What’s on the Menu? Experts Weigh-in

By Aaron Kiel

When it comes to coffee at restaurants, where are we as an industry?

Peter Giuliano, vice president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) and director of coffee and co-owner of Counter Culture Coffee, says we have a long way to go. He believes that too many restaurants still see coffee as a commodity, like sugar or salt, or as a free stimulant for the service staff.

“Some of these restaurants even buy great coffee from a great roaster, going to great lengths to tell their customers what they serve, then brew it incorrectly and hold it too long, creating an unsatisfactory coffee experience,” says Giuliano.

Klatch Coffee’s Heather Perry, a coffee expert and former United States Barista Champion, agrees. She says restaurants really don’t consider coffee as a part of the overall fine dining experience. “I think it’s an afterthought,” she says. “I think very few restaurants and so on would even remember to have coffee if there wasn’t someone there to peddle equipment and iced tea to them. So, I don’t think highly of the current state [of coffee at restaurants], but I do see a lot of potential.”

Charles T. Dubuque, vice president at Ronnoco Coffee Company, headquartered in St. Louis, Mo., also says there’s potential for the coffee industry to jump in and educate restaurants about the specialty coffee difference. “We see continued opportunity to help owners increase sales with high quality beverage options…such as upgrading to an estate grown specialty coffee,” says Dubuque.

For Giuliano, while the vast majority of coffee in restaurants is unsatisfactory, there are bright shining exceptions that are inspiring and encouraging. “I am particularly inspired by Woodbury Kitchen—a wonderful, fine, farm-to-table restaurant in Maryland—which has a dedicated barista on staff, who visits diners’ tables to craft their coffee experience, just as a sommelier would,” he says.

Like the Woodbury Kitchen, there are many trend-setting early adopters that focus on quality coffee. In fact, Ellie Matuszak, director of professional development at SCAA, says she’s thrilled to see how these establishments are proliferating as they focus on two key areas: origin-specific coffee offerings described in detail on the dessert menu, often brewed by the cup; and dedicated barista positions at the restaurant level.
However, Matuszak echoes the sentiments of many in the industry: “We still have such a long way to go. Many restaurants still view coffee as a hassle, as something to be endured reluctantly and prepared as quickly and with as minimal effort as possible, which usually translates to large batches of coffee sitting around for hours, or pre-ground coffee, or poorly trained staff or, unfortunately, all three.”

So What Do We Do?

Perry says her company, based in Upland, Calif., is trying to get restaurants to re-think coffee as its own item, not something that’s only served with dessert, but something that stands on its own. “We are trying to get them to start a coffee program, and brew the coffee to order,” she says. “You can use either a French press or Chemex, or even a pour over system would be easy to implement in a restaurant. We are also trying to educate them on food and coffee pairings. What desserts do you have and how can we take them to the next level by pairing them with a great coffee.”

According to Perry, Klatch Coffee is trying to keep it simple; they don’t want to overwhelm restaurants and make them think good coffee is too hard. “We try to keep it very manageable, and then of course show all the money potential for selling a great cup of coffee,” she explains.

At Counter Culture Coffee in Durham, N.C., they see awareness-raising as a crucial aspect of creating a desire for better coffee in restaurants. As a result, they developed a comprehensive coffee education program called Counter Intelligence. “It’s designed to teach everyone about what great coffee is, how to make it, and how to build a business around it,” says Giuliano. “This is especially important for young chefs, and we’re thrilled that the Culinary Institute of America has chosen to incorporate our coffee education program into their curriculum.”

Focus on Quality

Frank Graves, director, west zone – foodservice, Starbucks Coffee Company, says they always require Starbucks foodservice customers to ensure that their equipment is clean and calibrated properly. “It starts with using the highest quality coffee and following the four fundamentals for brewing coffee,” he says. “By doing this, they ensure that their consumers are getting the best tasting, highest quality cup of coffee they can.”

At Coffee Bean International, in Portland, Ore., they provide comprehensive, hands-on staff training. Joe Prewett, vice president of marketing at Coffee Bean International, puts it this way: “Our high-quality specialty coffee doesn’t mean a thing if the final product is under-extracted or tastes burned. So we train in all aspects of the coffee program from equipment maintenance and brewing techniques, to understanding roasts and customer service. This training is the key to helping restaurants build a coffee culture within their business and delivering consistent, high quality beverages.”

Ronnoco’s Dubuque believes that even in challenging economic times, quality should remain the priority for restaurants. “Once an operator begins to look at reducing quality, it can have more of a negative impact than a positive one,” he says. That’s why Ronnoco is helping restaurants and foodservice establishments deliver great brewed coffee, according to SCAA’s Golden Cup standards.

“We always analyze each customers’ water quality first, and then place the appropriate filtration,” says Dubuque. “We also employ a very proactive preventive maintenance program for our customers to insure consistency and proper calibration.”

Like many in the industry, Ronnoco’s salespeople are well versed in the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Golden Cup standards, and they utilize these standards as much as possible.

SCAA’s Matuszak certainly agrees. “Our Golden Cup certification program is a great place to start,” she says. “Establishments can ensure compliance with our easy-to-follow and easy-to-implement standards, and they can promote their coffee excellence easily to customers.”

To learn more about SCAA’s Golden Cup Program, e-mail info@scaa.org with Golden Cup in the subject line.