Last month’s article in this series presented the unfortunate reality of a typical fine dining experience: great food, great wine, great service followed by not-so-great coffee. Like tripping over the finish line of a record-breaking marathon run, many of America’s finest and most celebrated restaurants fall short of expectations on the quality of coffee they serve at the end of a great meal. So what is a restaurateur to do when he or she recognizes that this problem exists within his or her own business?
The most effective catalyst and first step on the road to coffee improvement at a restaurant, hotel or any other business is to transform how your management perceives coffee and its preparers. When you shift your company culture to consider coffee a prepared food and your barista (Italian for coffee barman) a coffee chef rather than simply coffee server, you will begin to intuitively recognize some of the shortcomings in your own coffee program and be more receptive to making much-needed changes.
However, the barista is not solely responsible for the taste of what they serve – often times, a barista is inhibited by the tools, ingredients and by the policies of their own management that substantially reduce the likelihood of achieving an ideal end result, even with perfect preparation. Imagine if your chefs were not provided with sharp knives (a barista’s coffee grinder) or fresh ingredients (a barista’s water, coffee and dairy) or were instructed to use recipes copied from a fast food restaurant (big coffee chain) – you’re beginning to see the picture.
A bad tasting cup of coffee is rarely caused by one single overpowering flaw; more often, a variety of mistakes have been made somewhere along the journey from business plan to dining table that each make a small contribution to the overall bitter beverage. The combined effect of many flaws may seem insurmountable at first; when addressed individually, each may require little more than a modest and inexpensive correction for a surprisingly noticeable improvement in the cup.
Identify the Goal
Just like it is difficult to solve a jigsaw puzzle without first seeing the picture that you are attempting to form, it is not easy to make a great coffee beverage before you have seen and experienced one. How do you know where to go for the first “ideal” experience? After all, if you don’t know what you are looking for, how will you know when you’ve found it?
Some fine artisan coffee roasters and independent coffee retailers offer educational workshops, coffee cupping sessions (a technique used by coffee tasters to evaluate the flavor and quality) and other coffee tasting events for wholesale and retail customers. Look for those companies that actively educate their consumers and allow them to show you how good your coffee can be. If you are unable to find one of these rare gems of the specialty coffee world nearby, you may also consider taking advantage of workshops and other resources offered by member organizations like the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), based in Long Beach, California. The SCAA offers introductory workshops in espresso preparation, coffee brewing and roasting for a nominal fee at its headquarters and annual conferences.
Start with Quality Ingredients
Coffee – like a meal – can only be as good as its ingredients. Since water accounts for 98.5% of every cup of coffee you serve, it should be a consideration of at least equal importance to choosing your favorite coffee roaster, origin or blend.
Seemingly insignificant variations in water mineral content, alkalinity and additives like chlorine dramatically impact the taste of your coffee, as well as the longevity of your coffee equipment. Common water treatment options, such as a reverse osmosis (RO), systems that are not configured specifically for coffee use can remove too many mineral elements from water, leaving your coffee tasting flat. Always have your water tested by a water treatment professional that has experience with both brewed coffee and espresso, since water formulas vary for each.
Choosing the best coffee is a complicated process that can involve products of differing roast characteristics, country origins, estate origins, blends of coffees and even multiple supplier sources in order to create the right flavor profile for your business. We suggest that you think of selecting coffee for your business as you would any other food product.
Does your coffee supplier cook its coffee in a mammoth roasting plant in some far-off unspecified location, like bakeries that ship pre-sliced white bread to grocery stores? Don’t laugh – if you know where your bread comes from and when it was baked, you should know at least as much about your coffee.
With so many fine coffee roasters operating regionally and locally around the USA, there is no reason that you should feel compelled to buy coffee from the same foodservice company that provides your janitorial supplies. We suggest that a small batch artisan coffee roaster is often a good choice for outstanding product quality and attentive customer service. In addition to a better taste resulting from their craftsman-like approach to coffee roasting, small roasting businesses often have access to limited premium crop harvests that due to their size are simply not practical for industrial coffee roasters to pursue. Small roasters are generally flexible and motivated to help you sell more coffee by maintaining high quality standards.
Choose the Right Tools
Choosing coffee equipment (and espresso equipment, in particular) is a highly specialized business. Considering the countless manufacturer names, brands and models, it is easy to see why some restaurateurs choose inappropriate coffee preparation tools for their businesses or rely on their industrial foodservice supplier to provide equipment for “free” as a convenience.
In life and business, decisions of convenience are rarely the best choice for long-term success and as you may have already guessed, no equipment provided to you by a supplier is without cost. Whether amortized over the duration of an unfavorable supplier agreement or buried within the cost of your coffee, “free” equipment and other premiums are never truly “free” and should be avoided. When choosing your tools, we suggest that you work directly with an independent coffee equipment specialist or coffee roaster that is compensated only by you when making recommendations on your behalf.
Trust those that have substantial experience operating and maintaining the machines that you consider, then negotiate a fair price for good performing tools and the maintenance to keep them operating properly.
Educate Your Staff
An outstanding barista must possess the coffee-equivalent knowledge of a wine sommelier and perform with the technical competency and culinary artistry of a skilled chef. Baristas at the top of their craft that are involved in regional and national barista competitions commonly study and hone their skills for many years before advancing to global events, such as the World Barista Championships. In some countries, it is customary for a new barista-trainee to apprentice for several months before being allowed on bar serving drinks to customers.
Training and the strict reinforcement of beverage quality standards in an environment that promotes continual education is the best way to ensure that your customers will experience consistently great coffee in your restaurant and come back for more. Unfortunately, despite being one of the most profitable offerings on any menu, coffee receives very little attention in new employee training sessions when compared to food, wine and service in most restaurants.
Mechanization can bring welcome relief to businesses that wish to serve an outstanding product but do not have environment or volume of business to maintain a full-time barista; however, no machine can never replace the decision-making ability of a properly trained staff. When choosing the route of automation to perform the actions of a barista, be certain it is applied as a tool and not as a crutch.
Give coffee the full attention that it deserves in your new employee training curriculum and be certain to regularly evaluate the performance of your personnel by tasting samples of the beverages that they produce. Where practical, dedicate coffee specialists within your staff that receive further coffee training and opportunities to advance their own product knowledge through outside events. There is a good chance that you have more than one coffee enthusiast already on your payroll; why not allow those employees an opportunity apply their personal interest to something that will benefit your business?
Coffee is not the beverage equivalent of an after dinner mint! When you give coffee attention and emphasis matching its complexity and income potential, you will see your customer satisfaction and business profitability improve. Treat your coffee like any other prepared food item on your menu and you will be amazed by the results!