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Invasion of the Pod People

Invasion of the Pod People

HOT JAVA: Should you try the push-button approach?

OK, so no one is likely to break Starbucks' death grip on the coffeehouse market. But the chain's success may have created an opportunity for fullservice restaurants. Starbucks has developed millions of customers who expect and demand great coffee, are willing to pay lot for it at every meal occasion and will take their business elsewhere if you don't provide it. That's why operators at all levels are hustling to provide better coffee.

Consider the low end: Burger King has rolled out BK Joe, a premium blend available in regular and "turbo" strength that is brewed to order, one cup at a time. McDonald's expects to be serving its new Premium Roast Coffee in all 13,000 U.S. stores by May.

Why the emphasis? These fast feeders worry that patrons will drive past their stores to grab a sandwich from somebody else who serves a better cup. Those somebody elses are in the next tier up: newer coffeehouse concepts like Ink!, Port City Java, Mocha Delites and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. All four serve great coffee and offer extensive saladsandwich menus.

How can full-service compete? Surprisingly, the playing field has leveled. And Starbucks, by installing automated espresso machines in almost all its 6,800 U.S. units, is the one who leveled it. The chain's baristas now make espresso by merely pushing a button on a machine. Your waitstaffers or your bartender—whoever is the baristaby-default at your operation—can do the same. As long as your help can remember to prewarm the cup before pushing the button, your restaurant can serve near-perfect espresso shots, fast, every time, no matter how busy you get.

Look for a machine that lets you sidestep the grinding and measuring part of the process and uses premeasured "pods" instead. The upside here: uniformly great espresso. The downside: you're locked into buying the pods from the company that makes the machine. Pods aren't cheap—nearly $.50 a shot—but so what? The coffee is awfully good, and the standard full-service markup will produce admirable margins.

It's how they do it at The Fat Duck, the three-Michelin-Star place in Bray, England, recently tabbed as the best restaurant in the world. Why did chef Heston Blumenthal opt for, in his case, a Nespresso automated system? "Like any other busy restaurant, we have neither the space, time or staff to devote to large traditional espresso machines, nor the skills required to achieve perfection time after time." But customers still expect it from him, so Blumenthal automated the process. Say what you will about automatic espresso machines. But when everyone from Starbucks to chefs like Blumenthal gets on board, it might be smart to consider doing so, too.

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