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Tea & Coffee Get a Boost

As consumers demand more handcrafted coffee options, full-service operators are getting plenty of opportunity to upgrade their java. No longer just commodities, these beverages are getting the special treatment they deserve

By Jack Robertiello

When bartender, entrepreneur and self-described coffee novice Asio Highsmith decided to open a coffee shop in his Brooklyn neighborhood, he had everything to learn. But after an immersion in beans, brewing styles and barista methods, he opened WTF with the idea that all sorts of coffee-making would be available — cold, sock pot, Chemex, single-cup pour-over, and siphon — as well as many bean and roast styles: Brazilian, Ethiopian, Honduran, Mayan.

At WTF, every technique is state of the art, and even Highsmith’s cold-brew method is elaborate: a wood-and-glass set of vessels mounted on the walls brewing super-slow, hyper-intense “Kyoto”-style drip served with Kold-Draft bar ice.

More coffee shops around the country have started to embrace the handcrafted coffee scene. Tea, too, has started to emerge, whether through rare estate teas or those incorporating herbal and fruit flavors, as a beverage valued as much more than just a caffeine-delivery system.

But even as single-serve coffee and single-estate teas are being established as affordable luxuries in specialty cafes across the country, the average full-service restaurant has been surprisingly slow to upgrade its offerings. Boxes of indifferently sourced and often stale teas, proffered with tepid cups of water, and dreary cups of burned joe, served from pots long on the boil, are still routine at many operations.

This general indifference among restaurants is puzzling, when tea and coffee vendors report growing consumer interest in more-expensive, higher-quality products and serving styles. The average restaurant has not been keeping up with the advances in quality or customer demand. While single-serve coffee may not be practical for high-volume service, operators would be wise to take cues from the attention to detail in play at specialty coffee and tea shops.

“There are those few places that stand out, where people pay attention to carefully steeping tea or serving really good coffee,” says Jeffrey Hattrick, tea maitre d’ of Phoenix’s Ritz Carlton Hotel, “but unless the server or someone in charge is passionate about these things, it’s not likely to be special.”

Newer restaurants, though, seem willing to take the leap and follow the adventurous consumer. The recently opened Oddfellows in Dallas, a casual, American classics-focused restaurant with an open-air, walk-up coffee bar, proudly boasts an espresso machine so rare that fewer than 15 can be found in the world. And consumers seem ready to respond on the higher-end.

“The everyday coffee consumer is a lot more sophisticated than even two years ago,” says Paul Odom, who owns Seattle’s Fonté Café, which serves coffee, wine and spirits. He likens the current state of coffee to the wine world 20 years ago, when premium and super-premium wines started to supplant a mostly mass-market supermarket scene focused on low-cost fare.

“All of us have learned that there are better wines, and that’s happening with coffee,” notes Odom.

Take a close look at your operation’s coffee program and even consider blind tastings to pinpoint areas for improvement and upgrades. Photo courtesy of farmer brothers. EFFORTS TO UPGRADE
“Both guests and restaurants are finally beginning to understand that a broader and better tea list does not mean more flavors, but at its best means a wider choice of regions, estates and finishing styles,” says Cynthia Gold, tea sommelier at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel and author of “Culinary Tea.”

Some restaurants are taking steps to upgrade their coffee and tea programs. Regan Jasper, beverage director at True Foods Kitchen and other Phoenix-based Fox Restaurant Concepts (with 30-plus units), found a recent evaluation of the coffee program at all operations instructive.

“Our coffee programs were fragmented company-wide, so I decided to get all the GMs together and brew everybody’s coffee for them for a comparative tasting,” says Jasper.

The coffees ranged from an expensive Italian import to customized local roasts. He even brought instant coffee to throw into the blind-tasting mix; not a single GM could pick out his own brand, and the quality varied radically. But the group did prefer the local roaster’s product, so Jasper worked with them to develop for an organic, dark roast that now serves as the company-wide coffee.

He was just following rule No. 1 for most professional coffee and tea mavens: Be certain of your supply and then keep on top of it.

“Ask more questions of your suppliers about your coffee,” says Oren Bloostein, owner of Oren’s Daily Roast’s nine coffee shops in the New York City area. “You need to find out what you’re getting in your blend, even ask to taste the components separately, but more importantly, make sure you’re buying fresh. ‘Fresh roasted’ means nothing; what matters is when the coffee is delivered after it’s been roasted.”

Owner Patrick Campi ensures the coffee he serves at Mojo Coffee in New York’s West Village is brewed within a week of the actual roast.

