If your company roasts coffee for wholesale, you are undoubtedly an observer of retailers that sell coffee as they are your customers and potential customers and the source of both bread and butter. Retailers come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, colors, wingspans, and nesting habits. All retailers belong to the class of “Merchant,” but even within the coffee retailer Family, there are many species. We endeavor here in this brief field guide, designed to be carried with you as a reference in the wild, to describe some of the most common species of coffee retailer, and a few rare species as well. Who knows, it may very well help you organize your wholesale accounts into categories, if you’re so inclined. Note, as with all wild things, the descriptions are general, exceptions abound, and this guide is in no way comprehensive.

 

The Restaurant

Full course variable menu, prepared (mostly) from raw, fresh ingredients, with table service and a full bar with seating. Estimated coffee per week on average: 10 pounds. With one day of brunch: 15 pounds. With breakfast all week: 30-50 pounds.

The most common species of coffee retailer is the Restaurant. Ubiquitous and highly adaptive to their environment, none but the most isolated among us can travel more than a few miles without passing a restaurant of some kind. And virtually all of them serve coffee.

It is beyond the scope of this field guide to describe every type of restaurant one may encounter in the wild. But the specialty coffee roaster is, very generally speaking, only interested in a few of the restaurant subspecies. Their eyes are attracted to the fine dining establishments, the chef-driven eateries, and the high-concept restaurants that draw a lot of publicity. Nearly every roaster is seduced at one time or another by the “bright colors” of these restaurants, and for good reason. There is, indeed, value in being associated with reputations built around quality food and preparation and local buzz. Value, but rarely any money.

Even the chef-driven restaurant that offers espresso will rarely break out of the bottom 10% of your wholesale accounts in terms of volume ordered unless they serve brunch on the weekends. So, if you’re not going to make a lot of money on volume, maximize the value. Maybe the restaurant will mention your roastery on the menu.  Chefs are often involved in local events and causes. Offer to support events the chef is supporting by bringing coffee or donating a gift basket for a silent auction. Assuming the chef is proud to offer your coffee, give them every opportunity to mention you by being involved where they are involved. If you’re a larger roaster and take wholesale accounts to origin, invite a chef along. Invite a chef to help judge a throw down or other competition.

The most experienced roasters know that the greatest subspecies of restaurants are those that serve breakfast. Sometimes a chef-driven or high-concept restaurant will serve breakfast, in which case you should be prepared to run into seven other roasters as you walk through the door. Competition for this business is high because they are both high-profile accounts and high volume (relatively speaking, for restaurants).

There are at least two types of restaurants that many experts believe are separate species entirely. While taking no position on this controversy, we do believe they merit their own descriptions.

The Family Restaurant   

Full course and beyond menu that rarely changes, prepared from a combination of fresh raw, frozen, and/or previously prepared foods with table and often counter service, and (usually) no bar, though beer and wine may be available. Estimated coffee per week on average: 25 pounds.

To the same degree that high-end restaurants catch the roaster’s eye, the family restaurant does not. A roaster can likely name all the high-profile restaurants they pass on the way to work, and none of the family restaurants. They’re as common as sparrows. This is not snobbery. It’s just practical. Most family restaurants are part of regional or national chains with centralized buyers whose jobs are to negotiate margins that are so thin you must submit proposals on air-mail paper.

If you’re a large roaster offering a wide variety of qualities and have sales people experienced in navigating complex, multi-level sales, keeping these buyers under siege is just another day at the office. So why even mention the Family Restaurant? Because not all family restaurants are chain restaurants, but locally owned restaurants built around simple food thoughtfully prepared. Take a second look. The sorts of people who operate well run restaurants like this have real relationships with their suppliers; they even take meetings. They might suffer sticker shock at the prices of your coffee but you have a solid case to make and they are all aware that even fast food chains have improved the quality of their coffee over the last decade.

The Diner

Large breakfast menu with limited lunch and dinner menu which almost never changes, prepared from both fresh and frozen ingredients, with table and usually counter service, and usually no alcohol served in a relatively small space, traditionally open 24 hours unless a “breakfast diner.” Estimated coffee per week on average: 50 pounds.

Often overlooked by specialty roasters, the traditional diner is, as a sub-species, a little like the locally owned family restaurant. Diner operators were once notorious for thinking of coffee as a purely functional part of the meal and, indeed, some people associate a certain flavor profile, not without affection, but improved with sugar, milk, and residual pancake syrup, with diners. Today’s diner operator, if they haven’t turned bad coffee into a brand element, understands the need for a decent cup and they brew a lot of it. When they decide to turn it up a notch, give them a reason to think of you. For some reason, a diner is often a very personal endeavor, as evidenced by the names they are given. If custom blends (or custom names for blends) are part of your business model, make sure the diner on your call list is receiving a sample of their custom blend once a quarter.

 

Coffee served alongside beignets at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans.

