Online Sales Helping Roasters, But Will Specialty Coffee Survive Pandemic?

By Steve Zimmerman Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Steve Zimmerman reports, "specialty coffee has mirrored the restaurant and hospitality industries, but is buoyed by a two-fold difference: Most roasters already sell coffee online by bag or subscription, and green, or unroasted, coffee has a long shelf life."

Chicago

For Tim Coonan and other specialty coffee roasters in Chicago, March was supposed to be a springboard month.

Spring is when outdoor patios open, wholesale business picks up and beverage lineups for the summer are nailed down.

Instead, dine-in and to-go orders have been replaced with stay-at-home orders, staffs have been laid off and green coffee beans sit unroasted, all due to the coronavirus pandemic.

At Big Shoulders Coffee, Coonan was gearing up for his busiest year. The company recently opened its seventh cafe, at 311 S. Wacker Drive, and expanded production facilities to satisfy wholesale accounts. On March 17, the first full day of the mandated restaurant shutdown in Illinios, he limited cafes to mobile pickup and carryout only. Four days later he shut down retail sales altogether.

“We’re simply in survival mode with no idea what else is coming down the road,” Coonan said. “We’re asking a lot of questions with no information. “It’s like we went backward three years.”

Weathering the crisis The impact on Chicago’s specialty coffee has mirrored the restaurant and hospitality industries, but is buoyed by a two-fold difference: Most roasters already sell coffee online by bag or subscription, and green, or unroasted, coffee has a long shelf life. Other roasters have moved to creative solutions like brewing lessons and promotions on social media and Zoom, and are looking to developing new product lines -- all options percolating in efforts to replace declining sales.

Online sales, while essential, were a complementary stream compared to retail and wholesale. Now, they are a lifeline, especially for operators with one location, such as Pedestrian Coffee in Lake Forest.

“Pedestrian has only been open for just over a year now," said founder Tim Taylor, who previously served as CEO and spent nine years at Ipsento Coffee in Chicago. "Our online presence hasn’t been huge, but that’s where I’m focusing a lot of my energy. Every other roaster I know around the nation is doing the same.

“The good news is that the world won’t stop consuming coffee through this pandemic," Taylor said. "They’ll just have to get it online or from grocery stories.”

Backlot Coffee, with cafes in Chicago and Evanston, launched an e-commerce platform in the wake of stay-at-home orders. Other roasters, which already enjoyed a social media presence, are getting creative to stir interest and stay afloat.

Bru Coffeeworks, a single-origin roaster in Albany Park, is pushing its delivery service to nearby zip codes (60618, 60625 and 60659) for a $2 fee and has moved a high-top table to the doorway and started grab-and-go service.

“Delivery was a no-brainer for us,” owner Cory Creighton said. "The window has always been a thought, but just never acted on it. Seemed like the perfect time to test it out, and the response has been great. People feel comfortable, and everyone is able to keep their space for social distancing, including myself.”

Intelligentsia, Chicago’s largest roaster, has temporarily closed its coffeebars, but started a 15-minute Connecting Over Coffee series on Instagram Live on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 11 a.m. to discuss a range of topics with chefs, artists and culinary entrepreneurs. The company is still roasting and selling online (with free shipping) and in groceries.

Modest Coffee in West Chicago has shifted its monthly community conversation at Society 57, a coffee shop in Aurora, to a virtual “socially distanced” experience on Zoom, the video conferencing platform. Co-owner Jenni Contaldo said Modest is bolstered in that its business model was already split evenly among grocery, restaurant and online sales.

Passion House in Chicago has halted cafe operations and is relying on online orders and wholesale partnerships. It has also added brewing lessons about its roasts on Instagram.

“One of the most difficult factors from this situation has been the unpredictability,” said Joshua Millman, owner of Passion House. “We’ve been inspired by the creativity and determination of our colleagues in the industry to reinvent their business models on a couple of days notice.”

A reserve of unroasted coffee and downtime to regroup and reinvent could lead to expanded cold brew and ready-to-drink options once the pandemic passes. At least Taylor thinks so.

“I imagine other roasters will dedicate more of their surplus volume to cold brew and other RTD (ready-to-drink) products,” he said. “It’s not too early to be thinking about these things. We’re scrambling to figure out paths to recoup revenue. So creating more products that are on-trend -- and especially ones with longer shelf life -- are definitely worth considering.”

Helping out Despite coffee drinkers being holed up at home, there has been a positive public response to blunt the virus’ economic impact on the local workforce. Metric launched a new roast A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood on April 3 with 100% of profits going toward restaurant partners in the city who have had to suspend service.

The coffee is a clear nod to Fred Rogers, the late star of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” with the goal of driving greater community support. The medium roast from Guatemala boasts a creamy sweetness with notes of chestnut, apple and orange. Twelve-ounce bags sell for $17, are available online at metriccoffee.com and at Metric’s Fulton Market cafe. (Orders can be made online, by phone or outside the roastery, 2021 W. Fulton St.)

“Coffee is an affordable luxury and in Chicago there are plenty of options for that,” said Xavier Alexander of Metric. “So our goal, once we see the light on the other side, is to do our part in elevating our industry, the producing partners we work with and education.”

Other roasters, including Dark Matter, Dollop, Bridgeport and Metropolis, have started fundraisers on social media to support team members. Dark Matter’s effort on gofundme.com includes an auction of collectibles and donated musical instruments. It had raised more than $14,000 as of April 6.

Passion House and Pedestrian have donated freshly brewed and bags of roasted coffee to local hospitals, emergency response workers and the American Red Cross.

“It’s hard to see now, but we believe we and the world will come out better on the other side,” said Millman of Passion House. “Part of our mission is that we believe the world is a small place, and that we have the ability to take care of one another. Clearly, people have really come together like we have never seen.”

Looking ahead The durability of green coffee beans has helped dull the economic blow. While fresh food generally has a high spoilage rate and perish days or weeks after arrival, green coffee can maintain flavor potency for up to 12 months if stored at room temperature and moderate to low humidity. The freshness clock starts in earnest after beans are roasted.

Bridgeport Coffee’s Mike Pilkington is relying on reserves he purchased from the 2018-19 harvest and waiting on new shipments from Mexico and Uganda. In January he purchased beans from a co-op in Guatemala with the intention of featuring it as drip coffee in his cafes -- as well as extending the stockpile which he considered an exceptionally flavorful crop. Now, rationing is no longer a priority.

“This is usually the time we begin to receive the new harvest," he said.

"Looks like my coffee from 2018-19 will last awhile, but this is going to be a tight year.”

That’s what worries Alexander most: If supplies last longer, farmers will feel the pinch.

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