Why You Can't Get a Great Cup of Coffee at a Restaurant

We recently went to an upscale restaurant and noticed a Kona Coffee on the menu from a farm we admired. We ordered a french press of the coffee for $14.00. We could watch the waitress through a glass wall brewing the coffee. She put pre-ground coffee into a french press and then poured in heated tap water. She then immediately pushed the plunger down and brought it to our table. We asked her about her coffee training. She said that a former waiter had showed her how to do it. Needless to say the coffee wasn’t very good.

A recent survey found that 30 percent of five star restaurants serve espresso made with Nespresso capsules. An even larger percentage of lesser restaurants use pod or capsule machines to serve their customers. Capsule coffee is actually a step up for most restaurants who used to serve coffee brewed from stale five pound bags of medium grade ground coffee. However, a coffee capsule is the equivalent of a restaurant serving pre-prepared frozen meals cooked in a microwave oven. Good, but not great.

If you dine at a great restaurant, the typical flavor in your mouth as you drive home is cheap, bad coffee, If you ask restaurateurs why they don’t serve great coffee they rattle off a number of reasons:

  • Coffee is Not Profitable

The bottom line for any restaurateur is making a profit. The average profit even in a five star restaurant is in the single digits, so there isn’t much room in the bottom line for no-profit items.

A restaurant has to charge at least 2.5 times their product cost to make a profit. Bottles of wine are typically sold at 2.5 times the restaurant cost. So a wine purchased for $50 will be served in a restaurant for $125, a profit of $75 per bottle. Since a bottle of wine will fill 5 glasses the profit is $15 a glass.

A great pound of coffee, which will make 45 cups, can be bought for $100. So applying the same ratio, the restaurant should charge at least $5.55 per cup for a total of $250 per pound or a profit of $3.33 per cup.

To make a cup of $100/pound coffee as profitable as a glass of $125/bottle wine, a restaurant could charge $17.22 per cup ($775\pound).Many five star restaurants already charge more for a cup of coffee. Some restaurants charge $15 for a cup of 70 cent capsule coffee. There is no economic reason that restaurants can’t serve great coffee.

Coffee is a profit center, so that isn’t the real reason restaurants don’t brew great coffee.

  • Too Much Labor

Brewing and serving great coffee takes skill and effort. Restaurateurs try to assign coffee making to their current staff. None of them want to do it. They don’t have the training, they don’t like it, it increases their workload, and they don’t see additional tips for it. So the coffee service starts at the top with a sommelier and over time progresses downwards through the bartender, the host and the wait staff. Finally, it drops to the bottom rung and the buser makes the coffee.

There is no more extra labor in serving coffee than any other restaurant item. However, the perception is that it is just extra work that isn’t rewarded. Too much extra labor isn’t the problem, it is the perception of unrewarded extra work that is the problem.

  • Customers Don’t Know the Difference

It is true that many customers do not know the difference between a bad coffee and a great coffee. Many of them even before they taste coffee drown it in cream and sugar. (These are the same people who ask for steak sauce for their beef wellington.)

Great restaurants don’t cater to the lowest common denominator. A great chef will prepare great food, catering to those people who can appreciate it. A great sommelier will recommend a wine and take the time to educate diners, if they do not know wine. A great barista will prepare a coffee and explain the aromas and flavors of the coffee she is serving, to help customers appreciate it. If “customers don’t know the difference” was a good excuse we would all be eating Swanson TV dinners.

There are really only two reasons that good restaurants don’t serve great coffee (1) No one in the restaurants knows how to source and brew great coffee and (2) coffee drinking slows down table turnover.

  • We Can’t Make a Great Cup of Coffee

Most restaurateurs and their chefs failed Coffee Making 101. In fact, most of them have never taken the course. You wouldn’t expect a chef to take one course in cooking school and then lead a kitchen. Restaurateurs can’t expect their staffs to source, brew and explain great coffees after taking a six hour course from a local coffee roaster.

Great coffee just like great wine is more than just pouring a beverage. A great barista, besides knowing how to brew, knows how to source different coffees, how to pair coffees to the food service, how to describe the coffee to customers and etc.

The average salary for a skilled barista who can brew great espresso and drip coffee is $18,000 per year. Adding a great barista to the payroll isn’t that expensive and results in increased profit.

  • Slows Down Turnover

Restaurant profitability depends on how many customers are served in a night. If the restaurant is successful, dinner customers exceed the number of tables. So turnover – more than one set of customers at a table per night is critical. Successful 5 star restaurants turnover their tables at least twice each night. Less expensive restaurants look for three or more turnovers. Turnover is so critical that some restaurateurs try to increase it by using uncomfortable chairs, loud music, bright colors, dropping the check before the meal is finished and etc. Restaurants’ table turnover tricks boost business http://goo.gl/Ny8C3h

Customers enjoying a great cup of coffee at the end of a meal slow turnover and cut down profit. Table turnover is a key reason that restaurants don’t serve great coffee.


A few restaurants are starting to recognize specialty coffee as an gourmet menu item. As customers begin to taste coffee rather than just drinking it, they are demanding more flavor and variety in the restaurant coffee service. If a patron has spent hundreds of dollars for food and wine, a cup from a seventy cent coffee capsule isn’t going to cut it. A number of high end restaurants are now featuring french press, aeropress and chemex coffees made by a barista, often right at the table. How Restaurants Are Stepping Up Their Coffee Game http://goo.gl/XKaX8i So there is hope for the future that some day we can get as great a coffee in a restaurant as we can from a high end coffee shop.

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