Despite what many customers believe, it's not easy to make big profits in the catering business. Overheads are high, margins are tight, and it is labour-intensive. But there are a few glimmers of commercial light in beverage service. From classic Italian espresso machines to the simple cafetiŠre there is a handsome gap between beverage cost and selling price.
Ingredients represent just a part of the overall cost of producing a cup of coffee, a fact conveniently airbrushed out when ingredient suppliers quote bean cost per cup at a few pence and selling price above £1. But there are good profits in tea and coffee, and the way to them lies in choosing the right machine. In addition to build quality, there are completely different production systems, with individual advantages and disadvantages, each suited to a particular market.
They don't come much simpler than this system, but a cafetiŠre is useful for delivering a pot of freshly made coffee to a restaurant table. They are sized by the number of cups they hold, and a restaurant may have to carry a range of sizes. Check to see if the model being selected is dishwasher-safe, as some are not.
Pour-over This is the familiar balloon-shaped glass jug unit, usually two jugs to a unit, one being filled from hot water run through coffee grounds held in a filter while the other is kept warm on top of the machine with a heat pad. This system is inexpensive and provides a good cup of coffee, providing the coffee is not allowed to stew on the heat pad for too long. One hour is considered the maximum time to hold coffee in this manner. Pour-over systems are ideal for catering operations such as pubs, caf‚s and small restaurants, where demand is steady, but not huge.
These machines work with freshly ground coffee, either loose in a paper filter or in pre-portioned sachets. Although the sachets are convenient, they are more expensive and can be inconsistent in the strength of the coffee they produce, as the water has a tendency to flow over and around the coffee rather than through it.
Pour-over machines are usually freestanding, not plumbed in. Two boiler systems are in use. The displacement system works by filling the internal water tank and heating the water; then a jugful of cold water is poured into the tank, which displaces enough hot water to go through the coffee grinds. The displacement system has largely been displaced itself by flash boilers that use a coiled tube wrapped around a boiler to rapidly heat the water.
Pour-over systems are low-maintenance apart from observing normal hygiene standards for food equipment and the occasional use of descaling chemicals as necessary.
Soluble machines These work with freeze-dried ingredients. They are convenient and the smaller machines can be cheap, making them suitable for low-demand coffee needs such as caf‚s or pubs. The bigger automatic soluble machines are very fast, delivering a cup of coffee from one button touch, making them popular with fast-food chains, airports and motorway service areas.
Depending on the sophistication of the machine there can be multiple coffee options as well as hot water for other drinks. Some small machines are freestanding table-top models with a manual-fill water tank, but the larger machines will be plumbed into the mains.
Regular mechanical maintenance is important to ensure that the ingredient dosages are set correctly. During installation the amount of ingredient per cup - called the "throw" - will be set according to the caterer's preference and the type of cup being used.
Espresso machines These are the machine of choice where coffee quality is of paramount importance, such as in quality restaurants, caf‚-bars and busy food-led pubs.
The semi-automatic machines need dispense staff to be well trained in machine operation to provide coffee with the best flavour and the trademark creamy topping on espresso called the crema. Inconsistencies in the drink come mostly through incorrect loading and manual compression of the grains in the dispense head before it is locked into the brewing position. Manufacturers often offer training packages with the sale of a machine.
Fully automatic machines require less operator skill, but staff still need proper training. These machines deliver quality with consistency and speed. They are not as quick as high-speed soluble machines, but the quality of the coffee is every bit as high as with traditional semi-automatic espresso machines.
In an automatic machine the coffee is held either in a hopper already ground, or as whole roast beans which are ground by the machine and held in a small enclosed secondary hopper.
There is a slightly bigger cleaning issue with automatic machines as the used coffee grounds collection hopper will need regular emptying. Some have self-diagnostic displays that say when a maintenance function needs doing and keep an electronic record of beverage transactions.
On both semi-automatic and automatic machines, rigid cleaning routines set down by manufacturers must be followed. The presence of milk and heat around the machine is an ideal breeding environment for bacteria.
Bulk brewers These are aimed at any catering operation where there's a need for a large volume of coffee to be available in a short time. Typically, this would be a hotel for breakfast service, refreshment periods during conference breaks, or for after-dinner coffee in banqueting. The top bulk brewers can deliver up to 100 litres of coffee an hour, the equivalent of 500 cups an hour. Busy banqueting operations or large hotels may need two machines of this size to cope with demand and provide back-up in case of breakdown, though bulk brewers are very reliable if properly serviced.
Bulk brewers can also be useful for staff restaurant coffee shops, where a range of coffees are produced in the bulk brewer and decanted into heat-retaining airpot jugs for sale and dispense. This system allows the caf‚-bar to offer a wide range of coffee styles with the minimum of dispense equipment.
These machines operate in a similar fashion to pour-over machines using the filter system, but on a much larger scale. It is a plumbed-in system which will both brew the coffee, usually from fresh coffee grounds, and hold it in an internal tank so it can be dispensed for service through traditional table-top coffee pots or into airpots or vacuum jugs. As with any plumbed-in system, bulk brewers need a water treatment system fitted to control limescale build-up.
Tea-making/water boilers An on-demand supply of very hot water is essential for every catering operation, and while tea making may be the main function of a hot water boiler, it has many more uses in a catering environment.
The most popular type of water boiler is the atmospheric boiler. These can be manual-fill for small portable boilers or plumbed in for bigger boilers with an automatic fill that maintains a level of constant hot water. Smaller boilers can work off a standard 13amp power source, while more powerful models will need 30amp power, rising to three-phase power for the very biggest.
Atmospheric boilers typically deliver constant hot water at a temperature of between 94¡C and 97¡C. They can be wall-mounted, fixed or mobile.
Vending machines Beverage vending machines have suffered in the past from low-quality ingredients which have given them an undeserved reputation of delivering an inferior product. Beverage vending machines can now meet every need of the market, from dispensing low-cost drinks and making roast and ground fresh coffee to tea options that brew from fresh tea leaves.
And the little extras…
Airpots This is the industry term for vacuum flasks that have a DIY dispense facility. They work with a pump mechanism, a lever-pull or by just unscrewing the top to allow air into the vacuum jug and pouring into a cup.
Milk warmers It is very retro to offer customers warm milk to go with coffee, but there is still a niche market for silver service with the table staff holding two jugs, one of hot coffee, the other of warmed milk. Milk warmers are available from beverage equipment suppliers. The standard of operational and cleaning hygiene when using milk warmers must be high to reduce the risk of bacterial contamination.