Very few things are more frustrating than ordering a drink or a meal and you love it but then when you go back to the same place and order the same drink or meal, it comes out different. Consistency is much more obvious for brick and mortar coffee shops but unlike serving coffee from a fixed place where the same people may stop by every day for their daily dose of caffeine (the frequency of order from the same customer is not as spaced out as with a catering customer), coffee catering is mobile and you may end up serving different people every day so why does consistency matter? It matters because with coffee catering you may still serve repeat clients. Think about a situation where you were hired by a company to serve a group of 50 employees who are out in a resort or a hotel for their annual conference or new products launch. In this case, you will be serving the same customers every day and so consistency will matter. A client (company) who will hire you once and receive a mixed feedback will probably not be a repeat client.
This brings us to an important question, how can you achieve consistency in the coffee catering business (some of these concepts apply to brick and mortar as well)? I have narrowed the answer down to two main factors: 1) People and 2) Equipments and Supplies. In the table below, I summarized qualities required in every category to achieve consistency.
How to Achieve a Consistent Cup
Equipment and Supplies
Training to all baristas so no matter who’s working, the result is still the same.
Weight-based grinders or seprate scale to weigh grounded coffee
Passion about the craft. This will make it easier for the barista to do what’s right.
Weigh shots the shots (don’t eyeball or go with volume)
Patience to learn, grow and be able to repeat the inputs to achieve the same output (consistency)
Espresso machines with brew temperature control (PID)
Use the same coffee from proven roasters who have a good tracking record in being as consistent as possible with their roast profile
As someone who’s been working in the coffee catering business for some time, I have the opportunity to experience and observe the business first hands. The 10 to-do things below are things I see all the time and things that I would personally do if I ever start my own coffee catering business. The advice below will make it easier to operate the business smoothly and successfully.
Use 110/120V equipments: this one is a little tricky because most heavy duty commercial machines are 220/240V and catering work requires commercial machines. The good news is you can still buy 110/120V commercial equipment but you will have to look a little harder than if you were buying 220/240V.
Use new equipment whenever possible: used/second hand coffee equipment may seem like a good value at first glance but look deeper. Used equipment, especially ones without service records or invoices for all the work done, can cost you a lot of money in the long run, making any financial benefit of their lower price questionable at best. Think of a scenario like this you find a second hand machine for $2000 and new the same machine goes for $4000. At first, this seems like an excellent deal, a 50% discount off the original brand new price but look deeper. Getting a commercial machine with heat exchanger or a dual boiler professionally descaled can cost upward of $300 (scale buildup in the boiler is common if hard water is used)! Replacing a solenoid valve can cost upward of $150 per group. This number can be $300 or $450 for machines with 2 or 3 groups. Rotary external pumps is another item that can cost upward of $350 with installation. Adding any combination of some of these items together may cost you anywhere between $500 to $750 and this is only for parts and maintenance without taking into consideration any opportunity costs. What opportunity costs you ask? Imagine this, you’re doing an event and you are serving for 2 hours, after one hour and when you’re having a line of people waiting for their drinks, the machine acts up and starts losing pressure. An incident like this may cost you explicitly and implicitly. The lost money/profit you’re making off of the event (or whatever compensation you will offer to the venue or the event manager) is your explicit cost but what about implicit costs such a as damaged brand image and reputation? Adding all this up, you can easily see why buying new is the way to go. Finally, new machines have warranties, so even if something were to go wrong with a new machine, the fix is one service call away. No out of pocket cost for repairs and parts.
Buy your equipment from local, close by vendors: last thing you need, if something were to go wrong with your equipment, is to have to ship your machine or drive for hours to a service center. Shipping will not only cost you a lot of money (machines are heavy), but the reckless way UPS and FedEx handle large, heavy packages/ shipments will likely cause damage to the machine and result in more work for your technician.
Always have a backup machine and grinder in your van: this may seem like a waste of money at first but look deeper. A backup machine and grinder can be the difference between a happy customer and a successful event and miserable customer and a nightmare event. If you’re still not sure where the nightmare will come from, go back to my second point and the part I talk about implicit and explicit costs. The good news here and to save money, your backup machine can be a used one, why? Because a backup machine is just that, a backup machine, it’s only used in case of an emergency. This is not your main work horse and its sole purpose is to help save the day when your main work horse is out in the middle of an event.
Don’t buy machines with 2 or more groups: instead of buying one machine with 2 groups, buy 2 machines with one group each. This may seem like counterintuitive and inefficient at first glance but look deeper. Buying 2 one grouphead machines is better than buying one machine with 2 grouphead for the following reasons: 1) If a machine with 2 groups goes down, that’s 2 groups out. If a machine with one grouphead goes down, no problem use the other one grouphead machine. 2) one grouphead machines are lighter, easier to use and carry. They are also easier and cheaper to maintain 3) many baristas cannot multi task to take advantage of both groups. The end result is one group is used way more than the other.
Your image, your image, your image: I can’t stress that enough! Your business and brand image are critical for your success. If you think showing to an event with a faded black shirt or a shirt missing buttons is not important, think again. If you think showing up with a nasty machine is no big deal, think again. If you think using a 20 year old banged up van is okay, think again. Every little detail matters. Your equipment, shirts, looks, van, etc. say a lot about you. A nasty image give people the perception that you don’t care and no one wants to do business with someone who doesn’t care. Your van is a mobile billboard advertising for your business so make sure it’s clean, in good shape and a good representation of your brand and company.
Don’t hire people who don’t drink coffee or can’t drink it late at night: this may seem obvious but you need to make sure your employees are comfortable drinking coffee late and/or at any time, why? Because your employees must be able to taste the coffee before serving it to the guests. Someone who can’t drink coffee after 5 pm because “it keeps me up at night” won’t be able to dial in the machines and taste the espresso shots/coffee to ensure it’s good for the guests. Going by coffee color, flow and crema is not enough to ensure good tasting coffee, a good Barista must be able to drink coffee before the start and during the event to ensure consistency.
Maintain an exact set of brewing parameters and define your drinks: Ideally, you want repeat customers to taste the same coffee and drink the same beverages. The last thing you want is for a client to hire you for an event and love your coffee then hire you again just to taste different coffee! Imagine how annoyed will you be if you go to McDonalds, order their McMuffin and love it just to go the next day to order another McMuffin and have it taste different, missing ingredients or have ingredients you don’t necessarily like. Consistency is key, not just to maintain clients but also to diagnose issues. If you were hired by a client for an event then the following event you learn that they have hire someone else, having consistent drinks will rule out quality as the reason why you didn’t get the job. It could have been pricing, customer service, presentation, etc. but definitely not the drinks. Also, make sure those parameters are listed on your menu and don’t deviate from them unless explicitly asked by the guest.
Focus your energy on straight espresso orders: pulling straight espresso shots (single or double) is very important since they will not be diluted with milk, syrups, whipped cream, etc. the espresso quality in this case is extremely important. Any bad flavors or weaknesses will be totally exposed. On this topic, always ensure that you do a cooling flush before you pull a shot. Running some water through the grouphead helps stabilize the brewing temperature and clean the shower screen of old grounds from the previous shot.
Fresh coffee makes a huge difference in taste: Ensuring your coffee is fresh for all events is critical as it helps ensure consistency. Don’t store the coffee in its original bag, use a vacuum sealed coffee storage canisters. This won’t eliminate coffee deterioration as time goes by but it will at least slow it down.