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Reflections In A Cup: Coffee, The Beverage Of Class

Coffee, The Beverage Of Class


May 1, 2008
By Stuart Daw

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At this year’s NAMA Fall Expo in Orlando, one of the exhibitors made a
comment that struck me as an important point for all business people to
consider. He was demonstrating and waxing eloquently about a new
espresso machine that he was importing from Italy.

At this year’s NAMA Fall Expo in Orlando, one of the exhibitors made a comment that struck me as an important point for all business people to consider. He was demonstrating and waxing eloquently about a new espresso machine that he was importing from Italy.

For the average layman, the complexities of modern machines with their multiple nuances can be baffling, so whatever the salesperson says about it can be open to question, if only you know the right questions to ask. But what caught my attention in this case was the rather philosophical comment he made about the importance of the relationship between quality and image.

Of course, we all make at least a vague connection between the excellence of a given business and the reputation it has achieved with the public. The same applies to a machine. In this case the salesperson, in claiming his brewer put all the others to shame, went on to stress the importance of a quality image.

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He said that if a restaurateur was to establish his operation as deserving of the carriage trade, he had better not allow anyone to prove superiority over him in any aspect of that business. So it is with an espresso machine, he claimed. If you are hanging out your shingle as serving the “crème de la crème” of espresso coffees, and using only the best equipment to brew it, you had better make sure it’s the truth.

For the run-of-the-mill customer, you being “just okay” might do. But, the people who set the standards – those with discriminating tastes and whom the masses tend to follow in the long run – are the ones about whom you should be especially concerned. And you can’t afford to have those important few knowing that, even in some small way, someone is better than you.

This brought to mind the old poem about being “the best of whatever you are.” For coffee service and vending operators, it’s okay to pander to lower tastes if you must, as in the case of being forced to meet a price point. But make sure that, should a customer not hold price as the only criterion, he knows there is nothing better in quality and service than is available from you.

This is not to say that catering to the undiscriminating masses may not be profitable. Observe that over 75 per cent of retail coffee over the past few decades has been sold by two national brands that plowed high percentages of Robusta variety coffee (the much lower quality of the two available, the other being Arabica) into their blends. Their survival depended on the public at large not knowing the difference, aided of course by the low price.

But if the general public didn’t know the difference, what about coffee companies not knowing? For example, in the early days of coffee service, I was addressing a group of operators in Rochester, N.Y. I was going through the process from bean-to-cup, including mention of the coffee varieties and origins.

One fellow with an anxious look on his face queried, “Do you mean Robusta is not the top variety?” I affirmed that, and with a confused expression he immediately exclaimed, “But that’s the name of my company, The Robusta Coffee Service.”

And we even see someone starting a roasting operation and naming it the Brazilian Coffee Company, seeming not to realize that the International Coffee Organization had, long before that, clearly categorized the world’s coffee into four groups in descending order of quality and price: Colombian Milds (Colombia, Kenya and Tanzania), Other Milds  (Arabica coffee processed by the wet method but not coming from the first group), Unwashed Arabicas (Brazil and Ethiopia), and Robusta.

Recognizing all that was still not enough for the entrepreneur who started a company with a good name, but then spelled it wrong, calling it The Columbia Coffee Company (spelling Colombia with a “u”).
 
With the “specialty” coffee retail business achieving such success, a question of enormous importance arises. What is the standard? What criteria do we use when evaluating coffee? Is it the farm from which it supposedly came or an origin name that can hardly be found on map, and that boasts twelve syllables, but from where the coffee is not really that great?

Regardless of the hype, the expensive packaging, the non-coffee inducements to buy, to me the only valid criterion has always been the quality in the cup, and that includes having enough coffee in the coffee, and the coffee brewed correctly.
 
To many people in foodservice or coffee service, “no complaints” may seem to be all that matters, and perhaps much of the time the customers don’t seem to care or comment. But that small, crucial few who do notice but may say nothing, can spell the difference in sales and reputation. Their influence transcends their number. They need to be cultivated the best way I know how: simply by serving coffee better than anyone else does.