The Café

Very narrow food menu and preparation capabilities (with no raw food prep) but often expanded drink and dessert menus, sometimes with, but usually without, table service or alcohol. Estimated coffee per week on average: 50-100+ pounds.  

Sometimes the only thing that distinguishes a café from a coffeehouse is the fact that meals are prepared in some limited fashion onsite. Beverages, including and often featuring coffee, are the centerpiece of the menu. A café by this definition can rival coffeehouses in terms of volume. It would not be unusual for a popular café to be brewing 100 pounds of coffee a week or more.

Generally speaking, café operators and specialty coffee roasters speak the same language and sales success will be driven primarily by the relationship and quality but functional coffee. The café owner may be a little more focused on price than coffeehouse operators, and a little less interested in story and variety and limited single origins. The café is the first opportunity on our list for packaged whole bean resell, though this is more likely if the coffee packaging has the café’s brand.

 

The Coffeehouse

More than 50% and up to 75% of revenue is from coffee beverages specifically, with food offered but no food preparation onsite (even the toaster might be in the hands of customers) and no table service. Estimated coffee per week on average: 50-200+ pounds.  

Because a coffeehouse is all about coffee, it is the primary focus of coffee roasters, the one retailer they never stop scanning for on the horizon. Coffeehouses, relatively speaking, purchase at volume and are interested in the same sorts of things roasters are interested in, like seasonality, a wide variety of single origins, and limited offer micro-lots. Most importantly, coffeehouses know how to sell specialty coffee, which translates into: They know how to pay for specialty coffee. The more that coffee is only part of your business, the more opportunities you have to compare costs among products and wonder why coffee is often an outlier. When coffee and milk is most of your business, you’re usually comparing coffee to coffee and milk to milk in terms of costs and you’re more likely to understand the supply chain because that is your business, and not compare apples to oranges … or coffee to bagels.

Above all else, coffeehouses serve a ton of espresso and espresso blends are core and consistent revenue generators for roasters. The margin on an espresso blend can make up for the thin margin on a 12-week micro-lot that helps you and your customers remain exciting and relevant to consumers. Your coffeehouse account’s devotion to espresso blends and house drip coffee is the foundation of your success. This is why you spend so much time with new coffeehouse accounts helping them build consistency in their espresso and house blend program, so they too have a solid foundation upon which they can offer an interesting variety of everything else.

The value of coffeehouse accounts is their consistency over time which is a result of coffee being the focus of their business. With every other retailer, except perhaps cafes, coffee is an accompaniment at best and often an afterthought. In a coffeehouse, coffee is the main event … always. Included within this species for simplicity if not complete accuracy are coffee carts, kiosks, and drive-thrus (all characterized by no seating or shared seating).

Evolution has produced a hybrid of this species known colloquially as the “Multi-Roaster Coffeehouse.” Seemingly fickle and even elusive at times, these coffeehouses nevertheless value the same things that all small businesses value from their suppliers: quality, consistency, reliability, relationships. These are the strengths you should demonstrate when you’re brought in as a guest coffee because these are the things that will put you on the list if there is a change to their core coffee line-up. Although a few multi-roaster coffeehouses manage to rotate their entire menu, most will settle into one or two espresso and house blends, and that’s where you want to be when the opportunity arises.

 

In Brief

There are a few additional species we will mention only briefly to round out the field guide.

Foodservice: Food served with a focus on volume and cost efficiency but in environments where quality coffee can sometimes serve as a differentiating factor. These opportunities are almost always cafeteria environments camouflaged within institutional or corporate settings, such as office buildings, hospitals, and college campuses. They take some research to find, and are often complex sales involving both the institution and another service provider, but can be high volume at healthy margins and are often, relatively speaking, low maintenance, one blend and a decaf, accounts.

Specialty Retailers: Shops that may sell packaged whole bean coffee along with any variety of other specialty items, from cookware to gifts. These types of local shops are not as common as they once were, and are never high volume, but can be a good opportunity for new and very small roasters as first customers because these shops like small, local, and unique. A note of caution, however, these accounts can be high maintenance at low volumes.

Bakeries and Donut Shops: Independently owned bakeries and donut shops can sell a lot of brewed coffee and are usually uncomplicated, serving just one house blend.

Grocery: We will not be discussing grocery here beyond a mention to acknowledge the species exists. It is beyond the scope of this field guide … or any field guide, requiring a separate tome all its own.

Quality QSR: Independent “quick serve restaurants” with a fast food service model but fresh ingredients can be a target for the local specialty coffee roaster if they serve breakfast.

It’s not always possible to distinguish one species of coffee retailer from another and hybrids appear regularly. When attempting to identify retailers in the wild, the best course is not to assume anything and do your own research. We hope this field guide will help you identify where the 35% of coffee consumed outside the home daily in the United States (approximately 125 million cups)  is being poured.