Does giving your customers a free biscuit with their coffee mean you're missing out on upselling cakes or pastries? Ian Boughton asks what should sit on your saucer
Of all the arguments that divide players in the beverage trade, one of the most entertaining is the matter of the freebie on the saucer.
There are different schools of thought about the saucer side item. One argument says there is no point in giving away something that could easily be sold, while the other side says that it is an essential courtesy of the hospitality trade, that the customer expects a complimentary item, and will feel cheated by any venue that does not give one.
Even those who believe in the concept disagree about how it should be managed. For example, a vast amount of caterers serve caramelised biscuits, also known as speculoos, but the new breed of top-notch coffee houses say that alongside a top-quality beverage the customer expects to receive something more imaginative. Some baristas place a piece of apricot or walnut beside an espresso; some select a piece of very good chocolate, according to the coffee they're serving. And some don't do it at all.
"We do not believe in it, and most establishments like mine do not either," says Peter Dore-Smith of Kaffeine, one of the best-regarded of the new London coffee shops.
"Why give a light bite for free when you should be selling them one of your lovely cakes or biscuits?"
However, this is a minority view. The more common view is to refer to the European coffee lounges, such as in Brussels, where if a customer is not given a nice treat, they may walk away and never return.
The option for the caterer becomes whether to select a standard stock item, or create something creative and memorable, unique to the venue.
By far the most common stock saucer side item is the Lotus speculoo - this is the original caramelised biscuit, and a billion of them are produced every year.
"The ‘right' thing to give is something that complements the drink, is indulgent without being unhealthy, is cost effective for the operator, doesn't impact on revenue from other food purchases, and enhances the overall experience," says Frances Booth, category marketing manager at Lotus, in the trade's best summary of the product.
"The Lotus recipe was developed to complement coffee, but 40% of the time it is consumed with tea. There are not many of its competitors that are free from artificial colours or preservatives, free from dairy, suitable for diabetics, vegans and vegetarians, and suitable for consumers with nut allergies. So it scores highly from a ‘permissibility' perspective.
"It is also a small investment which engenders a disproportionate level of appreciation from consumers - research shows that when it comes with a hot drink at the end of a meal, it helps psychologically to ease the impact of the bill."
The secret is to serve something tempting, but not too big, says Louis Rintoul, sales and service manager at Bolton coffee roaster Garraways.
"These things are there to whet the appetite, not to fill the customer up. And it must not overpower or detract from the coffee, so a neutral flavour, a vanilla, or a little shortbread biscuit is right. The plainer the biscuit, the better it goes with a good coffee," he adds.
Another of the top coffee houses in London is St Ali, where operations director Tim Williams does not give a saucer side treat, but has previously worked on the idea of matching such items with coffee.
"I always feel that the more expensive the complimentary item, the less the venue may be spending on the coffee itself," he says.
"That said, I have been involved in offering a ‘tasting flight' of brewed filter coffees, each of which was paired with a delicious chocolate creation from William Curley. We worked hard to ensure that the coffee and the chocolate were a good match, and this makes you think along the lines of brewing a Tegu coffee from Kenya, and pairing it with a blackberry compote praline. Or a La Linda Tolima Colombia with a raspberry mousse or milk chocolate. With an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, serve yuzu [an Asian citrus fruit like a small orange] and milk chocolate."
It is generally agreed that the idea of freebies being a cost to a business is outdated and unimaginative. In fact, they support the high cost of a served coffee, says Simon Nicholson, national sales manager at Single Source, the company that dominates the single-serve accessory sector (with sugar sticks and the like) and which moved into imaginative saucer side items when it merged with PortionPack Europe.
"Some big coffee chains take the view that there is no value giving a freebie to someone who may never pass your door again. The view we have always held is that by offering a biscuit you can get away with charging more for coffee, and that a good giveaway may well be seen as a unique feature and develop loyalty.
"So we now have a success story with a very different product, the caramel waffle [pictured opposite]. This is a Dutch treat invented in the late 1700s. It is made from two round waffle-like wafers with a sweet caramel filling, and the Dutch way is to place the waffle on top of the cup, which softens it and produces scents of cinnamon and vanilla.
"Do not think of the treat as a cost. To cap a nice meal with an imaginative little treat can send the customer home very happy, but something that is clearly ‘cheap' can have quite the opposite effect."
Wrap it up
It is recommended by several operators that wrapped giveaways are better than unwrapped. Several of the very popular saucer side choices, such as amaretto biscuits and shortbread slices, are often served unwrapped - however, there is a recorded case of a coffee-house operator being questioned by the environmental health inspector on the hygiene aspects of serving a naked amaretto biscuit.
In the top coffee houses, it is considered that nuts, either served plain or as a wrapped chocolate-covered treat, are an ideal accompaniment to coffee. Other operators avoid them in case customers with nut allergies come into contact with them.
Chocolates are almost always best served wrapped, but the transfer of heat from the cup causes melting, even through the wrap. However, this gives the opportunity for a little customer-service theatre, in making a show of serving the item separately and carefully.
five golden rules for a giveaway treat
1 It should complement the drink without overpowering it. Use a neutral taste, such as vanilla, or a matching flavour.
2 Make it indulgent without being too big, or unhealthy.
3 It must be cost-effective. The cost of a well-selected treat is only a few pence.
4 Don't allow it to impact on potential revenue from other food purchases. It is generally agreed that a treat of up to 6g will not stop the consumer buying something else.
5 Ensure it enhances the overall experience of the venue. The memory of the perfect treat will stay with the customer.
should you serve a Chocolate saucer side treat?
The use of chocolate arouses different emotions. Lotus says that chocolate treats are only appropriate for night-time hot drinks, but others disagree, such as Louis Rintoul, sales and service manager at Garraways, which produces chocolate-covered coffee beans.
"The chocolate-coated bean is not to everyone's taste, although some people can eat a pile of them, particularly the milk chocolate version," he says. "These are difficult to source, but are sweeter, less bitter and work well with larger milky coffee drinks. The darker chocolate is the cheaper production method, so that's what you see most often.
"It's not the chocolate that makes the difference between a good bean and a better one; it's the coffee bean. We use a good Central American one, but if you go into too much detail, you get into the realms of impracticality. There is also the problem of heat transfer from the cup, which is why some people put a chocolate treat in a separate bowl."
Paul Morris of the Chocolate Café in Ramsbottom, Bury serves chocolate cigarillos as saucer side items.
"I am a great fan of saucer giveaways, and feel that they add greatly to the customer's experience," he says.
"My saucer giveaway rules are: any item must complement the drink you are serving - there's not much point giving a bowl of olives with a pot of tea. And it should reflect your business, so if you specialise in cupcakes, then give away a mini cupcake. Also, the items should be made on-site or thoughtfully sourced, because this is a great opportunity to be seen as different - that means, don't use the same biscuit as everyone else!
"We make our cigarillos by spreading freshly tempered chocolate onto a cool surface and then ‘rolling' it up using a dough scraper. Our customers love them; the thrill of a ‘free' accompaniment that complements their drink is clear to see and the cigarillos also give us a very valuable retail income as we sell them in boxes for customers to take away."