June 2006

Monthly Archive

Peet’s Coffee Expansion: Counting on Beans

Posted by on 11 Jun 2006 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Today’s Los Angeles Times featured a lengthy article on Peet’s Coffee‘s plans for extensive growth: Counting on Beans – Los Angeles Times.

After taking the company public in 2001, Peet’s still managed to retain the integrity of their coffee. But because Peet’s has only grown modestly since then, it has also avoided the quality pitfalls and tradeoffs of rapid growth. For example, as Starbucks fueled explosive growth, their roast expertise dwindled, they relied on fewer and larger bean suppliers to achieve brand consistency, and the average skill level of their employees plummeted to keep their doors open when new doors were being opened on a daily basis.

Apparently the perils of being a publicly traded company cannot be held at bay for long, as Peet’s now has extensive plans for rapid growth. The question is how, and whether, they will be able to achieve these goals while maintaining the artisan specialty of their product and retaining the level of professionalism in their culture.

Trip Report: Steps of Rome

Posted by on 09 Jun 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew

This youthful North Beach hangout is often filled with patrons who speak Italian, and they often show the “calcio” (soccer) games from Italian RAI International TV. Several customers will be reading Italian newspapers at any given time, and Italian pop music often plays in the background.

However, this locale strikes me as the kind of place where the staff could care less about Italian soccer, etc., and they largely keep up appearances as a business strategy. I’ve often come in here to catch a big Juve-Roma match, only to find they are airing infomercials on TV instead and no one inside seems to care. (Contrast this with nearby Panta Rei, where the staff are religious followers. It may seem like a small matter, but it’s like the difference between watching the World Cup on the drowsy, wannabe ESPN versus the we-live-and-die-by-this-sport Univision.)

Still, this is the place the local papers often reference for passionate World Cup followers — and that’s definitely more a reflection of the patrons than the place. For the World Cup, they have an HDTV plasma screen in the corner so patrons can watch the action from inside and on the sidewalk. While they have many tables — indoor and out on the Columbus Ave. & Grant St. sidewalks — there was hardly an open table during opening match day.

Sidewalk World Cup watching at the Steps of Rome Ecuador 1 - Poland 0 in the first half on HDTV

The walls are decorated with humorous black & white glamour photos of espresso-drinking models. They serve pre-packaged Miscela d’Oro GranCrema coffee from a three-group La Spaziale.

Their espresso has a thinner, blond-to-nutmeg-colored crema (it varies) and a clove-like flavor with smoke, occasional sweetness, and no bitterness. San Francisco magazine once crowned their espresso as the best in the city in an August 2002 cover story, which is a perplexing exaggeration. Yet they do make a decent cup (even if there are many better cups in North Beach alone). They serve espresso in ACF cups branded with their lipstick logo.

Read the updated review.

Former Pazzia staffer serves up espresso with their La Spaziale The Steps of Rome espresso

Trip Report: Panta Rei … and World Cup 2006

Posted by on 07 Jun 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew

The local papers will soon be writing about some of the public places to catch World Cup 2006 in Germany, which starts this Friday and culminates in the final on July 9. The local press’ regular favorite public hangout for watching any of the 64 matches is the Steps of Rome. But if you want to chant “Forza Italia!” in style, with a good espresso in hand (most matches are broadcast live in the morning), and at an establishment that truly appreciates the finer details of soccer, pass on the Steps of Rome and check out Panta Rei further up Columbus Ave.

This very-Italian North Beach restaurant has generally inexpensive food that’s better than most of the fare in the area. Sure, there are barkers in front. But it’s a great spot for people-watching, and it’s about the only legitimate spot in SF for watching Italian soccer on a big screen TV (this is particularly true during the regular season of Italian league soccer: the staff here aren’t pretenders as at Steps of Rome). Being on a sharp corner, the restaurant is wedge-shaped, with open windows all along Columbus alongside ample sidewalk dining under a blue and white awning.

Panta Rei's bar Panta Rei readies for the WC with a 1-1 friendly draw between Italy and Switzerland

So how’s the espresso? They use a two-group La Spaziale behind the bar to pull espresso shots that are served in measured shotglasses (though sometimes they use ceramic cups). The resulting shot is the proper size (just over the one-ounce line) and has a pale crema of decent thickness. Despite its good looks, it lacks any punch: it has a muted flavor of mild spice and some herbs. Still, a worthy stop in North Beach for some espresso, food, and classic Italian alcoholic drinks.

Italian NT loyalties proudly on display out front Panta Rei literally serves shots of espresso

As for the soccer? Italian soccer is in crisis mode these days — on the heels of key player injuries to the national team and a massive domestic league match-fixing scandal that has consumed the entire nation. And while some of you may be surprised that I’m pulling most for Portugal in the WC, Italy ranks right up there among my favorites and I will undoubtedly find a seat at Panta Rei to watch them during the next month.

Read the review.

‘Barista’ rising to head of Canada’s coffee elite

Posted by on 05 Jun 2006 | Filed under: Barista

Today Waterloo, Canada’s The Record published a lengthy article on Phong Tran, an aspiring Canadian barista champ from Matter of Taste in Kitchener, ON: THERECORD.COM | INSIDER | ‘Barista’ rising to head of Canada’s coffee elite.

Eastern Canada just started their own regional barista championships last year, and there’s one going on right now in Toronto. Author Colin Hunter documents some of the finer issues and challenges Mr. Tran faces in the competition.

