As big QSRs wage war over which one has the most special coffee (Chick-fil-A is the latest to join the fray, introducing its own premium java in August), smaller, specialty coffee shops are advancing. Their next front: trading handcrafting for automation—without losing their high-end, custom edge.
It’s a move the giant chains, led by Starbucks, may be watching. Trends emerging in these smaller outfits tend to show up on big-chain menus down the road. Moreover, it’s a solution that addresses issues they both face: how to efficiently serve bustling commuters who want high-quality coffee but need it quickly.
“Ten years ago, every legitimate coffee shop was doing French press,” says Skip Colombo, senior account manager at Portland, Ore.-based Stumptown Coffee Roasters. It’s a large undertaking for mass production, he says; it takes several minutes per batch and involves timers, multiple pours and sieves, which means a lot of labor and specialized training. As Stumptown and others have grown, they’re turning to tech to solve the problem.
Within the last year, Stumptown has switched from French press to drip coffee. While that may seem like a buzzkill for a concept built around its geeky coffee-brewing ways, better technology means it doesn’t have to compromise its vision of serving quality coffee. There used to be a preconceived notion that drip coffee was inferior, says Colombo, but equipment manufacturers have made the effort to fully understand and replicate the science behind brewing. Coffee grinders and hot-water towers have become more advanced, but it’s the brewing machines—which use improved pulse technology, temperature stability and temperature control—that have come the farthest. “There’s an emphasis on taking the gray area out and using science to prepare the best cup of coffee,” he says.
The end result is a more profitable, more consistent process for Stumptown. It requires fewer beans to make drip coffee, meaning it’s spending less to make the same cup (and charging the same price, increasing profits). The biggest moneysaver, though, is in labor. Instead of fidgeting with timers and strainers, staff put the coffee in a basket, push a button and they’re done, leaving more time to engage with customers. Making the switch to drip required some retraining and adjusting at first, but Stumptown soon was able to cut labor by one shift a day.
In Chicago, chef Homaro Cantu of Moto is turning to high-tech brewing equipment for Berrista, his coffeeshop concept set to launch this fall. With the goal of expanding Berrista quickly, Cantu needed an automated system that would allow the brewing process to be replicated on a large scale. “[The machine] is super easy to use. Anybody can do this ... everything will be intuitive,” says Cantu. To make sure that there was still some show to the coffee-making process, Cantu selected a new-age system that guests can watch behind the counter.
Up next, Stumptown is exploring a machine that automates the popular pour-over process. Now, “guests at the pour-over bar need to have time to wait … the other 90 percent [of people] need coffee fast and to get out,” says Colombo. A speedier pour-over process could convert this busy 90 percent because, as operators like Cantu and Colombo are banking on, even without a person slowly hand-tending every cup, what matters to consumers is a quality cup of joe.