Cheers Magazine

Cheers Magazine

High-Brow Brews - Upping the ante-and the profits-in coffee and tea service requires the right products and procedures, plus a little panache.

Nancy Backas

March 2006


Coffeehouses and tea cafes have brought Americans to a new level of sophistication in coffee and tea, but restaurants appear slower on the uptake. Many restaurants that employ sommeliers and spend thousands on wine cellars still invest few dollars and little time and effort on coffee and tea service. 

In fact, coffee and tea are where wine was several decades ago. But, as with wine, customers are beginning to know more and therefore expect more, forcing restaurateurs to catch up. Enlightened operators now find a little investment in improved service, education and product cant help but increase coffee and tea profits, too. 

Those operators started by understanding the product. Every coffee particularly the specialty coffees, has a unique flavor thanks to the micro-climates that produce it. And, like wine, different coffees go with different foods. While its likely not worth the effort to create coffee and food pairing menus since most patrons want coffee with desert, it is worth the effort to examine the flavor profile and quality of your coffee. Serving a signature blend is neither that difficult nor any more expensive than offering most premium blends, especially with the proliferation of regional roasters all over the country. 

“Many restaurateurs, even high end ones, purchase whatever coffee the distributors offer. They focus on the wine list and the bar and neglect the coffee service,” says Keith Hayward, vice president, Dillanos Coffee Roaster in Sumner, Wash., who notes that the scenario is changing. “In the Northwest especially, there is an educated crowd when it comes to coffee. I’m starting to see restaurants buying higher end coffee and using local roasters, promoting coffee as coming from their own home town and developing local blends with roasters.”

One passionate roaster is Jeff Dreyfuss, co-owner of Chicago-based Metropolis Coffee. “In my opinion, restaurants all do a bad job with coffee. They don’t clean their coffee makers properly for one. If they grind their own, they don’t purge grinders between grindings, and neglect to use filtered water,” he says. 

Metropolis creates signature coffee blends for a number of Chicago restaurants. The process begins with Dreyfuss setting up a cupping, which is similar to wine tasting. “We do a cupping of 10 different blends. Coffee is ground differently for a cupping than it is for brewing. We basically want them to taste the lighter tasting coffees first, the ones you taste at the front of the mouth that are more acidic, progressing to the darker roasts which are less acidic,” he explains. 

Coffee Class

Dreyfuss then takes the operator through the roasting process so they can understand how different flavors are derived. A discussion of equipment and pricing rounds out the process. Many roasters will offer machines complete with water filtration, grinding and brewing capabilities for free or for minimal cost, potentially saving the operator $1,500 to $2,000. 

Grinding is important, according to Dreyfuss, who notes that coffee should be ground as close as possible to service time. One should not grind coffee that was roasted the day before, however, because too much carbon dioxide still resides in the beans. 

Coffee should be served within 20 minutes of brewing, according to Dreyfuss, whose restaurant clients also get a lesson in daily, weekly and monthly machine maintenance. Diligence in machine cleaning, he says, results in the best tasting coffee. 

Many operators are eager to offer espresso beverages, including cappuccino and latte, to their guests. Dreyfuss warns that espresso is difficult to do properly. “An espresso shot needs to be pulled within 20 seconds of being ground. Humidity, patting espresso grounds in the portafilter properly and accurate machine calibration all affect good espresso. Waiters just do not have time to do it all properly,” he asserts.

Not all operators can grind on the spot, so they turn to preground espresso from suppliers such as Illy Café, headquartered in Trieste, Italy. Illy offers standard pre-packaged single servings of ground coffee for making espresso by the cup in special machines. 

Signature blends and proper preparation aside, the next step in improving coffee service – and in creating a better profit potential – lies in the presentation and variety of coffee beverages offered. Embellishments such as whipped cream, shaved chocolate and raw sugar cubes on a special tray brought to the table is one way to improve service. Another is to make the coffee service itself a show.

Victoria and Albert’s restaurant, an upscale venue within the Grand Floridian Resort in Walt Disney World, Orlando, FL., takes coffee service to a new level. Celebes Indonesian coffee is brewed at the table in Cona Vacuum coffee makers, intriguing two-tiered glass pots with ground coffee placed in the upper unit and water placed in the lower. When boiled, the water rises through the filter-stoppered bottom of the upper unit and remains there until drawn back down to the lower one as brewed coffee. 

A less dramatic, and less expensive, way to brew coffee at the table is by using a French press, which results in a stronger-flavored coffee perfect for heavier, intensely flavored food. At the Yarrow Bay Grill, Kirkland, Wash., French press coffee comes in small ($5), medium ($8) and large ($12) servings. The restaurant also offers desert coffee drinks including Sambuca Cappuccino ($9), Irish Latte ($9.50) and Espresso Martini ($9.50). 

Preparing and serving coffee made at the table give patrons a “created especially for you” feeling, not to mention a bit of theatrics. Coffees and coffee beverages featuring roasts, preparation styles, presentation or ingredients that tie in to a restaurant’s concept or menu also serve to enhance the diner’s experience, not to mention the check. Havana Central in New York City, serves an array of coffees to complement the Cuban menu. Café con leche – a traditional, strong Cuban blend – is served as well as espresso and cappuccino, selling for $3 and $4, respectively. A spiked coffee beverage, Café con Ron (Cuban coffee spiked with the guest’s rum of choice and topped with whipped cream) sells for $8.

