Is Bottomless Coffee Really a Good Idea?

February 19, 2008 · Filed Under Uncategorized · 1 Comment 

bottomless.gif All humor aside, sometimes I really do wonder.

Although offering bottomless cups of coffee can be quite popular with patrons, it may not be the best solution to getting paying customers inside your doors.

Consider this:
Your coffee costs you probably anywhere between $4.50 and $9 per pound wholesale. This is not commodity grade stuff. Why bother to source Specialty Coffee suppliers in the first place if there is no emphasis on the quality of the coffee in the retail environment?
Let’s discuss this in terms of perception. A customer comes in. They pay their $1-$2. They get their cup, and head to the air-pot… again… and again… and again. At this rate, what is it they’re paying for? Are they paying for the coffee, or are they getting free coffee when they rent some table space for hours on end? Even if they do perceive that they are paying for the coffee, what kind of a message does this send out about the caliber of the coffee being sold?

The point being made is that coffee sold this way is perceived to have little to no value at all. Obviously, if you are a Specialty Coffee retailer, your coffee is far from worthless.

Now, then. I am assuming that part of the reason we all got into this business is to share our love for great coffee with other people, and to help boost the overall appreciation of what it is we do. Does selling coffee for practically nothing contribute to this cause? In a way, yes. But what’s the result?

Tossing out bottomless coffee as a menu item has its benefits. For one thing, less waste. You don’t need to brew an entire air-pot because a bottomless coffee customer needs a “warm-up”of a coffee that just ran out… half an hour to closing time. (If this happens, and you DO sell bottomless coffee, it is better to serve the customer than to attempt to conserve another pot of coffee).

Better still, is brewing by the cup. There are many solutions to accomplishing this goal, such as a Pour-over Stand, French Presses, Chemex (another pour-over), Siphon Brewers (aka vacuum pots), or the gigantic investment of equipment known as Clover.

There is more than one benefit to the cup-at-a-time concept. For one thing, the perceived value of a cup of coffee increased, and thus, so does the potential pricing. Second, how does “no wasted coffee” sound? Everyone in this business knows that a cup of coffee costs change to the business, but what does this add up to if you compound the average volume of coffee thrown away in just one day? Don’t look at it in actual cost, look at it in terms of potential income costs. For most retailers, this is quite a number! Last in this rather short list of benefits is the quality of the coffee. In a hands-on approach to brewing coffee, the barista can actually manipulate various factors to brew a better cup of coffee. With an automated drip brewer, you’re pretty much limited with the barista’s interaction in the process.

This hand-crafted cup of coffee that tastes divine is certainly something worth paying for. This is not your average off-the-shelf cup of Joe, and your customers will be able to see and taste that with their own senses. Higher profit margins per cup, less waste, and a higher perceived quality of the products being sold by your company. Sound like a winning combination? You bet it does.

Now let’s have a look at the other side of this coin. I know there are many retailers who offer bottomless coffee because it encourages their customers to stay for longer. The longer they stay, the more likely they are to buy other items like pastries, bottled water, and food items like panini (or other sandwiches), soup, or salad (if these items are offered). The money is not made on the coffee in these situations, but on the mark-up of the various consumables that a “camper” is likely to purchase during their stay.

When this is the case, then the time has come to ditch the title of “coffee retailer” in favor of something along the lines of “Cafe”. At this point, you are no longer selling coffee. You are practically giving it away in an effort to attract more customers to your company’s focus: food. Not that there is anything wrong with that. It’s best to know where you stand, and to be honest with yourself, and your customers. If you are not primarily a Specialty Coffee retailer, make this reflected in the name of your business, and your company’s presentation to the public.

How about another perspective. Starbucks does not sell bottomless coffee, nor do they offer refills at a discount (or even at all). You have to wonder if there’s a reason for this. If nothing else, please realize that if Starbucks can do it, so can a quality focused independent retailer. The difference is that the independent retailer has more flexibility to really milk the single cup pricing for all its worth.

What’s best for your bottom line may not line up with real possibilities. What’s best for promoting coffee and its producers is probably not best for drawing customers in to purchase food items, and visa versa. Your coffee is special, and deserves to be marked according to its value. I encourage you to find the courage to promote the coffee for the sake of great coffee. There is profit to be made in doing so, and the industry as a whole can only benefit from an increased consumer awareness of quality coffee.

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