Coffee delivery in Australia

Posted by on 05 Jun 2006 | Filed under: Consumer Trends

The Australian‘s IT section reported on a mobile espresso business that delivers: Australian IT – Smartphones turning coffee into cash (Vincent Blake, JUNE 06, 2006).

Australians love their espresso more than almost any other nation in the world. So what do you do when you live in a sparsely-populated country with plenty of land … and plenty of outposts devoid of a good ristretto? Why, you dial a mobile espresso delivery franchise, of course.

“Hold the peperoni! An espresso delivery service, you say?” Xpresso Mobile Coffee may not deliver in 30 minutes or it’s free — the franchise specializes in catering to events and remote offices. But there’s a kernel of a good idea in there … particularly for any of us who have found ourselves in a coffee wasteland, desperate for a good tazzina.

Organic coffee loses appeal for Nicaragua growers

Posted by on 05 Jun 2006 | Filed under: Beans

Today Reuters reported on organic coffee’s diminishing financial appeal for Nicaraguan growers: Organic coffee loses appeal for Nicaragua growers | World Crises | Reuters.com.

Organic coffee certification involves a process where a farm typically takes years to demonstrate itself “chemical free” (of pesticides, growth additives, etc.). Between this expense and the lower per-acre yields of organic coffee, organic growers are not finding the crops economically viable. Organic Nicaraguan beans are currently selling at only an additional five percent margin over beans produced at chemically dependent farms.

This is a perfect example of how consumer behavior can help influence coffee sustainability and farming practices.

When the fourth wave can’t come fast enough…

Posted by on 04 Jun 2006 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew

Oh, the twist of fate. The utter irony of it. PF.net‘s Nick Cho must either be pulling his hair out or laughing his pehookies off with this one.

The Lowell Sun, of Lowell, MA, published an article today on a new “third wave” (gag, cough, spew) coffee house that’s moved into town: Lowell Sun Online – Better coffee, made slower Former Starbucks managers embark on ‘third wave’ of java revolution. The amusing part? The article cites this very Web site for its information defining “third wave” coffee.

A little background for the uninitiated. A couple months ago, I posted a rather dismissive article on the contept of third wave coffee that resulted in a bit of discussion among coffee aficionados and, in particular, advocates of the term. Also in particular, Nick Cho and I exchanged a few e-mails in debate over what “third wave” means … and I noted how it is being cited and misused in ways never intended by those who were among the original proponents of the concept.

On the one hand, being cited by the Lowell Sun proves the point I’ve tried to make with Nick all along: once the genie is out of the bottle with a pretentious term like “third wave”, public use is going to mutate it into whatever it wants it to be. But on the other hand, this validation is more than just a little maddening, because I’m now being cited as an “authority” on a concept I would like to see go away.

You can’t make stuff up this good… or bad. Though I suppose if I really had half a brain, I wouldn’t be bringing “third wave” coffee up again here. At least in the hope of letting it die a swift and silent death.

Michigan Starbucks introduce “Coffee Exploration” programs

Posted by on 03 Jun 2006 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Starbucks

Today’s Detroit Free Press reports that 80 Michigan Starbucks are offering “Coffee Exploration” programs from 2 to 3 p.m. every Saturday through December: Time for a coffee break. Programs include free, informal classes on various coffee-related topics such as better home coffee, what makes good iced coffee, and coffee bean varieties from different regions around the world.

As Starbucks Coffee’s espresso quality falls to increasingly more pedestrian levels (due to product dilution amid massive chain growth and ever-improving espresso from niche retailers), it’s a smart move for a group of regional Starbucks to invest in a coordinated consumer education effort. It extends their brand while exposing their consumers to a wider spectrum of services — with the ultimate hope of growing consumer appreciation.

Competition puts coffee shops through grinder

Posted by on 03 Jun 2006 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues, Starbucks

As an uncanny segue from my post yesterday, today’s Akron Beacon Journal published an article on the growing difficulties independent coffee houses face with increased competition: Beacon Journal | 06/03/2006 | Competition puts coffee shops through grinder.

Between ever-expanding mega-chains and a more crowded field of local independents, local coffee shops are being squeezed more than ever … just as consumer interest in espresso drinks is peaking. Differentiation is becoming all the more critical for the survival of these independents.

This is, of course, not exactly bad news for coffee consumers. It continues the Starbucks-effect of driving the quality of niche vendors ever higher. Meanwhile, better coffee continues to become more readily available.

Coffee industry rides grande buzz

Posted by on 02 Jun 2006 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Starbucks

Today’s Spokane Journal of Business took the local angle on coffee’s current explosive growth bubble: Spokane Journal of Business – Coffee industry rides grande buzz.

According to the SCAA, U.S. specialty coffee sales rose sharply to $11 billion in 2005, up from $9.6 billion in 2004. And Starbucks, the bellweather of specialty coffee, recently reported record net income of $127 million and revenues of $1.9 billion for its second fiscal quarter, up 27 percent and 24 percent, respectively, from the year-earlier period. Starbucks opened 874 stores in the past year, and they plan to open a total of 1,800 stores in 2006.

The article goes on to detail the growing number of retail outlets for espresso, citing the profit margins on espresso beverages as a main business attraction. However, without sufficient sales volume, many a dreamy-eyed café owner is destined to wind up broke and in tears. For example, Tom Wood, who co-owns Black Tie Coffee, said his stores need to sell at least 200 drink and food items a day to turn a profit.

With all this growth comes greater competition, however. I won’t suggest we’re in a consumer coffee bubble just yet. But if there was going to be one, the pieces are starting to snap into place.

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