Food Service Coffee’s Quid Pro Quo

The following previously published article is being placed here as a follow-up to my post of May 2, 2013 regarding coffee in restaurants.

Food Service Coffee’s Quid Pro Quo

Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, March/April 2001

The marketing of coffee through the foodservice channel in the U.S. is a mess. This does not mean that it isn’t a profitable business, or that roasters, distributors, foodservice operators, or even consumers are unhappy with it. No, everybody seems to be happy with the average cup of coffee that the foodservice industry seems able to muster. But from the standpoint of delivering a good quality cup of coffee to the consumer, a cup of coffee that the consumer might get excited about, and want to buy more of, or even to take home, it’s just not happening.

The coffee served in most restaurants, from the roadside diner to the finest and most expensive establishments is, for the most part, absolute dreck. This is not solely because all roasters and distributors for the foodservice trade are selling garbage, because many are not. Nor is it because restaurant managers and chefs are buying garbage, because some restaurateurs are buying great coffee. Even in the rare instances when great coffee is arriving at the restaurant’s back door, the final delivery of the product is assigned to the most poorly trained and least-valued personnel in the operation. What’s more, these workers are given tools that will ensure their failure. Hence, even if the coffee they had to work with was exquisitely fresh, perfectly roasted and from the most distinguished estates, it would almost certainly be unrecognizable, not to mention undrinkable, once it was poured into the cup of the credulous and unsuspecting diner.

The diner that has just been served that highly imperfect cup of coffee, however, is just finishing lunch, breakfast, or dinner, and is under pressure, from some direction, to leave. Breakfast and lunch are cut short by the demands of work or social commitments; dinner, by the desire of the manager to either turn the table or get his poorly trained and undervalued service personnel off the clock.

It would be possible to read this and begin thinking that the blame for bad foodservice coffee is being laid somewhere. As a disclaimer, then, rest assured that it is being laid everywhere. We (and that includes everyone from farmers to consumers, and certainly this writer) are to blame. All of us in the industry have obviously not promoted our product well enough to get it the respect it deserves. Furthermore, even when it comes to eating out ourselves, we usually drink the stuff without complaint, making allowances for “the poor busboy” or “real world conditions” or because the supplier to the restaurant is a friend of ours. (Restaurateurs have an uncanny ability to blame their supplier for anything that goes wrong with their coffee – the slightest complaint can easily prompt them to threaten a change in suppliers, if only to negotiate a lower cost per pound on their coffee purchases.) Even at the fanciest high-end restaurants, where everything on the menu is described down to the last detail, when it comes to coffee all that the menu is likely to say is, “coffee.” And again, if by some miracle it says more, something like, “fancy estate coffee” or a coffee mentioned by brand name, it is almost certainly screwed up by the restaurant in some horrific way at the brewing station either with bad equipment, or because the coffee itself was stored on top of the brewer or next to the ice machine’s condenser or because the stock was ordered and rotated in such a way that it is always certain to be a year old or because it was brewed sometime during the reconstruction. Great coffee, when subjected to this panoply of abuses, often tastes worse than if it were good old weak under-roasted Robustas.

Conspiracy theorists have really missed the boat when it comes to the vast network of forces that come to bear on ensuring that the North American diner receive a truly bad cup of coffee at the end of his or her meal – no matter what. Surely, something that is accomplished with such consistency, dedication, infallibility, not to mention statistical certainty, can be said to be the product of mere circumstance. The question for these paranoid wonderers is…why?

Now, believe it or not, this was going to be an article about brewing equipment, and it could have been. It could have talked about all the improvements that most manufacturers are making, if somewhat grudgingly, to their lineups and how the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) is signing up more and more Golden Cup Award winners and how the world will be safe for a great cup of coffee during our lifetimes. But things aren’t moving fast enough, first of all, ask any farmer who’s growing anything better than a Brazil 3/4 or some kind of Robusta; and second, you can’t talk about brewing equipment without talking about the environment in which these machines exist. Each improvement made by a manufacturer, in the current market environment, to their product line is done so at a great risk. The demand for a better brewing machine, one that can consistently deliver coffee brewed within the parameters suggested by the SCAA, cannot be said to reliably exist. The demand for such machines is not there from the distributors who buy the machines and place them, or from the restaurateurs who use them.

