Amazing restaurants...terrible coffee? Why?

We currently are living in an epoch (in the US) of unprecedented access to amazing culinary experiences at every turn. Never before has there been such a proliferation, and popularity, of chef-driven 'experiential' restaurants in which even the tiniest of details don't go unchecked. Whether it's a trendy breakfast spot, a high-end fine dining experience, or even a hip hotel, it seems that both restauranteurs and diners alike are bringing an ever-increasing knowledge and expectation of craftsmanship, ingredient sourcing, quality, and locality when comes to their food and dining experience.

With so many places putting so much emphasis and thought into every facet of the customer dining experience, and customers becoming increasingly more knowledgeable and discerning with their dining choices, how and why is coffee (where it comes from, who it's roasted by, and how its brewed) still a distant afterthought for restaurant owners, chefs, and management alike? Why is the final experience of a diner's visit going to capped off with something awful or at best, mediocre?

As Sprudge co-founder Jordan Michelman once so eloquently stated "If you served Oscar Meyer for charcuterie at a fancy restaurant, people would stone you in the streets, yet that’s what many, many chefs are doing the equivalent of with their coffee services.”

The simple straight forward answer to how and why seemingly amazing ( and even James Beard Award winning) restaurants completely fail with their coffee is essentially because most chefs and/or restaurant managers either don't care and/or truly know the difference between good and bad coffee. But why they don't care or know (and why they should) is really at the heart of this issue.

One reason may be due to the fact that most chefs' culinary training does not include any type of coffee training or education, and though it shares a fairly rich history with it's more lauded 'main meal counterpart' wine, it doesn't enjoy the same level of knowledge, thoughtfulness, personal experience, and celebrity.

Another common reason is that most coffee 'programs' at restaurants are not determined by chefs, but rather managers, head bartenders, or even those responsible for ordering supplies every week. Often times someone is friends with a coffee purveyor, someone on staff said so and so's coffee is really good, and/or decision makers do a 'who's got the coolest Instagram feed'...and that's it. They become the new coffee provider simply because no one knows any better, and/or for those making the decision figure it's all the same since 'all coffee is the same'. 

Matthew Kassel's article "Stop Serving Bad Coffee in Fine Restaurants!" in the Observer from a few years back really illustrates the still prevalent epidemic well:


“I’ve just given up,” said John Mariani, the former Esquire food critic who is something of an espresso connoisseur. “They get better coffee in a prison in Sicily than most Americans will ever get a chance to drink.”

Harsh but perhaps true. The java at many restaurants, which often tastes like it’s been sitting in an urn for hours at a time—getting stale and burnt—is usually prepared by a busboy or a bartender who might not know the first thing about making a compelling cup. What’s more, according to a 2013 Grub Street report, a startling 30 percent of Michelin-starred restaurants around the world use Nespresso machines.

In New York, Aldea, Restaurant Marc Forgione and Nobu 57 are among the high-profile restaurants using the ghastly pods, according to a representative of the Nestlé-owned company.  “My question for chefs who use pod machines is: Do you also cook steak in the microwave?” asked Erin Meister, a former coffee columnist for Serious Eats. “ Superautomatic and single-serve pod machines are the microwaves of the coffee world. If you wouldn’t use a microwave for regular service prep, don’t use one to brew your diners’ last taste experience.”

There’s a number of ways chefs and restaurateurs could improve the quality of their coffee. Mr. Michelman suggests a few ways forward, such as forging stronger relationships with roasting partners—in the same way a restaurant will have a rapport with a butcher or farm—and encouraging those on staff to get into coffee so servers can meaningfully discuss the drink with diners.

At the highly acclaimed Noma in Denmark, servers are trained to produce worthwhile stuff—by paying attention to water temperature and grind size, for instance. Good coffee takes careful attention, the machinery to produce it can be expensive, and it doesn’t bring in much money. But when fine dining establishments slack off, it sends a parting message that they don’t care about their customers. With that in mind, here’s a radical idea for high-end places: If you’re not willing to serve good coffee, don’t serve it at all.


So if you're a chef, restaurant-owner, or any sort of purveyor of coffee, make sure you don't just 'give up' or phone it in when it comes to the coffee service at your establishment(s). They're a lot of great local roasters out there doing really incredible things in coffee, and chances are they're around the corner from you. I urge everyone to seek them out, and/or be more receptive and open to those reaching out to you; especially if they're neighbors. They have a lot of knowledge, passion, and value to add to your menus, customer experience, and whether you believe it or not...your bottom-line.