To say coffee is a trend in today’s foodservice market would be somewhat misleading. As one of the world’s most popular beverages, coffee has been around for eons and will continue to be around for eons, with little ebbing and flowing in its popularity.

But that doesn’t mean that coffee can’t be seen through a new filter. And restaurants—especially fast casuals—that are trying to give their menus a little jolt to bring back loyal customers while attracting new ones would be wise to look to the opportunities that coffee could bring to their concepts.

Mark Romano, vice president of education, quality, and sustainability for illy caffe North America, says coffee can be a great way for fast casual 2.0 brands to innovate in a post-pandemic restaurant environment and give customers a reason to visit their restaurants over the competitors. But he stresses that it can’t just be a cheap cup of joe.

Here are seven reasons why Romano thinks fast-casual operators should invest in a high-quality coffee program.  

1. The market is massive

It’s no secret that coffee is insanely popular. In fact, according to the National Coffee Association (NCA), more than 200 million Americans—about 62 percent of adults—drink coffee daily, second only to water as the most consumed beverage.

Considering the size of this market, Romano says the opportunity to attract new customers with a good coffee product is near limitless. He adds that specialty coffee is outpacing the overall coffee category and is expected to grow in volume at a compounded annual growth rate of 8.3 percent by 2025.

“Connoisseurship has increased and people want better quality coffee,” he says.

2. It’s an escape from otherwise anxious times

The pandemic and ensuing economic downturn have been brutal for most Americans, canceling social plans and family outings and forcing people to quarantine at home. But in these anxious times, coffee is a “nice respite in people’s days,” Romano says, and continues to be a regular part of their routine.

Plus, once the nation turns the corner on the crisis, consumers will be eager to get out and socialize again. And coffee provides the perfect opportunity for people to reconnect.

“Coffee is a beverage that encourages friendship, conversation, and collaboration—that coffee break with a friend or coworker—something that we perhaps took for granted and now appreciate and desire even more than before,” Romano says.

3. It’s recession-proof

No matter what happens to the economy in the coming years, one thing is certain: Coffee likely won’t end up getting squeezed out of consumers’ budgets. They might not buy that new car or go on that vacation, but they will pony up for coffee.

“In my opinion, the consumer will cut back on large consumables purchases, but they’re going to want the conspicuous consumption and everyday luxuries that make them feel good about life, and good branded coffee has an opportunity to play a role in meeting this need,” Romano says.

4. It can help achieve consumers’ health goals

Health and nutrition are especially top of mind for consumers because of COVID-19, as those with underlying health conditions like obesity are at a higher risk of severe illness or death from the virus. With more consumers trying to take care of themselves and boost their immunity, coffee can play a role in supporting those goals.

Romano says people are increasingly steering clear of sugary drinks and artificial sweeteners. “Black coffee without any substitutes is natural, and more studies from the scientific community show it can be healthy thanks to anti-oxidants and other beneficial components,” he says.

5. It’s easily served off-premises

Off-premises business is clearly the name of the game today, with delivery, carryout, and drive thru giving restaurants a lifeline throughout the pandemic. But while some breakfast foods aren’t always easily served through a drive-thru window—scrambled eggs, say, or a stack of pancakes—coffee fits nicely within any off-premises model.

With the NCA reporting that app-based ordering is up 63 percent and drive-thru ordering is up 13 percent, that will be an important consideration for all coffee-serving businesses. Romano suggests operators pay particularly close attention to coffee products that travel well. He adds that the coffee industry is responding to this shift by getting more innovative with its service solutions, including with the introduction of new apps and touchless tools, as well as single-serve solutions.

6. It boosts the bottom line

Importantly for operators, having good coffee doesn’t just give them a marketing platform for drawing customers. It also gives them a high-margin menu item that can help to boost the bottom line.

But Romano points out that operators shouldn’t look at their coffee product from a cost-per-pound mindset, which he says is a mistake that’s often made.

“You’re not selling coffee by the pound but by the cup, so look at the cost per cup and pour yield: how many cups can you make per pound,” he says. “That is what’s relevant.”

7. There’s still plenty of room for innovation

Just because coffee has been around forever doesn’t mean there isn’t an opportunity to try new things. Romano says some of the bigger trends going on today include ready-to-drink coffee and cold brew. He says 66 percent of millennials drink cold coffee products.

In addition, he says there is a “culinary meets mixology trend” with coffee where some R&D experts are adding some creative flare through spices, herbs, and citrus.

“This is in line with people’s search for healthy choices that cut calories and add flavor without sugar,” he says. “Not only are they healthier alternatives, but they offer new flavor combinations like rosemary and mint or cinnamon and turmeric.”

Other trends that are popular today include cocktails, mocktails, coffee spritzes, and dessert pairings.

Beverage, Fast Casual, Menu Innovations, Story