Why is it in the interests of foodservice operators and their suppliers to serve bad coffee to the consumer, even when the roasted coffee itself might be good? First of all, foodservice operators are in the business of serving food, not coffee. They would rather spend their time selling an entrée than having a table occupied with diners slowly, reflectively, and enjoyably sipping on wonderful cups of coffee. No, that is the restaurant manager’s worst nightmare. Once restaurant patrons have eaten their meals and ordered their desserts, what better way to ensure their departure and either free up precious real estate or allow the manager to send home the last remains of their staff than to serve those diners a cup of black stewed liquid so wretched and gustatorily acrimonious it will almost kick them out the door all by itself? Yes, most coffee in most restaurants, even in the era of “specialty coffee,” sends the not-so-subliminal message, “Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?”

The conspiracy does not stop there, however. Remember, this is a vast conspiracy, one that has been carefully orchestrated, over decades, and has mechanisms that are in place to ensure that it prevails. What about complaints? If the coffee were so bad, wouldn’t there be complaints? Well, there aren’t any complaints. In fact, to anyone that does complain, they are told that “everyone else” loves their coffee and that their specific complaint is utterly baffling and certainly irrelevant. Don’t they know anything about coffee?

That foodservice operators receive so few complaints about their coffee probably has a lot to do with the “Stockholm Syndrome.” That phenomenon where kidnap victims can sometimes, especially during long kidnappings, take the side of their kidnappers and start co-operating with them. In the case of coffee, foodservice consumers are told that bad coffee is really their friend and at some point they begin to believe it and even defend it. The trick, and foodservice operators know this well, is to never change kidnapper, eh, coffee (except to negotiate a lower price). If the coffee changes, then the customer is totally thrown off, they don’t know anything about the way coffee should taste but they do know what they’re used to, which must be good because they’ve always had it. They know anything else must be lousy. How do they describe any sort of change in their coffee? They say it is bitter.

How does brewing equipment figure into all of this? Are manufacturers of brewing equipment innocent bystanders in the conspiracy to serve North Americans a bad cup of coffee? Or are they co-conspirators? Their equipment, is after all, the delivery mechanism for the coffee that the roasters roast, the distributors distribute and the busboys use to make the coffee this writer alleges is so generally bad. Even if the coffee were fresh and of excellent provenance, and the busboy actually knew what he was doing, the coffee could be no better than the equipment used to make it. This would be where the finger pointing would start if anyone cared that the state of coffee in foodservice is very bad indeed. The problem for manufacturers has been that for years restaurants have not purchased their own coffee brewing equipment, it has been supplied to them and serviced for them by their wholesale supplier of coffee. This wholesale supplier, whether a roaster or a simply a distributor, has obviously not been anxious to go out and find the best piece of equipment they could possibly find. Instead, they have asked manufacturers to develop something cheap and reliable. Looking to cut corners wherever possible, brewing equipment manufacturers have made everything as small, simple and as economic as possible. This means, first of all, that the brew basket had to be as small as possible. No problem. Most of the coffee traditionally brewed in these things tastes twice as bad when brewed twice as strong. This makes it possible to make the machine smaller, light and more compact. Since these machines are designed to brew a weak cup of awful coffee, the spray head was designed to spray a lot of water over a little coffee. Spray heads were never designed to methodically spray a specific amount of water over a lot of coffee, very evenly and within four to six minutes. Finally the temperature of the water has not mattered to anyone involved just so long as it was generally the same temperature. To accomplish these limited goals did not require a whole lot of engineering, and, in the past, that’s just about how much engineering talent was used. Many of the machines in use across North America, consequently, are very well made to do something very well – to make a consistent and weak yet somewhat over-extracted brew of an at best mediocre, and usually Robusta-laden, coffee. Over the past few years, when specialty roasters and a few of the more idealistic staff members of the SCAA have asked manufacturers to upgrade their equipment they have pointed to the overall market landscape and asked, “Why?”



