The beverage trade’s reaction to the launch of Costa Coffee’s ‘flat white’ drink has been more intense and more varied than anyone expected – but it has served a very good purpose for the hospitality trade by bringing the speciality-coffee trade into the general spotlight at just the right time.
The UK barista contests are now in progress and this is the year that the world speciality coffee-making championship comes to London. As a result, this is thought to be the ideal time for the catering trade to promote its coffee quality.
The drink which has caused all the latest fuss is the ‘flat white’. This has been widely trumpeted by the two biggest coffee-house chains, Starbucks and Costa, as a great new drink.
Starbucks was actually the first out with the drink by a couple of weeks, but only did so in London, whereas Costa stole the headlines with a fully-national launch in the last week of January.
This is where the fun really began…
First, a flat white is by no means a new drink. It came into the spotlight at a trade conference early last year, when it was suggested as the next stage in espresso-based drinks.
However, it has been made in Australia and New Zealand for many years, the Antipodean-owned and influenced coffee shops in Soho have had it for a long time, and even the chain Muffin Break has said that it has been selling the drink in the UK for eight years.
It is generally accepted that the flat white (or ‘flattie’ in Australian!) is a drink that takes skill to make and, when well-made, is an exceptionally satisfying coffee drink. It uses more espresso coffee than a cappuccino or latte within a smaller size than those drinks are generally served in Britain. It also uses very creamily-steamed milk, which is a knack in itself.
It was the Costa launch which successfully drew most attention, but not for all the right reasons.
The chain had picked singer Peter Andre as the personality to star at the launch event, as he is generally seen as an Australian despite having been born in London.
The event was unintentionally torpedoed from the very beginning when, it is reported, a PR agency issued a series of demands to the media which forbade any reference to the singer’s widely-reported love life and included the requirement that ‘photographs of Peter Andre must be accompanied by positive text/captions/headings’.
The Telegraph’s online riposte was to produce a picture which was deliberately captioned: ‘the bad pop singer Peter Andre’ and followed with a spoof interview about his love life and its relationship to coffee.
At the same time, Costa produced information which said that ‘the Flat White is a rich, creamy full-flavoured coffee with a velvety texture, made from the purest extract of the coffee bean’, which led to some puzzlement in the coffee trade, over how the purest extract of any coffee bean is identified.
Costa then said that the launch of the drink followed more than twelve months’ research, involving the training of 6,000 baristas, at a cost of over one million pounds.
It was observed by the coffee trade that Starbucks had previously made the equally-unlikely claim that its baristas had taught themselves to make the drink following requests from customers, and that education in the making of the drink was anyway already readily available from a number of barista trainers.
Costa then went on to say: “our unrivalled coffee expertise and highly skilled, talented baristas make us unique in our ability to offer an authentic flat white”. This, unsurprisingly, drew immediate reaction in the coffee-trade press and internet forums.
One writer, whose posting suggested that he or she might be a Costa employee, said that inter-company communication and training had had mixed results : ‘some people have worked hard at making a go of it (with honestly tasty results), and others have tried to hide under a carpet hoping it will go away.’
However, the one thing that the hospitality trade should acknowledge is that Costa, as ever, did show the way in marketing a new drink on its menu.
The chain’s point-of-sale work was, as always, spot-on. Posters and A-boards were out very early on the launch day, reportedly throughout the UK, and the group’s literature used some very good product descriptions, such as the phrase ‘creamy, not frothy’, along with a clever marketing line in ‘we make it better’.
Irrespective of who made a flat white first, or who makes it better, and irrespective of unfortunate incidents with celebrity endorsers, Costa has shown the beverage trade the way to draw attention to speciality coffee.
By Ian Boughton