You may have lost sight of one of the most important aspects of your coffee. This key element to successful coffee service often gets overlooked, and even the best operators sometimes let it slide. For years, I have been preaching the importance of this one thing, which results in more product quality complaints, more lost opportunity in closing new business and more account attrition than most people would credit.
What is this factor that will improve all of these areas, and therefore your bottom line? Freshness.
That's it, freshness. It sounds simple, but it is all too easy to assume that as long as you have product turning over every few weeks, freshness can be taken for granted with no further thought necessary.
You might be surprised how often that is not the case. The proliferation of varieties, and the need to offer wide choice in your coffee line to placate clients, has exacerbated the problem: operators often end up with only a few accounts using a particular product, while ordering minimums may force them to bring in several months' worth of it. To complicate matters, if you lose the largest of those few clients, an SKU running 30 cases a month can suddenly drop to 10. That means the 40 cases on hand will be around for four months before the last of the product is used.
You might be thinking, "yes, but my product is good for six months." While it's true that coffee is safe to consume well beyond six months, we aren't simply out to make sure no one is hurt by the coffee; we want them to be blown away by it, time and time again.
Picture your coffee aging the same way we do -- almost imperceptibly day to day, but significantly over time. Coffee undergoes slow degradation from the minute it comes out of the roaster. Staleness happens very slowly at first, but picks up speed as it progresses, reaching a point where all the distinction that made a blend a great coffee -- worthy of adoration -- has vanished, replaced by a mediocre cup of "blah" that's worthy of no more than a nasty phone call to customer service.
This dilemma is easily resolved. Pinpoint your slowest movers and get the sales team behind a push to find new customers for those products by promoting them to current clients and new closes. If a product cannot command sufficient patronage, it may be best to convert it into other offerings.
Next, examine your warehouse inventory. Do you know the date codes on all of your products? If your roasters use a simple Julian date system, there should be a three- or four-digit number on the cases identifying the date of the year the coffee was produced. For example, 0195 would be July 14 and 11195 would be July 14, 2011.
If they use the ISO 8601 system, then the year, month and day might be displayed as 2011w0902, representing the second day of the ninth week of 2011. This is often abbreviated to 11w09.
There are countless date coding systems, so it would be wise to call suppliers and keep their date coding systems on file for future reference. You also can do a Google search for "date coding calculators" or similar terms.
With those codes in hand, your first stop should be in the sales sample area. Many operators I have visited have given me coffee from their sampling area for cup matching, and when I put them on the cupping table, it was impossible to pinpoint the blend composition due to overwhelming staleness of the brew. With everyone overbusy these days handling countless details, it is easy to see how the sampling area can be overlooked in the day-to-day activities of an OCS operation. Set a policy to clear it out at every month's end and give away the old samples to local charities, or have them replaced every time you get in a new shipment of product.
With that out of the way, take five minutes to walk through the warehouse and check every SKU on your floor for dates. Check the top, middle and bottom of each pallet -- unfortunately, the FIFO (first in, first out) concept can be overlooked by a harried warehouse person.
Most suspect will be the slow movers. Sumatra Swiss water-processed, Fair Trade organic in a 2.5-oz. pack may have won over the CEO of your biggest account, but it won't keep the client if it has wasted away again in Office Coffeeville.
It can be costly to replace coffees, especially the higher-priced fancy blends that often are the slowest movers. However, not doing so will eventually lose you the client for whom you brought in the coffee, so you must put in place a system that ensures the coffees you have on your menu are all at their very best.
My dad, the late Stuart Daw, used to tell a story of a very large coffee company chief executive who was awaiting a flight in the first-class lounge when he spotted a single-cup machine with his company's name emblazoned on the facing. He walked up and got a cup, only to find it was horribly stale. He put a policy in place the very next day that mandated the removal of company graphics from all single cup venders!
A few minutes per month allotted for product inspection may well save your company more than you ever thought possible.
KEVIN DAW is president of Heritage Coffee Co. (London, ON, Canada), a leading private-label roaster serving the breaktime management industries in North America. He is in charge of coffee buying for Heritage. A 30-year veteran of the workplace service business, Daw has served as a commission coffee service salesman, a principal of a vending operation and president of a bottled water company. Since 1990, he has concentrated on coffee roasting. Active in industry affairs, Daw is a Specialty Coffee Association of America Certified Brewing Technician, a member of the National Beverage and Products Association Hall of Fame, a recipient of the National Automatic Merchandising Association Supplier of the Year Award and a NAMA Coffee Service Committee member.