Guest espresso - a win win situation?
Aaron Towlson gives his thoughts on the phenomenon of guest espresso and its impact on customers and businesses...
The rise in speciality coffee has coincided with a growing number of microbreweries and bottle shops such as Mother Kelley’s and Clapton Craft. It’s now a common site to be met with an array of beer options in many pubs and supermarkets, yet a guest coffee on the menu remains a rare sight and retail shops simply aren’t a thing. Although most coffeeshops offer a single roaster’s coffee: the café equivalent of free houses have existed for a while since Tapped and Packed and Dunne and Frankowski originally offered a varied selection od roaster’s options. There are some stalwarts of the industry (and even a few newcomers) still offering a regular coffee rotation for those who crave newness and variation in their cup, such as Silhouette, Store Street Espresso, Lanark, Noble Espresso, The Black Chapel, Stir Coffee, Gentlemen Baristas, Craving Coffee, Dose Espresso and Prufrock. However, the option of running guest coffees alongside a regular offering can be a complex, exhausting process. Is it worth it? This is a rundown of how I’ve seen guest coffees affect a business.
It’s a rare barista that isn’t excited by tasting new coffee. From a business point of view, this means that if baristas are only given the opportunity to work with the house espresso blend, which may not change for months, they may become bored. Boredom is a dangerous emotion – boredom leads to a lack of enthusiasm, to complacency and itchy feet. On the flip side, new coffee is a platform for discussion and is a valuable tool in training. It’s a big step forward to realize how different beans demand different grinds and weights; learning that one recipe does not work for every espresso. Also, when baristas wax enthusiastic about the range of retail coffees available, customers may trust that paying for premium coffee is worth it. And having those staff stick around is a rare luxury in this business.
Guest coffee can enable customers to think about coffee on a deeper level. That first moment where they notice that the coffee, milky or otherwise, tasted different is a crucial pivot in understanding and adds an ‘experience’ element that helps attract a crowd of regulars. It can draw in the coffee enthusiasts but also present a wider experience to the regulars.
Once there is a base of customers who are enthused about tasting different coffees, the possibilities for home brewing classes/cupping nights opens up a new source of revenue and another opportunity for baristas to develop their skills.
Having a rotating selection of guest coffees requires careful planning. This is because of the taste window coffees are ideally brewed in, when they’re neither too fresh nor too stale (7 – 21 days after roasting is a generous brewing window that’s open to variation). A lot of roasters will prefer orders greater than 10kg to make it worth their while to roast (by varying the price or shipping), and that’s not a small amount of coffee to get through in that taste window. Prices will on average be £5-10 per kilo more than a wholesale supplier, plus shipping. When that taste window arrives for a new guest while baristas are struggling to make the last of the previous old beans taste good, that bottom line becomes a source of great anxiety.
There are various solutions: offer guest coffees at weekends only (the approach Kaffeine used formerly); charge more for a guest espresso to cover costs (this can go either way: it can incentivize customers because it looks more like a premium choice for the connoisseurs or it can simply put people off); use the guest espresso in every drink (though some beans will not work well with milk); or just use guest coffees for filter options (grab the odd retail bag for V60/aeropresses or a few kg for batch brews).
In all cases, it helps a lot to know how much average coffee orders are per week, and factor e.g. 10kg for guest espresso into that.
Another problem: what if the coffee isn’t good enough? So you’ve heard of some small roaster with decent branding and a penchant for Instagram that nobody else in London has served yet. Is it possible you’ve discovered the next big thing? Chances are… no. It’s an expensive risk to buy in coffee from an unknown roaster. Microroasteries have increased exponentially around the country in the last couple of years. While it’s wonderful that there are so many passionate people attempting to improve the average local palate, the truth is roasting is hard. It requires years of expertise and access to beans from quality producers. I suspect there is a lot of casual uptake of roasting going on – and so long as coffee is packaged decently they sell enough to get by. That doesn’t mean the coffee is roasted well enough to stand up alongside the established roasters. It’s vital to taste beans from any roaster before ordering, and if roasters are reluctant to send samples I would not recommend giving them money. For every great little place to discover there are dozens who simply aren’t good enough.
Before deciding, managers need a solid understanding of their weekly coffee orders. It sucks to have to think about money and business all the time, but if you don’t make at least some money, you don’t get to sell or work with any coffee. Knowing the rate that a coffee order is used up allows for working in guest espressos that aren’t going to end up sitting on the shelf looking like a lot of fancy waste (not just of money, but of roasting, shipping, farming…) It’s hard work. The benefits, though, of incorporating guest coffees into the business can be of the slow-burning kind that will reap long-term benefits in the form of staff retention, customer loyalty and enhanced branding, i.e. the stuff that’s hard to convince short-term thinking owners to invest in. While staff retention remains such a problem within the industry, guest coffees might be a good place to start.
Photo by Adam Weatherley