Category Archives: Buzz

This category filters posts that address recent buzz in the specialty coffee industry through either the Cafe Hounds’ words or through those of others.

Markets: DC Coffee Scene

In 2006 I returned to the DC/VA area from Colombia with a newfound passion for specialty coffee and a serious cafe-dweller pattern of living  only to be extremely disappointed with what the DC/MD/VA area had to offer.  I said to myself, it is a no brainer that this region of the country has a tremendous of per capita spending power and that people here would pounce on the opportunity to have something unique in the food and beverage industry.  I thought the region was especially well suited for specialty coffee.

Although such an observation was so clear to me at the time, I had no knowledge of the specialty coffee industry beyond what I had discovered in Colombia over the course of a couple of weeks visiting farms and talking with producers.  I was in no way suited to open a coffee shop nor interested in doing so.

So – when this post began as a draft in August 2009 –  reminiscing as I drove through DC I could see my observation was not lost on others in the coffee retail industry.  Caribou Coffee shops are located in new places throughout the city, Peregrine Espresso launched in 2008, Chinatown Coffee Co. opened in July 2009, Mid-City Caffe, Big Bear Cafe and more all claim DC as their home now.

The growth in coffee shop improvement has not been lacking.  Names such as Murky, Peregrine, Big Bear, Tryst and others have made sure of that.  Caribou’s growth has been impressive too. Even a fellow in Manassas Virginia started his own line of retail coffee called Hondo Coffee.  The coffee is sourced only from one community in Honduras and is sold pre-ground in flimsy packaging that is its only protection from the heat and humidity of DC/VA summers – as he pushes the majority of his sales at local farmer’s markets.

August 2010 – So what is lacking from the DC market?

As far as I can tell it appears to have a serious shortage of local high quality roasters. The best coffee in the DC/VA/MD area is roasted elsewhere.

I would understand if one couldn’t find a good roaster in DC proper given the high rents for real estate and the potential difficulties getting a permit for the exhaust that comes from an industrial roaster but, this does not explain why the artisan roasters I have come across thus far in Maryland and Virginia have failed to meet the mark of quality, consistency and marketability that is required to survive and prosper in the specialty coffee industry.

Counter Culture cleans up in the Mid-Atlantic region (in terms of selling to high-end specialty coffee shops) and Intelligentsia has successfully convinced the high-end restaurant industry (i.e. Farmers & Fishers) to offer patrons a quality cup of java at a place where everything else on the menu is exquisite.  For now, Counter Culture has a relative stronghold on the region because people seem to believe that North Carolina is local enough AND they have a strong network of local-ish cuppings and trainings to attract local coffee shops/geeks into their network and identify them with their brand.

This business strategy is quite interesting and it will be exciting to watch the DC/VA/MD roaster market adapt to this pent up demand over the course of the next months. Until then, I’m open to any suggestions of DC/MD/VA roasters willing to part with samples for review by Cafe Hound.

Woof News: Winter 2010 Update

2010 is upon us and what began as a graduation gift idea between professor and scholar has now evolved into a means of stimulating interest in the specialty coffee industry and in its entire supply chain –

– from farm level decision makers who must decide how to react to how global climate change is impacting their growing season and yields;

– to cooperatives who must decide how to integrate IT solutions into their business processes;

– farmers who must choose between numerous certification choices;

– exporters who must decide what price is a ‘fair’ one at which to sell their prized beans;

– importers who must navigate an increasingly competitive specialty coffee market;

– specialty roasters who must communicate their value proposition to a growing market segment;

– shops trying to differentiate their brand and product from the Starbucks baseline and from other shops claiming to provide the ‘gourmet’ experience;

– to end-consumers who seek clarity and consistency of quality despite all of the contingencies that must occur before the latte art is disturbed by the first sip.

Cafehound.com was launched early this fall as an online medium for Krislert Samphantharak and Matthew Maher to communicate and share their knowledge and experience with each other more than anything else. It began as an incremental journey to explore various portions of the supply chain in detail and encourage participation and collaboration with some of the major actors in the specialty coffee industry.  Before long, Café Hound was able to secure interviews with roasters, importers, shop owners, professional baristas, farmers and people involved on the academic/research end of the soft commodities market.  Given the very positive response that the website has received and as a consequence of very promising content in the future, Café Hound has decided to begin institutionalizing some processes.

1. Custom blend releases on occasion to generate publicity and raise funds for charity

2. Regular café reviews  spanning the globe with occasional guest postings from our friends and associates abroad

3. Spotlight pieces that investigate particular segments of the supply chain with specific attention to farmers, importers and roasters.

4. Academic themed reviews of literature empirically evaluating aspects of the soft commodities market, especially coffee and specialty coffee

5. Newsletter updates

6. Creating a non-profit organization to provide a legal basis for managing funds and further enhancing our ability to provide value to entrepreneurial agricultural producers and children in the developing world.

