The National Automatic Merchandising Association’s recent Coffee Service Education Summit was a solid success, attracting operators from all over the U.S. and a surprisingly diverse lot of suppliers and manufacturers. The interest shown in the new NAMA initiative can be seen as the fruit of an extended, ongoing process.
In general, changes in the industry – and not just our industry – occur when some change overtakes consumers’ established work and leisure routines, and a new technology comes along that can be applied to meeting the new needs. The resulting opportunity enables early adopters to establish very profitable businesses. The profitability attracts imitators, especially as demand widens from prime prospects to secondary ones.
However, it can’t last. The technology becomes cheaper and more familiar, and growing competitive pressure forces prices down. Decreased profitability persuades marginal practitioners to find some other line of work. At this point, either new technology appears to offer an attractive alternative to a solution that has become somewhat boring through long familiarity, or that solution blends more and more into the background, no longer requiring special care and attention to sustain.
The modern coffee service revolution began when the development of small paper-filter brewers enabled foodservice establishments to brew a fraction of a pound of coffee at a time, preparing a small batch that would meet the steady low volume of customers created by changed work, commuting and dining habits. These brewers inspired the development of fractional-pound packages of roast ground coffee, formed of new materials and flushed with inert gas to retard oxidation and extend shelf life.
At that point, someone was going to take those brewers and coffee packets into the field to offer office “coffee clubs” a restaurant-quality alternative to their 30-cup percolators; and, of course, someone did. Over time, the brewers became more familiar, home models appeared, competition tightened, margins were squeezed and quality started to deteriorate.
Many things happened between the low point of that process and the present, and most of the good ones were the work of trade associations. Forward-thinking leaders of the old National Coffee Service Association persuaded the International Coffee Organization to underwrite the establishment of a “Coffee Development Group,” and CDG went on to set up a very successful college coffeehouse program. As that hit its stride, we began to hear about a specialty coffee revolution, as the rising generation of opinion leaders demonstrated a willingness to pay fair prices for a great cup of coffee.
The collapse of the International Coffee Agreement did away with CDG, and the increasing need for OCS operators to meet client demand by expanding into other service areas thinned the ranks of the association, which also was plagued by a certain amount of plain bad luck. Fortunately, as it was on its last legs, another group for forward-thinking leaders active both in NCSA and in NAMA worked to bring the two organizations together. The merger, in 1999, went without a visible hitch, and it has been extremely fruitful. NAMA continued the “quality coffee certification program” launched by NCSA at its very last convention, and has carried it forward energetically. In many areas, talents developed in one or the other segment have worked in tandem for the benefit of everyone who’s in this industry for the long haul. The new Coffee Service Education Summit can be seen as the latest result of this process.
It is important to emphasize that the operator’s only defense against bad competition and structural obsolescence is the encouragement of good competition and a willingness to entertain new ideas. A proactive trade association is by far the most effective medium for promoting those essential traits through a range of educational initiatives, of which the recent summit is only the latest.
As the spring convention season dawns, it is important to emphasize that association benefits only pay off to the extent that they are used. There always will be those ready to do it the wrong way, to the detriment of the industry’s image, customer satisfaction and profitability. Education is the surest way to maintain quality and manage innovation intelligently.