Never mind the big flashy machines, says Ian Boughton, what are suppliers doing to help operators who serve coffee in small quantities?
For all the criticism that restaurants and small hotels get over the standard of their cappuccinos and lattes, there is a big problem that is rarely appreciated. It is comparatively easy to keep standards up when practised staff are pushing through 200 espresso-and-milk drinks in a lunch hour but, in a small restaurant, espresso coffee throughput might be in single figures a night.
This presents big problems. Even at five espressos a night, it would take exactly one month to go through 1kg of ground coffee, which is a freshness hazard. And espresso is a skill that requires regular practice: you cannot make a fine espresso once in a blue moon. And yet it's impossible to keep it off the menu for many diners it is the required finish to a meal. So what is the answer?
Fracino, the UK's only native builder of espresso machines, already has a certain amount of business in small hotels and guesthouses for its Heavenly espresso machine and is just about to launch the even-smaller Cherub version.
"If you don't really want to sell many espressos a day, then don't bother buying a machine at all," says commercial director Angela Maxwell. "But if you try and make a go of it, even if only in a small way, then you'll find that good espresso encourages business. Even with a small machine, if you take care and make it well, then you will certainly grow your coffee business.
"You don't have to go mad on your capital outlay. The Cherub is £600, and if you decide to use espresso pods, then you will probably be able to serve perfectly good, fresh coffee even in small numbers."
The use of "pods" is a key point. Coffee for espresso is usually ground just before the drink is made, but ground coffee goes off quickly, and for small throughput this is wasteful. Ground coffee in pods - which look like circular tea bags but are more precisely made - can be held in airtight storage and kept fresh for a useful amount of time. It also makes it easy to serve a different coffee, maybe decaffeinated or organic, without changing the coffee in the machine.
There are specialist suppliers who concentrate on pods alone. Cafeco of Edinburgh is a specialist in the subject and not only advises on the right pods to use in any machine - pods come in a range of sizes from 44mm diameter to 62mm - but has an unusual range of flavoured pods. It suddenly becomes easy to offer an amaretto- or vanilla-flavoured coffee, and there are some unique limited-edition flavours as well. Typically, the "winter warmer" is a vanilla, cinnamon, macaroon, orange and amaretto blend, and the pod format allows the operator to produce something that would takes ages to make up in conventional ways.
The alternative to the pod is the capsule. This looks like an individual milk serving, but the machine has to puncture the pod correctly at top and bottom to allow the water to flow through correctly and create a proper espresso effect. It is generally said that capsules work only in the machine they are made for, but adaptors have begun to appear.
"The way around the small-quantity problem is certainly pods or capsules," confirms Steve Penk, sales director of La Spaziale, which is just about to bring out a small machine, the La Spaziale S1 Mini Vivaldi, for small cafés and restaurants. "A helpful point is that every major European coffee company now produces coffee this way. We now have cases of very busy cafés who keep one brewing head for their house espresso, and another for their pod or capsule.
"To use capsules in a La Spaziale espresso machine, we will supply a special group handle which is built to fit the capsule you want and for pods we will supply a special filter basket to the size of pod you want to use. There is no doubt that for the small-quantity user, pods are the way to go - it's far less mess."
The trick in looking for a small-footprint machine, says Marco Olmi, managing director of the Coffee Machine Company, is not to confuse a small professional machine with a domestic one - they are two different animals. Truly commercial ones differ from their bigger brothers only in size and probably have a built-in water tank instead of direct plumbing. The Rancilio Epoca is the company's new model, built to the same standards as its large espresso machines.
There are some unusual, and possible unique, features in the Unic machine, which already has some business in Britain, and which has reappeared here under the distribution of Unic UK. "It has an ingenious portafilter for pods," says Unic marketing director Tony Farnesi. "If you are only using pods, you can just half-unclip the portafilter from the machine and it will automatically eject the used pod."
Unusually, the Unic has a Teflon-coated steam arm. This recognises that while it is good practice to wipe clean the arm after each use in frothing milk, some inexperienced staff do forget.
Marco Beverage Systems says that for up to 60 cups a day the answer is the Siena 2 bean-to-cup coffee machine by Schaerer. Again, this is from a factory that makes full-size professional machines, but is simply smaller.
Café du Monde has devised a range of bean-to-cup machines under its Mon Ami brand, and says it has the ultimate portable bean-to-cup machine for sites with up to 75 cups a day. It weighs just 18kg and has a manual-fill water tank and eight programmeable drinks.
The brand that has made the capsule concept its own is Nespresso, which claims it to be the freshest way of keeping coffee for espresso. Nespresso has developed a range of advanced machines called the Nespresso Gemini Generation. "We wanted to develop machines that would target the office market as well as hotels, restaurants and cafés," says Nespresso's international commercial director Mark Leenders. "We needed a look that was appealing and that could move the machines from the back of the restaurant to the front."
The newest competitor in capsules is Lavazza, which promotes itself as Italy's favourite coffee and has a foot in both camps. It now offers roast and ground coffee, pods, and has its own capsule system as well.
"For those who make very little espresso and already own an espresso machine and a grinder, I recommend that they only pour a very small amount of beans into the grinder. It is crucial that what is not going into the grinder goes into the fridge, and possibly in an airtight container, to keep it as fresh as possible," says Andre Fucci, head of training at Lavazza UK. "For those who own an espresso machine but don't have a grinder - don't buy one. Use pods."
Crucially, says Lavazza, there is a costing difference between ground coffee and capsules. "Lavazza Blue capsule systems are user-friendly, but the mark-up per cup will be lower as they are more expensive to produce. We say that it's better to earn less from serving a good cup than having the customers send it back."
This question of cost is taken up by the Metropolitan Coffee Company with the launch of its new WMF 1000, a bean-to-cup machine with integral water tank that uses fresh milk. "We provide this as a zero-to-hero solution for small usage," says the company's sales director, Angus McKenzie. "A site selling coffees at, say, £1.65 a cup, £1.40 net of VAT, will make profit net of ingredients of £1.20 per cup. So the break-even point with a great little machine would probably be from 68 days if you sell 30 a day to 408 days if you sell five a day."
A unique solution is offered by Douwe Egberts, which says that the answer to freshness in small quantity is its Cafitesse system. This is a liquid coffee that has been brewed, condensed and frozen and is reformulated at the time of serving. There is a new Cafitesse 60 machine for daily output of about 50 cups.
The key, all espresso machine-makers agree, is that ignoring espresso coffee is no longer an option. As Paul Freeman, marketing manager at Douwe Egberts, comments: "Consumers' taste-buds have become accustomed to high-quality espresso-based coffee, and this is what they are demanding."
The question now is not whether good espresso can be served in small numbers - but which solution is most practical.
- Cafeco 0800 074 7577 www.cafeco.co.uk
- Café du Monde 01322 284804 www.cafedumonde.co.uk
- Coffee Machine Company 020 7237 6862 www.coffeemachinecompany.co.uk
- Douwe Egberts 01753 518123 www.douwe-egberts.co.uk
- Fracino 0121-328 5757 www.fracino.com
- La Spaziale 01246 450666 www.laspaziale.co.uk
- Lavazza 020 8740 3820 www.lavazza.com
- Marco Beverage Systems 020 7274 4577 www.marco-bev.co.uk
- Metropolitan Coffee Company 020 8743 8959 www.metropolitancoffee.co.uk
- Nespresso 01603 457159 www.nespresso.com
- Unic UK 020 3177 1000 www.unic.fr