by Sue Gillerlain

It seems that the Midwest is no longer the land of flavored coffees. Snickerdoodle, Hazelnut, Vanilla, Dutch Chocolate and other Midwest favorites are now being replaced with coffees of origin. As proof, Vicki Wilson, president of Door County Coffee & Tea, a wholesale/retail coffee operation based in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., says, "In our seven-year history, our flavored business is actually significantly less. Darker roasted varietal coffees are more in demand. Flavored coffees used to be 70 percent of our wholesale business, but over a two-year period, it's down to 50 percent. Overall our business is still growing, but the mix has dramatically changed." Wilson adds, "To me, this signals a more sophisticated Midwestern palette and I'm thrilled."

Wilson is not the only Midwestern coffee professional noticing this trend. In a recent survey of Midwestern coffee retailers, 100 percent of respondents say their best-selling coffee is either a single-origin coffee or a house blend, and not a flavored coffee. Sumatran and Guatemalan coffees, roasted medium to dark, seem to be the most requested single-origin coffees.

Cup sizes seem to gradually be getting larger in the Midwest as well. Twelve-ounce cups are being replaced with heftier 16-ounce sizes. Perhaps Dunkin' Donuts is on to something with its new "The Great One," a 24-ounce cup of coffee. According to the doughnut chain, Americans drink more than three cups of coffee a day.

Walk down Chicago's celebrated Michigan Ave. on any given morning and you'll see a sea of faces behind jumbo cups of coffee from Starbucks, Seattle's Best or Cosi Coffee. The ubiquitous grande-sized coffee cup has become as trendy as Chicagoans' cell phones.

Aside from single-origin coffees and house blends, what's inside the Midwestern cup is typically an espresso-based mocha drink. Seventy-two percent of survey respondents say their best-selling espresso-based drink is a mocha followed by a latte. When it comes to best-selling cold drinks, not surprisingly, iced mochas top the list.

All retailers surveyed also say they carry flavoring syrups, and a whopping 86 percent state that their customers' favorite flavor is vanilla, followed by hazelnut.

Chai Makes Its Mark in Midwest
Chai has definitely caught on in the Midwest. When asked about tea, an overwhelming number of retailers say their best-selling product is chai, hot or iced.

Bill McSpadden, co-owner, along with his wife Joyce, of Pacific Chai in Seabrook, Md., says the chai craze is not even close to plateauing. "Number one, most gourmet coffee establishments carry chai in one form or another now as a served product," he points out. "It's got room to grow because they're just starting to move it up more into the retail side and offer retail packaging, as well, for consumers to take home." Chai, McSpadden suggests, is "one of those beverages that everybody wants, they just didn't know they wanted it. There is a huge segment of the population, at least in my opinion, that's just not all that thrilled with coffee."

According to Larry Sommers, CEO of Santa Ana, Calif.-based Nata'le Products, which includes a Mystic Chai division.chai's popularity defies generally accepted geographical breakdowns. "You'd be surprised," he says, "our largest customer for chai sales is in Hawaii right now, of all places. After that, Minnesota takes over."

James Howard, owner of Noble Coffee and Tea, Noblesville, Ind., says he sells between 20 and 25 chai drinks daily.

"We have what we call Cinnamon Chai," he says. "It's a cross between a tea latte and a hot cocoa. It's non-fat and it's real creamy. It has teas and spices, lots of cinnamon and quite a bit of vanilla."

Howard concedes that he isn't a big fan of the cinnamon drink's sensory qualities. "It's so rich and so sweet, it's overpowering to me," he says. "But for every traditional chai we sell, we sell 50 Cinnamon Chais."

Sit-Down or Grab-and-Go?
While Midwesterners have been chided for bustling a little slower than their coastal-dwelling counterparts, they aren't necessarily the sit-down coffee consumers as one might assume. Survey respondents were split down the middle with half grab-and-go and half sit-down customers in their stores. Even Anodyne @ 43rd, a coffeehouse in Minneapolis that prides itself on a stay-awhile atmosphere and even has a communal table in the middle of its store, says 60 percent of its customers prefer to sit down while 40 percent opt for grab-and-go service.

Though Midwesterners are on the go, their sense of community is intense. David Bernick, owner of Riverview Café in Minneapolis, says he lived on the West Coast for 15 years prior to opening his Midwest coffeehouse and barely knew any neighbors. Now he says he knows his entire neighborhood, even the junior set. Bernick holds a children's reading hour every week in the playroom he built for all of his little customers.

"Our customers are very interested in their neighborhood," he says. For that reason, Bernick hires most all of his workers from the neighborhood and says he has had "zero turnover in the last three years."

"Our staff appreciates what the coffeehouse is doing for their neighborhood and I think that gives them a sense of pride to work here."

Theresa Lien, owner of Anodyne @ 43rd, agrees with Bernick that Midwesterners have a strong sense of community. She and her staff get their local community members involved in a number of projects throughout the year, including "The Art Rules Project." For the annual project, Anodyne supplies customers with 12-inch rulers. Customers with a creative bent decorate the rulers in whatever inspirational direction they are taken. The finished creations are then sold at an auction held at the coffeehouse and the proceeds are donated to the Center for the Performing Arts, an organization that provides arts education scholarships to kids.

"We were stunned by the number of people that contributed," says Anne Mayers, Anodyne's manager. "It was a very successful community arts project."

What's for Breakfast?
Saturdays are busiest for Midwest retailers, who say the morning shift gets the best workout. But no matter what morning of the week it is, you can bet that Midwesterners will be grabbing for scones or muffins. The two staple breakfast items remain top-sellers according to survey responses. Even so, pastry menus are expanding to include confections, says Lien. She says she's noticing the influx of chocolates and other confections in the Midwest coffeehouse. Perhaps that could be due to the popularity of single-origin coffees, which pair well with fine dark chocolate.

Lien also says she is selling more and more warm desserts in her cafe—oven-baked apple crisps, cobblers and pies—and is noticing this trend in other Midwest coffeehouses as well.

While Midwesterners may not be trendsetters when it comes to creating new menu items (e.g., chai, smoothies, bagels), they are quick to jump on the bandwagon and add their own twists to items to make them work in the communities they know and love so well.

Susan J. Gillerlain is editor of Specialty Coffee Retailer magazine, a monthly business journal targeting the specialty coffee industry. She can be reached at sgillerlain@mail.aip.com.


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