Adaptation: A Brief Look At Changes In Specialty Wholesale Roasting

By Steven Lee, Director of Coffee Quality and Education, Groundwork Coffee

Not too long ago, the world of coffee was simpler. Coffee was coffee back then. It came served in nondescript cups. It came from one of those little glass pots that sat on a hotplate for hours, or it came out of an urn. It was hot, it was caffeinated, and it was coffee. It was not treated like a food item and there were very few people extolling the virtues and nuances of the perfect cup.

Even the world of specialty coffee seemed simpler back then. African coffees were “fruity or floral”, Indonesian coffees were “earthy or nutty”, and Latin American coffees were “clean or bright”. That was that. Cafés lured people in with their new fangled espresso machines and fancy drinks. They were introducing Italian into our vocabulary one drink at a time, and they were selling coffee grown in far off places like Sulawesi or Yemen, further challenging the average consumer’s geographical awareness. Coffee was a business, but it wasn’t necessarily “business” back then.

Those were my impressions, however skewed, of coffee and coffee culture in the 1990’s when I transitioned from being an art school student with no utilitarian job skills to becoming a part-time barista in the Bay Area in order to support my record buying habit.

Where did most of those cafés and restaurants get their coffee from back then?  Chances are, they got it from a wholesale coffee roaster. At the time, they seemed few and far between, and for most people, they were not in their neighborhood. You couldn’t drop by a coffee roaster to sample the product or inquire about what they did and why. Most café owners had probably never even come into contact with green coffee at that point in time.

Today, there are a lot more cafés lining the urban landscape, neighborhoods, and even strip malls. These days, not only can most baristas eloquently describe the subtle nuances in my cup; they can also tell me the appellation in which the bean was grown, the varietals grown on the farm, and the name of the farmer, in addition to which brew method works best with this particular coffee. And where are these new cafés getting their coffee? Most likely, from your local specialty coffee roaster.

As the café culture has changed over time with a greater emphasis on transparency of sourcing and quality in the cup, wholesale roasting has responded to it. Consumer awareness has forced roasters to step up their customer service. There are a lot more local roasters for cafés to choose from, and competition for their business is stiff. Evolving to stay current demands a diverse strategy to compete for this business. The wholesale roasting business has adapted to meet the needs desired by an increasingly savvy customer base. A good example would be trainings offered by wholesale roasters that previously focused on basic shot pulling and milk steaming may now include: latté art, brewing techniques, and more detailed education on coffee processing and the effects on the cup.

Another example is the expansion of marketing materials created to keep up with trends in coffee. The shifting emphasis on single origin coffees over blends has proliferated the market in recent years and buzzwords such as “direct trade” and “relationship” coffees now speak to consumers, picking up where “fair trade” and “organic” once did. It is important to decide who the target customer is and how to market directly to them to be able to adjust to customer needs. Creating marketing materials that explain your buying is a recent adaptive method to help further emphasize training and customer service. Cafés and restaurants alike want to know where their coffee is coming from. Making smart buying decisions like offering coffees that not only appeal to you, but to your marketing demographic, is important for the sustainability and growth of a roaster. Sourcing a certain coffee that is worth the price creates an opportunity to educate the client to see the merits of that coffee and equip them with the knowledge and know-how to be able to present that product to their customers. For a roaster, the more you know about your product, the easier it is to represent yourself accurately and sincerely.

The relationship between a roaster and the green importer is more collaborative than ever. The “direct trade” model does not meet all roasters’ needs. Some roasters have limitations on time and resources and albeit a good model for sourcing, there are other opportunities out there. For example, often times importers set up trips to origin where coffee roasters, along with importers, visit farms and can develop relationships with farmers. One can look toward the green coffee importer to not only provide quality green coffee but more detailed information about where the coffee came from and how it was grown.

The relationship between a wholesale roaster and a café can be an extremely rewarding collaboration. One of the current challenges is forging an ongoing relationship with your clients. As a wholesale roaster, it is often difficult agreeing upon fundamental philosophical aspects about the craft of roasting and preparing coffee. If you are passionate about what you do and have an opinion to express through your product, finding the right connection with the customer is the key to success and satisfaction in the roasting business. The best thing that one can hope for is that your wholesale client finds value in what you do, likes the product for what it is, and doesn’t want you to change to fit their business model.

And how does one find the right match? A good place to start is at a brick and mortar establishment with a cupping room, or better yet, a functioning café that can showcase your coffee and enlighten a prospective client to what you are all about and the possibilities of what your coffee has to offer. Beautiful architecture and design don’t hurt either. When I think of a lot of successful roasters, I view their namesake cafés as shining embodiments of their brand that help to convey their operating philosophies to their wholesale accounts.

This brings to mind the importance of developing and maintaining your brand. This area of the business has also evolved. Negotiations over coffee prices, financing, and equipment loans aside, many roasters today tend to be much more discriminating of clients who will uphold standards and represent their brand. Providing context regarding the standards that you set for your product and communicating the value of and delivering product training takes time and costs money. However, this can ensure that your product is being represented the way that you would like. For both the roaster and the café, well-educated clients are worthwhile investments.

An interest in a variety of food and beverages and food-related collaborations has spawned more and more cafés and restaurants to adopt quality focused coffee programs for their customers. Events offering a selection of coffees utilizing a variety of brew methods, comparative tastings, and of course, your favorite coffee and food pairings, are just some of the more recent settings coffee roasters have to showcase their coffees. As awareness of specialty coffee and demand for locally produced products have increased, so have opportunities for the local wholesale roaster to sell their coffees outside of the traditional café/restaurant model. Opportunities for growing your brand, including utilizing social media, internet presence through websites and blogs, participating in regional farmer’s markets and pop-up cafés, seems to have picked up where traditional word-of-mouth marketing and print advertising have left off. Getting involved in the community by supporting local causes, the arts, fundraisers, and public radio events or holding public tours and cuppings at your roasting facility all help you connect with your customers. SCAA, Roasters Guild, Barista Guild and other coffee communities provide forums where enthusiasts and professionals alike can discuss equipment, roasting, and coffee in general. These are great opportunities for information exchanges that can further the future of specialty coffee.

What I have observed is the cyclical nature of trends that have influenced coffee consumption. One example would be the renewed interest in manual brewing methods like the Chemex and Vacuum Pot, which have been around for several decades, but only recently have come to the fore as “preferred” brewing methods. There is a new understanding of brew dynamics that is being applied to fairly traditional methods of brewing.

What was once offering a product at a certain price with the means to provide and sell it has evolved into greater responsibility and transparency in sourcing, processing, and delivering the product as well as providing higher levels of customer service in handling clients. Inarguably, there is a lot more information getting out there a lot faster than ever before, and reaction to that information is a factor in the changes in the marketplace. Subsequently there has been a move towards a more quality-based operational philosophy for both cafés and roasters alike. The level of consumer education has been raised. The wholesale roasting model must continue to adapt itself to new opportunities in green coffee sourcing, customer service, and marketing strategies in order to survive in the ever-changing world of specialty coffee.

Steven Lee began his coffee career in 1996 as a barista at Peet’s Coffee in the San Francisco Bay Area. After spending a number of years in the Training Department of Peet’s, he moved on to help open the roasting and QC Department at Intelligentsia Coffee’s Los Angeles Roasting Works, where he developed his love for the craft of roasting. Since then he has worked on a number of consultancy projects, and is currently the Director of Coffee Quality and Education at Groundwork Coffee.