August 2002 Issue
By Wayne Niemi
SPECIAL REPORT: Automatic For The People
Super-automatic espresso machines make it easier than ever to produce consistent gourmet coffee drinks, with or without a barista. Which means you can serve espresso and cappuccino just about anywhere these dayscafeteria, full-service dinner house, cruise ship, you name it. Heres a look at what the equipment can do.
If you arent yet offering espresso and cappuccino drinks, heres an eye opener: The number of daily adult gourmet coffee consumers now stands at approximately 27 million, according to the National Coffee Association of U.S.A. Thats more than a 50% increase over the number of daily gourmet coffee consumers in 2000, says the NCA, and you can bet that number will hold or continue to trend upward in the future.
Until recently, the complexity of espresso equipment and the training needed to produce consistent coffee drinks kept a lot of foodservice operators out of the loop. With turnover in some foodservice establishments of more than 100% annually, it can be hard enough to teach staff where to store the salad dressings, let alone train them to be professional baristas.
But super-automatic machines are changing all that. With the push of a button, these machines can measure whole beans, grind, dose, tamp, dispense and froth milk. The used espresso groundssometimes called coffee cakes or pucksare automatically transferred to a drawer that you periodically empty, and the machine is ready to go again. In short, these units are designed to produce consistent drinks time after time regardless of who is operating the equipment. And thats an attractive selling point for those of you whove built global empires on your ability to offer consistent products.
By the way, its not just chain restaurants that are cashing in on the coffee craze. A myriad of operations, from self- to full-service, are getting in the game. Super-automatics can now be found in c-stores, B&I accounts, doughnut shops, cruise lines, and colleges and universities in increasing numbers.
Sounds good, youre saying, but whats the catch? Buy a super-automatic and your corporate checking account is going to take a hit. Super-automatics range from $6,000 for low-end models suitable for 50 drinks or less a day to more than $20,000 for commercial workhorses built with heavy-volume coffeehouses in mind. At either end of the spectrum thats a significant investment, but when you consider that specialty coffee drinks can average an 85% profit return, the numbers become a little less intimidating.
More concretely, consider that the ingredient cost of a single 12-oz. cappuccino might run as little as 18 cents, and you can charge $2.75 or more for that serving. That kind of profit virtually ensures a return on your investment in a year, or even less, depending on your daily volume, how much machine you buy, and how much you charge per serving.
Who Do You Call?
Before we get into the nuts and bolts here, a bit of background on the market: Go out and research espresso machinesincluding manual, semi-automatic, fully automatic and super-automatic machinesand youll find a wickedly fragmented business. More than 60 suppliers of all types of machines came up in our research, many of them based in Europe, and theyre selling equipment around the world. Just a handful manufacture in the United States.
Boiling them down to market-share ranking is tough, and beyond a certain point maybe academic. Even espresso industry consultants and trade associations dont have a good handle on who the market leaders are, at least not in any hard-numbers sense. Its too hard to track.
That said, our research reveals around 15 companies who supply super-automatics in the North American market right now, excluding any regional players who dont appear on the national radar. Theyre all listed at the end of this story. Of these, approximately 10 energetically market nationally: Acorto, Astoria, Astra Mfg., Brewmatic/Carimali, Cimbali, Faema Corp. of America, Nuova Simonelli, Saeco U.S.A., Schaerer U.S.A. and WMF U.S.A.
What exactly qualifies an espresso machine as super-automatic? Generally speaking, a fully automatic machine holds espresso beans in a hopper, measures those beans into a grinder, then grinds, doses and tamps. At the push of a button, the espresso is extracted and delivered to a cup.
The addition of frothed milk, however, is where the definition changes. Meaning, a machine only takes a step up to super-automatic if it also delivers, steams and froths milk.
Ultimately, its up to you to decide how much automation you want to add to your specialty coffee service. Some machines offer the best of both worlds, with an internal milk frother and an external steaming wand. The added wand option comes in handy for less common milks like soy or skim. It can also be a convenient backup should the internal milk frother malfunction.
Super-automatic machines originated in Europe. Swiss manufacturers introduced the first super-automatic machines, Italian machines soon followed, and all saw a rise in popularity during the 1990s. Essentially, Swiss and Italian machines operate in the same way, but taste preferences in the two countries affect the materials used in the construction of the equipment.