The Art and Science of Tea

Coffee is a traditional favorite, but the real excitement in hot beverages today is in tea, in all its forms and embellishments. In the last decade, numerous tea companies have emerged offering flavorful blends of green, black and white teas, not to mention a vast array of herbal infusions (since herbal “teas” are really combinations of herbs, flowers, plants, berries and spices and not technically tea).

While many of these new teas are high quality, presentation is what really cranks things up a notch. For example, some teas are now available in nylon and silk bags, said to produce better-flavored brews. Loose teas are typically presented with water served in individual ceramic, metal or transparent glass teapots and stylish strainers. Such flourishes draw attention to tea’s unique characteristics.

“Tea is a diverse product and the taste profile is extraordinary,” says Joane Filler-Varty, director of hospitality, sales and development, Mighty Leaf Tea, headquartered in San Rafael, CA. “I see tea as part of the meal experience.”

In working with restaurants to develop tea programs, Filler-Varty first finds out what kind of style is desired. “I sit down with the chef and taste the deserts and make recommendations. I then pick two or three selections that will go with a particular desert,” she says.

Once the Teas are selected, the next step is training staff in proper tea service. “An important part of the process is training the staff so they know the taste profiles and the characteristics of the teas,” she says.

Preparation comes next. Filler-Varty evaluates the available water quality and more often than not suggests a filter. She emphasizes starting with cold water when boiling from a kettle.

“For brewing tea, certain temperatures are ideal for different teas. Coming just off the boil, black teas and herbal infusions require 200 to 205º F, while green teas need a cooler 185.”

How does one achieve that in a busy foodservice setting? The best way, she suggests, is to swirl hot water in the service pots to heat them up before adding the loose leaf or bagged tea and then pour the water over the leaves. For green tea, she instructs staff to either pour water into one pot and then into another to cool it to the proper temperature before introducing the tea, or leaving the lid off the pot so the heat dissipates. 

Black tea should be brewed for 3 to 5 minutes, green tea 2 to 4 minutes and herbal teas for 5 to 10 minutes.

Infused with Innovation

Management at Vong Thay Kitchen in Chicago worked with Filler-Varty when developing its tea program. A list of teas is presented to patrons along with the dessert menu at the restaurant, also know as VTK. A small tea box is then brought to the table with a vial of infused tea for each of the blends (two green teas, two black, an oolong and two herbals), to allow patrons to see the leaves and experience the aromas. The tea itself is presented in a whole leaf form in a silk tea bag, accompanied by individual, artful metal pots with metal mesh infuser baskets. Waiters instruct patrons when to remove the infusers for the best brew. Priced at $5.25, tea is on par with or more expensive – and sometimes more profitable – than many deserts at VTK.

In January, VTK went one step further and celebrated Tea Month, offering high teas on Saturdays and blend-your-own tea tables on Tuesdays, when tea leaf readers were available to guests. Entrees involving tea as an ingredient were also featured, such as Tea-Smoked Duck, steamed over black tea leaves, along with two tea inspired cocktails: Chamomile Mojitos and Cosmoteanis, made with passion fruit tea. 

Numi Tea, in Oakland, Calif., offers unique Flowering Teas, produced in remote tea gardens in the southwestern Yunnan province in China. While the leaves are still damp from picking, they are flattened and sewn with cotton thread into various shapes and bundles. Some tea “ball” designs contain lilies or oesmanthus. They then go through a normal drying, oxidizing and firing process. When the tea is placed in hot water, it opens, creating a tea “flower”.

In the restaurant, Flowering Teas are presented to customers in the dry state in a clear-topped velvet chest. The chosen tea “ball” is then steeped in a glass teapot so guest can witness the “blooming” of the leaves. 

North Square, in New York City, offers unusual teas brewed in two-cup presses for $3. Blends such as Burroughs’ Brew – coconut and Nilgiri black tea – and ChocolaTea, featuring chocolate, vanilla, rooibos and black tea, bring new flavors to the service offered daily from 3p.m. until 5 p.m. in the restaurant’s Deco room, where patrons can also order scones, biscotti and tea sandwiches with their tea.

An entire restaurant is built around tea in Boulder, CO. The Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, a traditional Tajik teahouse, was presented to the city of Boulder by the mayor of Dushanbe, Tajikistan in 1989. Today it is a privately owned restaurant with a full lunch and dinner menu featuring dishes from around the globe along with more than 80 varieties of loose leaf teas. 

A special menu if desert teas include Strawberry Dreams, featuring strawberry bits and flowers with vanilla, and Blue Moon, which highlights vanilla with almond notes and mountain blueberry. Lady Grey’s Garden is Dushanbe Teahouse’s exclusive blend of bergamot and crème teas, blended with rose, jasmine and orange blossom petals. 

What was once just a pipe dream for aficionados of fine coffee and tea is finally becoming reality in some restaurants, where a world of coffee is being brought to the dining table, and the variety and versatility of tea is being highlighted. As when an operator develops a good wine program, the returns of a carefully planned and expertly executed coffee and tea program are handsome. And remember, as Metropolis’ Dreyfuss says, “The last thing someone tastes at a restaurant is the coffee.”