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The Sweet Taste of Success

By Amelia C. Levy

It’s no secret that flavored drinks have become a staple of the coffee retail industry. While coffee aficionados may turn up their noses at the thought, for many, syrups are a sweet addition to coffee and espresso-based drinks. A visit to the coffee shop becomes not only a way to start the day with a caffeine boost, but a treat as well. It’s kind of like going to an ice cream parlor, but these goodies are quick, portable, trendy, and sometimes relatively guilt-free. According to research done by Danisco Cultor , 25-30% of all specialty coffee sold is flavored coffee. These drinks are what draw many customers into the coffee shops, and retail owners are very much aware of that fact. Just check out the stock of syrups they have behind the counter.

Indicative of the current demand for syrups, their promotion in retail operations is getting more and more involved. Where, in the past, customers might simply ask for a shot of hazelnut to spice up their cappuccino, today they are confronted with specific drink concoctions made up of a couple of unusual syrups flavors added to lattes, mochas, and blended iced drinks. Often added to these are indulgent, dessert-like toppings such as whipped cream drizzled with caramel or chocolate syrup, sprinkles, or other bestowers of sugar shock.

Crimson Cup, a coffee roaster in Colombus, Ohio, that supplies 150 retail locations along with one of their own cart locations, makes sure its retailer clients are aware of the flexibility and potential of flavored espresso drinks. Last year they began sending out calendars to the owners, filled with specialty “Drink of the Day” ideas, which they have concocted themselves in their own test kitchen. “Initially only a handful of customers were actually running the specials in our stores. Now we get calls nearly every day from customers wanting more calendars and even more drink ideas,” enthuses Kristi Todd, Crimson Cup’s marketing director. Greg Ubert, president of the eight-year-old company, comments that customers sometimes even get edgy if their calendars don’t arrive on time.

“People have realized the drink of the day is very successful,” says Ubert, “At a restaurant, something like 50% of the customers will get the drink of the day if it’s offered. Customers look forward to it. Of course they can always have their favorite, but some people like to have something different every day.”

The company also encourages their retailers to come up with their individual store’s own signature drink. “For instance, there would always be a ‘Java Cyber Espresso Bar Latte,’ available, and then they would also offer a special of the day along with that.”

Another way Crimson Cup gets the word out is by sponsoring “Free Sample Day”-iced drink giveaways that take place all spring and summer long at their retail locations. These events draw in new fans of the specialty drinks, and Crimson Cup says they have really helped increase their customer’s sales during the summer months.

Crimson Cup supplies Dolce and DiNatura syrups, both part of the Stearns & Lehman line, DiNatura being the more upscale, all-natural version in glass bottles, Dolce in more humble plastic. Ubert likes the flexibility of the two separate but similar lines.

Crimson Cup’s most popular drink at their cart, located at the Colombus Crew Soccer Stadium in Colombus, is their “CC (Crimson Cup) Mocha.” This long-standing drink is made with Caramel syrup and Guittard White Chocolate syrup. Best-selling syrups at the cart are Vanilla, Caramel, Raspberry, and Hazelnut, but they offer their stores more unique flavors like Toasted Marshmallow or Banana, in addition to sugar-free varieties.

Ubert believes that syrups have been a sort of transitional “first step” towards coffee for people who perhaps have been hesitant towards or have not been exposed to the taste of specialty coffee and espresso.

“This is an opportunity for people in the midwest to get into specialty coffee drinks-and it is an introduction to all the varieties of espresso-based drinks,” says Ubert.

A similar “introduction” theory is cited by Dan Wickberg, director of quality assurance of Seattle’s Best Coffee, a coffee roaster and retailer company that owns 100 cafés internationally and supplies coffee to over 5,000 wholesale customers in North America. “[Syrups] offer coffee to a segment of the population that is maybe not as fond of the flavor of coffee. They go to the coffee shop for the atmosphere, for the hustle and bustle,...and they can still have their drinks with the coffee drinkers. The sweeter taste gets people into it-they think of coffee as having a bitter taste, but syrups show them that that’s not always the case, so they don’t feel threatened.”

