The Olympics provides an unrivalled opportunity for UK hospitality operators, but will the coffee on offer stand up to the scrutiny of an international audience? Ian Boughton asks whether our beverages are of medal-winning quality
This is the year in which the standard of beverages served in the British hospitality trade will come under closer scrutiny than ever before. It is Olympic year, and it is a remarkable opportunity in terms of both profit and reputation - the event should generate £10b in revenue for the British economy, with tourists spending £2b.
However, there are doubts whether the restaurant and hotel trades are ready for it, in one important respect. While the coffee bars in London have now come to be recognised as the best in the world, and while the rankings compiled by an international coffee guru show us to have stood as "top coffee nation" for some time, the beverage trade still questions whether our hotels and restaurants serve coffee to the standard that international visitors will expect.
This is nothing new - the restaurant trade in particular has always come under fire for the standard of its coffee - but the question now is how we will fare in the eyes of international consumers, and how we make the most of this potentially wonderful selling season.
It was one of Ireland's most famous baristas, Colin Harmon, who recently dared raise the problem of restaurant coffee by running a poll. He asked whether restaurateurs want to hear what the coffee trade thinks, and would they take constructive criticism on board, to which an unexpected 68% said yes. However, 9% of respondents said they would listen but had no real desire to improve their coffee. And horrifyingly, 21% said they couldn't care less - so a third of the restaurant industry is not interested in coffee quality.
A typical worry comes from Lavazza, where sales and marketing director Barry Kither desperately wants to support the hospitality trades. "If tourists coming to London for the first time said they were worried about the food, we could have an enormous argument with them - they can find great food here. But if they're worried about the coffee, we would have to agree that it's an enormous hit-and-miss," he says.
"The coffee shops of Soho are wonderful - but there's not going to be a lot of Olympic activity in Soho, is there? No beach volleyball there! So, an Italian going to Greenwich for the show jumping and hoping for a good espresso may be disappointed."
The catering trade has to act, says Kither. "We must ask ourselves, are we really aware of what these people are going to expect? Beverages are the weakest part of the average catering menu, and for the first time in 30 years, our trade could be seriously letting down our country.
"We could use a decent coffee guide around the Olympics - we did a Lavazza coffee guide beside Wimbledon this year, and that was a really good idea. Has the hospitality industry spoken to the tourist bodies about the promotion of food and beverages for Olympic tourists?"
The opportunity has been seen by other sectors of the general catering trade. Tim Sturk, training manager at contract caterer BaxterStorey, has his own in-house coffee academy, and says that the beverage trade's criticism is well founded.
"The contract caterers really need to raise their game. The general attitude towards coffee from the contract catering industry is indifference, which led the coffee people to throw their hands up in the air a long time ago.
"Becoming the BaxterStorey coffee specialist has enabled me to change our attitude to our suppliers, and ask them questions that we never asked before - we had always trusted our suppliers to tell us what was good coffee. Our chefs would never dream of doing that with food suppliers!"
At Drury Tea and Coffee, director Marco Olmi is optimistic about standards. "Interest in quality is rising rapidly. About half of our barista training is now in restaurants, and the operations manager of a very famous restaurant recently threw back at me what the coffee trade has been telling restaurateurs for years - he said: ‘coffee is the last flavour, it's the taste they leave my restaurant with'.
"It's unusual, but very welcome, to see restaurants of this calibre focusing on getting espresso right."
tea will play a big part in the english experience
Many tourists will also be coming for the English experience, and tea will play a big part in this, says Dorothy Sieber, director of out-of-home marketing at Tetley.
"With the Olympics now just around the corner, millions of visitors from around the world will want to discover such truly English delights as a cup of tea. It is essential that the hospitality industry gets it right, all of the time. To do so should be simple, but regularly it can go wrong," she says.
"Ensure that your international guest is not merely presented with the option of ‘tea'. Speciality teas, whether that is green, redbush or fruit, are particularly popular in the international market so they should certainly be offered as an option during this very cosmopolitan time."
And it is short-sighted to think of just one event, according to Martin Armitt, marketing controller for Aimia Foods, whose specialist subject is automatically vended coffee.
