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How Restaurants Are Stepping Up Their Coffee Game

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Espresso.
Espresso.
Photo: René Redzepi / Instagram

From the Pacific Northwest to the South to New York City, restaurants everywhere are stepping up when it comes to coffee. Coffee nerd consensus has long held that restaurant coffee is, generally, lousy. But, as is becoming clear across the country, it doesn't have to be that way.

Quality coffee can be an investment of time and money that doesn't bear all that much in returns for a small business. Equipment can run up to $20,000, and only a trained barista can reasonably be expected to pull a perfect shot of espresso. But some restaurants are getting around these barriers to entry by partnering with roasters (Canlis and Intelligentsia, for example), and abandoning the more technologically trying espresso menus (Robert Newton of Seersucker and Nightingale 9 in New York City). Still other restaurateurs have decided that excellent coffee is essential (Lula Cafe in Chicago). What follows is a look at the debate over restaurant coffee: the pros, the cons, and how some restaurants have gotten serious about coffee.

World-Class Coffee in World-Class Restaurants

For years, coffee enthusiasts have been urging restaurants to try harder when it comes to coffee. When discussing the coffee chapter of Modernist Cuisine in December 2010, co-author Chris Young complained to Eater that "so often, even at the very best restaurants in the world, coffee is a total afterthought." In March 2013, the debate flared up again when the news that Copenhagen's top-rated Noma was revamping its coffee program coincided with the revelation that roughly 30 percent of the world's Michelin-starred restaurants use Nespresso coffee pods.

The latter bombshell is perhaps what best articulates the argument in favor of revamping restaurant coffee. As coffee expert Oliver Strand wrote at the time, "Pod coffee runs directly counter to what makes a Michelin-starred restaurant so magnificent: you jump through Michelin-starred hoops ... to experience Michelin-starred artistry, imagination and dedication to ingredients, not to be served something that your hairdresser can make for you."

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La Marzocca espresso machine at Smith Canteen, Brooklyn, NY. [Photo: Facebook]

That's probably not exactly the effect a Michelin starred restaurant is trying to achieve. Coffee blogger Mike White pointed out as much in the wake of a Twitter spat with Tom Colicchio over coffee offerings at the chef's New York restaurants. In an open letter to Colicchio, White wrote that that lack of attention given to coffee in restaurants is "[a]n unfortunate reality given that coffee is the last thing the consumers taste after dining in a restaurant."

Eleven Madison Park — starting back in its Danny Meyer-owned days — had another reason for rethinking its coffee program. Strand described the "spectacle" of EMP's tableside coffee service back in 2010. Though noting that coffee was not really a moneymaker for the restaurant, Strand wrote that "it adds to the pageantry of dining, and it makes sense that a restaurant that considers every aspect of a meal ... will pay attention to the ritual of making coffee."

But a strong coffee program isn't just for the benefit of the diners or the restaurateur's own pride. Back in 2010, barista Erin Meister of Counter Culture Coffee argued in a Serious Eats piece that the best restaurant baristas are actually servers who have been empowered to become part of the dining experience. René Redzepi discovered that empowerment when Noma switched its coffee program. "Simply, it has changed our restaurant doing this coffee program," he said at this year's Nordic Barista Cup. Pointing to the fact that Noma's servers are now also responsible for preparing part of the meal, Redzepi explained, "It has positively melted the team even more together. It's a thing that the chefs really appreciate and respect tremendously." Here's a video of the new Noma coffee program:

Barriers to Entry

But still some restaurateurs remain unpersuaded by those arguing in favor of taking coffee more seriously. Co-founder of the coffee blog Sprudge Jordan Michelman points to a "push-and-pull" that restaurateurs face. On the one hand, he told Eater, there's the desire for excellence in every aspect of the restaurant. But there's also a pretty daunting bottom line. Equipment can be expensive — one La Marzocco espresso machine retails for $22,500 — and barista training for restaurant staff can be onerous.

Chef Hugh Acheson explained the challenge to Sprudge earlier this year, saying, "It's just a hard commitment on a spreadsheet. We sell $4,000 in wine in a night and the next line is $400 in coffee. It's difficult for some of us to view them with the same importance? but they are both important." Michelman reiterates that point, telling Eater, "It's logical that a lot of restaurateurs look at that and say, well, investing in this part of our program is very expensive and I don't know where the payoff is."

