed at QSR’s recent Dine America conference in Atlanta.

Clearly, there is no shortage of chains that serve coffee, and premium coffee drinks aren’t exactly at a premium anymore in many urban communities. Here in San Francisco, it’s actually hard to advance 10 paces in any given direction without someone trying to thrust a double-tall, nonfat, extra-foam, no-whip, caramel spice pumpkin mocha cappuccino into your waiting clutches.

But there’s a decided difference between offering special coffees and making coffee special. And from my vantage point, it seems there is plenty more that chains can do on the latter count to deliver a more authentic coffee experience to Latino consumers in ways that could secure their regular patronage and brand loyalty.

We can go a long way toward bridging that gap simply by acquainting ourselves with the many varieties of coffee and espresso beverages that are popular south of the U.S. border, and by working to develop authentic versions that provide a taste of the familiar.

Consider, for instance, the cortado, a beverage popular in Spain, Portugal, and throughout Latin America. Consisting of espresso that’s tempered with a dribble of warm milk to reduce its acidity and acridity, cortados (in Cuba, cortaditos) are popular afternoon diversions served in a special glass with a metal handle and base. Variations include the cortado condensada, which is sweetened with condensed milk, and leche y leche, which boasts both condensed milk and cream.

Given how basic, satisfying, and familiar a cortado can be, it seems strange that this particular coffee variant is such a rarity on many North American quick-serve menus. Wouldn’t an authentic McCafé cortado, or the equivalent at Panera or Starbucks, be a natural fit?

Even more surprising is the fact that café de olla, the standard Mexican coffee flavored with cinnamon and piloncillo, an unrefined brown sugar, hasn’t yet entered the quick-serve mainstream. Some local proprietors have grabbed the ball and run with it. In Berkeley, California, for instance, the Mexican fast-casual concept Tacubaya serves tacos, tamales, salads, and enchiladas with a Mexican beverage menu that includes agua frescas and café de olla made from a proprietary, locally roasted coffee blend.

What do I mean by “making coffee special”? Simply put, it’s about more than menu development. Hispanic consumers, like other consumer demographics, will turn their backs on panderers or cynical opportunists who attempt to pass off an ordinary cup of French roast flavored with a cinnamon stick as a bona fide café de olla. What they’re seeking from large chains is a sincere attempt to understand and cater to their preferences with the highest-quality and most authentic product options available.

This push for authenticity in all things coffee is likely to continue as more and more consumers—Hispanic and non-Hispanic alike—continue to sample the ethnic variants available at restaurants and cafés from New York to Los Angeles. Popular on both coasts today is high-voltage Turkish coffee, made with spices such as cardamom, vanilla, cloves, and cinnamon. And Thai and Vietnamese variants, often flavored with sweetened, condensed milk, are gaining favor nationwide as well.

But an earnest appeal to the U.S. Latino market, with its growing numbers, remarkable purchasing power, and yen for coffee, represents a potentially game-changing coffee gambit for quick-serve chains. With the right beans, the right preparation, and the right marketing, a new wave of Hispanic coffee beverages could provide certain concepts with a clear competitive edge.

Marc Halperin

A classically trained chef who earned his Grand Diplôme d’Études Culinaires at Paris’s prestigious Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne, COO Marc Halperin brings considerable gastronomic expertise and more than two decades of restaurant-consulting and teaching experience to the table. Prior to co-founding CCD, Halperin’s culinary tenure included stints in such celebrated kitchens as those of Taillevent and Maxim’s in Paris, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and the Deer Valley Ski Resort in Park City, Utah, where he served as head pastry chef during the resort's inaugural season. Later, he was a chef instructor at Le Cordon Rouge cooking school in Sausalito, California, and at the California Culinary Academy.

Marc is a professional member of the Research Chefs Association and a member of the San Francisco Professional Food Society, and currently contributes each month to QSR Halperin holds a Bachelor’s degree in biology from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and a Master’s in music performance from Boston University.