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Do you support Polygamy…in vendor relations?
The idea to use multiple coffee roasters to supply a cafe or restaurant seems to be a fairly recent development in the coffee world, but it is not as recent as one might think. Places like Kaffe 1668, Third Rail, and Kava are some of the most prominent multi-roaster cafes that have popped up and strongly promote that they are using a variety of vendors.
The reason for using multiple roasters in the past was to use a premium espresso with a recognizable brand like Illy or Lavazza, and buy a cheap cheap cheap brew coffee like Sara Lee or White Coffee to keep costs way down and margins up. This is the “Tony Soprano method” of having the respectable wife upfront, but the comare (sounds like ‘goo-mah’) side-dish or mistress in the back room. If you put Illy on the menu as espresso people just assume all the coffee is at the same level and don’t mind paying $4.00 for a terrible (non-Illy) drip.
Using multiple vendors is no different, but the purpose and philosophy behind the decision is. Today, the use of a multiple roaster is to gain access to the best beans from the best roasters and to curate the selection, as a sommelier selects a refined list of wines- no one buys from a single vineyard. The biggest development is that the cafe owners, managers and baristas knowledge base of coffee has grow so much that they are becoming the experts. They don’t have to rely on the roaster as heavily to guide their coffee selection, train their employees and maintain their equipment.
Think Coffee is a small chain of five cafes in Manhattan and they maintain their own training lab and cupping room. They not only work with multiple roasters in their single origin program, but the house drip and espresso for each cafe is provided by two different roasters. I asked Matt Fury, the Director of Coffee for Think, why they choose to work with such a catalogue of roasters and his response was interesting.
“We demand that each of our coffees are from farms that either Think or our roasting partner has a direct relationship with and have visited the farm. Most roasters can’t provide a direct relationship with every coffee they carry. Further, we like to create a culture of coffee community here to keep a constant dialogue between cafe to roaster, farm to cafe and even roaster to roaster on occasion. It is a real democracy of coffee here and we are able to guarantee that our customers are getting the best quality from all over.All of Think’s bags are private labeled with the Think logo and a line siting which company it was roasted by. Think has positioned themselves as the brand that is responsible for the social economic responsibility, bean quality and origin selection of their line up. This is a huge responsibility but one that has paid off with the continuous success of their cafes. This is closer the situation of Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton’s character) of Big Love; totally committed relationships and all part of the same family, just lots of them. As we learned from this polygamous drama, it is not without its constant complications and larger potential payoffs.
Traditionally the benefits of working with a single roaster include better pricing because you’re buying more volume, having only one vendor to call or deal with and sometimes the loan of part or all equipment depending on the volume and the vendor. Using a single roaster will also help secure better service when equipment is down or in need of maintenance. This is why one must be an island and expert in order to successfully provide a multi-roaster program. If you are not, look out because it can be costly to pay for service and you may find yourself waiting longer for repair from an outside technician. Having a machine down equals no drinks, equals no money, equals dissatisfied customers. Service is important.
I caught up with Sam Lewontin, Manager, Trainer, Barista of Everyman Espresso, and discussed their single roaster coffee program. Everyman finds their relationship with their roaster to be incredibly beneficial and not because they use them as a crutch but an added resource. Everyman manages their own training program and takes great care in selecting their coffees and preparing them in a way that is true to their inherent character. They feel that the benefit of their relationship with their vendor (Counter Culture) is what is most valuable.
Everyman and Counter Culture teaming up is like one of those power couples that function independently but are only made stronger by their union like Hilary and Bill Clinton. However, the romance still seems to be blossoming at Everyman.
Everyman is a well known cafe and brand associated with quality so I asked Sam if they still rely on Counter Culture’s brand to add value to their cafe? “It goes both ways, Counter Culture adds value to our brand and we add value to theirs. They bring prospective customers here to use us as an example of an ideal customer of theirs. And people come here because they love Counter Culture so it is always reciprocal. We provide our own internal training but they have shared a great deal of knowledge with us and have been a great help with additional training support. ”
Counter Culture is becoming a larger and larger presence in New York, do you feel competitive toward other Counter Culture customers?
“Not at all to be honest with you. Their is a misperception that all the Specialty coffee shops in NY are fighting over the same piece of pie but in reality, the market is so small that if more Specialty shops open and continue to raise the bar for coffee and awareness in NY we’re actually increasing the size of the pie which is great for everyone.”
Ground Support has been operating successfully on West Broadway for almost three years now using only Intelligentsia as their roaster and are now venturing to offer a multi-roaster selection. I got together with Steven Sadoff, the owner, and asked him why change the offering? “For me, if I’m just offering the same coffee for years it seems like laziness on my part, I want to show my customers that I’m testing the market, reading and learning about coffee. That I’m putting work and care into the choice of what I’m offering. It also puts more value on the Ground Support brand rather than relying on the Intelligentsia brand to carry us.”
So far, GS has been offering single origins from Sightglass, has the addition of another roaster and Chemex brews improved business?
“Absolutely, I don’t use the new roasters on the Fetco or as espresso, I keep that consistent. I offer them as a single cup Chemex and retail bags. The Chemex is a loss leader for me and the customers who want it are really happy its there. The retail bags have been selling out faster than our house coffee, it’s been great!”
By continuing to have the lion’s share of their coffee buying be through Intelligentsia, Ground Support has managed to keep that relationship strong and continue to receive the benefit of Intelli’s service and training while being able to offer extra items to their customers. This is also a line to be walked as we saw with Betty and Don Draper of Mad Men. Betty was the meat and potatoes; he relied on her to take care of the house and kids, while he adventured with younger, stranger women. If only he had come home for dinner a little more often it could’ve all worked out. As long as Ground Support continues to give Intelli the volume and maintain the relationship, I believe it will only add to their success.
Additional advantages to having a monogamous and long term relationship with one roaster is that they will often come with new opportunities, more promotion and access. As with any relationship, the more committed you are the more benefit you will receive because you both have more invested in each others business. Polygamous roaster relationships have the perks of freedom, choice and being viewed as an independent entity but with this brings a greater burden of responsibility to maintain your own quality and acquire your own information and develop your own expertise.
So, whether you’re the Clintons, a Soprano, a Draper, or you have too much Big Love, if your business decides to join up with one partner or many, it is evident that the success of the business is not dependent on either choice. It’s the individual energy and perspective you bring to differentiate yourself in the marketplace, and utilizing the tools you work with best that will insure continued quality and service.