The National Automatic Merchandising Association's 2016 Coffee, Tea & Water conference called attention to what the event's organizers call the "Workplace Café." This terminology has the advantage of highlighting its recreational purpose in a way that "breakroom" does not, and it encourages thinking about the purpose of providing professional refreshment services in a workplace.
That purpose is, of course, maintaining or improving employee morale, as well as boosting productivity by keeping employees on site. For a very long time, alert industry observers have been advising coffee service operators to emphasize this value of OCS to an employer, rather than just offering to beat any competitive price.
And that advice resembles the recommendations made by alert vending industry observers for an even longer time: that vendors compete by offering fresh, popular products and fast, reliable service, rather than high commissions.
Historically, there always have been clients for workplace refreshment services who have seen the importance of the morale and productivity aspect, while others have been interested in the lowest cost or the highest commission. A versatile operator can tailor the product/service offering to either sort of prospect, but the operators who are successful in selling morale, productivity, quality and service are likely to concentrate on winning accounts that recognize their value, and leave the price-driven ones to their competitors.
Several trends have evolved to give the quality-and-service believers an edge in this old debate. One is the example set by dominant organizations like Google, Microsoft and Apple that provide all sorts of amenities to their employees, who have to be creative while working long hours and who are discouraged from leaving the corporate campus. That approach has been done on a somewhat smaller scale by top-tier companies in major cities for decades.
This phenomenon may be amplified by the imminent rise of the "millennial" generation to prominence in the workforce. These young people are said to require a different kind of leadership and work environment. They have not been brought up (we are told) to tolerate the humiliations of an entry-level job in an authoritarian, seniority-driven company in the expectation of surviving long enough to win promotion and retire after 30 years. They want to be treated like responsible human beings right from the start, and provided with refreshments as part of that treatment.
It is further reinforced -- and made much more widely practical -- by the ever-rising popularity of gourmet hot (and now cold) coffee. The days when employer and employees alike considered coffee a hot, black commodity are long gone, and those millennials are bringing new zest and imagination to the specialty-coffee market by seeking out not only better grades of coffee, but also specialty teas and cold-brewed coffee beverages.
This year's CTW conference also shone the spotlight on the workplace "pantry," which can be envisioned as a sort of micromarket without a payment terminal. Even back in the days when attempts to raise the cost to an office of a brewed cup of coffee to more than a nickel, there were some locations that provided not only free coffee, but also free soft drinks. And some vending locations always have wanted some or all of their machines set on free vend.
Several speakers at the CTW conference renewed the sensible old idea that OCS operators become conversant with office design principles so they can speak knowledgeably with a client who wants to update the whole workplace for greater ease of communication and exchange of ideas.
The current demand for a wider variety of higher-quality refreshments in workplaces certainly is a positive development for coffee service and vending companies. It certainly gives imaginative operators a lot to talk about beyond prices and commissions, and should accelerate the entry of more upscale products into the workplace services market. OCS and vending operators prepared to do their homework and come up with detailed plans tailored to specific account requirements should benefit substantially.
At the same time, we think it's important to view the present situation in perspective. For one thing, we are not sure that the millennial generation is all that different from other age cohorts. We remember somewhat similar assertions by marketers concerning Generation Y, a decade or two back. The millennials we have met have not struck us as alien; they seem to respond well to common courtesy and straightforward communication.
For another, we're not at all sure that today's tech titans are lighting the path to the working environment of the future. A great many responsible jobs that cannot be automated don't require frequent idea exchange or brainstorming; they involve picking something up, evaluating it, processing it and putting it where it goes. People doing that will do it better if they have access to good-quality refreshments. Operators enjoy a wider range of opportunities today, but the value they bring to their customers is what it always has been.