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The Perks of the Grind

How far would you go for the perfect cup of coffee?

There is seemingly no limit to the United States’ torrid love affair with coffee. Like many other consumer mediums, tastes for the ‘other black gold’ have gone through drastic changes in the last 100 years, evolving from the military grade canned coffee that is likely still collecting dust in back corners of home pantries across the country to a new cult-like obsession in the pursuit of the perfect premium blend.

The new wave of coffee mania could be the subject of its own college-level course. What exactly is single-origin, Kenyan Peaberry brewed by reverse osmosis in a Japanese Vacuum Siphon? Coffee connoisseurship has exploded, leading to an explosion of smaller specialty roasteries and corner coffee houses listing tasting notes on their menu to help customers navigate the breadth of options.

Starbucks, the company arguably most responsible for driving the coffee renaissance, now finds itself being challenged and repositioned on every front by the new breed of caffeinated zealots it helped create. Starbucks certainly has achieved immense commercial success over the years, setting the bar for quality and accessibility high for mass-marketed coffee in the process. The company is still the standard-bearer and the choice of a great majority and wide variety of coffee consumers, but the model of a nationwide chain is under threat from the growing market of distinguishing palates.

The store has begun efforts to address the wants of the coffee-obsessed, rolling out the $11,000 Clover Brewing System and a selection of Starbucks ‘Reserve’ single-origin and premium blend coffees to stores in select metropolitan areas. As consumers trend more towards what is artisanal, local, and unique, Starbucks seems conscious of the need for increased attention to quality and is smartly shifting its approach. The strategy goes beyond just coffee; to address other market trends, the company has also begun expanding an experimental beer and wine program and set plans in motion to revamp its bakery offerings with the recent acquisition of French bakery chain La Boulange.

The edge that Starbucks maintains over emerging competition is the brand affinity that it has worked so hard to build over the course of 50 years as the innovator and leader in the coffee space. The impeccably crafted brand focuses on the experience of the European coffee shop – featuring high quality beverages in a sleek and comfortable social setting. Of course, loyal customers are only benefitting from the delicious new products that the company must roll out to hold on to its share of the high end market.

The great coffee revolution shows clearly that competition drives change in the marketplace; with the right shift in strategy it is all for the better. As the heat continues to rise, Americans may not have to look very far for the best cup they’ve ever had.

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