In the annals of coffee marketing, there is a rich history of sharpshooting at one’s own feet. Again, something this writer knows well and can therefore point to with some assurance. Right up there in this coffee marketing hit parade of perforated footsies is the sales proposition to restaurateurs that the foodservice operator should not look at his or her coffee cost on a portion basis but on a monthly basis, almost as if the coffee supplier were a utility like the water or gas company. That this led to the commodification of coffee was as certain as night following day. Yet, it must be assumed, that every roaster thought that they alone could find the cheapest possible blend and still be able to call it coffee without giggling too much. So, while chefs and restaurateurs buy every item they sell their guests on a cost-per-serving basis (including bottled water), they have been trained, by the coffee industry, to think of coffee as part of their overhead and to believe that they can cheapen it without harming its quality. No wonder most chefs don’t like or even respect coffee or its place in a meal.

An outgrowth of the “My product is a commodity” sales pitch is the one wherein the restaurateur is told that a particular coffee, as lousy as all the others on the face of it, has special magical properties either by virtue of the way it was roasted, ground or in some other way transmuted into “Supercoffee” which can be brewed at incredibly low ratios of coffee to water and still taste just as bad, er, good as any other coffee while saving the greedy, craven operator even more money. Getting foodservice operators to believe such fanciful tales is perhaps profitable in the near term. In the longer term, though, it has led many chefs and managers to take a very cynical yet complicit view of their coffee supplier. A lot of, “Oh yeah, special magical properties, now, how much money will I save?”

But certainly the worst idea to ever cast its shadow over the lowly cup of coffee in the foodservice arena is the idea that restaurants not only should look at coffee as a commodity but that they should view the final delivery vehicle for this commodity (i.e. the coffee brewing equipment) as the responsibility of the supplier. This has ensured that restaurateurs and small quality roasters are forever separated and that only large, very well capitalized companies can play in the foodservice arena meaningfully.

Knocking such existing marketing stratagems like the three just mentioned is easy, but it is much harder to devise pitches that might convince an operator to upgrade, even though it is probably in his or her best interest. Serving a great cup of coffee could be the best and cheapest PR any restaurant manager could engage in. Further, a great cup of coffee makes the diner feel welcome – welcome to order dessert and welcome to come back – thereby ensuring repeat business and a higher average check. Great coffee, a seemingly small priority on the menu, assures the diner that the restaurant’s management really does care about every last detail.

When coffee is mentioned in the foodservice context it should be remembered that a lot of decaf is drunk outside of the home, especially at night. This brings us to Castle’s Theory of Decaf Resonance. When couples dine out it is most often he decaf-only drinker who decides whether or not to stay and enjoy a cup of coffee. The mistrust that decaf drinkers have for restaurants serving them regular coffee is legendary and is well known by such rituals as jokingly asking for the waiter’s or busboy’s home phone number so that the diner can call and wake them up if they themselves cannot sleep due to being served regular instead of decaf. If the decaf drinker trusts the establishment enough to order decaf, then the rest of the party go ahead and order decaf as well, and perhaps even dessert. It has been this writer’s contention for years that if restaurants served a decaf coffee that was recognized and trusted, then it would increase not only sales of coffee but sales of desserts and after dinner drinks as well – even regular coffee.