Regards,

– The Hounds

Beyond Coffee: Sustainable Coffee – A Global Solution (Video)

An introductory preview of the sustainable movement, beginning with the organic movement and discussing the needs for global consciousness.  This website, cafehound.com will evaluate the theory and methodologies of some of the people that speak in this video with the goal of contributing to the formulation of objective and credible sustainability standards for the agricultural industry worldwide.  It all begins with coffee.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gObzERrtTCs

Official Release… “Cafe Hound”

Picture 1_3

Dear Readers,

Over the past six weeks, we have enjoyed unofficially blogging on cafehound.com and have seen the development of the blog and its traffic from visitors “accidentally” coming to our blog. It has been a pleasure to offer diverse information accessible on our blog. Today, we take another important step and officially introduce to you cafehound.com.

What you will find on our blog is random but hopefully informative. As the blog’s name suggests, we are Cafe Hound. We search for the best coffee the world can offer. In Cafe Hounding section, you can read our reviews of cafes from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Coming soon, we will add reviews of coffee houses outside the US. We are also proud to present to you the exclusive interviews of “Who Is Who” in specialty coffee industry. We are honored to have Chuck Patton (founder and owner of Bird Rock Cafe Roasters in La Jolla, California) as our inaugural feature in this interview section. To be added to the list of fame are Eileen Hassi (founder and owner of Ritual Coffee in San Francisco), Michael McGuire (owner and roaster of K-Bay Caffe in Homer, Alaska), Timothy Castle (founder and CEO of Castle & Company, Santa Monica, California), and Karen Cebreros (founder and CEO of Elan Organic, San Diego, California).

Cafe Hound is not only the place you can get reviews and knowledge about your neighborhood cafes. We carefully select and present to you interesting news and upcoming events in coffee industry. Moreover, with our expertise in economics, finance, international relations, and public policy, we devote a section of the blog to analytical and educational issues related to every stage of specialty coffee production– from crop to cup, or from beans to brew. Currently, we proudly review an interesting article by Christopher Bacon of the University of California, Santa Cruz, on how organic, Fair-Trade, eco-friendly coffee could potentially help poor farmers in developing economies get out of poverty. Our main objective is to present to you the cutting-edge academic research on coffee-related issues in a non-academic language. Stay tuned for more of these geeky but exciting posts.

You may want to ask yourself why we, as an academic economist and a policy expert, fell in love with coffee and decided to devote our time to this blog. We have explained it all in the About the Hounds section. For those who have known us before, this section will give you eye-opening stories of the “dark” (but creamy and aromatic) side of our lives. We hope it entertains you and answers your curiosity.

You may also want to know what we expect from this blog. Well, first and foremost, we view this blog as our way to get us exposed to more people in the coffee industry. This is not only those working in the industry itself, but also those who are frequent customers of coffee houses and share our passion in great coffee. Please come join us in our journey to search for the best coffee. Please suggest to us where we should go “cafe hounding.” If you have favorite neighborhood coffee houses, feel free to share with us.

Finally, we realize there are several blogs and discussion boards out there covering coffee and cafes. Many of them are fantastic and comprehensive. By no means do we view our blog as their competitor. Instead, we think that our blog will offer something different, and provide you with both casual and more formal, semi-academic knowledge. The Cafe Hounding section does not rate the cafes (like yelp or other restaurant rating websites) but rather presents you with objective reviews of coffee houses that we carefully select. Most of them are mentioned by local coffee geeks as the “best in town” cafes or employ baristas who have made it to the final round of national or international competitions. The Interviews section gives you behind-the-scene stories about people in your neighborhood cafes and others in the industry that you may not have known before. Finally, the coffee.edu section takes advantage of our strengths and expertise in our main professions as an academic economist and a policy expert. It is very educational in a strict academic sense, i.e. very nerdy, but hopefully is exciting for those readers who are interested in more than just the taste and aroma of coffee.

And with this introduction, we officially proudly present to you… cafehound.com.

–The Hounds

Buzz: Otherside of the ’15th Avenue Coffee and Tea’ Coin

Just because I think both the detractors (read: haters) and the supporters of the newish Starbucks move to test the higher end specialty coffee waters have made some very salient points with regard to the changing dynamics of the specialty coffee industry.

  • Starbucks MUST be respected for its sheer ability to throw money and professional marketing at any scheme that they arrange.
  • The hipster coffee house vibe — that many of the places that are charging $20 a pound for fresh roasted coffee from reputable outfits like Blue Bottle, Ritual, Novo, Intelligentsia and Counter Culture — does not appear to be something that the Starbucks corporate people will ever be able to roll-out on a large scale.
  • What it does appear Starbucks’ wants is to leverage its sheer advantage in liquidity (read: lots of $$$) and marketing to increase their share of a market that is a sub-sector of their core industry.  As a major buyer of green coffee all over the world it seems logical that they would leverage the best of their strategic relationships to promote higher premiums, no?  It makes perfect business sense and the following article gives a more balanced look at the non-hater side of the the 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea story.