Even restaurants that decide the investment is worthwhile have found other difficulties along the way when it comes to coffee. In 2011, Chicago's 15-year-old Lula Cafe decided to upgrade its coffee program, trading in a vintage espresso machine for a more capable La Marzocco. Two years later, owner Jason Hammel says he's "still struggling to get there" with all the techniques and products that go into making quality coffee. "It's rigorous to stay on top of that game," he says. Lula has a dedicated barista making drinks in the morning, but the entire front of the house staff also has to be trained to make espresso and milk drinks in the evenings. Just last week, Hammel says, roaster Intelligentsia held a six-hour milk steaming training session for seven of the restaurant's bussers.

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Lula Cafe, Chicago. [Photo: Foursquare]

For Hammel, this kind of investment of time and money was worth it. Lulu's predecessor in the space was a coffeehouse that was one of Intelligentsia's first customers. "So we sort of inherited a coffee house tradition," Hammel says. "I don't look lightly at that tradition." But Michelman points out that not every chef is so passionate about coffee as Hammel or Acheson. As Modernist Cuisine's Chris Young theorizes, "...a lot of chefs are unaware of how good a great cup of coffee can be and how much attention to detail has to go into it." And for a chef or restaurateur who doesn't know much about coffee, there's little incentive to invest in it or learn how to do it properly.

And, frankly, it's not just chefs and restaurateurs who are unaware of what it means to have great coffee. It's quite possible that restaurant coffee is often lousy because the average diner doesn't care that restaurant coffee is lousy. Sprudge writer Llwellyn Sinclair pondered whether it's just coffee nerds and industry professionals who even care about the issue, writing, "Put it like this: 30% of Michelin star chefs think Nespresso pods are fine. Can you imagine what that number is for folks on the street?"

The Particular Problem With Espresso

Espresso really is the sticking point when it comes to restaurant coffee. "Espresso is the product of genuine craft," explained The New Yorker's Matt Buchanan earlier this year." Water temperature, pressure, timing, exact measurements, and more a role in a perfectly pulled espresso shot. Espresso — which Oliver Strand described as "a drink that all but the more skilled baristas can get wrong" — is not a task for a neophyte.

New York City restaurateur Robert Newton says he no longer keeps an espresso machine at his restaurants Seersucker and Nightingale 9. "I am making a conscious move away from espresso-driven drinks in restaurants," he says. Aligning espresso training with the rest of staff training in a busy restaurant like Seersucker is just complicated, he explains. And it takes a lot of skill to operate an espresso machine. "I think if you have a streamlined coffee service, I think we're going to have a better product." And so he offers traditional drip coffee at Seersucker and AeroPress at Nightingale 9.

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Smith Canteen. [Photo: Krieger]

But Newton does still offer espresso in his Brooklyn coffee shop Smith Canteen, just down the block from Seersucker. He explains that one of the reasons he opened Smith Canteen is because of the difficulties he encountered trying to do the kind of coffee he wanted to do in a restaurant setting. Michelman of Sprudge explains that coffee shops tend to have an easier time of it than restaurants in part just by virtue of how busy they are. The more frequently you make an espresso drink, the better you are likely to be at doing so. And most restaurants are only going to make so many espressos in a night, far fewer than a specialty coffee shop might do in an hour.

Restaurants with dedicated coffee bars do have an advantage. Michelman offers up Danny Meyer's New York City restaurant Maialino as an example: Maialino employs full-time baristas — there were six on staff as of February 2013 — and a full espresso menu. But Maialino is open for breakfast service, making the quality of its coffee both more critical and more potentially lucrative. Other restaurants that follow similar models include Duende in Oakland, California, with its casual Bodega, and also the coffee bar at Hugh Acheson's Empire State South, which also offers to-go options. Under this scheme, espresso is not only doable but even essential.

There's far from a consensus on the need for quality espresso in restaurants. Michelman explains, "I think the big question that nobody totally knows the answer to yet is whether or not really high-end espresso service in restaurants is worth it or works or is appropriate." Given that espresso has the "biggest buy-in" of all coffee options, Michelman says that a number of restaurants have decided, like Seersucker, to ignore espresso for now. Not even Noma plans to launch a high-quality espresso service any time soon, per Redzepi's speech at the Nordic Barista Cup, as it still doesn't have the capacity to make the drink well.

And so it is that Michelin-starred restaurants have taken to using Nespresso pods. As Restaurant Marc Forgione general manager Matthew Conway told Grub Street earlier this year, pods ensure that coffee will be consistent. As Buchanan further writes, "the results [of pod coffee] are middling, but reliably so — it's hard to screw up simply pressing a button."