Tea sourcing is just as important. For instance, at True Food Kitchen, Jasper opted for loose-leaf teas from a single vendor and developed proprietary iced tea blends — one traditional black and a green, tropical tea with some floral and lavender components. “We didn’t want to have the typical box everyone else had,” he says.

Hattrick, who has created his own tea line, agrees that overseeing tea quality and selection is important but making sure the serving staff is excited about what they are doing is essential. “You don’t need fancy tea pots and tea ware; as long as the tea is a quality product brewed properly by someone who cares, customers will get into it.”

Tea especially seems to have benefited from reports of health benefits and the ever-expansive American search for the new. Hattrick says tea also attracts consumers who want to slow things down a bit in an otherwise go-go lifestyle.

Guests are willingly branching out into various types of teas — black, green, white, red, herbal — and are open to being guided toward styles that they are less familiar with, says the Park Plaza’s Gold, although when left to make their own choices, they tend to be conservative. “When staff are not available to guide in the process, it is crucial to have a well-designed and descriptive menu complete with tasting notes,” she says.

Antioxidant-rich tea-based drinks are bestsellers at True Food Kitchen. The Medicine Man is an energy-boosting blend of double-strength black tea and berries, while green tea, honey and lemonade make up the Green Arnie. Photo courtesy of true food kitchen. TIMING IS KEY WITH COFFEE
Single-cup service is a hot coffee-shop trend, but not all coffee vendors are onboard; the time consumed executing a proper French-press service, for instance, is often cited by operators as the main argument against it.

Like Highsmith at WTF, Odom serves coffee in a variety of styles — drip, press, single espresso, Chemex, cold drip — but he foresees the day when he’ll need to manage time better. “I’ll do a single-serve cup for you at the same price as drip machine, but it takes more time, and French press, even more. The issue really is: How do you make it commercially viable to take care of everyone’s needs? Single-serve is a growing demand on all of us in the business interested in quality.”

Bloostein doesn’t do single-serve. “I keep looking at it but I’m not sure how to do it and actually serve my customers appropriately. I applaud the people who do it, and if I could figure out a way to do it that wouldn’t create a line out the door, I would.”

Oren’s, as a coffee-bean-and-ware retailer that also serves cups, and not just a coffee shop, would be hard-pressed to add more time-consuming methods, but he does vary the coffee styles served so that regular customers have options.

Tea service also is undergoing some changes as it becomes more popular. While Hattrick has for 10 years provided a white-glove-and-scones tea program at the Ritz, he’s currently tweaked it for a younger generation of consumers, offering more herbal botanicals as well as sandwiches, scones and desserts made with tea and a more-relaxed, informal presentation. “We’re reinventing the program to give a new and trendy face to something 200 years old, he explains.

Blooming Tea, which Gold at the Park Plaza serves in a wine goblet, makes quite an impact on customers, she says. “People rarely think to order it off the menu, but when one comes out, there is a ripple effect with nearby tables.”

Using a wine goblet rather than a glass teapot enforces the parallels between fine teas and wines, she says; along those lines, she’s being asked more and more to teach not just classes on tea and food pairing, but even tea and cheese.

Jasper employs a variety of tea styles and flavors throughout Fox’s various concepts; for the Mexican-themed Blanco, he serves a hibiscus green tea that brews bright pink with a tangy hibiscus quality. He’s found his single-varietal teas have a modest popularity compared with his custom winter blend, Hunan black tea with cinnamon, vanilla and cranberry, the year-round top seller on his list.

He’s extended the reach of tea at True Food, where Dr. Andrew Weil plays an advisory part. Jasper serves an energy drink called Medicine Man, made with iced organic black tea that is brewed at double strength, and pomegranate, cranberries, muddled blueberries, and the antioxidant-rich sea buckthorn berry topped with soda water; it’s True Food’s top-selling item overall.

Jasper also serves tea-based cocktails, an emerging idea that Gold applauds; in fact, she’s working on a tea-cocktail book right now.

“Tea brings as diverse a set of properties to the cocktail world as it does to the culinary world. It is a botanical that deserves far more attention behind the bar,” she says.

It’s not surprising that both tea and coffee are getting more serious attention behind the bar, with infusions and as an ingredient. Perhaps that’s the final nudge restaurateurs need to get them to consider improving their hot-beverage programs, instead of letting all those coffee and tea shops set the standards.

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About The Author

Jack Robertiello

Jack Robertiello writes about spirits, cocktails, wine, beer and food from Brooklyn, N.Y.

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