Craft Coffee Culture in America’s Heartland

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We recently asked SCAA President Tracy Allen how he thinks coffee culture is evolving in America’s Heartland. As a Kansas City native and long-time resident, his unique perspective on the region is enhanced by his frequent travels to major coffee cities, coffee farms, and of course coffeehouses around the world.

From your perspective, how is coffee culture evolving in small towns across the country?

It’s not a full-blown trend in small towns just yet, but people have a renewed sense of value in local businesses. As a byproduct of the economic downturn of 2008-2012, people are starting to appreciate the locavore movement and smaller roasters, rather than just supporting corporate chains. People have learned about specialty from corporate coffee, but as the economy has recovered, much of the excitement around it is in support of smaller businesses—both for their local flavor and for a more homegrown version of economic health.

Is it still harder for independents to make it in a small town?

Sure it is, but there is that renewed excitement about local businesses. You’re after traffic count and the average sale—capturing the most people and the most money from those people in a predetermined amount of time. A good operator knows everything hinges on how well your menu is written, and how confident you are in your people and your product. Consumers will spend more if you appear confident—and that goes for your staff’s demeanor and the decor of your shop, conveying that you pay attention to details and that you care.

For places that have historically not been exposed to specialty coffee, how has the growth in awareness of specialty coffee impacted coffee culture at the local level?

Many people in the Midwest still haven’t heard of specialty coffee. Seriously. But at the same time, if you think about the total population of the U.S. and the percentage that is affected by specialty—the numbers reflect a greater awareness. This is because they may not know it’s specialty, they just know they like it, and hey choose it for its lighter, cleaner roast profile. They know they don’t like the darker-roasted, more corporate flavor profiles.

Would you say this is often younger coffee drinkers?

Yes, the 18 to 35 year olds are not fans of carbonized coffees. They want more transparency, single origins, producers, lots and lighter roasts, profiles instead of blends at the very least, which as a rule they can’t get at the corporate places. It just can’t be done to scale, so that’s an advantage for the smaller guy who can build relationships and a unique product offering. As we evolve, there is a more informed consumer out there with a more refined palette and vocabulary.

What changes or trends have you observed in recent years?

Keep an eye on direct-to-consumer marketing of whole bean coffees. However, currently our focus is cold brew and nitro—a great opportunity to round out seasonal sales cycles. Single origins and lighter roasts continue to remain big things, too. Twenty some years ago we were all doing dark roast, second crack—Seattle style—and we were heading toward being a more espresso-based economy. But again, with the economic downturn, shops couldn’t afford new espresso machines so the movement stalled.

So, what was the solution?

The solution was pour-over, with the added experience of the barista standing there and talking to you about the single origin they’re brewing for you. It was a lower average ticket but higher quality, which worked for rail brewing or just cones at three dollars a cup because the emerging consumer was young and not so interested in a five-dollar latte. Even single-origin East African coffees helped people transition—it has phosphoric acid, just like soda, so it was a great bridge.

Has the lower ticket price hurt operators?

Initially it did, but now the pour-over quality is even better, with better marketing behind it, and has become upscale and unsurprisingly four to six dollars, sometimes. A study of newer shops just came out, showing that traffic counts are up in independent shops, and the average ticket has returned to where it was before the recession. There are still a lot of milk-based drinks, but the distraction by drip and single origin is here to stay.

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What are some of the ways coffee retailers are engaging with local consumers?

Operators are becoming better marketers because they’re more transparent and more confident in sharing what they know, so they’re becoming better educators. In doing that, they’re bringing the end user closer to the producer.

How is coffee culture different or unique in “middle America” compared to the East or West Coast of the U.S.?

Midwesterners are historically slow to change. But when you get a Midwesterner on your side, you keep them longer. So perhaps it’s more of a question of loyalty. In the Midwest people have more windshield time and will go out of their way to go to their favorite coffee shop.

