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Finding a balance: what is a restaurant’s response to the rise of specialty coffee?

Appetites for fine food and wine have been catered for in tandem for as long as anyone can remember. Thought, love and care go into every part of restaurant experience: from slowly-fermented sourdough bread baskets to finishing on elegant petit fours complimented exquisitely by a dessert wine. After all this dedication to flavour, provenance and skill, why should a restaurant end your experience with a bitter, burned Americano you’d expect from a Holiday Inn?

Probably because that small part of your experience could cost the restaurant upwards of £50K a year*, and with restaurants already struggling with extortionate rents; is that really worth it?

Some of the labs on the London high street

More and more, we see specialist coffee laboratories promoting ‘single origin’ beans, appearing all over our high streets. Coffee beans have “notes of Morello cherry” and “September plums” and restaurants too, are being questioned and challenged about the quality of their coffee.

Why making specialty the right way is so challenging

Old Spike Roastery in South London produces specialty coffee which has the added benefit of offering employment opportunities to the homeless.

‘Specialty coffee’ is a broad term considering the whole journey that single origin coffee beans make, from farmer to cup. “Old Spike is about specialty, delicious coffee at a price which is competitive.” Richard Robinson, founder of Old-Spike says.

But specialty coffee needs to be prepared correctly. It isn’t so easy a process as you’d think.

Coffee making is expensive. As James Low (not James Lowe, Head Chef but James Low Head of Coffee) at Lyle’s explains, any good coffee is broken up into four main components; ¼ of it is the beans, ¼ the machine, ¼ the grinder and ¼ the barista. According to James, “All four of those elements coming together results in a good coffee — and that’s ignoring the need for good filtered water.” Lyle’s is one of the restaurants which have justified this expense, who as well as serving Michelin starred food, are known to have some of the best coffee in London, competing with some of the finest coffee shops around.

But grinders are expensive, La Marzocco machines can cost over 15k, how do restaurants, who already have huge overheads and start-up costs, justify investing in this supplementary part of their offering?

Coffee can become a point of difference for the restaurant, this makes your investment worth it. Lyle’s open from 8am as a coffee shop to make gains from this offering outside of service times.

But not all restaurants have the capacity, location or ‘feel’ to get away with becoming an all-day-café-come-restaurant. What then?

Pour-over black coffee which James Low sees as the solution.

James believes the answer lies in black: “What I try and encourage restaurants to do is just black coffee… which is hugely controversial. Duck Soup do one simple pour-over coffee, maybe a decaff too. They just have a good grinder, a little kettle and a decent water filter. If someone asks for an espresso they say ‘we only do black coffee, it’s a drip, it’s from this farm. It’s all we’ve got but it’s going to be good’. It’s how you present it. You need confidence and how you display it is hugely important”

Aizle’s “tasting note” card which Stuart Ralston serves alongside his drip from Steampunk Coffee

Aizle, the exciting produce-led restaurant in Edinburgh joins the likes of Noma and The Clove Club in doing exactly this: presenting their drip coffee with a card explaining the tasting notes.

The reality is, this controversial decision of just serving black filter coffee has to be owned and celebrated by the restaurant. Restaurants need to stick to their guns, and rely on consumer consciousness and staff attentiveness.

The answer is not simple, nevertheless, we’ve tried to break down your options below.

1) Switch to quality beans. Work with companies like Old Spike Roastery — who are dedicated to making amazing coffee, and creating positive social changes along the way. There’s no need to spend a lot on expensive equipment. Start stimple with good beans. It’s one small step in the right direction, even if you haven’t worked out where you stand on the coffee debate.

2) Make coffee a priority. Match your specialty coffee offering to the dedication you show in curating your wine list. Get the full equipment and look into selling coffee throughout the day to make the most out of your point of difference.

3) Reduce your room for error and serve drip coffee — black. You may piss off the odd customer who once went to Florence on holiday ordering ‘expresso’, but if they’re enough of a coffee addict they won’t care.

Old Spike Roastery, the coffee company with a social purpose.

Foodchain are connecting their community of chefs to Old Spike Roastery through their platform. If you already are a chef click here to order, or get in touch to arrange a sample.

If you don’t currently work with Foodchain, get in touch here to get a quote on your food supply.

Confused? Get in touch with Coffee James Low for a consultancy service.

*Espresso machines (starting from) £4k+/water filtration £200+/grinder(s) £1100+ before you’ve made a coffee… (and that just attracts the most vein barista to come aboard) Not to mention staff training when the bartender is more interested in making a cocktail, a pourover or an immersion brew is ‘another’ task, and maybe one that's not easy to dedicate oneself to.

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