Symposium Explores the Single-Serve Market

By Lily Kubota

In issue No. 6 (2009) of The Specialty Coffee Chronicle, Mark Inman of Taylor Maid Farms outlined the discussion of single-serve brewing methods that have been sweeping the world in the café setting, a topic that was recently explored in more depth at SCAA’s 2nd Annual Symposium in the session Single Serve Part II – Boutique Market Applications. As Inman pointed out in his article, the single-serve concept is not new, unique or revolutionary, but as is clear from both sessions, this movement doesn’t show any signs of slowing down—the strong momentum that remains around single-serve brewing methods is now being bolstered by new energy and interest.

The first part of the series explored the mass-market applications of single-serve brewing methods, specifically in home and office settings, while the second looked at implementation in cafes. While the two sessions pointed to different segments of society and customer demand—one being motivated by convenience and time, the other by the customer’s experience in a café and, ultimately, the quality of the coffee in the cup—in both cases, it really comes down to differentiation and choice (of both the companies and the coffees themselves).

During Part II of the Single Serve Series, some of the most influential pioneers of the single-serve movement sat together on the stage and discussed how they have been successful in implementing single-serve brewing into their cafés. They addressed some of the concerns that Inman alluded to in his article, such as: 1) whether these single-serve brewing methods would replace current methods or be offered in addition to more traditional methods; 2) if the device of choice will keep up with the flow of the business; 3) whether the staff is adequately trained to use these devices; and lastly 4) whether the staff is adequately trained on the coffee offerings to confidently speak about each one as it is being brewed.

Seemingly all of the concerns that arise about single-serve brewing methods point to concerns about the quality of consumer experience. Will the customer be annoyed at having to wait? Will they be confused by the process and deterred by so many choices?

When asked how the customer reactions have been with regard to the changes in brewing methods, Eileen Hassi of Ritual Coffee Roasters noted that it has been “overwhelmingly enthusiastic. I think people really like having a choice. There was some confusion at the beginning because now there are different prices associated with different coffees…at first that was confusing and now customers are understanding that is based on what we paid for the coffee…so, it makes sense.”

The other panelists were in accord with Hassi’s statement when it came to their understanding of customer experience in their own cafes. They all stated that customer response has been overwhelmingly positive and that customers are excited about the prospect of choosing their own coffee and having it prepared by a knowledgeable, engaged barista especially for them. The panelists noted that they encourage their baristas to learn as much about the coffees as possible to ensure that they can speak intelligently about where it came from, processing methods, and flavor characteristics by having them cup the coffees and educating them on the details of each coffee they offer.

Doug Zell of Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters & Tea Blenders echoed these sentiments. “What we are all here for is to elevate how coffee can be perceived. Historically we have been selling every twelve-ounce cup of coffee at the same price, regardless of the origin, regardless of the green costs. It just seems utterly ridiculous. So, the customer reaction…it keeps getting better. You may lose a few people, but it starts bringing in more people because they want to see the theatre of it and they want to enjoy the culinary experience.”

Inman, as a panelist in the discussion, concluded towards the end of the session, “We’re looking at single-cup brewing in the retail setting from top to bottom, so this is not [only] the stuff of the ‘boutique’ markets. From Starbucks, being the ‘macro’ of us, down to any one of us on this stage, we are all trying to differentiate ourselves, and this really allows that opportunity. It also furthers the idea of ‘specialty’ in that it is a product made for you. It mimics espresso, it mimics ‘restaurant’, you know—we are not going to a buffet. The traditional air pot, or the urn, is essentially the buffet of the coffee world and [this is] a way to stand out. It is going to be the next trend. It is inevitable. You can’t avoid it because not everyone wants to be associated with commodity, buffet, or large volume.”

The panelists made a strong case for cafés who wish to explore this option and to use it as a means to deliver the highest quality cup of coffee, as well as the best customer experience. As discussed in this session, there is the reality that some customers may want a more expedited experience, but ultimately the consumer has the freedom of choice to find another way to get their coffee if that is their only concern. As a café owner looking to make a decision on whether to implement single-serve as a service method, you would have to make the choice knowing that you’d potentially be sacrificing the “quick” customer for another who would be willing to wait and who would ultimately desire that experience.

In addition, Peter Giuliano of Counter Culture Coffee pointed out that the time it takes to obtain a cup of coffee by a single-serve brewing method is roughly equivalent to the time it takes to make a latte or other espresso beverage, about two to three minutes. Certainly, if someone focuses as much on quality and preparation with a single cup of coffee as on an espresso-based beverage, then the customer’s expectation will be that both should be of equal quality. Or, in other words, that cup of coffee better be darn good and worth the wait.

If the industry-driven momentum behind this movement weren’t enough of an indicator of its success, the customer response certainly proves there’s a lot to be liked about single-service options. Because the coffee is better and fresher, customers are willing to wait for it. They are also walking away from the experience with a better understanding of the coffee itself, due to the café owners’ recognition of the barista as an educator to the consumer, bearing the responsibility of communicating the coffee’s journey from seed to cup and the care and dedication to quality by all who had a part in that journey.

To view this session in its entirety, please visit and log in to the Symposium Community. Must be a Symposium delegate to gain access to view session videos. If you would like to register for Symposium 2011 in Houston, TX you can gain access to 2010 and 2009 videos and visuals, as well as securing your spot in next year’s event.

Lily Kubota is the communications specialist for the Specialty Coffee Association of America. She is the contact person for SCAA standards, resources, and publications, as well as website management and electronic communications. She can be contacted at