Why do you think Midwesterners are known for loyalty?

We’re only four generations removed from the prairie, which bred the mentality, “I’m not doing anything different with my land, and I don’t want you to do anything different with yours either.” That’s where the slow-to-change culture comes from. But if someone puts their flag out, says they’re farming a different way—a better way—and then they judge you for not changing, they may succeed in that power play. There’s some value in that, because when that farmer, or roaster, gets people to change their minds, those followers don’t take it lightly—they are loyal.

How do you think the growth in craft culture and a return to artisanal products impacted coffee?

There’s a renewed appreciation by younger generations for anything handcrafted. It’s often painted as “hipster,” but it’s simply the craft movement. Participants tend to be younger, and they have corresponding fashion choices, but flannels, beards, and tattoos do not define craft coffee. Anyone in the industry would agree that the consumer is now less intimidated by what they might call the “coffee scene.”

It’s understandable that a foreign-sounding drink menu would intimidate people. But for years, a lot of people have been familiar with at least some specialty coffee drinks. Yet as you allude, specialty can still be intimidating. Why do you think that is?

When the coffee movement was new, our biggest fear was that people on the street would know more than we did about coffee. We didn’t want to expose ourselves as a work-in-progress. So that fear can come off as arrogance and a lack of people skills. You make people feel inferior so they don’t question you. It was bad enough that people would go to corporate shops just to avoid the attitude.

But we’ve learned and we have a lot we want to share with willing customers—and we enjoy their feedback more, now that we understand it better. We can relax and engage, instead of being aloof. There are still a few cocky kids who role-play as if they’re early adopters and the customer is not, but they tend to soften up.

How you would compare coffee service in Middle America to more widely recognized coffee capitals such as Seattle, Portland, New York, and L.A. etc.?

Well, the South is obviously famous for hospitality and being highly conversational. There and in the Midwest you get consistent eye contact and engagement. I can take you into the toughest looking coffee shop in Kansas City or St. Louis and they’ll talk your ear off. We’re just friendly around here. We will talk to you about anything.

How about the U.S. as compared to the rest of the world?

Coffee is just such a way of life in Europe. We’re converts in the U.S. Some shops in Europe are like tasting rooms. Tim Wendelboe’s place is an example. You don’t come in and order a coffee and open your laptop, you try a series of things to get a full coffee experience. The expectation is different. I just spoke at a place in Berlin where there was only one common table to sit at. It was a cool concept. European shops have high rents and therefore smaller footprints, but the average ticket is in the double digits.

There are different expectations in Asia, too. There is so much value in being served—there’s an element of theater to it. It’s very polished and engaging. To a Westerner it can seem sterile, but it’s not. And if the coffee is great, they will pay for it in Asia. They won’t fight you over a nickel. For great coffee they will repay you with the utmost respect, eye contact, and conversation.

And then there’s Australia, which is doing phenomenal things in food service. If you haven’t done coffee in Melbourne, you almost wouldn’t believe it. It’s fascinating. After every meal you can have great espresso. It’s their own peer pressure that brought it to this level. The competition pressures you as a restaurant to get great equipment and train your staff well. And then no customer is afraid to order it because they know it will be good.

tracyTracy Allen is CEO of Brewed Behavior, a consultancy founded to offer comprehensive support to all segments of the coffee industry. He works primarily with coffee roasters and producing countries to improve their efficiencies. Tracy started his coffee career immediately after college at Procter and Gamble, with Folgers and Millstone brands. He made his true entry into specialty coffee while Director of Operations of The Roasterie in Kansas City, MO, after which he went on to become co-owner of Zoka Coffee Roaster & Tea Co in Seattle, WA. As one of the original members of the U.S. Barista Championship Committee and the first chair of the Rules and Regulations committee for the World Barista Championship, Tracy has trained multiple national and regional barista champions and served as a judge and judges’ trainer for the USBC and WBC. Tracy has most recently served as President of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.