Yet More On Coffee in Restaurants

There’s was some discussion several weeks ago about the efforts that a particular restaurant, Noma in Copenhagen, was making to serve a very good cup of coffee.

First, there was this article by Oliver Strand on, Oliver Strand On Specialty Coffee’s Restaurant Gap and following that there was Kevin Knox’s post on his blog, (sort of in reply to Strand’s post but Knox’s philippic stands well on its own) “Fine Dining” & Coffee. THEN, wrapped it all up with this comprehensive summary: Other Voices, Other (Dining) Rooms: Hoffmann, Tacy, & Knox On Restaurant Coffee. In THIS post the very salient point is attributed to James Hoffman from his post on (Complaining about Restaurant Coffee) that restaurants don’t care about coffee because they don’t make money with it.

Well, I think it’s a lot worse than that, there is actually a built-in antipathy toward coffee service in restaurants and especially fine-dining restaurants. Restaurants not only can’t MAKE money serving coffee; they LOSE money serving coffee and, the way most restaurant managers and chefs see it, the better the coffee, the greater the loss.

Just to make sure, since this conversation started, I’ve been talking with folks in the restaurant business, and also to people who deal with chefs and restaurant managers. And, in particular, I’ve spoken with coffee roasters who sell coffee to restaurants (or try to).

I’ve reached essentially the same conclusion I did twelve years ago when I wrote, Food Service Coffee’s Quid Pro Quo, for Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, (Volume 174, #3, March/April 2001): Most restaurant managers and chefs, especially those in high-end restaurants, give coffee as little attention as they can; these folks do not believe that serving a great cup of coffee is worth the time or trouble and, in fact, is counter-productive. Serving coffee, even great coffee in a French press or by some other means whereby they can charge ten dollars or more is a money loser. They are better off “turning the table” (seating a brand new party at the table) and selling another full meal ,with drinks, wines and maybe dessert OR, if it’s late in the evening, bidding their would-be coffee-drinking diners farewell, thereby letting them get their hourly staff off the clock and also letting themselves and their salaried employees get home and get some rest. The LAST thing a manager or chef wants to see is a group of customers sitting around oohing and ahhing over their cups of coffee when they could, again, either turn the table for some real revenue, or close the place and turn off the hourly costs of having at least one server and one busboy watch them.

Serving a great cup of coffee in a restaurant setting requires AT LEAST as much effort as that Strand describes in his article and while the Nespresso system that Knox refers to is good for what it is  (and Kevin Knox persuasively argues that it’s even better than that) a lot of us in the coffee business feel dissed that the ONE thing that even most of the fanciest restaurants relegate to the folks that are otherwise in charge of disposing of the remains of the meal and setting up for the NEXT guests. (It’s as if your internist were to send you to a plumber instead of a gastroenterologist if you had a persistent stomach ache. – And I certainly intend no offense either to the folks who bus dishes or to plumbers, both groups of which work very hard performing very necessary functions..)

As any of us in the coffee business know, serving great coffee is, in the context of a busy restaurant, extremely difficult and requires the commitment of resources in terms of raw material (GREAT, Fresh Roasted Whole Bean coffee), equipment (including a grinder) and training, and re-training and training again when staff turns over — just like the kitchen staff is trained to carefully and precisely prepare and present each and every dish that leaves the kitchen in that same fine restaurant.

Much easier for the restaurant and the coffee supplier to come up with a “product” that says, “We DO appreciate your business and we don’t want to offend you outright, but now that you’ve arrived at the “coffee” portion of your meal we’d be most grateful if you’d ask for the check, push your chair away from the table and LEAVE. With every sip, in fact, our coffee will remind you to do so…” THUS, the “Quid Pro Quo” referred to in my now-ancient article [Food Service Coffee’s Quid Pro Quo]: a coffee not so bad as to immediately INSULT the drinker but to certainly alienate him or her well before the THIRD cup; the PRICE of that coffee should be accurately and appropriately placed on the continuum of any other well-engineered commodity that consistently performs to the expected standard – THAT’s where “quality control” comes into play.

NOW, there are a few restaurants that fall somewhere in the middle, and they usually aren’t fancy places, they’re the kind of places where a customer might order a cup of coffee at the beginning of a meal, even for dinner — the managers there want to serve a decent, or at least not wretched, cup of coffee. They try to buy a good, whole bean coffee, one that they would drink regularly at home, maybe one THEY drink! They then boost the “drop” (the amount of coffee used per brew), at least to as much as the  brewing equipment will allow, (and many older models don’t even allow for anywhere near the correct amount of fresh roasted coffee per full brew. Then they’ll perhaps get some insulated carafes , they ask their servers to dump any brewed coffee after less than an hour — things like that, not heroic, but a sincere effort not to poison their customers or make a total mockery of the drink we call coffee.

OR, restaurants could adopt the practice that I know at least one “high-end” restaurant is asking for large parties: they insist that you pre-approve, with your physical signature, what amounts to a table rental for every 15 minutes you over-stay your welcome…at least that’s a more honest approach. Folding coffee into that scenario might take the form of a menu offering that simply quotes the real cost of serving really good coffee over a leisurely period of time. Diners that have to ask, “How Much?” should probably go home and make that cup of coffee there — with a little effort (and relatively little cost) it could easily be as good as what’s served at Noma.


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One Response to Yet More On Coffee in Restaurants

  1. Kevin Knox says:

    Thanks for writing about this Tim. It’s easily the best article on this topic I’ve read: far better than mine of course, and much more grounded in restaurant realities than the others you cite.

    I would only add that I have seen great coffee pay its way – and be profitably served – at a handful of high-volume breakfast places, which makes perfect sense given that that’s the time to drink coffee for most of us. In particular I recall going to Portland’s Bread & Ink café many years ago (circa 1990) where the house coffee at that time was a very carefully roasted Kenya (drip, strong and fresh) and you the only option for your pancakes was real Vermont maple syrup (billed by the ounce at a fair price). That kind of care is of course rare, but they were doing a booming business and had no problem going through multiple urns of coffee every morning.

    Fine dining, on the other hand – just not a place for great coffee, it seems to me. I hope that the various capsule and other single cup brewers (e.g. Keurig) will continue to improve and that one or more roasters will see fit to supply if not world-class than at least excellent coffee for them, as I think that such brewers will continue to be the dominant choice in high-end dinner places. Keurig’s Vue gets the water to 200 degrees and lets you use the very high grounds-to-water ratios you and I prefer, so perhaps there’s hope.

    Again, great post and thank you!

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