Sponsored by WhiteWave.
As the leading consumers of coffee in the world, U.S. residents drink a staggering 382 million cups daily in a variety of incarnations — customized to individual taste buds, according to the National Coffee Association.
“In today’s ‘custom’ environment it is critical to have the ability to customize options, especially in a coffee environment,” says Lorna Donatone, region chair for North America and chief executive of schools worldwide for Sodexo. “These can be small options, not the ‘Starbucks’ list of options, but some customization is critical.”
Donatone says it’s important to get to know your customer base before adding a customized coffee bar to any operation.
Americans are addicted to customization to the point that it has permeated the culture. Customized coffee service programs are becoming ubiquitous as they are popping up everywhere — in convenience stores, onsite feeders and a variety of QSR restaurants.
Before embarking on a customized coffee program, experts advise putting a strategic plan in place — one that begins with research. Clearly, the universal appeal of a made-for-you coffee program offers a bonafide competitive edge, is popular with adults of all ages and more often than not a bottom line bonanza.
Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters and trends analyst, says it’s imperative to conduct research. “The easiest way for operators to survey patrons is for the staff or management to speak with patrons and ask directly. To avoid impacting the visit satisfaction, it doesn’t and shouldn’t need to be detailed, but simply ask about interest in and preferences with coffee,” she says. “It’s anecdotal but it certainly helps to gauge the pulse of their customer base. Vendors may also have information available, as well as distributors.”
Dennis Lombardi, president of Insight Dynamics LLC, offers a word of advice when opting to add a coffee bar.
“Don’t try to be too aggressive right out of the gate,” says Lombardi. “This is a 'walk before you run' exercise. Pick a small subset of what you think you might eventually offer as a good starting point. Think about the combination of equipment, what you think your customers will want and how it will affect operations in the back of the house.”
Luigi Di Ruocco, vice president of sales and director of marketing for Oakland, California-based Mr. Espresso, agrees it’s best not to complicate operations.
“Restaurants should keep things simple,” he says. “You need to get the basics down first until the staff feels very comfortable doing that. Quality and consistency are the first things to deliver and concentrate on.”
At Yale University customization and sociability are part of the coffee experience, but a large list of menu items isn’t. “The focus for us is to have targeted items that enhance the overall experience and at the same time to entice customers to want to purchase them,” says Adam Millman, director, auxiliary and catering operations at Yale University, who points to other benefits from a well executed, customizable coffee bar.
“If done right, it is a good way to build incremental revenue, but more importantly coffee bars create a space where students want to gather to socialize and build community,” he says.
On average 54 percent of Americans over the age of 18 drink coffee every day and consume an average of 3.1 cups daily at 9 ounces per cup, according to the National Coffee Association. Clearly, millennials are driving many of today’s trends, including the call for more and more customizable coffee options.
“Teens and young millennials drink coffee less for taste than the average consumer and more for the functional caffeine benefits, indicating they may not have developed a taste for coffee and are using creamers and other additives to customize the beverages and create the taste profile they prefer,” says Tim Gira, brand manager for Denver-based WhiteWave Foods.
Gira cautions, however, that operators shouldn’t concentrate on millennials at the expense of other demographics.
“As important as millennials are to the category, the importance and appeal associated with a strong coffee bar program with a variety of customization options crosses all ages and genders. Seasonality, geography and different segment-specific nuances are also important factors that need to be taken into account.”
The “have it my way” phenomena apply to coffees both hot and iced, creamers, added syrups, brew strength and brew methods.
Famous Toastery chief executive and founder, Robert Maynard says it’s important to meet guests’ needs but also to take offerings up a notch once a customized coffee program has taken root. “Everyone expects the typical mixtures. Be sure to take your options to the next level and where customers won’t expect,” he says. “Everyone has Splenda, Stevia or Sugar in the Raw, and Famous Toastery knows it’s important to step outside the box and be different, like using a specific honey as a sweetener. A brand should have more than what consumers are used to.”
Atlanta-based restaurateur and president and co-founder of Sterling Hospitality, John Metz, Jr. says “to thine own concept be true” when it comes to how much customization is optimal.
“I don’t think there is one easy answer. It depends on the concept, the level of detail that you would like to undertake, the style of service you are trying to deliver and how personal you would like to make it with your guests. The sky is the limit on what you can do.”
Ken Toong, executive director of UMass Auxiliary Enterprises at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says don’t forget good marketing can help drive traffic to coffee bars, no matter the venue.
“I think you need to tell the story about why your coffee bar is better than others in a crowded setting. This includes the origin, fair trade status, sustainability practices and awards,” he says.
“Students, faculty and staff all tend to be creatures of habit. It’s very important to use marketing which drives them to the location or they will be hard to divert from their routines.”
WhiteWave’s Gira advises operators to view customization costs as tools to help drive sales.
”It’s critical restaurants frequently evaluate how they’re doing relative to the needs of their customers, the customers they’d like to attract and their competitive set,” he says. “They can then work closely with their manufacturer partners to explore new and exciting ways to grow beverage sales.”
Gira’s points mirror the drinking habits of today in which 83 percent of U.S. adults drink coffee, but no two Americans drink it the same way. Customization is key to offering consumers their coffee beverage of choice — be it iced, flavored, topped off, decaffeinated or hot. When it comes to serving coffee, it's best to remember that the more options you offer your customers the happier their experience is bound to be.