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What’s Brewing In Specialty Retail?


We went searching for some hot new trends in specialty coffee retail. What we found was a roaster with a holistic view of sustainable coffee, a futuristic way for cafés to offer their customers web access, and a blossoming café culture in Thailand and Australia.

Sustainable Coffee “Handcrafted” from Seed to Cup
Along with a renewed interest in the relation between natural foods and health of late has come a greater interest in the whole picture of what we put into our bodies - being conscious of the steps our food goes through from its beginnings, up until it reaches our plates. And, as it did in the 1960s, those interested in growing and processing methods and their relation to health and taste have recently found their way back to the coffee world. Today, sustainable farming, awareness of origin, roasting, brewing, and - most importantly - taste, are all major concerns of one specialty coffee roaster and distributor: Allegro Coffee Company, based in Boulder, Colorado.

In fact, the only way to sum up Allegro coffee, which is sold at coffeehouses and restaurants in addition to the Whole Foods Markets specialty health food stores nationwide, is to say that they are pretty much obsessed with the origin and quality of their coffee.

Allegro markets their beans as having what they call a “Taste of Place,” because they believe that climate, altitude, soil and vegetation that surround coffee trees - to which they pay extremely close attention - create an environment that influence the taste of the coffee.

Allegro calls the growers of their coffee their “farming partners.” Kevin Knox, Allegro’s master roaster and green coffee buyer, believes that a close relationship between grower and distributor forms a sort of symbiosis, which directly relates to quality and integrity in the cup. This way, Allegro is closely involved in methods of growing and processing that affect the coffee, as well as the environment and the conditions of the workers. Many of the coffees are certified organically grown, and farmers are paid fair prices for what they grow.

Allegro’s commitment to sustainability goes so far that they go a step further than most, taking sustainable practices at face value. They really try to be aware of the whole sustainability picture - a complex subject - rather than making money off of consumers’ reactions to simplified buzz words such as “shade-grown,” “bird-friendly,” or “fair trade.” For instance, Knox explains that not all shade-grown coffee is beneficial to the environment. Shade trees, he says, are not native to many coffee-growing areas - and some farmers that only grow coffee with little shade in one part of the farm, leave large portions of the rest of the land as untouched forest. Often, these farms actually have more birds than there are on more densely-shaded farms. It is also possible (and common, Allegro asserts) for coffee to be shade grown but of poor quality, using excessive chemicals, and for the farm’s workers to be vastly underpaid.

Allegro is also aware that fair-trade programs set up in order to pay third-world farmers fair prices for their coffee are often exclusionary, not applying to family-owned farms, and not employed in some of the poorest countries such as Africa and Indonesia. So, Allegro pays premiums themselves in order to reward farms for quality coffee, and hope this will encourage others to keep quality as their main goal.

Once the green coffee reaches Colorado, Knox brews and samples cup after cup in order to ensure that the beans they distribute are of consistent high quality. Knox is a walking coffee dictionary. He sees coffee more as a gourmet drink that should be rated and priced, like wine, rather than treated as just a generic, brown, caffeinated liquid. Like wine, he believes, coffee is a beverage that has a very broad range of taste and quality relating to the methods by which and place in which its unique variety is grown, and should be treated (and priced) as such.

Knox sadly emphasizes what he calls the “dumbing down of America’s palate by the espresso business,” whereby retail operations are directing the inexperienced consumer’s tastes more towards espresso drinks and dark roasted coffee, rather than educating them about the subtleties of coffee origin and more moderate roasts. “But it will create its own backlash,” he adds hopefully. “How can coffee redeem itself?” he asks with much fervor - a manner in which he pretty much always speaks when talking about coffee. He gambles at an answer: “ It has to start with dazzling the customer with the cup, and education, and empowering the farmers so that they have a relationship with the consumers. It is now a necessity to visit every producing country, and educating the consumer is such a key part of trying to keep this kind of coffee available to people.”

To ensure quality comes even further, into the retail shop, Allegro has begun an in-store roasting program. As of March, nine of the top Whole Foods Markets had installed coffee roasters in their stores. Now customers can buy coffee that has been roasted right in the coffee section of the market within hours of when they buy it.

Allegro provides training for the store’s staff, and the roasted coffee beans, sold out of a bin, are dated to ensure that they are not more than seven days old. Allegro knows that the best way to ensure a fresh cup of coffee is to purchase whole bean coffee weekly and grind it just before brewing, so they make sure their coffee will always be able to fit this criteria. In his book, Coffee Basics, Knox gets into great detail and is adamant about brewing methods consumers should use at home to extract the best taste possible. For instance, he condemns many electric coffee brewers which, he says, brew coffee at the wrong temperature and then “cook” the coffee - but promotes vacuum brewers, plunger pots and drip methods. After all the work he has put into bringing customers great coffee, he would hate for it all to be ruined at the very last step.

Allegro Coffee Company, 12799 Claude Court, Building B, Dock 4, Thornton, Colorado 80241. Tel: (303) 444-4844, Fax: (303) 920-5468, Web site: www.allegrocoffee.com.

A New Way for Customers to Surf
Surftable came to be when Courtney Donnell of Omaha, Nebraska, was fed up with trying to find a connection for her laptop while traveling.

Now her company. catEye9 L.L.C., offers a table that features a 15-inch LCD monitor, keyboards and mouse controllers, all built in to the actual table. The elements of the computer set are flush with the table, and protected and sealed-in to be spill proof, so that the customer can surf the net while sipping a beverage without being a danger to a coffee shop’s hardware equipment. Surftable connects to any broadband service, making Internet access 5 to 10 times faster than the 56k modem.

Similar to pre-paid phone cards, customers can purchase an access card to use Surftable. With a cost of eight cents per minute and limited free use, Surftable claims they are one of the least expensive public portals in the world.

With internet cafés sprouting up around the world, owners have been trying to find ways to reduce use of expensive floor space, and eliminate the need for customers to search around for access points for their laptops.

“Until now a total solution did not exist,” says Donnell. “Our surveys are showing customers who use the Surftable are more likely to return to a Surftable location versus one without. That’s great news for us and the locations we place our product in.”

One fun feature is that more than one person can use the surftable at one time, because a flip screen control can automatically change the viewing angle for each user.

Refreshingly, no maintenance or computer experience is required for the retailer. Surftable is completely self contained, with a variety of system checks and daily maintenance features built directly into the programming. The retailer’s maintenance of the system is limited to keeping the table clean, including using a glass cleaner for the screen. Volume level can be controlled. If the store uses a cable modem connection, no phone line is necessary. If it uses a DSL, the service will piggyback an existing line. DSL can piggyback to most phone lines, including fax lines, ATM or game lines. Surftable also allows retailers to automatically block content available to users on the web deemed inappropriate for their environment.

Surftable is available from: catEye9 L.L.C., 14949 Chandler Rd., Omaha, Nebraska 68138. Tel: (402) 896-1913, Fax: (402) 896-1936, E-mail: info@010surfcity.com.

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