Coffee & Restaurants: Can Coffee Get it Right?

By Ric Rhinehart

The specialty coffee industry is setting its sights on the restaurant and foodservice market, from fine dining and casual restaurants to quick-serve establishments. Many in the coffee industry—some of which are featured in this issue—are successful as they’re educating restaurateurs about the specialty coffee difference. Some businesses are even taking the coffee and dining experience to a whole new level, as in the case of the LAMILL Coffee Boutique (see page eight). In this edition, The Specialty Coffee Chronicle explores coffee at restaurants, and covers topics like coffee pairings and menu presentation, the Golden Cup standard for brewing and industry success stories. Use these articles and wisdom for inspiration and guidance, and let us know what you think.

Twenty years ago, the quality of coffee in restaurants across the United States was best described as appalling. Low doses of poor quality roast and ground, fractional pack coffee brewed into open glass carafes left for hours on a hot plate was the standard. A savvy coffee consumer either passed up the brew altogether or begged the server to produce a fresh pot in hopes that the cup quality would rise to inoffensive. Espresso was still found only in Italian restaurants, and I can say with confidence that I never got a passable espresso in a restaurant environment before 1995.

Sometime in the mid-‘90s things started to look up as the airpot brewer replaced the glass pot and thermal servers displaced urns in restaurants and hotels across the country. Drop weights for brewed coffee started going up, whole beans and grinders became the norm and, for one brief shining moment, it looked as though one coffee man’s dream of access to good coffee in restaurants across the country might come true. Alas, it soon became clear that fresh ground coffee is only fresh if the staff grinds on demand rather than pre-grinding 20 filters full of coffee and stacking them up for use throughout the service. Similarly, while coffee will stay hot in a thermal server for hours and hours, it won’t stay fresh for nearly as long. And espresso…well I got a few passable shots in the ‘90s but even today it is still a rare enough occasion to warrant comment.
So why can’t restaurants seem to get coffee right? In spite of 20,000 coffeehouses digging into their pockets by stealing away not only coffee but pastry sales and the relentless efforts of specialty roasters in every geography to educate their foodservice customers, restaurant folk still can’t seem to get their arms around the problem. A good friend of mine believes that this is largely because chef’s hate coffee. He points out that coffee is one of the few food products in the restaurant industry that the chef can’t take credit for if it goes right but ultimately will be blamed for if it goes wrong.

The specialty coffee industry has continued to try to solve the restaurant coffee conundrum. Progressive companies have introduced French press programs, trained staff, gotten their training materials into culinary programs and even gone so far as to open coffee centric restaurants. Still, the war goes on.

From an institutional standpoint, the Specialty Coffee Association of America is working to review and revive the Golden Cup program, adopting new and more easily-used measuring tools, partnering with culinary schools, and developing credible certification programs that ensure that a trained barista can add value in any coffee environment.

I hope you find this edition of The Chronicle informative and challenging as we take on the issue of restaurant coffee in print. I look forward to hearing the conversations sparked by the articles here, and I hope that you are inspired to push the battle forward in new and creative ways.