Pondering the Third Wave Expansion

I find it a little surprising sometimes that prominent, high quality (OK, let’s just say it – “third wave”) cafe/roasters have opened as few shops as they have. Take the Big Bay area players, for example, which have no more than a large handful of stores combined. Blue Bottle appears to be in the lead with their Hayes Valley, Downtown, not-quite-complete Ferry Plaza location (due “this winter” according to the sign and will allegedly have a roaster inside), and a bevy of farmer’s market kiosks. Ritual probably runs a close second, with their Valencia, Flora Grubb and Napa Oxbow Market locations. Others like Barefoot or the soon-to-be-roasting and still very new Four Barrel have only their flagship store. Even if you look outside the Bay Area, big names like Intelligentsia and Stumptown have no more than than a handful of coffee shops in a couple of cities. Why hasn’t there been a third-wave “Starbucksesque” explosion?

Puting aside the news of Starbucks’ economic tribulations (after all, other chains appear to be doing well), my suspicion is that roaster/owners have stolen a page from prominent chef/owners who often open new restaurants, but are careful to keep each establishment unique from all the rest. This suave and astute marketing move boosts these business one notch higher in the culinary food chain by distancing themselves from chain food mentality. I think that coffee is quite aware that they need to look serious to be taken as such.

But coffee roasters aren’t like restaurants in that their product is portable. Roasters are more like vintners or cheese makers since their products can be purchased and served elsewhere. That’s why, if you look carefully, there are an expanding lot of places where these fine coffees can be found. What’s tricky, however, is that coffee is not like wine or cheese in that coffee must be prepared, and that preparation – at least if you want something good – is notoriously tricky. For this reason, roasters are probably more like ranchers. They produce a product that is prepared by a vendor. Maintaining their reputation means ensuring that vendors prepare your coffee right, and doing that simply takes a lot of work.

Fortunately for us consumers, these particular coffee people are obsessive about preparation and won’t allow just any schmo turn out their coffee.  While you might not find a staff of coffee geeks waiting tables at your local restaurant selling third-wave coffee, you will typically find well-trained staff that turn out good coffee. And while many of the cafes serving the above-mentioned coffees don’t always seem to fully grasp the breadth and depth of their product (see the following comments or this discussion), they can consistently make something worth drinking.

The unfortunate side of all this for us consumers is that a rapid expansion – whether of actual cafes with a brand name or of vendors of these fine roasters – is unlikely to happen. I’d also predict that we’ll never see high quality coffee being served at EVERY one of the countless cafes that currently line the streets. Then again, maybe I’ll be wrong.

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2 comments to Pondering the Third Wave Expansion

  • I’d suspect one reason for the second LA Intelli store is that they’ll be able to maintain freshness by supplying beans out of Sunset Junction. That, incidentally, is one reason you’ll never see every corner shop serving up quality–even if they buy it, they’ll probably never get through it before it’s stale. That’s a real issue in St. Louis.

    Also, even our roasters that are pretty good sell coffee to specialty grocers that goes stale long before it is sold. But then again, IntelligentiSIA sells coffee to Whole Foods here as well, and it is equally as stale unless you happen to luck out and catch it right when it arrives.

    Specialty coffee is a tricky thing, and convincing people that it does, indeed, go south fast after only two weeks is a tough sell in many parts of the country.

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