There’s no doubt about it: Coffee is, well, hot.
Mintel reports that coffee-house sales grew 41 percent between 2011 and 2017, to $23.4 billion. In fact, gourmet coffee chains are so popular that they’re boosting business across the entire quick-service industry; according to data from The NPD Group, coffee chains, along with burger concepts, account for “a sizable percentage” of total quick-service traffic and helped overall industry traffic increase 1 percent in 2017’s third quarter (after six consecutive quarters of flat or negative traffic).
But it isn’t just coffee concepts seeing increased consumer demand for a premium cup of Joe. Restaurants of all sizes and culinary styles have also been forced to up their games as guests seek better drip coffee and espresso-based beverages either as a morning pick-me-up or post-dinner treat.
Of course, very few restaurant operators are prepared to whip up their own house-made coffee roast. To accommodate the demand for high-quality coffee options, a number of small- and large-scale coffee roasters provide selections for operators so they don’t need to be left behind in the coffee competition.
Emily Wood Bowron, director of strategic marketing for provider Red Diamond—a Birmingham, Alabama–based company that has been offering coffee and tea solutions since 1906—offers her take on the state of the coffee category, and how operators can work with partners to ensure they’re offering a great product.
What trends are happening in coffee today that restaurant operators should pay attention to?
The key is customization. Over 50 percent—actually, almost 60 percent—of coffee cups consumed now are considered to be “gourmet or specialty.” If you don’t have some way to create that allure, some way to differentiate yourself, consumers will go elsewhere. Think seasonal limited-time offers, a variety of creamer options, different syrups.
The good news is research has shown that consumers prefer to customize coffee on their own, so it doesn’t necessarily mean increased labor or training for an operator’s staff.
What flavor profiles and beverage styles are consumers today drawn to for their coffee?
Well, here’s the next biggest trend: cold brew. If it’s not on an operator’s radar, it should be. Cold-brew sales have skyrocketed over 580 percent between 2011 and 2016, and based on the reception we’ve had to our new Fitz Cold Brew, we expect it to continue growing. Consumers are still driven by taste first, and fresh-brewed cold brew has a smooth, rich, and less acidic taste than iced coffee. It’s still a new concept to many operators, and the time required (12–18 hours) to properly make it can seem intimidating, but for many of our customers, it’s as simple as prepping it the night before.
Alongside cold brew, we’re seeing interest in a lot of chocolate and “bakery” flavors for hot coffee—for example, gingerbread caramel, maple, cookie dough, etc.
What innovations in coffee sourcing, production, or service are key to winning over consumers and best for the bottom line?
We’ll say it over and over: Taste is key. You don’t make money on coffee by saving money on the product. You make money on coffee by selling more of it. If spending a penny or two helps you sell an extra four or five cups, your profit has already skyrocketed.
As far as customer service goes, consider paper cups and sleeves, and if possible, highlighting a specific region or farm.
What considerations should restaurant operators keep top of mind when selecting a coffee partner or product?
You must make sure that you’re buying the freshest, most consistent coffee available. The story and marketing pieces are important layers that consumers appreciate and want, but if your coffee doesn’t taste better than your competitor’s, they’ll go elsewhere.
When looking for a coffee supplier, you should ask if their coffee is made to order, if they’re buying coffee harvested in the current year (new-crop), and how quickly they’re able to pack the coffee once roasted. Coffee has to go through a natural de-gassing process after it’s roasted, but we’re able to pack the coffee hot, with shorter exposure to oxygen because of our “Quick Pak” technology.
Understand that just because a coffee may be “local” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s fresh. Ask the questions and make sure your supplier has the sourcing connections and technology to help you build the best beverage program possible.