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R&IEditorial Archives2001June 15 — Operations

Big Shot
Once a specialty in Italian and fine-dining concepts, espresso drinks are flowing into mainstream casual restaurants.

If coffee consultant Daniel Cox can find espresso in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, it shouldn't be hard to locate among the rest of the nation's abundant casual dining options.

So goes Cox's theory. A recent encounter with espresso at a seasonal hotel in Alaska further convinced him of a strong U.S. demand for the rich, dark brew.

"Espresso is absolutely mainstream," he says, and casual restaurant operators may want to listen. Owner and president of a Burlington, Vt.-based coffee consultancy, Cox's opinion comes with 20 years' experience in the industry. "There's an incredible opportunity for profit," he says, citing the typically high markup on these coffee beverages.

Already, a few casual chains offer espresso and/or cappuccino (a shot of espresso topped with foamed milk) options--Champp's Americana, Houlihan's and American Cafe, to name a few. And the independents are getting into the act as well.

Kimberly Patterson, co-owner with husband Kyle of Once Upon a Vine in St. Louis, says having espresso on the menu is "pretty much a requirement nowadays." She's been serving it since she they acquired the upscale casual dining spot five years ago. "I would be shocked if I went into a restaurant today that didn't serve espresso," she says. "It would be like not offering coffee at all 10 or 15 years ago."

Despite Patterson's strong convictions, not all operators view espresso as a must for their menus. Chains including Chili's Bar & Grill, Outback Steakhouse and T.G.I. Friday's haven't made room on their menus for it.

Tim Smith, spokesperson for Dallas-based Brinker International-parent to Chili's and seven other restaurant concepts--says the company offers espresso at only three of those chains. These fall in line with the more traditional specialty coffee venues: Italian concepts Maggiano's Little Italy and Romano's Macaroni Grill, as well as the bread- and dessert-oriented Corner Bakery.

"With our other concepts, we simply don't feel that it fits the menu as well, and we haven't had the customer demand that we have at the restaurants where we do serve it," Smith says.

According to Cox, operators often perceive operational obstacles when considering whether to serve these drinks. High staff turnover, especially in quick-service operations, encourages restaurants to keep things simple. For these purposes, manufacturers offer three main types of commercial espresso-making equipment, each requiring varying levels of labor.


In most cases, brewing espresso for a commercial operation requires two pieces of equipment: the brewing machine itself and a grinder for the coffee. According to Umberto Terrenie, manager at a Greensboro, N.C.-based manufacturer, the three main types of commercial espresso machines are semiautomatic, automatic, and fully or "super" automatic.

Semiautomatic machines are the most labor-intensive commercial option, with costs ranging from $1,500 to $5,000. This equipment requires the barista, or espresso "bartender," to watch the amount of water the machine dispenses and stop the flow when the appropriate amount of coffee is made.

With an automatic machine, the water flow stops automatically to yield a preprogrammed amount, freeing staff to attend to other tasks during the brewing process, such as frothing milk for a cappuccino. Automatic machines can cost from $2,500 to $8,000.

Finally, the "super" automatic machine does everything with the push of a button: grinding, brewing and dispensing. Some models may even automatically froth the milk as well. This technology is still in the early stages, says Terrenie, with prices ranging from $3,500 to $18,000.

With the proper care--consistent cleaning and use of filtered water--a quality machine should last 10 years, Terrenie says.

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