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The Future of Coffee Services

How pantry and office coffee services can survive during and post-COVID


Social distancing in the office paired with sanitation concerns can make OCS providers consider tech upgrades to touchless options or turning to drip coffee. Photo credit: Diversity Photos/Adobe Stock

On June 25, 2020 NAMA (National Automated Merchandising Association) hosted a webinar with experts in the field of coffee services, titled “Navigating the New Landscape of OCS.”

The panel was moderated by Ben White, the Director of Education for NAMA. The panellists consisted of Michael Schwartz, director of field sales and equipment, Nestlé Coffee Partners, Ben and Charles Brunson of Capitol Coffee and James Lowther, VP of OCS and filtration service at DS Services. Topics ranged from sanitization, to communicating openly with your clients to keep expectations (and your business) running smoothly.

What is ‘Normal?’

Many expressed concern over the unknown. All panellists agreed that the Office Coffee Service (OCS) industry cannot stay the way it is now. Some have considered turning to direct-to-consumer options, or resorting to direct-to-home-delivery for office workers stationed at home. Every attendee stated that communication is key to keeping customers happy and get a sense of where the potential market might head.

With the first slide revealing a train wreck as a visual analogy for the current COVID crisis, moderator Ben White asked, “How can we begin to take this thing apart and clean it up and put it back together again?” Michael Schwartz of Nestlē Coffee Partners began by reassuring listeners that the supply chain is now stable, so hoarding is unnecessary, but a back up plan is never a bad idea. “I think the first is really important is just open a transparent conversation,” stated Schwartz. “Whether it’s with suppliers, operators or customers it’s your responsibility to understand any impact to their business…is it a loss of customer furloughs or layoffs?”

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He added, “we’re posting all the manufacturer’s recommendations of how to clean the equipment, we are providing hand sanitizers — anything and everything we can get to assist in the break room.” He reflects that there were fewer shortages of certain key or popular ingredients. “Supply chains have gotten better. But that’s been a kind of a moving target for us, and it’s interesting thing. I think Q-Tips are going to be popular. Somebody made a comment yesterday about stocking Q-Tips.

“One of my Techs got on an elevator, two days ago, and was provided with the cardkey to him to get on and in hit the button.”

Along with the access card to the elevator, the building management gave him a cotton swab to use to press the buttons on the way up and down from his destination.

“But I think there’s this spectrum of improvements and upgrades that the industry needs to consider,” he added. “A Q-Tip could be on one end of it, as it serves as very practical purpose, but, an eraser from a pencil can help activate an elevator , or some of the touchscreens on some coffee equipment interfaces.”

Survey the landscape

Getting a lay of the land for your inventory and your customers is key, helping manage expectations and hopefully help undo any damage made to your company’s reputation or finances. “It’ll help you think clearly on how to help get back their operation back on track…maybe the ‘back on track’ mean stabilizing, and it’s understanding what normal is going look like for now.

“I think first having that, having an open and transparent conversation will help customer expectations in a way that can be supported.”

Lowther recommended asking clients what products, what method of deployment, what equipment was used and how they sanitized the keypads on coffee equipment. “What are the requirements needed for customer deliveries?” He added that it’s important to ask your clients what improvements or upgrades might be needed in light of social distancing and sanitation.

Offer added value

Asking if an additional order of cleaning wipes, gel cleansers along with coffee would present added value to the sales relationship. White observed, “as we are turning businesses back on and customers are opening back up, we are seeing some supply chain issues.” He cited how an absence of half-and-half had forced many to consider shelf-stable alternatives.

Sanitize or Modernize?

While touchless technology was one option for reducing contamination, they noted not all offices had online or kiosk technology. Suggestions such as providing Q-tips or using pencils to operate buttons or screens, and providing hand sanitizers at each station were discussed.

Schwartz asked “how do we shift to this kind of touchless equipment? How can you interact with the machine without actually touching it, and how can you create this perception of separation? Especially when you’re when you’re at your coffee station, where there’s a lot of people around. I think it’s going to be interesting to see the shift that we have towards touchless options for customers.”He continued to state that Nestlē is currently “working on a study right now of over 900 single-serve customers, and they found 20 per of all decision-makers think that a drip coffee solution is a sanitary solution.”

Mark Boundaries

Some offices are providing stationed-off areas for work and breaks to minimize contact; Some suggestions included expanding the number of office coffee stations to accommodate everyone safely to keep groups under ten or fewer people.

Association & Support

Gathering information from professional organizations such as NAMA, CAMA and other associations is key. “I’m really pushing to stay very close to our industry and our partners, added James Lowther. “we’ve got other partners across our industry that really do a good job of keeping us informed, giving us insights we can pass that to our consumers. As things change, our associates hear and see it in the field, then bring it back to us. And it’s constantly giving us nuggets to figure out how to go back to full business and full service with our customers.”

Lowther cited the work of NAMA as well represenatives of the OCS industry who advocated on the behalf of the vending and office coffee industry to change Governor Cuomo’s move to temporarily ban vending services.

“Just looking at the work against New York and trying to get some of the language amended from from the governor’s governor’s office on the importance of break room and coffee service was a fantastic job.”

However, caution and communication go hand in hand.

Talk with Staff

Lowther recounted how he had an encounter with a worker who didn’t wear PPE in the workplace, setting a dangerous precedence for the company. He politely informed the employee how safety equipment like masks and gloves were an industry standard. “the more we train and keep both consumers and our associates informed, I think the better off we’re going to be and the more respected, we’ll be in the industry. Consumers will accept us a lot quicker. We have a great opportunity to really help consumers. Listen to them, hear them and help them adjust, because they’re going through the same thing as we are right now.”

Think Positively

White concluded, “I encourage everyone on the call to think ‘out and up’ in terms of opportunities of what around us is falling apart…what do our clients need, what can we get to them? One thing about this business is, we’re in the last mile distribution business. The products on the truck can be anything,” encouraged White. “I think of all the security clearances that operators have around the country to get into some buildings, just to provide some kind of service. That has value. I encourage people to keep their heads up and look around and look out.”