Brewing Up Perfect Partnerships

Want to make coffee a destination driver? Start by collaborating with your suppliers.

Brewing Up Perfect Partnerships

June 2024   minute read

By: Lauren Shanesy

Good coffee is about more than the bean you grind or the machine you brew it in. Those things are important, of course, but for c-stores to compete with local shops, corporate chains or even just customers’ kitchens, they need to offer a best-in-class coffee experience.

Coffee should be a destination driver, and as such should be elevated in importance when developing a foodservice plan, said Jennie Jones, senior vice president of convenience and retail at equipment manufacturer SEB Professional.

As the coffee category evolves from selling a product to selling an experience, suppliers are—in addition to manufacturing state-of-the-art equipment—emerging as category partners in the space, offering expertise, education and insights for retailers looking to elevate their c-store coffee.

“It’s competitive out there, and coffee has gotten more advanced. If you want people to spend more time and money in your store, you need to cater to higher expectations. So if you just put an expensive piece of equipment on the counter, it’s not going to do anything for you,” said Brad Duesler, founder and CEO of Food Concepts Inc. “A good equipment manufacturer can provide an array of solutions and really understand what a retailer is trying to accomplish, then diagnose the right equipment solution for that.”

More Than a Manufacturer

SEB doesn’t think of itself as just an equipment manufacturer or a supplier. It’s in the business of category management, and that means coming into a store with “the complete arsenal” of solutions, insights and data.

“For the 22 years I was a retailer, suppliers just sold equipment. But SEB isn’t here to just sell you machines. Retailers have such complex operations, and even if they excel at coffee, they can still benefit from fresh ideas and new perspectives,” said Jones. “Successful retailers have done their homework and understand their customer, but they’re also looking to their equipment manufacturers for expertise, so helping our operators is a huge part of what we’re about as a company.”

It’s not always the right thing to sell a retailer your newest piece of equipment, she explained. “We’ve had many customers that wanted to add equipment to make a statement. Instead, we were able to evaluate their customer demographics and help them choose the right piece of equipment based on our technology and their data. Our goal is to improve coffee quality and availability and reduce labor,” she said.

SEB also evaluates every piece of equipment based on input from customers and looks to improve the machines for retailers.

Don’t think of your equipment supplier as someone who will just set something down on the counter.”

“The original bean-to-cup machine was a huge success, and with the help of feedback from several key retailers, we recently introduced a new model that enhances the process and further maximizes efficiency and profitability,” Jones said.

Selecting the right equipment will always be retailer and store specific, as different stores will naturally have unique needs.

“A chain of small-box stores will probably not do a full café experience, because they might only have six feet of space to dedicate to it. They’re not going to go for all the bells and whistles,” said Duesler. “But if you have a 3,000-square-foot store, you can use 20 feet for coffee and will want to build it out. It’s really about finding the right piece of equipment and the set up that will work for your space.”

Once some of these key decisions have been made and everything is in place, Jones said, “Then you need someone to help tell the story.”

Enhancing the Experience

That’s where an expert like Duesler comes in. With over 30 years of experience in creating foodservice displays and merchandising, Duesler’s company has conducted extensive research into consumer demand and perceptions of coffee—what they think makes a great coffee shop, what they look for in a “cafe experience,” and what will get them to go out of their way for a specific store.

“In one study, some of the top things survey respondents answered were having Wi-Fi in the store, superior hospitality and service, high quality product, drink variety and offering iced drinks and espresso drinks,” said Duesler. Consumers also appreciate upscale bakery items like pastries and muffins, soft music and lighting, loyalty programs and condiments for customizing drinks.

“These are all things they expect to see in a cafe, but not in a convenience store. But they’re elements that help move that client from going to the coffee shop down the street to your store instead because it has everything they need,” said Duesler.

Meeting that consumer demand means retailers need to “think about the overall story their coffee program is telling—not just looking at selling coffee, but at what subcategories support coffee,” said Jones. “That’s where the right display unit, the syrups, the condiments and all of those extra elements come into play.”

While retailers don’t necessarily sell condiments and the return-on-investment needs to come through the coffee itself, explained Duesler, add-ons are a critical component for attracting customers by letting them customize their drink with creamers, sugars or syrups.

Jones said she’s heard retailers express hesitation about providing free coffee condiments, especially after Covid, when an unfortunate trend emerged of customers taking them home. “But you really just can’t sell coffee well if you don’t offer them and put emphasis on the entire category.”

Even with data and expertise from manufacturers to back up decision making, retailers don’t always execute in the store, which could cause them to miss out on significant profits. Iced coffee, a top-selling cold-dispense item in many stores, is a great example, said Jones.

You need to find the right equipment to find more profitability.”

“We still have retailers who aren’t doing iced coffee at all, and that is a really critical segment. One of our machines makes both hot and iced drinks, but we cannot get them to utilize the iced feature,” she said. “They are ignoring one of the components of our equipment that would make them a ton of money. And we can really help them increase profit.”

Both Jones and Duesler would reiterate the same notion to retailers wary of change or implementing new elements into their coffee programs. As foodservice overall, which includes any sort of fresh coffee drink, continues to gain in-store profit share, the retailers that focus on it will excel—and the ones who don’t will get left behind.

“We are seeing more cups sold by the retailers who go all in than the ones who are only doing it halfway or not at all,” said Duesler. “As stores invest more in their coffee programs, the bar just keeps getting raised and everyone needs to do more to be competitive.”

Listening About Labor

To no one’s surprise, labor is one of the biggest challenges that Jennie Jones, senior vice president of convenience and retail at equipment manufacturer SEB Professional, hears about from her retailer customers. “We listened to that, and designed a machine that cleans itself,” she said.

“And the product still appeals to the consumer, because the coffee is fresh and readily available, but the machine is doing a lot on its own,” Jones said.

“Retailers evaluate new programs with one of the major criteria being labor,” she continued. “Our continuing objective is around creating innovative products that address these challenges. It comes down to what a modern partnership between a manufacturer and a retailer really looks like. And for me it means we need to be better listeners.”

Lauren Shanesy

Lauren Shanesy

Lauren Shanesy is a writer and editor at NACS, and has worked in business journalism for a decade. She can be reached at [email protected].

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