In my August 2006 column for CoffeeTalk Magazine, I interview and share tips from restaurants that are serving great coffee.
Past articles in this series have addressed many problems plaguing the quality of coffee served in America’s restaurants and made some suggestions of the first steps that should be taken to resolve them. We now shift our focus away from the current gloomy state of everyday restaurant coffee reality and move onward to showcase and learn from four rare, shining examples of restaurant coffee excellence.
Despite offering different fare, sometimes opposing styles and being geographically separated by distances of up to 3,500 miles, these role model restaurants have more than a few things in common: each is a successful and profitable venture, each enjoys a loyal following as a result of its consistently outstanding performance, and most important for our purposes here, each has made coffee an important part of its business.
In 1982, Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw founded a small delicatessen in an historic building near a local farmers’ market with a mission to serve flavorful, traditionally made foods. The deli got its start with a staff of two, a small selection of specialty foods, a host of traditional Jewish dishes and a relatively short sandwich menu. But this was to be no simple deli: Zingerman’s Delicatessen, the Ann Arbor, Michigan institution was born.
A quarter century later, Zingerman’s is one of America’s best-known delicatessens and the cornerstone of a thriving enterprise of eight unique businesses that collectively generate a more than $22 million in annual sales and have earned Zingerman’s national recognition as “Specialty Food Retailer of the Year” by Gourmet News and “Coolest Small Company in America” by Inc. Magazine.
The Zingerman’s philosophy holds true at Zingerman’s Roadhouse, Zingerman’s full-service restaurant that specializes in regional American cuisine, or simply “good American comfort food” explains General Manager Ric Jewel. “Coffee is a vital part of the meal; it’s an important piece of American culture and food history.”
The Roadhouse enjoys the benefit of having their own custom blend of coffee roasted fresh daily by sister-business Zingerman’s Coffee Company – itself, a nationally recognized wholesale artisan coffee roaster. The Roadhouse Joe blend has become a top seller at Zingerman’s locations and also for their mail order business.
Coffee is held in the same high regard as all other menu items at Zingerman’s Roadhouse and is prominently featured in new and ongoing employee training curriculum. Ric routinely looks for staff members that have a keen interest and demonstrated mastery in coffee preparation to identify internal specialists that serve espresso and specialty coffee drinks.
When asked what customers have to say about the coffee served at the Roadhouse, Jewel responds, “More than half of our clientele know Zingerman’s other businesses and what our name represents before they walk in the door. They expect that the coffee they drink to be outstanding – they would only notice if it were anything less than spectacular.”
Ms. Van Eure is the charismatic owner and manager of the Angus Barn, beefeaters’ icon of Raleigh, North Carolina for more than 45 years. A business co-founded by her father Thad Eure, Jr., the Angus Barn is open 7 days a week and serves from 400 to an astounding 1,500 meals daily to an eclectic crowd of business executives, ordinary folk and the Triangle-area’s elite power brokers. Angus Barn’s celebrated 30,000-bottle wine cellar attracts connoisseurs from around the region to fly in just for the experience.
Van’s careful attention to every detail, adept management and legendary customer service focus has allowed her business to grow and become one of the top 100 grossing restaurants in America rated by Restaurant & Institutions Magazine and earned the Angus Barn hundreds of accolades, including prestigious Ivy, DiRöNA and Wine Spectator Grand awards, as well as, a spot in the Fine Dining Hall of Fame.
“Coffee is huge in this town,” comments Ms. Eure, “almost every table orders it.” “We’ve always served coffee, but in the last 10 years, it’s really taken off. Customers are no longer satisfied with an average cup, they want specialty coffees and cappuccinos.”
The Angus Barn maintains a close relationship with their specialty coffee roaster, Counter Culture Coffee of Durham, NC, who has developed a custom blend of coffee for their menu. The Angus Barn blend has been so popular that it is available for retail sale in the restaurant’s country store.
