Deciding to Change


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[I] often explain to new and existing entrepreneurs that the only constant in the retail coffee industry is change. As a business owner it’s imperative to focus on the many aspects of your day-to-day operations, but it’s also important to stay ahead of the curve and to differentiate your business from your competition. As the industry grows, there is a never-ending flow of new products, beverage ideas, brew methods, service models, and menu options for a specialty retail operator, along with an endless stream of information in magazines and online publications to stay on top of. To navigate these trends, discern what is a fad against what is a new standard, and to ensure you are making the best decisions takes a methodical understanding of what’s happening in the industry and a confident view of what best fits your business.

One of the biggest advantages independent retailers have compared to chains is that we understand our customers and neighborhood’s needs better. We haven’t imported a one-size-fits-all model, and successful independent shops understand that what may work in a city like Portland may not work as well in Nashville or New Orleans. We cannot expect our customers to accept a new trend or menu model without a lot of education, and if we ignore the tastes of our customers or potential customers, we can lose a substantial percentage of our clientele. At the same time, competition among independent cafés, and with chains, is tougher than ever, so staying stagnant isn’t much of an option either.

A decision to change an aspect of your business needs to be backed by a thorough understanding of the effect on profitability and sustainability, with an eye on quality, efficiency, and customer service. If your café is focused on providing a consistent and fast cup of coffee for a high volume of customers, bringing in manual brew methods might not make sense. If your café serves many customers who drink alternative milks, a change in the types you serve should be based on more than the most recent health study.

A decision to change an aspect of your business needs to be backed by a thorough understanding of the effect on profitability and sustainability.

Knowing the right move can be tough in this industry. Just take a look at brewed coffee. In the past ten years we have seen a rollercoaster of equipment and approaches for a beverage that overall would seem pretty straightforward. There was a time when a shop would feature multiple air-pots of different roasts brewed in large batches. Then an expensive, automated single-cup coffee brewer came onto the market and found its place in some of the most cutting edge coffee bars in the world. That seemed like the future.

But it wasn’t. As the industry moved forward, brewed coffee ultimately turned to low-tech, handcrafted, pour-over coffee. At this time many shops were also brewing large French presses as their brewed coffee offering. This evolved into bars with an emphasis on multiple manual brewing options. Customers were, and still are, ready to pay a bit more for a coffee made specifically for them by hand, and baristas were able to guide customers to a brew method they could replicate at home. This deliberate focus on manual brewing helped baristas truly learn the importance of coffee and water ratios and the craft of brewing a great cup. But over time, in large part due to labor costs, brewed coffee has shifted back to automated batch brewing, only this time with a limited menu of coffee and with the focus on care and calibration that was given to pour-overs. The execution of batch brewing has never been higher. At many high-end shops, the pour-over bar has been completely abandoned, though some are finding great ways to incorporate it with batch brewing.

If a café owner had followed each of these shifts, she’d have put his batch brewer in a closet only to retrieve it years later. Maybe that was a waste of effort and money, but if the owner understood her customers wanted to try these new methods, she likely gained and retained customers. Another café owner may have found his customers, or his café model, resisted these changes and so stuck, just as successfully, to a particular method.

Any new addition to the menu or change in your business model needs to be well thought out, and delivered with confidence and competency. Change comes to coffee; that is certain. Study those changes, know your business, and compile reasons to make a move or stand by an old practice. It can be great to be a trend-setter, but always remember to operate with a strong foundation and mission.

—Matt Milletto is the co-owner of the American Barista and Coffee School, and co-owner of Water Avenue Coffee Company in Portland. 

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