When Exceptions Become Commonplace

As a specialty coffee professional, it was serendipity that brought me to Vermont. The personality of this agricultural state, along with a strong desire to keep business local, be friendly, and do the right thing echoes the current state of the coffee industry.

Vermont food and specialty coffee share a common trait: transparency. Vermonters have always embraced a farm-to-table approach; agricultural transparency and local sourcing is important here. We make buying decisions based on the farms that we know, and like to support the families in our communities that operate farms throughout the state. For example, the sources of my recent meals include: dairy from Vermont Creamery, vegetables from Sam Mazza’s Farm, chicken and meat from Misty Knoll Farms, La Platte River Angus Farm and Green Pasture, bread from August First and Red Hen Baking, and the coffee in my cup today is from San Rafael Urias Estate, Guatemala. The future of coffee is no longer transparent supply chains and relationship buying; what was once the exception and the point of differentiation has become commonplace in our industry.

Sustainability has been a hot topic for several generations. Many would conclude that sustainability is omnipresent in our industry already. Independent programs and third-party certifications have progressed from local initiatives to global businesses. The specialty coffee industry has demonstrated great concern for doing good work, as evidenced by our sourcing practices and buying decisions. Social, environmental, and economic issues, combined with gender inequality and the viability of coffee as an agricultural crop are all part of today’s specialty coffee conversations. These issues are pervasive and will surely remain priorities in the industry until they are sufficiently resolved.

The newest generation has successfully questioned the way coffee is merchandised and promoted. Specialty coffee is no longer presented in the historically efficient fast-food model, and has been elevated to a place of distinction among other hand-crafted food and beverage items. The specialty coffee industry has done a very good job presenting to the consumer an artisan approach to crafting coffee, without a rather satirical reference to Ernest & Julio Gallo’s, “We will sell no wine before its time” campaign. Consumers are learning patience and generally accept that the Barista will serve no specialty coffee drink until it is perfect.

However, we are approaching a dangerous place for specialty coffee; innovation, artisan preparation, and retail creativity require consumer enthusiasm for the business to be viable. Consumers demonstrate interest by visiting a business and making an initial purchase, but merchandising and promotion that is put in place to develop consumer interest and entice trial will not guarantee success and does not define the future of coffee.

Our beloved specialty coffee industry has suffered growing pains recently as we evolve from generalists to specialists. We are no longer a narrow and deep industry with defined categories and long-standing businesses. New businesses are seeking to establish a niche for themselves in an ever-growing competitive marketplace. Essentially, generalists who provided a diversified menu of offerings have been replaced by specialists who offer a limited menu with few options for customization. Our desire to specialize and communicate details of coffee origins, coffee processing, and beverage preparation has forced us to look inward at our craft and our industry.

In our zeal to establish expertise and to infuse passion about our coffee, we are in danger of leaving the consumer behind. Our newly acquired barista skills and technical coffee expertise has been met by wary customers who can be made to feel unwelcome if they appear confused by unfamiliar equipment, unique coffee and the intricacies of ordering. We have to make reconnecting with our consumers a major priority. Finding a commonality between professionals and consumers is critical for business success, but that alone will not define the future of coffee.

The pervasive theme of the previous generation is still a powerful message; relationship sourcing and direct-trade! Contrary to popular reporting, coffee professionals have always traveled to origin countries and built relationships with producers and cooperatives. The emphasis on these relationships becomes important as roasters and baristas begin to utilize their trips for buying activities, not just for professional development. What evolved from describing a sourcing activity into an overused marketing slogan has also blossomed into unrealistic expectations of exclusivity and differentiation. Many coffee producers sell the same coffee to more than one importer. In turn, the importer sells these special coffees with a transparent supply chain to many roasters and roaster-retailers who then claim exclusivity and differentiation.

Specialty coffee has had a tumultuous upbringing over the last few generations. Our sourcing practices have changed as well as how we produce, prepare and present our products. The requirements of specialty coffee professionals have evolved as the marketplace changed, and the demands from consumers are now more complex and detailed than in previous generations.

Sourcing, sustainability, and merchandising will capture the first sale, but only quality will keep your customers returning time after time. The future of the specialty coffee industry is in the cup.

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What I learned in Vermont restaurants and cafés is apropos for the specialty coffee industry. The way we approach sourcing is important, but without true exclusivity, there is no point of differentiation. Sustainability programs are critical to success, but when everyone has such a program it becomes an expected requirement and also ceases to serve as a point of differentiation. Service standards, branding and image are becoming a more sophisticated part of popular culture; however the promise of specialty coffee is destroyed when coffee’s flavor does not meet the expectations created by marketing.

The future of coffee is……….. QUALITY; defined by flavor in the cup.

Spencer Turer is vice president of Coffee Analysts in Burlington, Vermont. He can be reached at [email protected]

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