Ms. Eure credits the performance of Counter Culture with the success of her coffee program, “Counter Culture is instrumental in training our employees to maintain high standards of quality and has truly become a part of our business.” She applauds Counter Culture’s dedication to environmental responsibility; having lived in Kenya for 5 years, Ms. Eure knows first-hand the effect that the coffee industry has on the world’s environment and is committed to making a difference.
Anchorage, Alaska may not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking of a favorite breakfast spot… that is, until you’ve been the Snow City Café. This funky and eclectic café nestled in the city’s “lawyer row” would not be out-of-place in any college town in America, serving breakfast and lunch daily to a steady crowd of locals and tourists.
“Coffee is integral to the Snow City Café” says owner Laile Fairbairn. “Our clientele in the business district are educated and well-traveled; they know good food and good coffee.” From the start, Ms. Fairbairn, a former resident of the Pacific Northwest coffee towns of Seattle, Washington and Eugene, Oregon, knew that coffee would play an important part in her business. “We believe that breakfast should be more of an event than just a meal; great coffee is a critical part of breakfast.”
Serious coffee drinkers in Anchorage have moved beyond filter brewing in favor of espresso; it is routine for a coffee drinker at the Snow City Café to order a “coffee” with the expectation of receiving espresso. In a town with such a well-developed café culture and consumer palate, serving an outstanding cup of coffee is a necessity. “To run a successful café in Anchorage, you need to treat your coffee the same way that a fine dining restaurant would treat wine.”
Ms. Fairbairn credits Anchorage coffee roasting favorite, Kaladi Brothers Coffee, with her espresso success. “Partner with a roaster that understands it is in their own best interest to do things like educate your staff, maintain equipment and water treatment systems, and regularly taste your coffee to maintain consistency.”
Magnolia Grill (Closed in 2013)
You might think that the owners of an internationally acclaimed restaurant with professional reviews like “one of North Carolina’s treasures” or the “best source of public cooking, not merely in the Triangle area, or the Tarheel state, but in fact in the whole United States” may not have time or interest to treat their coffee with the same high regard as their celebrated New Southern style cooking; but then, you would be wrong.
Culinary power couple Ben and Karen Barker, who between them have more than a baker’s dozen James Beard Foundation Award nominations and wins, take the time to make everything that they serve outstanding, and coffee is no exception.
“We bake our own bread for the same reason; we care about every aspect of our diners’ experience” says chef-owner Ben Barker, “putting a great cup in front of customers is the measure of a great restaurant.” “Most restaurants use the equipment and coffee that a foodservice distributor puts in front of them; that’s just taking the easy way out. We have a fundamental belief that the harder way is the more gratifying way to get things done; it’s that extra effort that distinguishes your restaurant.”
The Magnolia Grill has their custom blend of coffee delivered fresh weekly from Counter Culture Coffee of Durham, NC. “Counter Culture has a clear and fervent mission to develop relationships, not only with their own customers but coffee growers in regions around the world. That knowledge and the enthusiasm they possess gives them a style that helps clients be successful.” “Find a local roaster; there is someone in every region of the country; it is absolutely worth the effort.”
Barker adds, “when you culminate a great meal with a decent cup of coffee, that glow continues right out the door.”
What conclusions can we draw from these coffee role models?
Great tasting coffee in restaurants is independent of geographic location, cuisine and dining format. Hot or cold, east or west, formal or casual, great coffee can be made anywhere.
Each owner that we interviewed noted that coffee is highly profitable, but that profitability resulted from their own dedication to serve coffee to the same high standards as their other menu items.
Specialty coffee is a specialty and as such, requires specialists in purchasing, roasting, sales and education for optimum results. Partner with a company that specializes in coffee, such as a local artisan coffee roaster, that understands specialty coffee and is motivated to give your business the personal attention that will help you to succeed.
Not every restaurant will achieve the popularity, acclaim or financial success of a Zingerman’s, Angus Barn, Snow City Café or Magnolia Grill, but every restaurant can serve great tasting coffee; and when you do serve good coffee, you may just find that popularity, acclaim and financial success are that much closer.