Sunday, November 19, 2017 | Today's Vending Industry News
A Rising Tide Lifts All Ships

Posted On: 6/14/2005

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If we remember correctly, the coffee service industry first began to worry about being "mature" in the mid-1970s. The fear was that just about every qualified prospect either had a coffee service already, or had no desire for one.

Of course, there still are lots of qualified prospects - probably more all the time, as improvements in technology meet more sophisticated public tastes , but today's industry is more mature, in a positive way. It has come to terms with its role as a provider of service, not simply a supplier of coffee.

In its lively four-decade history, OCS has faced a number of real challenges and a roughly equal number of imagined ones. Among the latter was the supposed threat of location-owned equipment.

To oversimplify somewhat, the need for OCS was created when the slackening of postwar economic momentum and advances in vending machine design made many office locations "marginal" for vending operators. The eventual solution, arrived at after a number of interesting experiments, was to provide a restaurant-type brewer to the location, deliver roast ground coffee in fractional packs (plus paper filters, cups and condiments), and charge the customer by the brewed cup.

This model proved very attractive to locations, and to entrepreneurs. It also appealed to people in the coffee industry who were concerned over a persistent decline in per-capita coffee consumption which had begun in 1963. The Coffee Brewing Center of the Pan-American Coffee Bureau attributed that decline, in large part, to the shift by adult coffee-drinkers away from the classic stovetop "drip" pot to the more convenient percolator, which tended to overextract and degrade the flavor.

The CBC theory was that many adults, who already had acquired a taste for coffee, would tolerate that degradation in the interest of speed in the morning. Unfortunately, though, youngsters who had not acquired that taste would be repelled by the percolated beverage. The OCS paper-filter drip brewers promised to reverse that trend, and perhaps they did. They almost certainly slowed the decline, and sparked a steady increase in workplace consumption.

In any event, the little pourover brewers promised restaurant-quality coffee. That promise attracted consumers, and the small-appliance industry developed a home model, the "Mister Coffee." Many coffee service operators regarded this as the end of the world: who would pay them three or four times as much for a pound of coffee as a supermarket would charge, if anyone could buy a pourover brewer?

Of course, the world did not come to an end. Level-headed operators recognized that their customers were not buying coffee from them at all; rather, they were buying the convenience, efficiency, and productivity gains that resulted from not having to worry about coffee. The danger to OCS was the steady erosion of pack weights that resulted from fierce price competition, and which broke the "restaurant quality" promise.

Operators today, by contrast, for the most part have been undismayed by the parallel rise in home and commercial portion-pack brewing systems. In fact, the OCS industry can take some credit for the increase in American consumer appreciation of coffee quality that has transformed the market over the past decade and a half. The Coffee Development Group, proposed by a group of leading U.S. coffee service operators to the International Coffee Organization, did many important things during its too-brief existence, of which the most important may have been the campus coffee house program.

This introduced a generation of future opinion-leaders to the pleasures of good coffee. After they graduated, they looked for it in foodservice, at work, and at home. We have not yet seen the full effect of this.

It is recognized now that consumers who see the merits of a single-cup system at home will not only want one at work, but also will have a good idea of the cost factors. Similarly, people exposed to such systems at work will be favorably disposed to buying one for the kitchen, as their forebears bought drip brewers.

These consumers also expect to have high-quality coffee delivered to them, and technical backup when they need it. And those things are what a good coffee service really provides.