Coffee News Club: Week of April 29th

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In a machine-led future, not even the roaster is safe. Plus, the grocery chain Foxtrot suddenly shuts down, and NBC News revealed the real reason for coffee’s surging popularity in China: caffeine. 

‘Coffee and Grocery Chain Foxtrot Abruptly Closes All 33 US Stores’ – via Daily Coffee News

The upscale grocery store and coffee shop chain Foxtrot shut down without warning on April 23, notifying some employees during their shifts and asking customers to leave the stores. Foxtrot’s parent company, Outpost Hospitality, said it will file for bankruptcy protection. The newsletter Snaxshot first broke the news.

While Outpost gave no reason for the sudden closure and possible bankruptcy, Modern Retail reported that the company had missed sales targets and had conducted previous rounds of layoffs in 2022 and 2023. 

The chain, founded by Mike LaVitola in 2015, started as an app-based, liquor-focused delivery company and grew into a boutique market selling local products, garnering heaps of praise. Over the last decade, Foxtrot raised hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital funding and expanded to 33 locations nationwide.

Foxtrot attempted to differentiate itself by stocking staple goods from local producers, but as the company expanded, it began carrying national brands like La Colombe (as opposed to local roasters). The brand merged with fellow “trendy Chicago grocer” Dom’s Kitchen just a few months ago.

Forbes reported that the news of Foxtrot’s sudden closure left many vendors uncertain. “We now have several cases of coffee and we are worried about getting paid and about our inventory left stranded,” said Gefen Skolnick of Couplet Coffee.

“We explored many avenues to continue the business but found no viable option despite good faith and exhaustive efforts,” the companies said in a statement. “This decision has not been made lightly, and we understand the impact it will have on you, our loyal customers, as well as our dedicated team members.”

According to Eater Chicago, around 1,000 people worked at Outfox across all its locations. The company sent an email to workers on the morning of April 23 telling them that “as of the end of the day today, you will no longer be employed.” The email also said, “We understand that this news may come as a shock, and we want to assure you that we are committed to do our best to support you through this transition,” while noting that final paychecks would be sent out on Friday and health benefits would end April 30.

As one employee quoted by Modern Retail put it, “It just sucks that the poor decisions of a few people in executive leadership impacted hundreds of employees.”

Read the full story here.

‘China’s Stressed and Overworked Youth Skip the Tea and Reach for Coffee’ – via NBC News

China has the most branded coffee shops in the world, and the coffee retail market continues to grow: the number of outlets increased by 58% in 2023 to almost 50,000 cafes. By comparison, the US has 40,000 so-called branded shops (think big names like Dunkin’, Tim Hortons, and Starbucks). 

According to NBC News, much of this demand is coming from “stressed and overworked” young people who seek a constant caffeine kick as they negotiate “the pressures of a competitive job market and workplace.”

NBC News spoke to several young professionals in Beijing. One of them, freelancer Zhang Jian, said he buys coffee daily from Luckin, a national coffee chain: “It’s convenient to buy because the stores are everywhere, and the prices are also budget-friendly,” said Jian.

China doesn’t consume as much coffee as the US—China imported 5 million bags in 2023-24 compared to the US’s 20 million. However, the coffee market in China is growing. Luckin alone opened 5,000 new stores in 2023, and an analyst interviewed by NBC News noted that more people will start drinking coffee as companies expand to smaller cities and into the country.

Read the full story here.

‘A Coffee Roastery in Finland has Launched an AI-generated Blend. The Results Were Surprising’ – via Associated Press

Artificial intelligence is firmly embedded in the coffee industry, from robot baristas to automated roast profiling and connected coffee machines. Now, AI has helped a Finnish roaster create a new blend as part of a trial that, according to the AP, raises hopes “that technology can ease the workload in a sector that traditionally prides itself on manual work.”

Helsinki-based Kaffa Roastery used “models akin to ChatGPT and Copilot” to choose its “AI-conic” blend. According to AI consultancy Elev, which partnered on the project, the end goal was to “[craft] a blend that would ideally suit coffee enthusiasts’ tastes, pushing the boundaries of conventional flavor combinations.” 

The AI program created the bag label and tasting notes: “a well balanced blend of sweetness and ripe fruit.”

To train the program, Kaffa gave the AI descriptions of all its coffees and their flavors. According to managing director Svante Hampf, the AI “somewhat weirdly” chose four origins to make up the blend: 40% Brazil, 25% Guatemala, 25% Colombia, and 10% Ethiopia. The AP reports, “After the first test roasting and blind testing, Kaffa’s coffee experts agreed, however, that the tech-assisted blend was perfect, and there was no need for human adjustments.”

Hampf was pleased with the trial. “I think AI has plenty to offer us in the long run. We are particularly impressed of the coffee taste descriptions it created.”

Read the full story here.

More News

Soulless Cafe To Sell Beanless Coffee‘ – via Sprudge

Beanless Coffee Brand Atomo Coffee Unveils 33,500sq ft US Roastery‘ – via World Coffee Portal

Luckin Coffee Opens China’s Largest Coffee Roastery‘ – via Daily Coffee News

Moccamaster Releases 60th Anniversary Diamond Edition Coffee Maker’ – via Sprudge

Yellowknife Coffee Shop Pays for 900 Meals in Embattled Gaza‘ – via CBC News

Verve Coffee Begins Pilot Program With Eco-Friendly Terracotta Cups’ – via Sprudge

JDE Peet’s Signs More MOUs to Combat Deforestation‘ – via Global Coffee Report

The Week in Coffee Unionizing

  • Workers at a San Diego location of the Southern California chain Better Buzz Coffee have filed for a union election to join the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW). In an open letter to the city of San Diego, the workers cite a need for better benefits and fair wages as among their reasons for unionizing. “San Diego takes care of its people, and we are proud of it. But unfortunately, the people that keep us clothed, fed, and caffeinated are suffering at the hands of their employers,” the letter reads. “Amidst their rapid growth, it has become clear that Better Buzz Coffee is no exception to this.”
  • The UFCW gained more coffee workers after the staff at Partners Coffee in Brooklyn, New York, voted 15-8 to join UFCW 1500. They announced their intent to unionize on March 13, seeking “higher wages, better healthcare, and a safe and healthy work environment for all!” The union will include 27 workers across the company, including production, cafe, and kitchen staff. “Our voices will be heard as we eagerly anticipate taking our seats at the bargaining table,” the workers said in an announcement of the victory on Instagram.
  • Starbucks lost an appeal against the formation of a union at its flagship Seattle Reserve Roastery. The Ninth Circuit Court upheld a decision by the National Labor Relations Board validating the election, in which workers voted 38-27 in favor of unionizing in March 2022. Starbucks disputed those results because the NLRB allowed a mail-in vote due to rising COVID-19 cases, but the appeals court sided with the NLRB. Starbucks must now recognize the union, although Forbes says it is unclear whether the company will try to take the case to the Supreme Court. 

Beyond the Headlines

‘Editorial: Shame on the Coffee Industry’s Earth Day PR’ by Nick Brown

‘We DMed People About The Highlights of SCA Expo—These Were The Best Moments’ by Lydia Stolper

‘What the Starbucks Case at the Supreme Court is All About. Hint: It’s Not Coffee’ by Andrea Hsu

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Fionn Pooler

Fionn Pooler is a coffee roaster and freelance writer currently based in the Scottish Highlands who has worked in the specialty coffee industry for over a decade. Since 2016 he has written the Pourover, a newsletter and blog that uses interviews and critical analysis to explore coffee’s place in the wider, changing world (and also yell at corporations).

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