Complaining about restaurant coffee

I know there are all sorts of conversations swirling around restaurant coffee kicked off by Oliver Strand and then intensified/exacerbated by Kevin Knox. I don’t really want to dive into that particular discussion head on, instead hoping to run parallel to this.

I try not to post too much about the specific experiences I have in my working life on here, because this isn’t really a blog about my business. I must confess, however, that after nearly 5 years of wholesale coffee roasting and working with businesses across London and the UK I feel no closer to “solving” the restaurant coffee problem.

As an industry we’re pretty resentful of how restaurants treat coffee. I still cringe at the memory of the NBC audience ganging up to pick on someone from a restaurant who dared to think they weren’t doing that bad of a job.

Let’s look at this from a difficult angle, perhaps one that isn’t our own. Coffee isn’t important to restaurants. It doesn’t have a great cash margin, and there are other items that might be ordered. A brandy makes more money, has near zero wastage and my staff training is pretty minimal.

Restaurants treat coffee that way because it simply isn’t important to them. People aren’t booking tables because of the coffee service. The fact that, on the one hand, the coffee industry often complains that restaurants don’t take a culinary approach to coffee while, on the other hand, we’re slinging out our best tasting products in paper cups…

Restaurants serve coffee because they are expected to. “Get rid of espresso!” we tell them. In the USA this may actually be viable but in cultures where espresso was used to make coffee expensive and desirable that is more difficult. I once got incredibly excited because a restaurant here got rid of espresso. They did french presses. The staff trainings were incredibly enjoyable because it was just tasting and conversation. The presentation was beautiful and the coffee tasty. For their customers, who visited relatively rarely, this was an oddity in a dining world that still proclaimed espresso to be the best. The restaurant eventually felt that the risk reward ratio wasn’t working and added espresso back to it menu. I don’t blame them at all.

This restaurant had previously recognised that espresso was really hard. Staff training for a restaurant poses a challenge. Consistency is difficult. Execution is hard. Even businesses who basically just work with coffee struggle to execute consistently to a high standard, and yet we’re incredulous that a restaurant – that deals with so many ingredients and preparations – might struggle to brew a good cup.

This is where Nespresso comes in. They turn up, and they understand that espresso brewing is difficult. The difference is they come with a solution. We might argue that the product quality isn’t there, but it is still a better solution than one we have.

So we continue to berate the restaurant industry. We mock them for taking free equipment, instead of laying down thousands upon thousands to brew a relatively small number of low margin products. We mock them for doing a bad job with a setup that most of us already struggle on. We continue to offer the same solution to their problem, despite the fact that all and sundry can see that this solution doesn’t work. It simply doesn’t work. No matter what we do most espresso in most restaurants brewed on traditional equipment will have quality issues.

How much work have we done on looking at a solution that bridges some of the challenges around ease, while retaining the characteristics of the coffees we are so excited about?

None.

Perhaps we ought to start…