Opening a new coffee business, whether a roasting plant or a modern coffee shop seems like an almost fail-proof business plan. In the Freelance Economy of the 21st Century, coffee shops have become the new workplace, the new office. In the major cities, particularly when arts and culture are prolific, the need for space, WiFi and a reliable flow of caffeine mean that a coffee shop on every corner is just about necessary.
The design of the space is up to your vision and what you want to offer to your customers. The quality of your product, however, is something you should put serious thought and study into. There are important factors to consider when choosing a coffee supplier.
First, you want to know that your provider will be reliable; you can gauge this by looking at how long a vendor has been around. A business that has been surviving and thriving for a while has proven staying power. These are the people who know what they’re doing; they know their product, they have learned through trial and error where the good, quality coffee comes from, what it looks and tastes like, and what their clients like the most. They can tell you what your competitors are buying and what has sold well in the past to get you started investing in the right product for your company.
Looking at a supplier’s industry experience is important, but it’s not where the research stops. Sometimes longevity does not represent quality. Old-school coffee roasters may still subscribe to the dark roasting practices that most specialty coffee companies are moving quickly away from. One basic research move is going to be to look at the beans they sell. If they are burnt looking, black and shiny, then you can bet they taste like it. Some coffee consumers live and die by “dark roast,” committed to the all-knowing coffee gods at Starbucks. Some people like dark roast because it makes them feel like they’re drinking coffee; the strong flavor to them means a strong brew. Just like burning or overcooking food, burning or overcooking coffee removes the element of the coffee that most people are after the caffeine. Decaffeinated coffee is made, in part, by dark roasting, because that burns out most of the natural caffeine. Dark roasting also tastes burnt or smoky and does not provide the experience of coffee that contemporary consumers are looking for more and more. Know what type of product you want in your shop, know what your customers will probably want, and check out the beans before you buy.
Once you’ve looked at the beans, you need to take the next step which is sampling. You don’t want to trust labels with their subjective descriptors which are often devoid of any actual meaning. You want to know what product you’re giving so that you know what product you’re giving to your customers. Before you commit to a supplier, try what they are offering to make sure it’s the quality you want with a flavor profile you can stand behind.
Paying attention to the supply chain is mostly relevant if you are looking to be a fair trade, direct trade or organic shop; but, knowing that the beans come from a quality farm and knowing what species they are can tell you about their quality. Arabica beans tend to be the better quality species, though this is not guaranteed. Unless you’re going for cheap or bulk, you probably want to stay away from Robusta beans because they are low-quality, mass-produced beans that tend to have inferior flavors; part of the reason Starbucks serves such darkly roasted coffee is probably that they invest in Robusta beans–the dark roast covers the inferior flavor. Knowing what parts of the world produce what types of coffee is something you should consider if you’re really after high-quality or special beans. Try to avoid cheap beans if you can, unless you’re not after the flavor experience as much as other things. You don’t have to fork over your entire business investment amount to stock your coffee; you can find good quality for a small investment if you do some research and find a reliable supplier.
Choosing a supplier should also depend on how you click with the people who work there. Do you feel like you can have a long term working relationship with them? Do you feel like you can trust them to give you solid advice and a reliable product and service? You’re potentially investing in a long-term exchange so feeling comfortable with the people involved is an important thing to consider.
The type and amount of coffee you invest in depends on what your coffee business vision is. Most coffee roasters have websites with detailed information about their coffee and coffee in general. Other coffee shops, as well, will have educational materials on roasting, supply chain, species, location and farming that you can peruse to get a better idea of what you want and what you should be looking for when shopping suppliers. A little research can go a long way.