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Seersucker, Brooklyn. [Photo: Krieger]

How Restaurants Are Tackling Coffee

In spite of the challenges, good coffee is still within reach. As Michelman says, this is a good time for restaurants everywhere in terms of access to quality roasters. "You'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere in the country where you would open a restaurant and be too far away from a roaster who could partner with you," Michelman says. Green coffee importers have expanded their model over the years and created a boom in micro-roasters, he says, adding, "There's never been better access to quality green coffee in the first place."

The selection of a roaster is key to amping up restaurant coffee. In 2011, high-profile Seattle restaurant Canlis made the switch from Starbucks to the Chicago-based Intelligentsia along with seasonally changing "boutique" roasters, which Seattle Met noted is "a lineup you'd expect at an aggressively hip coffee shop, not a sexagenarian restaurant." In a testimonial on the Intelligentsia website, Brian Canlis explains that the roasters "continue to meet the dynamic needs of our staff and guests with seasonal roasts, custom ceramics, a highly personable and educated sales team, and the best damn tasting coffee I've ever had."

Indeed, some roasters are also making it easier than ever for restaurant employees to learn how to make a good cup of coffee. For example, the Durham-based Counter Culture Coffee has training centers all along the East Coast and in Chicago. New York's Smith Canteen is among Counter Culture's partners and Newton explains that "nobody even gets near the espresso machine at Smith Canteen until they've spent time in the basic espresso lab at Counter Culture." And for those who want to advance, there's an intermediate lab and entire classes dedicated to milk, the origin of coffee, and more. Chicago-based Intelligentsia is also actively involved in training restaurant staff. Lula Cafe's Hammel thinks that's the norm now, explaining, "I think any good coffee company recognizes the notion that restaurants are going to be serving their product and promoting it and that it better be as good as it is in their coffee shops."

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A Counter Culture Coffee training session. [Photo: Facebook]

Finally, when it comes to the actual brewing process, third wave coffee purveyors tend to prefer by-the-cup brew methods such as French press or pour-over coffee. These give the barista more control over the process. Newton agrees that Chemex, pour-over, AeroPress, and drip are the way to go if you want to be serious about coffee without dropping 10 grand on an espresso machine. He uses the latter two processes in his restaurants. And for those customers who want a slightly fancier cup of coffee? Newton says the restaurants will still steam up milk for a cafe au lait so that diners "can have their frothy milk moment."

These methods also have a far lower barrier to entry than espresso when it comes to costs. Last year, Serious Eats writer Liz Clayton cited the $37 Chemex brewer at New York City's Atera as evidence that restaurant coffee is getting better right now and at a price that is within reach of most restaurateurs. Hammel says he has Chemex at both Lula and his other Chicago restaurant Nightwood. He admits it's a bit time-consuming at Lula with its insane weekend brunch crowd, but says this is precisely why he prefers Chemex. "It's controllable," Hammel says. "It's not as easy to make mistakes. So that's important for us when we're serving 600 people."

But if even those methods are daunting to a chef or restaurateur, there's some good news. Michelman argues that automated batch brewing has come a long way with the help of technology, contending it can brew a cup of coffee the same quality as one brewed by a table-side siphon. Coffee blogger James Hoffman, who predicted the rise of automated batch brewers in 2012, admits that they "make really nice coffee when used well." And Slayer Espresso's blog further backed up the future of batch brewing, writing that, "The drama of hand-brewing may be lost, but in its place is consistently excellent coffee." And that's excellent coffee that just about anyone could make.

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Chemex at Lula Cafe. [Photo: Foursquare]

Conclusions

It's unlikely the restaurants are going to see any upward swing in their profit margins based on an improved coffee offering. But that doesn't necessarily mean that coffee isn't worthwhile. There are plenty of options to cut down on both effort and expense, from partnering with a hands-on roaster to ditching espresso completely. That way, even restaurants whose owners don't have a passion for it might also someday serve world-class coffee.

That's the way that both Hammel in Chicago and Newton in New York see things moving in restaurants. Newton argues that more people are understanding and respecting the craft of coffee these days, saying that it was just 15 or 20 years ago that people were mainly drinking Folger's and Maxwell House. He likens the change in the way restaurants approach coffee to trends that have happened in recent years such as the use of whole-roasted pigs. Quality control starts at the beginning.

For coffee, it starts with the water and the beans. Filtered water goes into the machines, which are cleaned on a regular basis. The roaster doesn't roast the beans until a coffee shop places an order. Employees don't grind the beans until they need to make the coffee. And so on. "If we have all the steps in place, all those little things add up to a great thing," Newton says. "And now the spotlight is on coffee and people are taking a look at the whole process. ... You almost have to try to screw it up somewhere along the line if you have all those things in place. You have an obligation at the end of the line to make a good cup of coffee, and I think that trend is only going to get bigger."

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