It goes without mention that because you are opening a specialty coffee business, choosing your coffee roaster will be one of the most important decisions you will ever make.
A new start-up company should begin the selection process well ahead of your opening. Check the reputations of several coffee roasters and ask them to send you samples. Taste their coffee. Taste as many different coffees as you can, and narrow your decisions based on what your palate tells you is best.
You want to source the finest coffee you can find, regardless of the price. Think of it this way: if you were opening a steak house, would you want to serve the finest steaks you could find, or the cheapest?
Coffee is your major product. If one coffee is better than another but it costs more, buy it! You will get approximately 50 single shots of espresso, or 35 8-ounce cups of brewed coffee, from one pound of coffee beans. If a superior coffee costs a few dollars more a pound than what you had intended on spending, simply increase the prices by a nickel or a dime a cup. Ten cents more a cup will offset the price of a coffee that is three to five dollars more a pound.
In our opinion, great coffee will be much more advantageous in developing a significant level of business and customer loyalty than a five or ten cent price advantage.
When choosing a roaster for your coffee, there are several important factors to consider.
Ask the roaster if they "open date" their coffee. This is a practice of indicating on the package the date the coffee was roasted. So, always ask, "If I order my coffee today, when will I receive it, and when was it roasted?"
It will be critical to secure this knowledge or use the expertise of one who understands the nuances of correct preparation. If you have no experience in preparing espresso, be careful! Many will look for guidance from their equipment salesperson or someone else who claims they know how to make espresso.
From our travels and experience, we have found only a small percentage of coffee bars in the United States have a good understanding of how to properly prepare this beverage and most people have never tasted a properly made espresso beverage. (Our video training tool, Espresso 101, can provide you with the detailed information to understand the proper preparation of this beverage.)
Besides your espresso blend, you will need to produce quality-brewed coffee, and you may wish to sell a variety of bulk coffee for your customers to brew at home. You may wish to purchase all of your coffees from one roaster, but it is not unusual to purchase your espresso blend from one, and all your other coffees from another.
Because roasting and combining coffees to produce a superior espresso blend is a fine art, some roasters specialize exclusively in this craft. Others produce wonderful drip coffee and varietals, but their espresso blends may not compare. So do not hesitate to buy your coffees from two roasters if you cannot source one who can meet all your needs.
Another consideration is that some coffee roasters will loan you the use of a brewer and bulk grinder if you use their coffee. This certainly should not be a determining factor in selecting your roaster. But if you find several roasters which produce coffee of equal quality, and one will provide you with brewing equipment, it can save $500-$1,000 if you have limited start-up capital and are looking for ways to save money. Make sure that the brewing equipment they will supply you with is of good quality and, if it is used equipment, that it has been well maintained.
One characteristic you may wish to judge in your brewed coffee samples is the rate at which their flavor deteriorates as they are held for a period of time. Hold the coffees by the method you intend on using in your store, whether that be in a thermal pot, or in a glass pot on a warming burner. Then taste the coffees side-by-side in ten-minute increments. You may discover that one coffee loses a significant amount of flavor or develops bitter characteristics in 15 minutes, while another may hold up well for 30 to 40 minutes.
Most specialty coffee shops offer a variety of whole beans which their customers can purchase to prepare at home. We strongly recommend that you limit your selection to no more than 12 varietals, maybe 16 if you are planning on offering flavored coffees as well.
Our experience has been that if you offer more varieties than this, your customers will become overwhelmed. Also, you will experience a higher level of waste because your coffee will not sell at a rate to maintain acceptable freshness, especially with those varietals which are more obscure and unknown.
An important thing to consider if you sell whole beans is the size of your storage bins. We highly recommend that you select small capacity bins (three-to five-pound capacity). In this way, you can have the eye appeal of full bins without exposing an excessive number of beans to the damaging air. Nothing looks worse than a bin that is only 10% full, and nothing hurts more than throwing away five pounds of stale beans.
Offer a number of varietals encompassing the different characteristics peculiar to their specific area of the world, as well as some popular blends and roast levels, such as: Espresso Blend; Gourmet Drip Blend; French Roast; Decaf; Guatemalan; Colombian; Kenyan; Costa Rica; Hawaiian; Sumatran and Ethiopian or Yemen (Moka Java).
A good drip program will help promote your bulk coffee sales.
Ask many questions of the coffee roasters you are considering; their knowledge and opinions will help you narrow the pack. From there, let your palate be the judge.