Last fall, I drifted through the meticulously revamped Union Station in Denver toward my first cup (actually, three) of coffee for the day. Mercantile Dining & Provision, the largest and most dynamic restaurant in the active train depot, rather unusually, offers a coffee flight on its morning menu. Astride a wooden stool at the bar, pure mile-high sunlight flooding the counter, I accepted a platter of three different brews from beans roasted locally by Commonwealth and hand-poured on a timer, for comparison. Akin to a wine tasting flight, the best way to understand nuance in what we drink (in my opinion), Mercantile seeks to introduce coffee drinkers to the same experience. After tasting the differences between the three coffees — a natural processed Panamanian (orange, sage), washed processed Panamanian (honey, cherry), and Guatemalan (pizza herbs, cinnamon) — I wondered why the hell I had to come all the way to Denver, better known for its microbreweries and orange jerseys, to experience something my home turf should’ve conceived of long ago.
It hardly needs pointing out that New York boasts a vibrant dining culture and robust coffee scene; why, then, do restaurants continue to serve customers crappy coffee? Even if the low end of the spectrum (diners and Irish pubs) might be forgiven, one stratum of the market should be ashamed of itself: For example, approximately one third of Michelin-starred restaurants serve their customers Nespresso coffee pods. These restaurants will source only the finest, most rarefied ingredients (such as seasonal, foraged Candy caps from Northern California), bake olives into dainty bread loaves, squirt squid ink into hand-cranked pasta, meticulously orchestrate plating so that every aspect of the dining experience is on point with their projected ethos, and then serve you the equivalent of a seat on the subway while charging for a cabin on the Orient Express.
Restaurateurs cite a litany of reasons for serving automated coffee; “it saves space, training time, and money” form the predictable triad of excuses. While some argue push-button coffee isn’t evil per se, I have to question if such lukewarm advocates for said machines have ever enjoyed the deep, searing experience of an expertly pulled shot. If they’ve only ever tasted what passes for “espresso” in America, there’s a good chance they have not.
With growing consternation and a list of questions, I sought input from people pushing for a sea change, like coffee industry maven Jesse Kahn. It turns out that serving excellent coffee is not that hard, nor that far off into the future.
Kahn is head of Northeast regional sales for Counter Culture. As one of the East Coast’s best specialty coffee wholesalers, their business is wholly interested in developing the trend of marrying great food with great coffee.
New York restaurateurs have traditionally noted a slew of obstacles to improved coffee programs: training, space, low margins, and lack of appreciation and/or demand. Kahn discounts several of these. “Training,” he remarks, “is not an obstacle that’s specific to coffee…it’s challenging across the board. To be a quality establishment in the first place, a restaurant will already have an integrated training program. This is about deciding to dedicate training time to coffee.”
Most specialty coffee roasters like Counter Culture, Stumptown, and Intelligentsia provide training programs, but Taylor Mork, co-founder and president of Brooklyn-based green coffee wholesale company Crop to Cup, still finds flaws in the implementation. “Currently, when restaurants have coffee training, the coffee roaster comes in and does a dog-and-pony show for at least a dozen staff (as many as the manager can rustle up before their evening meeting/staff meal)…all in 45 minutes.” He argues that’s too little time to teach milk texture, shot pulling, and drink recipes, and that managers should nominate fewer staff for the job, and train them legitimately. “Trying to train the entire wait/bar staff is the most common [method] for restaurants, but it is useless,” he says.
To Mork’s point, Kahn observes that coffee is often mistaken as a front-of-house product like alcohol, and is prepared by front-of-house staff, despite the fact that “no one is producing alcohol to order in a restaurant, just pouring a pre-made product into a glass.” Rather, he equates making coffee to preparing food: “I don’t know how well the food would be received at a restaurant if every time an order was placed, a back server had to jump on the hot line…coffee is mistaken as a ‘difficult’ product to serve well, when in fact it’s no more challenging than the food that’s going out of the kitchen.”
As far as equipment and its maintenance, the costs are high for restaurateurs who feel compelled to offer espresso-based drinks. That decision forces investment in an extremely expensive machine (all espresso machines are pricey; La Marzocco weighs in near the top) needing regular tending and operator expertise, or a default to an automated system like Nespresso at a fraction of the cost. As a biased coffee lover, Kahn believes the quandary shouldn’t excuse bad coffee. “There has to be value for the restaurant. If you’re not selling enough coffee (or selling it at an appropriate price) to justify the cost of equipment and maintenance, or if you can’t balance the cost laterally across the rest of your offerings, you shouldn’t be serving coffee. Serving lower-quality coffee is not a great solution.”
Kahn does see a speck of light at the end of the subway tunnel, however. Two forces, upgrades in alcoholic beverages and New York’s thriving coffee scene, continue to drive coffee program improvements. For example, as restaurants swap mass-market beers like Heineken and Amstel for craft options, inevitably, the same mindset applies to the pre-ground bags of generic coffee they’d heretofore been ordering in bulk. And “the existence of phenomenal coffee venues in their neighborhoods,” Kahn conjectures, “serving freshly roasted, seasonally relevant, deliberately prepared coffee” will also challenge them to evolve.
Maialino, the Roman-inspired Danny Meyer establishment in the Gramercy Park Hotel and Counter Culture client, is commonly acknowledged as one of the first NYC restaurants to make coffee a front-and-center focus. Other venues have followed, though the list grows slowly, considering there are approximately 16,000 full-service dining operations in the NYC area. The Spotted Pig (espresso and French press), Franny’s (espresso), Marta (espresso and filter), the Queens Kickshaw (espresso, filter coffee, pour-over, kegged cold brew), and Fort Defiance (espresso and pour-over), are just a few of Counter Culture’s other progressive clients.
Perhaps epitomizing the apogee of luxury coffee service, Eleven Madison Park utilizes Intelligentsia single-origin coffees in several theatrical, tableside preparations. Ellen Seidenstein, a former barista (and formerly of Maialino), is now an EMP captain and manager of the coffee program. Seidenstein has the uncommon, coveted luxury of freedom of ambition without the constraint of demonstrating an ROI. Her coffee selections change by the season (most recently featuring Zambia, Ethiopia, and Mexico); the team boasts full-time baristas; hand-poured options include Chemex, siphon, and the elusive Nel; coffee is brewed through a flan(nel) filter into a glass decanter. This last method is seen in restaurants as rarely as a snow leopard in the Himalayas.
The transporting coffee fantasyland cultivated at EMP isn’t a practical model for most restaurateurs or diners to aspire to (although Nespresso-serving Michelin-starred restos should be taking notes). Spending hundreds of dollars shouldn’t be a prerequisite to drinking good coffee at a fine meal’s end. In fact, compared to other luxury foods (truffles, urchin, caviar), enjoying a cup of something distinct, special, even rare, doesn’t cost that much. Restaurants should seize on the opportunity to market a good coffee program as a point of differentiation from the rest of the competition. As Sarah Miller from Birch Coffee points out, “serving a customer bad coffee is like putting a wrapped Twinkie on a plate for dessert. You just would not do that.”