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Espresso: still creating a buzz on the West Coast.

At the last SCAA show, there was a lot of talk of whether we as an industry are in the coffee business or the flavored milk business. This just sounds like sour grapes to me, like arguing that somebody is in the water business because they sell brewed coffee. However, I can't argue with the fact that when one talks of the thriving interest in espresso here on the West Coast, what is most commonly being referred to is a latte or cappuccino addiction. However, according to every roaster or retailer I asked, the quintessential part of the drink remains the product of our beloved bean, not the froth provided by the local dairy.

All argument aside, conversations with some successful espresso pushers here on the West Coast revealed that, fueled by the dairy slant, the strong growth of coffee carts, and an expanding consumer base, espresso is still creating a buzz.

Espresso as a social phenomenon: from college freshman to yuppie parents

"Sure, people like lattes and cappuccinos," says Pat Weitt of Espresso Roma, "but it's certainly not a flavored milk drink." Espresso Roma with around thirty cafes on the West Coast, speaks from experience. The company has approximately 30 espresso bar/coffee houses from Washington state to Southern California, usually located on or near college campuses.

In Ms. Weitt's opinion, "being in the specialty coffee business really means being in a people-oriented business. Our stores offer our customers an alternative to the bar scene. Repeat customers come into our stores for the environment and for the way they are made to feel. It's not just coffee people are interested in when they visit an espresso bar." While she does stress the importance of ambiance, Ms. Weitt is quick to point out that the coffee is an essential part of the atmosphere. It's almost a chicken and egg question. Selling espresso and espresso drinks creates the atmosphere people want. You simply can't achieve the same feeling in a bar. As a woman, this is especially apparent, and important. Not many of my single friends would go alone to a bar for a drink, but these same women don't think twice about taking a book or some paperwork to their local coffee house for a leisurely cappuccino.

In their college adjacent stores, Ms. Weitt notes that the evolution of a coffee drinker often follows this schedule, "Freshmen will come in and start with hot chocolate, move to a cafe mocha, a latte, and eventually to a cappuccino. One of my favorite things is to watch this change taking place. Sometime around the first set of finals, we've gained a new specialty coffee drinker, and a new customer." Getting to potential customers and educating them is an important part of the industry. The educated customers that Espresso Roma, and stores like theirs, have been creating for the past ten years have resulted in an ever widening consumer base for everyone. Today, the general population overall is more aware of the differences between specialty and commercial coffee. As Ms. Weitt says, "The flavor of specialty coffee stays with the customer, and they come back again and again."

And all of the college freshmen who made the transition from hot chocolate to cappuccino? Well, they're now looking for family-friendly places to enjoy their coffee drinks. "We're really moving beyond the traditional coffee house in our latest stores," says Weitt. "Our newest developments include patios that are packed with strollers, and a grass area where kids can run around while their parents enjoy a break." These newest stores are more architectural and offer more seating than our older stores in response to a maturing consumer. The coffee consumer's growth into thirty-something should be recognized as an important trend for espresso peddlers. There is still the younger, serious-faced crowd in black turtlenecks, those who fill the room with smoke and a too-hip aura, but there are a lot of customers, toddlers in hand, needing a place to unwind.

Want to check to pulse of the industry? Put your finger on Seattle

"In Seattle, espresso is a way of life ... a state of mind," says Tim McCormack of Caravali Coffees. To prove it, he provides examples ranging from a Drive-Thru espresso bar to Espresso Dental, where you can calm down with a latte while waiting for the drill. Mr. McCormack feels that the espresso drinker in Seattle is much like the espresso drinker in Italy. "They're very specific about what they want. In fact, I'd say that the sophistication of the local market is unique to the United States. We are at a point in Seattle where the specialty coffee market has taken on a life of its own."

As an example of what Mr. McCormack is talking about, imagine this scenario: A Seattleite goes to New York and walks into the local coffee bar. What does he/she order? "I'll have a double tall, no fun." If the New York barrista is like the rest of us living outside of Latte Town he will have to be educated. A double tall, no fun, translates into a double decaf cappuccino with non-fat milk. Caffe Lattes are ordered as "a latte." Which, by the way, is more likely to get the person a tall cold glass of milk than a coffee drink if ordered this way in Italy. The list goes on, a tall-two is a large latte with two-percent milk, a tall-one is the same with one percent milk, and so on.

Obviously, Seattle takes its espresso very, very seriously. Most people interested in getting into this business would like to take this Seattle style and move it home with them. This probably isn't possible, but in the espresso arena one has only to look to Seattle to see what's coming down the road. Seattle, for espresso drinkers and purveyors, is on the cutting edge. So, what's happening in Latte town? Well, for one thing, coffee carts.

Have espresso, will travel

One of the fastest growing phenomena to hit the industry has been the spread of the coffee cart. Espresso carts are one of the primary growth areas in the specialty coffee industry and, as with most things coffee, Seattle is leading the way. (Note: One of the sideline industries created by Seattle's love of espresso is the local small press magazines devoted to coffee and coffee culture. If you rifle through the pages of one of these, I can guarantee you'll find that a significant percentage of the advertisements are for coffee and espresso carts, and for related merchandise.)

Carts offer the budding coffee entrepreneur a chance to enter the business with low overhead and extreme flexibility. "Buying a coffee cart requires a capital outlay of $12-20,000, about 10-20% of what it costs to go into a building. Carts also take unusable space and make it usable. A landlord may not have the room for a cafe, but there may be space in the lobby for a cart," explains Bob Burgess of Burgess Enterprises. "The cart creates a whole atmosphere out of what would be wasted floor space."

Burgess Enterprises in Seattle is one of the leading manufacturers of espresso carts. According to Bob Burgess they have been building wooden espresso carts since 1985. In November of last year they rolled out some of the finest looking espresso carts imaginable. "Although I think espresso carts in general are doing well, since we've introduced our new products, our business has increased dramatically," said Mr. Burgess. He also credits the growing attention paid to espresso by the media, and events like Starbuck's going public. "Anything that increases the awareness of espresso helps our business. Awareness leads to consumption, and consumption leads to demand," says Burgess.

The new Burgess carts are made of aluminum for strength and lightness, the wooden panels are removable. This unique design allows the operator to replace worn looking panels on a component basis. It also allows for a complete change of look and color if the location should change.

Interest in the espresso cart business is world-wide. Recent customers for Burgess include Taiwan and the Philippines. According to Mr. Burgess the cart is also transcending the to-go barrier, "customers in Japan wanted a cart that was more friendly, so we created a counter bar that is usable for a number of people. Customers can sit or stand at the bar and watch drinks being prepared for other customers."

The competition is heating up

A lot of new people are getting into the specialty coffee business via espresso drinks. Anyone who attended the SCAA show in Seattle had an eye-opening experience. This is not a small industry anymore. It's no longer possible to know all the other players. In fact, it's hardly possible to know all the roaster/retailers in your town.

As the SCAA gets larger and stronger, the business of supplying espresso and espresso drinks is going to get more and more competitive. While I have always maintained that there is room for everyone in this business, the majority of profit will go to those who spend their time listening and responding quickly to their customers.
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Title Annotation:popularity of espresso and other specialty coffee beverages
Author:Moore, Wendy Rasmussen
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Nov 1, 1992
Words:1525
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