Source: Tamp Tamp Blog

Coffee Menu Sandwich sign

We finally made it to see the new 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea (”Inspired by Starbucks” as it says on the door) on Capitol Hill in Seattle. After all the specialty coffee hubbub, pressand dramaover what this means, and after reading the considerably dramatic yelp reviews, we had to see it for ourselves. It puts an interesting question out there – can Starbucks make a better Starbucks?

In New York, when we first heard about it, we were skeptical. When we think of Starbucks, we picture the lines of caffeine deprived junkies queued up by the dozen, packed into a place pumping out big milky drinks by the gallon, with rarely a smile on any face – customer or barista. Like most situations in New York, the stakes are higher, and the throngs battle it out to make it out with their drink. Does it taste like coffee? Perhaps, but what’s most important is that you made it out with something hot and you’re still alive.

Starbucks Coffee

This is the line at the original Starbucks retail location at Pike Place Market, downtown Seattle. This location used to be a fine purveyor of coffee beans only; now it looks a lot like an everyday Manhattan retail location (read: packed and stressful).

Starbucks’ reputation in New York is bad. And for people who’ve only known that big, corporate, bad-tasting, fast food retail-y experience, I don’t blame them. But as a Seattleite that grew up alongside the explosive growth of the company, I always speak positively of my very first experiences getting lattes at (where else?) Starbucks. And it was good. Our whole industry, and certainly my company, would be much less significant (even nonexistent) if Starbucks hadn’t tapped the consumer demand and opened the floodgates.

But still, there’s no denying that Starbucks lately has fallen on hard times. The coffee just hasn’t been that good, the shops are kind of dumpy, all Starbucks’ seem to have an unpleasant smell (what is the deal with that smell?). I hadn’t had coffee from Starbucks (with the exception of a Clover coffee last year) in several years. Why bother, when there are independent places, with great coffee, and great service (you can visit our tour if you need tips) right around the corners from many a Starbucks in NYC?

On the other hand, there are a lot of independent cafes that rest happily with the knowledge that they’re not Starbucks. But are they good? Well, no, not really. The coffee is ok, maybe some of the baristas are nice, and the atmosphere is decent. By and large, these cafes provide a sub-par experience. As consultants, we run into this mentality all the time, and are constantly checking that clients begin providing a much higher standard of service, and of course, most importantly, are providing the best possible product. There is simply no way that being “not Starbucks” is anything more than a lie owner/managers use to tell themselves they are doing a good job in their cafes. Most very high end cafes think of Starbucks as completely irrelevant – and while I think there are some great aspects of Starbucks (they’ve got independents trounced when it comes to retail and merchandising, for example, and it’s worth watching them for that), I generally tend to agree with the high end independents.

So when we walked into 15th Avenue Coffee on Capitol Hill, steps away from Victrola, we were keeping all of our standards as high as we do at any shop we visit. What’s the atmosphere like? Are we greeted right away? Are the chairs comfortable and are there multiple types of seating? Can we see this space being multi-functional, serving a lot of customers from various backgrounds? And of course, how is the product?

Macchiato refurbished Linea

We were greeted cordially and were provided with some suggestions about what to try. I had a macchiato, and Neil got a Costa Rican coffee. We were served in porcelain cups. The latte art on my coffee was lovely. And most importantly, the coffee tasted pretty good. Maybe not the most unbelievable, delicious coffee in the world, but certainly pleasant and drinkable, and considerably better than many independent cafes in Seattle. I’m fairly certain that most coffee consumers wouldn’t see a discernible difference when picking between 15th Ave and Victrola in terms of cup quality. In New York, this shop could make a killing.

From the back

Does that mean that Victrola needs to look out? It’s doubtful. Victrola has a strong customer base and has been making great coffee for years. In fact, my theory is that Starbucks moved to that location to test the waters in a very tough location for them, just steps away from a high-end independent. In this spot Starbucks is definitely going to see if it’s possible for them to reclaim their glory as a high-end, products focused business. I think that for quality focused independents, this new incarnation will only increase awareness and bring in more customers, especially if they launch cafes in cafe-deprived areas.

Patio

What about other, smaller, less quality-focused cafes? Should they be concerned? Absolutely — if you’re using Starbucks as your measuring stick. Those cafes are in trouble anyway, they just haven’t seen someone come along to challenge them yet. But look out, everybody. Here comes a company that means business and wants to reclaim what it has lost.