It was not so long ago that “red or white” were the only wine options for patrons of a typical restaurant in America; it was a simpler culinary time, a time when people accepted what wine they were served with few complaints. No matter how bad that wine tasted or how inappropriately paired it was to their entrée, the beverage would be consumed and probably enjoyed. Who were we to know better?
Today, many diners would scoff at such a novice approach, insisting to at least know the origin or vintner and variety, and perhaps the estate and vintage of their options before making a selection. The average American consumer now has access to more wine options at the restaurant dining table than ever before. Consumer education, public awareness and the maturation of taste preferences have empowered us to make our selections with confidence. Chefs have embraced wine as a compliment to their creations, offering specific pairings selected by a skilled sommelier to perfectly highlight each dish. Herein lies the future potential of specialty coffee in foodservice; but can it be achieved? In time, I believe so.
The American specialty coffee epiphany of the 1990’s has launched coffee from its unflattering public perception as a commodity crop with generic coffee flavor to one where, like wine in decades past, consumers have taken the first shaky steps to develop a vague sense of good and bad. There is a burgeoning consumer awareness of differing flavor profiles from coffee growing regions, styles of roasting and quality of preparation.
Most importantly from the perspective of the foodservice industry, consumers are making their choices known by turning out in droves to shower money on specialty coffee shops. This demand for better tasting coffee has not gone unnoticed by foodservice operators, propelling the world’s largest and most visible food companies to launch high profile specialty coffee experiments, like McDonald’s McCafe concept or Dunkin’ Donuts’ espresso program, in a global grab for share of stomach. It’s a small move in the right direction, but a noticeable one.
Unlike wine, however, the foodservice industry must overcome additional physical and psychological challenges unique to coffee; most notably, the investment required to train and equip staff for proper beverage preparation and the myth that good coffee somehow paralyzes diners, causing a drop in business turnover. Were the latter true, which of course it is not, I might recommend restaurants serve spoiled food to further hasten the dining experience.
Specialty coffee has made recent progress to become recognized as a genuine food product in the foodservice industry and, riding the multibillion-dollar consumer demand for café culture that has recently spawned a new global foodservice giant, will continue to do so.
I foresee a time in the not-to-distant future that we will be able to enjoy an espresso after our meal or choose an origin of coffee to match the food on our plate, and the simple question “would you like a cup of coffee?” will seem as inadequate as “red or white?”