Better than Average Joe
by Jeff Colchamiro

When it comes to coffee, the old adage “The more things change, the more things stay the same” certainly applies. “There haven’t been many changes in how coffee is extracted since the initial principles were established in the early 1900s,” says Andrew Hetzel, founder of Cafemakers, a coffee-industry business consultancy. “You’ve got pressure, heat, water in contact with coffee—and different variations of that formula will change what sort of beverage comes out the other side.”

While the general process of making coffee hasn’t changed, the way people sell and consume the beverage certainly has. In the lodging industry, Hetzel notes a few recent trends. He’s currently working with two overseas hotel chains that are turning independent coffee shops on their properties into freestanding businesses.

“The goal is to make it a profit center independent of the rest of the property, so it can exist separately from the hotel business, because the specialty coffee business is fairly profitable,” he says. “Also, hoteliers have an advantage because they have existing properties where they have space to potentially incubate the concept and build consumer brand awareness before they push it out to exist on its own.”

In addition, he notes that consumers are looking at quality, not quantity when it comes to coffee, ordering smaller beverages and expecting a better product.

“People are moving away from the big gulp-style, jumbo 20-ounce drinks and focusing more on smaller beverages with a better flavor,” he says. “That’s a trend we see not only in lodging but in the restaurant industry and the specialty coffee industry overall.”

Fair and Square
Greg Lewis, vice president of sales of the western zone for coffee equipment manufacturer Bunn, agrees. “Whether it’s big chains or independent businesses, you’re seeing more upgraded coffee being sold and marketed,” he says. “One of the biggest things in the industry that is impacting hotels and restaurants is that customers are more aware of where the coffee comes from–if it’s fair trade or organic. Those are the two buzz words right now and there’s been a lot of talk about charging a fair price for the coffee so the coffee suppliers can be profitable and stay in business.”

Consumers and business owners are concerned about the source of the coffee for two reasons. One is quality and health (the same reason organic foods are so popular right now); the other is simple economics. Suppliers need to make money or they’ll go out of business. “There were people who were cutting down their coffee trees and planting something else because it just wasn’t profitable,” Lewis explains. “So there’s been a lot going on with Starbucks and Peet’s Coffee & Tea and McDonald’s looking more closely at where they source what the serve.”

When it comes to quality and taste, Hetzel says there are two schools of thought. Operators can use lower-grade coffee and add sugar and other flavorings, or they can buy better quality coffee with natural flavor.

“We’re seeing things moving away from the fast food-operator style business and focusing more on the specialty,” he says. “It’s the difference between masking a flavor that might not be good or letting a good flavor come through.”

Lewis agrees, though he notes that consumers need to adjust to change–even if that change is to a better-quality drink. “There is more of an emphasis on coffee, and hotels are more interested in making sure people don’t walk across the street to someone else to get their beverages,” he says. “But people get used to drinking a certain cup of coffee and when you upgrade to a better cup–whether it’s using more coffee to brew with or a better grade of coffee or different blend–when they first try it, they have a hard time sometimes. Then after they’ve had a few cups, if you took them back to what they used to drink they’ll say ‘I can’t believe I used to drink that.'”

Gearing Up
To offer more variety and maintain quality, of course, some additional machinery is needed. In addition to adding equipment to make espresso, cappuccino and other specialty drinks, many operations have added thermal and airpots that can keep coffee fresh and at the right temperature for a longer period of time than a regular pot can.

“In the past you’d go to a restaurant and there’d be a brewer with a bunch of glass pots on it, and there’d be regular and decaf,” says Lewis. “Now you’re seeing people go more toward thermal holding. Normally on a glass pot with a warmer plate you need to dump the coffee within half an hour. With the thermal holding, you can hold for closer to a two-hour timeframe and maintain the integrity of the coffee.” That flexibility translates to a restaurant’s being able to serve more variety with less waste. Bunn and other manufacturers also make thermal pots that servers can take right to the table.

When it comes to preparing espresso and other specialized beverages, there are two ways to approach it: automated machines that can be as simple as pushing a button, or manual equipment that requires a trained staff.

Hetzel notes: “Some of the biggest advances of the last five years have been an increase in mechanization and automated technology that will control some of the more complicated processes that a barista would have to do themselves, which makes it more accessible for businesses where their primary business is not making coffee.” While that can be a great tool, he warns against having a staff that doesn’t know what the drinks are supposed to look and taste like. “You can get into trouble doing that because you never know if the machines are calibrated properly,” he says. “It’s like kids using a calculator but not knowing how to do math. The same danger exists.”

Lewis points out that many machines have the option of full automation or allowing the user greater control and flexibility. And when used properly they can lead to greater consistency.

Serious Brew
Lewis and Hetzel agree that hotels are looking at coffee more seriously, whether it’s an amenity or a profit center. Hotels are buying more equipment, offering better quality and more variety, and looking to brand their coffee.

“People are not just offering coffee, whether it’s for sale or gratis, but they’re sprucing up their offering by putting a wrap on the containers or the brewer,” says Lewis. “And menu boards and things like that to create an identity or legitimize the program.”

Hetzel adds that coffee service should fit in with a hotel brand’s other standards and image. “Any of the lodging businesses that are trying to create a coffee service that is as distinctive as their own business model and properties are going to have to make investments in their personnel to understand this very specialized field,” he says. “I talk to people in the specialty food industry and it’s all moving in the same direction,” he says.