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Small Fish Swimming Among Sharks. How Do We Survive?

November 29, 2010

How can the “Micro-Roasters”, and local coffee shops, compete with the “Mega-Chain” roasters and coffee franchises?  In this age of mass production, mass consumption and constant inundation, by mass advertising, how can the “Little Fish” swim among the “Sharks” (or mermaids) and survive?   

I often wonder how my small roasting business, or anyone else’s, will ultimately survive the giants of the specialty coffee industry.  Lay aside, all the Folgers and Maxwell House’s of the coffee biz.  Simply, because they are definitely NOT providing, the coffee consuming public, with anything close to what is classified as “Specialty Coffee”.  We’ll focus only on the mermaids, moose, golden M’s and dipped Danish’s, of the world. 

First let's talk about quality.  The big guys always want to talk about how their product quality is far superior to everyone else’s.   They lead you to believe that the mass production, of the millions of pounds of coffee they source, roast and sell, to their customers, is absolutely the best there is to be found.  And that they maintain the highest standards, of quality control, and roast their coffee to the best level you will ever brew and taste.  My question is: “How do corporations, that large, maintain such strict control over such massive amounts of coffee and still tell you it is consistently the best”?  I do not believe they can, or ever will, be able to do so.  The small, or smaller, batch roaster will always be able to maintain a much higher standard, of quality control, than the giant coffee franchise / roaster ever will.  We are artisans, and as such, depend on our superior coffee quality to keep ourselves in business.

Next, let’s look at what we, as local coffee house owners, serve our customers.  The franchise giants put a great deal of emphasis on what I like to call “Candy Coffee” to generate profits.  If you put enough milk, sugary syrup, whipped cream, caramel or chocolate, in your double shot of (mediocre) espresso, it will absolutely make it the best coffee ever, right?  Not in a million years.  It simply masks the flavor of their inferior coffee, or espresso, and adds, 700 plus, calories to your daily intake.  “Locals” primarily focus on great coffee or espresso first.  Then they may, or may not, branch out into some alternative coffee offerings.  But, great coffee is first and foremost on our minds.  The “Locals” also make their coffee to stricter standards, using quality brewing methods, NOT by the 10 gallon urn. We grind to order and make our specialty coffee drinks with the utmost care.  Unlike the mega-café’s coffee, that is made by some under-trained “feauxrista” that could, quite frankly, care less what goes into your cup so long as there is a paycheck, for them to pick up, at the end of the week.

Advertising plays as much of a role, as just about anything, when it comes to market share and how the little guys compete against the corporate giants.  If you have millions of dollars to smatter 30 second commercials, all over the morning TV, and rush hour radio waves, your product must be something special.  If its logo is posted on the side of every city bus, and taxi cab, it has to be the best, right?  Not even close.  Just look at McD’s.  Nothing special there by any means.  Yet, their premium roast ads are splattered on every available billboard from Boston to Burbank.  How does one compete with that?  By word of mouth, social sites like Facebook, individual roaster’s websites, and ones like ROASTe, and the small amount of radio, and print, advertising we can afford on a small budget.  The word will get out, quickly enough, if what you are offering is “Top Notch” compared to the marginal offerings of the mega-café s and giant corporate roasters. 

To the “Little Guys” I say, “Keep up the good fight!”  Coffee lovers will always find their way to your door, website, or other outlet and experience what they have missed for far too long:  Superior, fresh-roasted, specialty coffee, provided by the TRUE artisans of our industry.





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