For example, Italian machines tend to feature an all-metal brewing chamber, which causes the brewing to occur at a hotter temperature and produces a thicker, darker espresso. The Swiss machines generally use a plastic brew chamber, which produces a lighter espresso. But that certainly isnt a hard and fast rule. And the machine itself is just one component of your specialty coffee program. The kind of coffee beans that you use and the quality of your water will affect your end product more than the mechanics of the machine. Youll want to experiment with different equipment and different roasts of coffee before you make an equipment purchase decision. Also, youll want to have a good understanding of the flavor preferences of your customers. Most manufacturers can help you determine your flavor profile and set up a coffee menu as part of their service offerings.
Regardless of which brand you settle on, super-automatic machines are complex pieces of equipment. To give you an idea of the engineering involved in these compact machines, consider that inside a unit steam is produced at 220&Mac251;F and milk must be held below 39&Mac251;F to meet NSF standards, and all thats happening in an 24-wide or less space, typically, although some units feature an auxiliary milk cooler that sits next to the machine. But overall, super-automatics are impressive in their capabilities, and this explains why they sport a high price tag.
Controls And Cards Make Things Easy
Control panels generally are kept simple, a boon to both training and everyday operation. Panels feature anywhere from six to 16 buttons for different size drinks. The system can be custom programmed for specialty drinks or to match specific taste preferences, and usually one button is set to engage the machine in decaf mode.
For chains like Buca di Beppo, which appears on our cover and in the lead photo of this story, preprogrammed machines arrive at stores with all the specs entered in, so theres consistent product across the system. And that preprogramming aids training, as well. At the Buca di Beppo in Wheeling, Ill., when a new machine from Acorto was brought it, more than 25 staffers were easily trained over the course of two days and now are selling as many as 100 drinks per night at $2.75 a pop.
Staff comfort with the equipment is another key benefit of super-automatics, says one supplier. This is a simple way to capture specialty coffee dollars, he says, and that simplicity encourages servers to make a point of suggesting after-dinner specialty drinks. The complexities of operating a manual machine sometimes make servers shy away from suggesting cappuccinos and espressos to guests. And if training on a manual machine isnt up to snuff, you could be sunk. The last impression guests have of your restaurant usually is the coffee, so you want it to be right, the supplier says.
When it comes to control panels, customization is available. At least one supplier offers a wild card button on its machines that allows users to custom program a function, such as an odd sized drink or a half-regular/half-decaf blend. Also, some companies are currently experimenting with touch-screen control panels and integrating digital controls into the machine. Currently, these machines are in early experimental stages and wont be available for a couple of years. You can also find really smart machines that help you track product and sales information for each wait person, total number of drinks prepared during any given shift, and different programming options.
One Boiler Or Two?
Obviously, hot water is an essential aspect to super-automatic machines. Water is heated inside a boiler, and its then routed to the brewing chamber or milk frother as needed. The lower priced machines come with a single boiler that serves double-duty for both coffee brewing and milk frothing. Higher-end models feature a dual boiler system that has one boiler dedicated to espresso brewing and another for milk frothing. This allows both actions to be executed simultaneously, speeding the entire process. In single boiler models, the milk frothing cycle cannot begin until the espresso has been dispensed.
When choosing a machine, the number of drinks you need to produce in an hour and how quickly youd like to make each one will surely influence your decision. Depending on the model, you can produce fewer than 100 shots of espresso per hour all the way up to 350 or more per hour. And the time that it takes to brew espresso and froth the milk can vary from 20 seconds for high-end units to more than a minute for some low-end models with a single boiler.
Suppliers agree that the most significant differences from one machine to another are not a matter of technology, but a matter of taste.
Operators shouldnt be worried about the technology, says one manufacturer. They should be worried about the productivity and the appropriateness of the machine for their business. That said, you shouldnt choose a super-automatic machine based purely on capacity. One manufacturer points out that outside of a coffee bar, the vast majority of foodservice operators will sell fewer than 40 espresso drinks per day. All of the manufacturers interviewed for this story agree that the American coffee consumer is becoming a much more discerning consumer, and even occasional coffee drinkers are developing sophisticated tastes. That makes variety an important element of your coffee program. As a result, the number and types of beverages that a particular super-automatic machine is able to produce is a significant differentiating factor.
Its a delicate balance. You want to give your customers a wide assortment of coffee choices, but you also have to mind your budget. Let your customers taste preferences and your projected sales figures be your guide. To that end, several suppliers offer machines with two bean hoppers, which can be used to store regular and decaf beans or two different roasts. And some units can also store ground coffee for a third choice offering. These machines have been a popular choice for colleges and universities looking for an all-in-one solution.
