Coffee: The high end

Espressos, Americanos, cappuccinos, lattes; these are the real moneymakers in foodservice these days.

The tremendous surge in specialty coffee sales has taught operators that buying and serving better quality hot beverages, from java to chai, black and green teas and herbal brews, pays big dividends. It starts with smart purchasing.

"There's only four or five cents worth of actual coffee in that cup, so don't skimp on quality," says coffee broker Ed Faubert, president of L.E. Faubert & Company. He advises buying 100 percent arabica beans rather than the poorer quality robusta, and beware of cheaper blends that are mostly robusta beans.

Much recent attention from sophisticated consumers has focused on organic crops (sales of which jumped 40 percent last year), Fair Trade coffees (which especially appeal to "green" customers) and geographic-specific beans (which, like fine wines, taste of their terroir). S&D Coffee, for example, just introduced its Buffalo & Spring coffee line, which includes certified Fair Trade and regionals like Guatemala Huehuetenango.

Many operators who have mastered the espresso machine are turning their attention to other hot beverages, like chai and teas. Virtually unknown a decade ago, spicy, sweet and milky chai is a sought-after coffee alternative these days. For operators, putting chai on the menu is a snap. Oregon Chai packages its eponymous beverage as a concentrate in 32-ounce, shelf-stable cartons; as mixes (just add water); and chai tea bags. Chai flavors include Original, Java, Kashmir Green and Vanilla. Seasonal variations such as Chai Cider and Chai Nog are available for the holidays. Oregon's latest intro is a sugar-free concentrated Chai.

"Serving good-quality hot tea has always presented a challenge to restaurants," says Joe Simrany, president of the Tea Association of the United States. Lately, however, Simrany is seeing a move toward premium teas in foodservice. He cites all the new upscale teabags on the market, including pyramid-shaped and see-through bags that let the leaves' pedigrees show. "The payback is tremendous," insists Simrany. There's not a tremendous increase in price, the teas cost just pennies more, because each bag only contains 2.2 grams of tea. "And they've already got the hot water and the tea cups."

For starters, Simrany suggests offering on-premise customers a few choices in a tea chest. "First, you've got to offer basic tea for the unsophisticated drinker, a mass-market brand like Tetley, Lipton or Bigelow," he advises. Fill out the chest with a few traditional varieties, such as Earl Grey or English Breakfast, a decaf and an herbal or two. To upgrade even further, a single-origin tea like Darjeeling or Assam will impress aficionados.

Twinings of London has been selling fine teas for 300 years. Now the venerable firm is introducing distinctively full-flavored, naturally caffeine-free herbal teas segmented according to the "mood states" they invoke. Relaxing blends in the "Unwind" section include Egyptian Camomile and Apple; African Honeybush, Mandarin and Orange; and Citrus, Cinnamon and Spices. The invigorating "Revive" selections include Cherry and Madagascan Cinnamon; Blackcurrant, Ginseng, and Tahitian Vanilla; and Lemon and Chinese Ginger.

"Anybody can sell tea for a buck, but if you're going to charge a couple of dollars more for a cup, that takes a little more effort," Simrany concludes.

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