The modern day consumer

The modern day consumer

16 February 2015

Walking down any busy street in Australia, it’s commonplace to see more than one cafe within a 100-metre radius. Typically, one of those cafes will attract a few passersby and staple regulars. The other will have customers pouring onto the footpath who are more than happy to wait the extra 15 minutes for a table. Even when cafes use exactly the same coffee, some will inevitably do better than others. So what is it that the modern-day consumer responds to?

There are a number of interesting factors, and one of those is cafe design. A minimalist retail fit-out including cheap concrete floors, and grungy, second-hand furniture can actually be an attraction. I know of one really successful coffee outlet that started in a warehouse with a handme- down espresso machine, spare benches and home furniture that was gathering dust in storage. Their total set-up cost was no more than a few hundred dollars. They have gone on to build their sales to almost 100 kilograms of coffee per week, and this has been achieved by someone who is not “coffee obsessed”.

This operator does take care with the very limited food offering they make available, and one thing that resonates with customers is good old-fashioned hospitality. A cafe that makes its customers feel really welcome is always going to attract regulars. This particular venue is kidfriendly with really easy access for mums to have their young children playing around. There’s even an old primary school desk and chairs and babycinos to enjoy. In this case, it is the eclectic fit-out plus the great hospitality skills that outweigh the coffee expertise and make a very successful coffee business.

However, it has taken time for this concept to work. It took almost three years for this cafe owner to start earning a wage. But as a business, it is now a raging success and would be the envy of any cafe operator anywhere in the world. Customers are drawn to it in ever increasing numbers, which goes to show – in this case – there are three key things that resonate with that customers: excellent espresso coffee; minimal food, and no extra brewmethods other than cold brew prepared off-site.

In talking to Alex Williams from one of Sydney’s newest up-and-coming cafes called Dachshund, in Hunter’s Hill, he puts equal emphasis on serving specialty coffee from Fat Poppy, and on the cafe’s eggs and bread. This cafe applies a lot of attention to its espresso delivery as well as alternative brew methods. But in reality these coffees make up a very tiny percentage of their retail sales. Dachshund’s outstanding success has required a lot of previous coffee experience from three very skilled, energetic and seasoned young baristas. Within a few months the cafe had write-ups in the Sydney Morning Herald food guide and has taken off with a bang.

Many operators are now experimenting with cold-drip, filter, syphon and aeropress. This certainly creates some coffee theatre, or “coffee wallpaper”, which in turn can feed into educating consumers, who come along for the ride. But alternative brewing is mostly still an emerging trend that is only gradually seeping out through cafe operators via their own innate curiosity, or as a result of their desire to “keep up with the Joneses”. Consumers are not creating huge demand for alternate brewing methods. Over 90 per cent of coffee sales in Australian cafes are still milk-based. Australian consumers are very discerning about the taste of their milk-based coffee. If it is not up to scratch they will very quickly move on, regardless of how much coffee paraphernalia is on display.

If there’s a cafe with a coffee bar that features a range of brewing options, as opposed to one without, is does say to consumers: “We take our game seriously, trust what we do”. However, it will not necessarily increase the likelihood of success. Most consumers do not want to be waiting 10 minutes for a coffee, which is how long it recently took one experienced inner-city operator to provide one syphon coffee and one drip coffee. The extra coffee equipment and consequent coffee theatre does communicate to coffee curious people that there is something different going on, despite it being a revival of old brewing methods. Whether these coffee bars can reach into the heartland of mainstream consumers in Australia remains to be seen.

Whether coffee is fairly traded seems to be only a very superficial concern for customers, I would guess that maybe one in 5000 customers would ask about it. Even then, intelligent consumers seem to have a very limited understanding of the nuances and complexities of ethical trading with Third World producers. Education is essential for wholesalers, but at a cafe level it seems to be a pretty peripheral concern, although those who offer it do grow their business.

Again, it is the passion of the operator here that makes the difference. If a cafe’s direct trade story is genuine and is based around the quality of the coffee, consumers will respond positively to this kind of sincerity. The customer trusts the integrity of the cafe operator, and the cafe operator trusts the integrity of their roaster or green bean supplier. If they are a small roaster themselves they don’t have time to travel to each individual country and track down the hundreds of individual growers who grow the coffee they use – this is where trust applies.

The Australian Masterchef effect can’t be underestimated in cafes either. There is an increasing number of Australian consumers looking for cafes that take as much care with the quality of their food ingredients as they do with their coffee. The expansion of the fine dining experience to cafes without the snobbery, where staff are knowledgeable about the quality of the food and beverages they are offering, is becoming increasingly important if you want to succeed in your coffee business.

Most of the specialty coffee knowledge that baristas absorb has seeped down ultimately from the World Barista Championship (WBC). Just like developments in F1 car racing seep down to mainstream car manufacturers a few years later, different coffee ideas are making their way down to curious baristas at street level as a result of the WBC. For example, hand-held roast analysers, and an understanding of different roasting rates, and time differentials between first crack and drop temperature, are starting to bubble up at a cafe level via knowledgeable baristas. It may be quite a while before this becomes a factor in consumers’ minds but it is all a part of the ever increasing dynamic of a rapidly maturing and interesting retail coffee industry.

Consumers are not just drawn to educated baristas. The gift of hospitality is equally as important. Making a customer feel welcome and cared for is as necessary as coffee knowledge for a cafe to be successful.