Connecting With Coffee Customers Gets Personal

COFFEEWhile some c-stores are adding barista-staffed bars to compete in the coffee arena, most are finding simpler ways to make brew buying a more personalized experience for their customers.

By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor.

With about 11,000 chain and 14,000 independent cafes in the U.S., according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), consumers can afford to be picky about where they buy their brewed beverages. They want their coffee hot, fresh and customized to their specific taste and they are not about to compromise on any of those demands.
New York’s Bolla Market convenience store chain used to offer seven or eight different varieties of coffee to try to satisfy the taste preferences of all of its customers. Now that number has been reduced to five, sales are doing well and waste is reduced, said Brett Atherton, Bolla’s director of marketing.

“We did an assessment of purchases and determined what we believe sells best,” Atherton explained. “Every day we offer a classic light roast for customers who prefer the Dunkin’ Donuts style of coffee, a dark roast for Starbucks coffee drinkers, a decaf, hazelnut and a limited time offer flavor (pumpkin spice in October and November, for example) or country of origin variety that we change every 90 days.”

The star of the coffee bar is Bolla’s Gourmet Organic, Fair Trade-certified Coffee, introduced in 30 of the chain’s 44 stores in New York City and Long Island last December. Along with the coffee varieties, the stores offer a four-flavor shot machine, along with flavored creamers in single portions and in a cooler on the coffee bar.
In some of the Bolla stores, Stok black coffee energy shots are popular. “When we tried to discontinue them, customers requested that we bring them back,” Atherton noted.

Customized Coffees
Louisville, Ky.-based Thorntons c-stores have earned a loyal following for a “Make Ur Mix” hot beverage concept, which invites customers to design their ideal coffee creations from a wide range of flavor shots, creamers and coffee varieties; sweeteners and whipped cream. Some even add hot chocolate to the mix. Customers are invited to share their recipes online for fame and special offers.

Customers at Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Quick Chek also like to get personal with their coffee. On the chain’s Website, they often lend their own names to their concoctions with recipes called “Wendy’s Coffee,” “GG’s Wicked Brew” or “Mimilicious.” Quick Chek java fans can also play a coffee-focused “Follow the Fixin’s” game on the web site to accumulate points to earn a discount on a coffee purchase or even a free cup of their favorite.

It’s no coincidence why top quartile chains like Thorntons and Quick Chek have superb coffee programs, both of which also offer freshness guarantees. For these chains, coffee is not just another program, it is a destination that sets it apart from its competitors.

Coffee is a “hot button” for customers and should be for every c-store retailer,” said Ted Roccaglia, retail marketing manager/business coach for Gainesville, Ga.-based Mansfield Oil, which serves more than 350 convenience stores throughout the country.

“People are particular about their coffee and if you don’t have companion additives to prepare their coffee to their liking, they will find a place that does,” he explained. “Coffee not only drives sales and profits on its own, but also becomes a catalyst for bundling with foodservice, pastries and many other items, so the risk of lost sales goes way beyond the coffee itself. You could easily lose the opportunity to become a destination stop for everything, including fuel, if you don’t have a fresh, impactful coffee offering both day and night.”

No amounts of creamers, flavor shots, sweeteners or other enhancers can replace a basic well-made, freshly brewed cup of high quality coffee, said Atherton. But c-stores don’t have to try to be knock-offs of big coffee chains to attract and keep coffee customers, noted coffee advisor Andrew Hetzel, founder of Cafemakers LLC in Kamuela, Hawaii.

“There is no need to copy their programs when all your customer wants is something in the cup that tastes good every time,” Hetzel said.

Loyal to the Last Drop
Customers who like a store’s coffee are loyal, said NPD Group researchers. Recent data shows that 86% of c-store coffee purchases are planned and that consumers of coffee and other dispensed beverages are high frequency buyers who represent 68% more visits than the average convenience store customer.

Hetzel pointed out five fundamental steps to operating a successful coffee program:

1. Respect the Coffee: Take it seriously as one of the most profitable items in your beverage planogram and even your entire foodservice menu. It is often the first flavor of your store that customers will experience and it is a lasting one as they take their coffee with them to work or wherever else they are going.

2. Set Your Quality Goal: Don’t just settle for the least expensive product. Use the resources of SCAA (, your local coffee roasters and an independent expert to design a program and choose the products that are right for your operation. It may come as a surprise, but there is only a small difference in wholesale cost per pound between most average commodity coffees and many fine quality specialty coffees. The difference per cup is almost insignificant; pennies per beverage will yield dollars of value to customers, Hetzel said.

3. Use Fresh Products: “You wouldn’t use stale bread on your sandwiches or rotten tomatoes in salads; using stale coffee is no different,” Hetzel said. You have approximately two weeks to use whole bean coffee from the time it is roasted—and once ground, mere minutes. Water is 98.5% of coffee and even small variations in mineral content, alkalinity and chemical additives like chlorine will dramatically change the way that your coffee tastes. Guidelines for water are published by the SCAA and a number of companies offer filtration systems for restaurants, coffee shops and other operations.

4. Choose the Right Tools: Throw away those old glass carafes, Hetzel said. “Old-fashioned ‘50’s diner-style” coffee burners do just that—burn—coffee.” He advises retailers to switch to modern insulated airpots or thermal dispensers that retain (not add) heat to beverages before serving.
Some customers prefer the visual and aroma of coffee in traditional glass pots, Rocagglia said. Retailers that use them should brew fresh pots every hour to avoid burning the coffee. “The first cup pays for the pot from a profit perspective,” he noted.

5. Train Your Staff: Give coffee the full attention that it deserves in new employee training curriculums and be certain to regularly evaluate the performance of personnel by tasting samples of the beverages that they produce. Where practical, dedicate coffee specialists within the staff that receive further coffee training and opportunities to advance their own product knowledge through outside events.

At Bolla Market, an individual in each store is designated as the Brewmaster, Atherton said. That person, who wears a special apron so that customers can identify him or her, is responsible for making sure the program from brewing to holding to cleaning is carried out consistently.

Bolla also brings in independent consultants the company calls “Coffee Execution Experts” to conduct interactive surveys of every aspect of the stores’ coffee service. They also offer training when and where necessary. “They’ve been very valuable,” Atherton noted.

Without someone to be responsible for them, sometimes it’s the simplest things that are overlooked when it comes to coffee service, he noted.
“It’s important to make sure the milks and creamers are maintained at correct temperatures,” Atherton said. “And running out of cups can be a major issue if nobody’s paying attention.”