Seattle’s Best Coffee sells private label syrups, which are manufactured by Monin. They now carry 10 varieties of syrups, but in the past they have offered as many as 25. Syrup usage varies throughout the company’s different locations throughout the U.S., in Canada, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Wickberg says their granita drinks, some of which are made with fruit-flavored syrups, have a strong following in warm places like the Philippines and California. As for coffee, he says flavored drinks are definitely not as common abroad or even in Canada as they are in the U.S. “Americans still have more of a sweet tooth,” he remarks.

He also notices that syrups are much more popular on the East Coast of the U.S. than in the West, perhaps due to some coffee purism. “In the northeast you have the saying, ‘do you want your coffee white?’ You find that saying there because maybe they’ve had a sour coffee here or a bitter one there, and they have been trying to cover up the taste of the coffee [with milk]. Syrups can be a mediating factor. You may go to different coffee companies and the taste of the coffee may vary, but the Irish Cream taste will always be pretty similar.”

“You have people [in the east] who see Dunkin’ Donuts as their baseline for coffee, so if they’re going to go upscale, they’re going to want to get a treat and treat themselves. In the northwest, the perception is that coffee is coffee, not a dessert-out here people like the coffee itself.”

Some retailers generally rely on word-of-mouth and the menu boards to spread the word about their flavored drinks. Seattle’s Best Coffee has a few specific marketing techniques to promote their syrups. Point-of-sale promotions are usually conducted in-store, by using signs in the windows or by the cash register. Like Crimson Cup, their stores have tastings, where they give samples of a drink out to customers while they are waiting on line. They also use the technique of upselling-after the customer orders, the barista is trained to ask them if they would like to try a similar, syrup-enhanced drink.

During the December holidays, Seattle’s Best Coffee stores offered a Peppermint Mocha, made with chocolate syrup, peppermint extract and whipped cream. In time for Valentines Day they will have a Raspberry Mocha Kiss, and a White Chocolate Mocha. Wickberg says their customers are most likely to drink Vanilla, Hazelnut Cream, and Irish Cream in their beverages. There is also a steady demand for sugar-free syrups, which they always offer, though in more limited varieties.

Seasonal specials are also used as a marketing tool by industry giant Starbucks, which offered a Gingerbread Latte (made with a gingerbread syrup) along with its classic Eggnog Latte this past holiday season. Starbucks uses Fontana syrups, a brand manufactured specifically for their chain.

Green Brothers Coffee in Hackensack, New Jersey, creates “Lattes of the Month.” For the holidays, they offered a Peppermint Patty Latte, using Ghirardelli chocolate and Torani Peppermint syrup, topped with whipped cream, chocolate shavings and holiday sprinkles. It seems there are always the usual syrup stand-bys, but more exotic flavors are trailing close behind. Brian Greene, founder of the coffee roaster and its retail shops, says he sells the most Vanilla, Hazelnut and Caramel syrups, but that a great deal of customers opt for Raspberry, Amaretto and Coconut as well.

Greene Brothers sells “Italian” or “European-style” sodas as another way to utilize the syrups, while appealing to both the under-coffee-age audience, and the non-coffee drinker. Their stores offer two types of Italian sodas: Vanilla Creme, made with Vanilla syrup, Seltzer, and half-and-half, and Raspberry soda made of raspberry syrup and seltzer. Customers are drawn to these sodas during the summer months.

Even though he knows syrups are important to his business, Greene emphatically asserts that he barely ever uses syrups in his own drinks. “It’s not that I’m, like, a coffee snob or anything-but I really like coffee, and there are a lot of coffees from all over the world...any number of varieties to try, and if I want something raspberry, I’ll get a raspberry drink, not coffee. To me it ruins coffees-because I love coffee.”

In any case, syrups seem like they are, at least for now, here for the duration. Despite those who are inclined to agree with Greene, Seattle’ Best Coffee and other companies observe syrup sales holding steady, and Crimson Cup reports a definite increase. “We are consistently getting in larger and larger shipments of syrups. Our retail owners have also told us that more and more of their customers are switching from buying brewed coffees to drinking flavored lattes and mochas,” says Todd. She adds that probably the greatest area of growth has been in iced espresso drink sales.

Ubert of Crimson Cup began his love affair with coffee drinking flavored lattes, mochas and cappuccinos. Having since moved on to the harder stuff - plain espresso - he still affirms: “I think syrups will play a part of the specialty coffee industry for some time-it allows people to get creative with what they’re making.”

Tea & Coffee - January/February 2001
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