As you head out to shop, another important element to keep in mind is durability. If you intend to sell fewer than 50 specialty coffee drinks per day, you may be tempted to purchase an upscale consumer-level super-automatic that sells for about $3,000. On paper, the numbers may appear sufficient to suit your needs. But be wary: A $3,000 expenditure today wont seem like a good investment if the consumer machine cant keep up.
Dont Forget Filtration, Cleaning
Maintenance and proper cleaning are essential to keeping your super-automatic machines running properly and efficiently. Unlike traditional coffee equipment, espresso machines have very small orifices in the dispensing systems. A tiny amount of scale build-up will impact how well these machines operate. A little more scale build-up and a machine can shut down all together. As a result, its essential that you have a good water filtration system attached to your espresso machine. Many manufacturers strongly suggest that you install a water filtration system solely dedicated to your super-automatic machine. A $300 filtration system is a reasonable expense when you consider the thousands of dollars that youll save in maintenance repairs and sales lost to a hampered piece of equipment.
Water filtration also makes sense from your customers point of view. In addition to helping keep your machine in tip-top shape, pure water also improves the taste of your drinks. Manufacturers agree that the number-one reason they get service calls is because the machines are not cleaned properly. Part of committing to a specialty coffee program is committing to daily care. Every day, your machine needs to be run through a cleaning cycle.
Most cleaning programs require you to drop a tablet or pour a cleaning solution into the boiler and through the milk lines and frother. The program then runs from two to 10 minutes, depending on the specific machine. For busy operations, the cleaning cycle should be run multiple times per day. The most sophisticated machines alert operators when a cleaning cycle should be run, and eventually shut down the machines if they arent cleaned properly.
Other options out there include machines that can run with an internal reservoir in addition to being directly connected to a water supply. This allows for transporting the unit for catering.
Since maintenance surely will be needed eventually, youll want to make sure that you purchase a machine from a manufacturer who has a comprehensive service network in your area. Do not underestimate this point; a machine generating such in-demand, high-profit products needs the support of swift maintenance when something goes awry.
If youre purchasing for a chain, youll want to make sure that your machines are covered under a national service network. Youll also want to make sure that your local servicers possess the training and expertise to service your particular machine since, as one manufacturer noted, Some of the systems in these machines are so complicated that you practically need to be an electrical engineer to work on them. But dont let that complexity scare you off. These machines are hardy, and the standard warranty for super-automatic machines is one year, covering parts and labor. Many manufacturers offer extended service packages that cost about 10% of the purchase price of the machine per year. Some offer preventative maintenance programs.
There arent a lot of add-on features available for these machines, since theyre designed to be all-inclusive units. However, there are a few unique options to consider: If you are a fine dining establishment, you may want a cup warmer. Some machines have a built-in cup warmer station on the top of the machine. Other manufacturers offer dedicated cup warming equipment. Espresso begins to lose its flavor 10 seconds after being brewed, and a warmed cup will slow that process as well as add to presentation.
Other accessories widely available include additional refrigeration equipment, water filtration equipment and specialty espresso and cappuccino glassware. For self-service operation, several manufacturers, including WMF, offer a coin-operated device that attaches to the machine. Also note that for safety reasons, self-service machines generally dont come with a steaming wand or hot water spout.
More specifically, Schaerer offers an extension hopper that is made of clear plastic. The extender adds an additional three-pound capacity to the units standard two-pound hopper. Plus, it adds to the visual appeal of the machine.
Faema machines feature an external steam wand with an attached thermocouple. The thermocouple deactivates the steaming and frothing process when milk reaches a preprogrammed temperature. This is convenient, since you can simply set the controls and walk away, and it ensures that milk is frothed to a consistent temperature every time. And Saeco provides a Dream Steamer milk frother, which is a powerful milk-frothing side unit. It can be used as a backup for the machines internal frother or for situations where you might want a more dramatic presentation or need to froth large quantities of milk.
A Final Word
Theres no question that theres huge profit potential in the specialty coffee business. And super-automatic machines offer the consistency needed to build a loyal customer base. Weve only scratched the surface of this equipment category, so keep up the research by contacting the companies in our box on the previous page. Also remember that equipment is only one component of the specialty coffee equation. Plan your drink menu to match your customer demographic. And then market the heck out of your drinks.