The numbers of cafes offering specialty coffee in the UAE has grown at an exponential rate, latest data shows upward of 360 registered trade licenses for roasting or serving specialty coffee and everyone is vying for the same piece of pie. Most cafes have beautiful interiors, tattooed baristas, introspective ambience, and the latest Instagram able equipment to deliver both espresso and pour over coffees. But what makes them specialty and what are the majority of people actually looking for, and prepared to regularly pay for?
We don’t believe it’s a Spanish latte, we think it is consistency. Consistency requires execution of particularly complex issues, including quality of green beans, roast profiles, espresso equipment, barista’s skill, water chemistry, protein content of dairy or plant based milk, coffee knowledge for the entire team, best practices in workflow, selection of the right supply partners, and then being ahead of trends.
A common and justified observation might be, that a larger franchise at least offers the same thing each time, doesn’t matter who is on the machine or what day or time it is, you know what you pay for is what you get. Commercial cafes have definitely adopted our specialty language to try to capture or retain their market share, and usually only offer one blend, but they do have standardised SOPs, probably automation, probably demotivated and unempowered staff, and their consumers are looking for that standardisation and not a particular origin or processing method, and definitely not acidity! There’s nothing wrong with that, cause you are getting what you paid for, what you want, and you leave happy.
With specialty, the customer is often looking for a distinctive flavour profile, and small errors in grind size or water quality for example, mean it’s impossible to deliver consistency. Sometimes less experienced operators have to sacrifice efficiencies, for speed of service and potentially compromise quality. Here, consistency becomes even more important as the consumer is expecting these nuanced flavours and is prepared to pay for it, and even better – cares about the journey the coffee has taken to reach your cup.
Ultimately lots of hands have cared about this coffee, with most really good coffee grown in third world poor countries where this export is incredibly important, and many farmers struggle to sustain a profitable livelihood. Adding value and sharing the story of this humble seed, that we roast and drink, has become something both confused, and trendy but remains incredibly relevant.
Some regular customers want exactly the same experience each time, ordering the same blend or origin, potentially in the same seat; while others are more experimental, looking for unique flavours, and appreciate being guided by confident, knowledgeable staff. To understand this, you need to know your customer.
When you think of specialty and everything that has to go into the cup – weighing in and weighing out shots, and grinder calibration, are only some of the more obvious issues. Challenges in consistency can be caused by one or more factors that with more knowledge becomes a real rabbit hole: brew ratios, extractions, temperature, timing, dosing, tamping and even distribution – I promise you it’s fun, and once you get into it – you don’t mind the rabbit hole, you embrace it as it draws you in, but what I’m trying to explain is that just having the latest equipment and tools, does not guarantee consistency and saying you are specialty doesn’t in definition make it so.
Experience, training, best practices and workflow, the right equipment, the right water, correct cleaning procedures and maintenance, management of peak times, whether customers are waiting or queuing for take away, café operations and all this dull stuff that is not hip or trendy.
All these factors individually have to come into perfect alignment for you to enjoy your cup of coffee and become a lovely repeat consumer. A customer-centric approach is then the icing on the cupcake, we care about customer satisfaction, but all this isn’t possible without first acknowledging the actual “humans” that are the interface between all this rabbit hole stuff – consistency becomes the tool to achieve our ultimate goal, your customer satisfaction, and the reason why you keep coming back.
Kim Thompson is the co-owner and managing director at RAW Coffee Company in Dubai