To summarize the basic reasons why foodservice coffee is so bad today is a daunting endeavor, the list is long and imposing, but here is an attempt:

  • Consumers don’t know or care its bad and don’t complain about it. Not only are they used to it, they think they like it;
  • Since restaurateurs don’t get many complaints they see no reason to change their coffee, or spend more money on it, or devote more resources to it, either in labor or equipment;
  • Since restaurateurs don’t own their equipment, it is difficult for them to change. Small, quality-oriented wholesalers often don’t have the capital to go in with offers of equipment and service on top of providing great coffee. Large roasters and distributors aren’t interested in rocking the boat. The tradition of providing equipment with coffee is one of the most corrosive forces acting on the quality of foodservice coffee in the market today;
  • Even if a restaurateur could or was willing to buy great coffee for his dining room, he would hesitate, thinking that good coffee might slow his table turnover or increase his labor costs;
  • Foodservice distributors and roasters tell restaurateurs their coffee is great and they believe it (because they get no complaints);
  • Even when a restaurant manager buys great coffee and then ruins it by using poor equipment or untrained personnel, the supplier won’t tell him for fear that he will say, “Oh, not only is the coffee more expensive but I have to get fancier equipment and train my employees differently? Forget it!”;
  • Roasters and/or distributors believe that it is almost impossible to sell a restaurant a better coffee and are afraid to rock the boat by upgrading their customers. Further, they can make the same or better money selling low quality coffee; A good question at this point might be, “So what?” Everybody’s making money (except the farmer) and no one’s complaining, (except that farmer again but he or she’s not here right now) so what’s the problem? Well, here’s another list:
  • Sooner or later consumers are going to figure out that they’re getting a lousy cup of coffee and the restaurants who let them know are going to benefit over the ones that have been skating on the customer’s ignorance and gullibility;
  • Coffee consumption is flat to declining and the bad coffee in restaurants is a daily reminder to consumers why they should prefer soda pop (which the coffee industry has been teaching them to do for decades now). What could have been the coffee industry’s most effective channel of communication and promotion has become the path of least resistance for our lowest quality product;
  • Coffee farmers in the better quality growing regions are today in deep trouble because there is not enough demand in the marketplace to keep them all in business. Roasters can (must, really) use lesser coffee because their customers don’t want anything better. Once these farmers go out of business, it will be almost impossible to restore the farms to their former quality, even if there were a market for it in the future. We will probably lose these better quality farms forever;
  • Finally, it’s a matter of pride. As industry members, we go out to eat all the time in a variety of circumstances, from basic to deluxe and we are told at every turn by restaurant managers that they don’t care a bit about our product, or our profession. Winemakers, chefs and even cheese and fishmongers get their 15 minutes of fame, but the lowly coffee professional has to be satisfied with “Coffee” on the menu and nothing more. It’s bad enough that the ignorant consumer puts up with it. What’s our excuse? Oh yeah, “real world conditions.”

One more list is obviously necessary, the “What We Can Do” list. It’s the shortest, as such lists always are:

  • First of all, everyone in the coffee industry can stop pretending that foodservice coffee is any good and that most modern brewing equipment is up to the task of brewing great coffee. Foodservice operators who have a genuine interest in upgrading their coffee often come to believe that there is something intrinsically wrong with coffee and that it can never taste particularly good, especially in a restaurant. If wholesalers and distributors at least told the truth about their product, then managers and chefs might trust them more and be tempted to trust them with an upgrade in the future. A “worse, worser, worst” description of the blends offered might be an interesting, trust-building exercise. It could then be followed by, “And, of course, we have some really good coffees, but they cost two to three times as much and most of my customers don’t want to hear about it. And, then there’s your brewing equipment, which would need to be replaced and you would need to pay for.”
  • Second, and last, we can all speak up and politely yet resolutely complain the next time we are served a bad cup of coffee in a restaurant. When the servers tells us that no one ever complains you can say, “I’m sorry, I thought I was someone, at the very least your customer, and I want a better cup of coffee in the future and I am not going to pay for this really bad cup today.” You should probably conclude by mentioning that it is usually the case that the existing supplier to a particular restaurant can do a great deal to improve the quality of coffee that the restaurant serves, if and when the wholesaler or distributor is made aware that the management of a particular restaurant actually cares. But that concern will never develop until the consumer cares even more. If we as an industry don’t first of all care as consumers, then we’ll all be drinking a commodity, and nothing more, for some time to come.


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