Menu Innovations | December 2012 | By Barney Wolf

Java Jive

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At Caribou Coffee, customers have confidence in the company to provide new and unique flavors, says Mark Miller, senior manager for product development.

“We are looking for layers of flavor that balance well” with coffee, he explains. For instance, the Minneapolis-based chain has two flavors for the winter holidays, Salted Caramel Budino and Salted Caramel Mocha lattes, that “deliver on all the flavor notes.”

The indulgent beverages presented some difficulties. For example, salted coffee is not a natural pull for consumers. “So we have a textured mixture that really stays together and doesn’t get too salty,” Miller says.

Lattes, which baristas make with espresso and steamed milk, offer a great opportunity for flavor creativity. The same goes for frappes, or foam-covered iced coffee beverages.

During the past few years, Caribou developed a wide range of flavored beverages with its coffee, sourced from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms in about 20 countries. In addition to some holiday favorites—Fa La Latte with eggnog and nutmeg and Ho Ho Mint Mocha—the menu includes Campfire Mocha with marshmallow flavoring, chocolate chips, and more.

A Pumpkin and White Chocolate Mocha was featured in the fall, and other specials have included cherry-infused Black Forest cooler (a thick, coffee-blended drink), Honey Almond cooler, Macadamia Nut and Coconut Mocha, and Lavender White Chocolate Mocha.

“Going forward, I’m looking at experimenting with all types of flavors, maybe a double vanilla,” Miller says. “We could look at something unique, like dessert pear, like double-smoked almond, to bring another subtle flavor that would make the drink more complex.”

Dunkin’ Donuts began as a coffee-and-doughnut shop and has branched out to a full menu. But coffee remains its keystone item, and the company features many different flavors to accent java.

“Customers are mixing two great things, coffee and interesting, unique flavors,” says executive chef Stan Frankenthaler. “They are going down this path of celebration, from seasonal to trendy and even some comfort flavors in their coffee.”

The fall and winter seasons are particularly popular for comforting flavors, such as pumpkin or ginger and spice. The chain featured pumpkin this year. “There is a lot of experimentation in the cappuccino and latte side,” Frankenthaler says. The latte drinker “is looking more for indulgence, more of a treat, than flavored coffee.”

This spring, the chain featured Black Cocoa Crème Iced Coffee, flavored with the taste of cookies and cream. The summer brought a Coolata frozen coffee drink with Oreo cookie crumbles.

Coffee has long been a menu item at quick-service restaurants, but McDonald’s has been at the forefront of upgrading its regular coffee to a premium blend and developing machines to make consistent hot and cold coffee drinks 40 different ways.

The McCafé line includes mochas, lattes, cappuccinos, frappes, and iced coffees. A peppermint mocha will be a special holiday espresso-based beverage. “We can customize it to the customer’s tastes by adding an extra shot of espresso, more milk, or extra vanilla syrup,” explains Marta Feron, McCafé category director.

McCafé coffee has helped McDonald’s remain the quick-service leader at breakfast and grow its business later in the day. “The trend is that coffee drinkers in the morning are coming back for cold coffee in the afternoon, and we are definitely seeing that,” Feron says.

She also says the company is continually attempting to improve and increase its offerings. This year it is upgrading its vanilla flavor to a richer, creamier French vanilla, and the chain has rolled out a new espresso that provides “a more rounded, smoother flavor.”

Coffee is a major item in fast casual’s bakery café segment. Chains like Atlanta Bread are focusing on java to lure coffee drinkers who also want fresh, baked goods to go with it.

“Coffee is one of the most important side things we do,” says Jerry Couveras, president and CEO. “Our pastries are baked fresh, so we brew our coffee fresh as well.”

Last year, the company rolled out its line of Lavazza coffees from Italy, with House Roast, Dark Roast, and Vanilla Nut, as well as decaf versions of House Roast and Vanilla Nut. It also makes specialty coffee items like cappuccino, latte, and café mocha by machine. The chain is launching a Rainforest espresso blend as a new base.

In the long run, “the coffee is what makes the difference, not the added flavors,” Couveras says. “In the old days, coffee was coffee, but that’s not true any more. Customers know the difference between great coffee and the rest.”

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