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Make Mine a Decaf!

By Timothy J. Castle

If there is something that everyone in coffee industry can agree on, it is that there are few things better than a great cup of coffee after dinner. With increasing frequency, the cup of coffee served to satisfy that sentiment is decaffeinated. Some restaurants on the West Coast are reporting that as much as 50% of the coffee served in the evening is decaffeinated. This figure is surprising, surprising even to the people that reported it, and to their suppliers as well, when they were told. One manager responsible for the day to day operations of a restaurant in Southern California noted that in the past five years decaf usage has increased dramatically. During the evening, decaf requests in his restaurant have gone from approximately 20% to as much as 50% of all espresso-based beverages. The same manager reported that his sales of brewed decaf have increased from 15% to as much as 35% of all brewed coffee served. Several other restaurateurs on the West Coast, from Los Angeles to Seattle, have reported similar, if less dramatic changes.

When asked to confirm an increased interest in decaffeinated coffee, however, roasters and distributors who supply restaurants on the West Coast were hard pressed to affirm dramatically higher decaf sales. There may be two reasons for this. First, as one West Coast roaster noted, “Restaurants waste so much decaf that they could increase their sales significantly without going through that much coffee. In the past, many of our customers might have brewed a pot of decaf and then thrown it out after a designated amount of time due to freshness concerns. Now, they might be selling several cups out of that pot,” observed John Di Ruocco of Mr. Espresso in Oakland, California. Also possible is that the trend is just beginning, a result of an aging population, and that only restaurants with older customers will notice an increased demand for decaf at first. “It makes sense,” noted Sol Salzer of City Bean in Los Angeles, California, “that as the baby boomers get older they’ll be ordering more and more decaf.” Of course, the older customers go to the more expensive restaurants and there even a doubling of decaf usage, which might be very small on an absolute basis, might not be detectable at first. For instance, a restaurant might order two five-pound bags every two weeks instead of one; a wholesaler or distributor would probably not notice an increase of that sort with a few restaurants.

Confirming a age-related cause for a possible increase in decaf consumption however, is the observation made by many white-tablecloth restaurant managers that decaf consumption has become less heavily dominated by women, “Really, I don’t think that we can say that women are the decaf drinkers anymore,” one dining room manager in Monterey, California reported, “I would say that it is fifty-fifty, men and women. And while certainly our older clients drink more decaf than our younger ones, it is not so much as you would think. A lot of our younger customers have to get up and go to work in the morning and they order decaf as well.”

Whether decaf consumption is indeed increasing or not, one thing is certain - decaf consumption is at its highest in restaurants, particularly fine restaurants, at night. “If anything,” noted Salzer, “the level of decaf for brewed coffee in the restaurants is already thirty three to forty percent of all coffee sold. Decaf is already a big part of our wholesale volume - much higher than what we see in our retail stores.”

It seems obvious, therefore, that white-tablecloth restaurant are the ideal venue to promote decaffeinated coffees to some of its most likely customers. If an existing coffee drinker is going to switch to decaf, chances are the first time they try that cup of decaf will be in a restaurant. Whether that experience is a good one or not will have a lot to do whether they continue down that path, or give up coffee altogether. Roasters and coffee wholesalers with a view toward growing their businesses in an environment with an increasingly older population will likely want to make sure that their decaf program is vital and dynamic. They should assure themselves that their customers (restaurant managers, to be sure, but also buyers for supermarkets as well) view them as the decaf experts who will help them offer the best decaf possible to their older end users.

The problem is that older customers are also pickier customers, they are more affluent and have more choices, they’ve also been exposed to more, they have a wider range of experience. Further, and more specifically, they won’t be trying their first cup of decaf coffee and asking themselves, “Gee, is this good decaf?” No, they’ll be comparing that cup of decaf to regular. Again, if it doesn’t measure up, they might leave coffee altogether.

Additionally, as one marketer of decaffeinated coffee noted, off the record, “Our proprietary consumer research told me that as the population gets older it also gets wiser - at least people want to see themselves that way - that it’s one of the compensations for getting older and that their superior knowledge gives them an edge. They want to feel hip and current about the latest wines, ingredients, and coffees. But they’re also concerned about what they’re putting in their bodies and the long term effects of each and every chemical they’re putting in their bodies. Some even stop drinking coffee because they see their craving for caffeine as an unnecessary and unwanted addiction or dependence….we also see this same phenomenon in some of the younger people we’ve talked to. Increasingly, though, as people get older, they want to feel smarter about what they eat and drink.” Customers like the ones just described are obviously a tough sell - but they’re also far more loyal once they are sold, and they are effective in relating their carefully formed opinions to their friends and family.

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