The Voice

The Evolution of Single Serve and Industry Associations

Multiple association conventions serving different facets of the Coffee, Tea, and Water industries have taken place over the past month and will continue through April as the SCAA was just in Seattle. The shows have historically been an opportunity to see the latest and greatest in consumables, technology, and appliances, as well as provide the opportunity to network with old friends, make new acquaintances, and gauge the pulse of suppliers and operators on general business conditions.

This commentary comes from the perspective of a current operator and former supplier serving the Office Coffee and Water Service industry segment. The operator community serving offices and industry is a fragmented one. No single operator is reported to hold more than single digit percentages of market share. This is in spite of robust roll-up activity over the last decade. However, more than 2,000 of us continue to serve!

This industry is quite unique in that most operators are quite willing to share their knowledge and successful operating tactics. This is due in part to the fact that most operators do not compete in the same geographic areas. There are only a few “national” service providers. Consequently, trade show education sessions can be a wellspring of ideas and association participation.

As I look back at my recent trade show observations and interactions with those whom are recognized as industry leaders, my most significant observations are distilled to two items:

•    Evolution of Single Serve Coffee
•    Industry Associations

Single Serve Coffee
I was first introduced to the concept of single serve coffee in the early 1990’s while I was at Standard Coffee Service Company in New Orleans. An engaging British professional, Nicola, presented a brew system called “Flavia” to our review committee. Nicola proceeded to opine that businesses across the U.S. would soon line up to pay 50-60 cents per cup for their hot beverage. The variety of products, no wasted brews, and the products’ great taste would eliminate all barriers of resistance. I missed it. I felt that offices would never pay this much for beverages. She, of course, was correct in announcing the scope of the opportunity.

Two decades later, we see an abundance of single cup brewers in homes and offices. And while Keurig/Green Mountain and Mars Drinks with their Flavia system have done a tremendous job and dominate market share, we now see many more intuitive and robust brewing systems for alternative single cup products. Sourcing high quality bulk coffee and pods has never been an issue for most, but it has taken some time for the brewer technology to catch up to the product quality.

There is also a proliferation of what many refer to as faux K-cups. These cups can be brewed in the current editions of Keurig brewers or one of the several new non-Keurig systems. Keurig will soon be introducing a brewer that allows only their K-cups to work.

So what is an operator to do?

There is no right or wrong answer. The choices have never been as abundant as they are today. For the roaster community, everybody is back in the game. There is a high demand-pull for the stalwarts, Keurig/Green Mountain, and Mars Drinks. But, there are also a number of pod brewing options that yield product with SCAA Gold Cup Standard extraction rates. The choices of hopper-based brewers as evidenced at NAMA’s recent One Show have never been more prolific. The new “faux cups” yield high quality beverages with some interesting brand options.

This is an exciting time to be a supplier, operator, and a consumer!

Industry Associations
To thrive in any industry, operators and suppliers can benefit significantly from an association that provides business-building knowledge and education, as well as a networking opportunity for its members. Having had the privilege of serving on two association boards and multiple committees supporting the Coffee Service industry, I have seen firsthand the value of an advocate association.

In recent months, I sense a measurable amount of angst amongst the membership of several associations supporting the Coffee and Water industries. The source of the unrest comes from multiple origins:

•    Are my associations giving me a reason to belong?
•    Are my associations growing weaker or stronger in support of what I do?
•    Am I provided with meaningful education venues?
•    Are the lines of definition of my industry association becoming blurred?
•    How is project funding being allocated?
•    Am I aligned with the leadership of my associations?

A number of associations that have had their years of greatness have come and gone in the Coffee Service Industry during the last two decades. The reasons are many and there is not enough space allocated to this article to explore them.

However, as we operators, suppliers, brokers, and advocates in all channels dedicated to brewed beverages and water look to the future, we look for a reason to belong. We want growing support. We seek advocacy, knowledge, and a clear identity within the association(s) of which we are members.

Ken Shea is a 35 year industry veteran of the Coffee Service and Water industry. He has operated from all sides of the desk as a consultant, supplier, contributing writer, and operator. In 2012 he was recognized as NAMA’s Operator of the Year. He now serves as Vice President of Coffee Development for DS Services of America.

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