"The Olympics presents the biggest opportunity in recent times to lead by example for future events that the UK will host," he says.
"The standard of coffee shop coffee in the UK is very high, but we must also show the world that Britain has state-of-the-art, vibrant and high-quality vending systems.
"Britain is on the world stage - our beverage industry cannot offer anything less than ‘great'."
Create coffee ambassadors to keep standards high
Mark Goncalves, group purchasing manager, Firmdale Hotels
Mark Goncalves has opted for using traditional espresso machines with Lavazza's Grand espresso beans. The pricing of his coffee is comparable with many top hotels - a double espresso at £4 and cappuccinos, lattes and mochas at £4.25.
"In recent years, with the influx of the high-street chains, the general thinking about coffee has changed, and a lot more guests are now coffee drinkers," he explains.
"Training has to be done, and more than that, it has to be refreshed. We do a lot of work on this and we send all our staff out to Lavazza - all our staff may not yet be championship standard but they work very hard at it. We have created ‘coffee ambassadors' - these can be any member of staff, of any grade, who shows an enthusiasm for making good coffee, and who is willing to take responsibility for making sure our standard stays high.
"We use La Cimbali espresso machines, which are good machines, tried and tested, and they do the job. We have more than one in our bigger hotels. We have, of course, tested others - the problem with some espresso machines is that they are very expensive and you can find problems with servicing and parts… a great name is always fine, until it breaks down.
"Over the years, push-button machines have improved, but we find they are limited by variety. If we have a preferred ‘house blend' of espresso, then we would want that supplied in a pod or a capsule. We do use pod machines in certain areas - the reason is efficiency and a complete lack of wastage.
"We have made no particular effort for this year's tourists, because we have already worked to make sure that our beverages are of a high standard. We didn't wait for the Olympics!"
feature a drink of the day
Go for it positively, says Elaine Higginson, managing director at United Coffee.
"This summer is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for beverage operators to show visitors from across the globe how diverse and developed our coffee scene is. The independent shops do this phenomenally well, but coffee quality is on the rise across the board.
‘This is an unrivalled opportunity for everyone who serves beverages to demonstrate our expertise in creating the nation's favourite out-of-home drink.
"Add value by adding a twist of excitement - single origin brews on the menu, featuring an Olympic themed ‘drink of the day'. Going that extra mile will draw in new customers."
Adopting the culture of Showing everything that's good about the UK - which includes beverages
Rupert Spurgeon, general manager, South Lodge hotel, Horsham, West Sussex
Rupert Spurgeon has opted to use the Service en Chambre cafetière-style method from Café du Monde - single-origin coffees are packed in unique bags which avoid the need to rinse spent grounds from the cafetière.
"The criticism of hotel coffee is a problem which I recognise. The hotel industry in general cannot say that across the board it has placed the same emphasis on coffee as it does on cocktails or on the kitchen. But we now recognise that the customer expects a ‘great' cup of coffee and that we have to at least match the high-street offer, and ideally exceed it. So we have trained our staff to taste - we insist that they taste before every service.
"We are keen for the guest to ‘discover' great coffees, and while they would expect 24-hour room service in a hotel like ours, they praise us for giving them the opportunity to make it for themselves - because when they want coffee, they want it ‘now'. There is a clear ‘ooh, what's that?' element of discovery for them, and they certainly comment on the varietals that we offer them.
"In the Olympic year, we have pitched for tourist group business, and have adopted the culture of ‘showing everything that is good about the UK', which includes beverages. We are working very hard on the provision of espresso-based drinks in large quantities; we are already strong in afternoon tea, but we want to position this even more strongly for Olympic tourists.
"In coffee, we can't grow it, but we can offer them the best. In tea, we are looking forward to enhancing our theatre of this even more by serving Tregothnan tea [from the UK's only commercial tea estate, in Cornwall]."
Aimia 01942 408600 www.aimiafoods.com
Baxter Storey 0118 935 6700 www.baxterstorey.com
Drury 020 7740 1100 www.drury.uk.com
Lavazza 01895 209750 www.lavazza-coffee.co.uk
Tetley 0845 606 6328 www.tetleyforcaterers.co.uk
United Coffee 01908 275520 www.unitedcoffeeuk.com