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Serving Food in your Café

by Jay Weller, Owner @ Barista Pro Shop

Should you serve food in your coffee house?

Most coffee house owners recognize that serving some food in their coffee house is beneficial to their bottom line. The question for most is "To what extent should we serve food?" We hope to help you answer that question with some observations we've made over the past 14 years of working with coffeehouses. Barista Pro Shop began as a wholesale bakery (which we still run today in Colorado), so we are even more experienced with the question of food in the coffee house than most.

As I write this in the Spring of 2007, there's interesting food related things going on in the Specialty Coffee business. There are also interesting things going on in the "breakfast on the run" business. Stabucks, Dunkin' Donuts and McDonalds seem to be headed right at each other's markets with none of them slowing down. The importance of this to you is to realize that although you may not consider 2 or even all 3 of them to be your competition, your customers might well view them that way. You and I live Specialty Coffee every day-it's what we're passionate about. The commuter or student who comes through your store might be coming to your store because, yes, you do have the best coffee, but you might also be the most convenient to their morning route. If it hasn't happened already, eventually one of the three previously mentioned chains is going to show up on that same customer's morning route. If your customer has decided to stop eating breakfast at home, you may lose that customer if you can't offer them something to eat with their coffee. So what do those three offer? They have fairly basic breakfast fare: donuts, scones, muffins, tea breads, and breakfast sandwiches. What should you offer?

It probably makes the most sense to start with the easy stuff. By easy, we mean items that you buy already prepared, and those that have a long shelf life. Good examples here are individually wrapped biscotti and frozen, thaw and serve, baked goods. Offering 3 or 4 different product groups (perhaps biscotti, muffins, scones and cookies), should be enough to satisfy the basic needs of many of your customers. Start with these items and respond to feedback from your core customers.

A second phase for the coffee house might be to add some more perishable items like bagels and croissants. These items will also give you the opportunity to start offering breakfast sandwiches. Your local food service provider should be able to supply you with bacon that's already been cooked and sausage patties that have been cooked. You can simply prepare scrambled eggs by using a small Rubbermaid type container and cooking them in the microwave. The eggs cook quickly and the container will make them the perfect size for a bagel or croissant. Although most coffee houses will get fresh bagels daily, we do have customers that buy from a local bagel bakery and freeze them. You might also want to check around to see what kind of breakfast sandwiches might be available from local companies-we make Breakfast Burritos in Colorado that are extremely popular (they taste great!)

The final phase for most coffee house owners is to add a couple of additional baked goods, like brownies, and to offer some light lunch items. If you don't want to make chicken or tuna salads from scratch, you should look for a local deli who can make these items for you fresh. You can also bring in some premium lunch meats and nice vegetables to make sandwiches-these can all be served on bagels, croissants or you may want to offer bread-is there a local artisan bread bakery that you can team up with to use their bread for your sandwiches and also retail their breads to your customers? Get a premium potato chip (you probably have a local brand that's popular) and really good deli pickles, and in addition to being the morning coffee stop, your customers might stop back for lunch.

There are obviously lots of other products you can offer. If you're between a Dunkin and a Krispy Kreme, you might have to offer donuts-or that might be the reason that you don't!! We also see coffee houses offering quiche and lasagna. Soups are very popular-and can be simple. Your local food service provider probably has a frozen, canned or aseptically packed soup option for you, and can probably help you with the rather minimal equipment you'll need to get started. Sounds great, huh? So…..

What's the downside?
Waste. It's really hard to know what your customers are going to want on a daily basis. With Specialty Coffee, it doesn't really matter what their whims are. Espresso and Milk are part of many of the drinks you sell, and most of the other ingredients don't really have a shelf life-chocolate, flavored syrups, etc. Serving food is a whole different ballgame. Here are some strategies to help you:

  1. The freezer is your friend! A lot of the baked goods you'll want to offer may be available frozen. If they're not, ask the bakery if they could freeze them for you. Store them in heavy duty reclosable freezer bags and put the bags inside of plastic boxes to keep them from getting crushed. Pull your scones, muffins and other baked goods from the freezer as you need them.
  2. Keep it simple. Start with a limited menu and add to it as you can. Making sandwiches? If you make them on bagels, you have double use for your bagel inventory. Have to offer bread? Offer Sourdough and Whole Wheat-most can choose from those two options. Whenever you can, make sure you have multiple uses for any perishable ingredient you buy. Bagels are just one example.
  3. Rotate! It's obvious, but make sure you rotate your stock.
  4. Buy smart. For your perishables, it may make sense to buy from the food service provider. You might do better in the long run though by purchasing at the grocery store. For one, you won't have to meet minimums for delivery. You can also pick the best looking produce, and avoid the stuff that doesn't look too hot. For items that you want to buy from a distributor, perhaps gourmet meats and cheeses, if you can't or don't want to meet minimums, ask your sales rep who else in your area buys from them. If it's not someone in direct competition, maybe you can team up to place your orders together. You might be able to order more frequently (and rotate stock faster), but at least you won't have to come up with the whole minimum yourself.

Pricing is a big issue. As you know, restaurants fail all the time. You've no doubt hear that you should "triple your food cost" when offering food-side note from a wholesale baker, you should be able to double your cost on prepared bakery items. Tripling should be done when you are preparing the food from raw ingredients. Pricing is a balancing act. Begin by checking out what the competition is doing. You won't be able to compete price-wise with the $ .99 Sausage Egg McMuffin, but I know you can make a better sandwich to serve with your Specialty Coffee and get $3 for it. So first, find out what the range of competitive options for people are. Ask your customers where they go for lunch and breakfast-check those places out. The next step is to develop your food menu so that you can make products to sell at the competitive price, but where they'll fall into a markup of 250% to 300%.

Whatever your philosophy towards food in your coffee house is, if you're going to offer food, do it as well as you can. If you are strictly a Specialty Coffee house that serves espresso based drinks and are only offering a bare bones food menu, offer the best food you can. If coffee is your main product, but you don't sell enough to make the business as profitable as you need it to be, then offer a strong selection of food items and take every opportunity to educate your customers about your coffee. Whatever you do, do your research. Serving food may mean additional equipment purchases, more vendors and even more employees. If you plan well, respond to your customers and stay on top of your food program, it can be a really beneficial sideline to your coffee business. Just as you like to "one stop shop" from Barista Pro Shop, your loyal customers would love to one stop shop from you!