Not So Premium

Date Posted:3 March 2019 

It's hard to believe today that premium dining venues still treat quality coffee as an afterthought


Not so Premium

I bet you have wondered more than once why there seems to be a strange and at times perverse correlation between fine dining and crap coffee ?

Seems expensive or so-called premium restaurants just can't help themselves in making bad or stupid decisions with their coffee strategy - both in their strange ideas of sourcing and in poor execution.

Kind of defies logic..... and literally contradicts everything a premium establishment stands for - particularly in a culture of Australia where the coffee standards are high and the customer expectations even higher.

We've seen it all - instant coffee served to finish off a $140/head dinner that was not a fundraising event, stale supermarket coffee served so badly by the poor inexperienced wait staff on a $200 degustation menu, pod and capsule coffee in multi-Chef's Hat awarded venues and myriad of large commodity grade coffee brands (also dubiously available in the discounted section of supermarkets) so utterly desperate for luxury association they offer incentives and rebates too extravagant for chefs and owners to refuse.

Then there are the food awards with sponsorship and a whole bunch of backroom hustling and pressure that chefs cave in for fear of missing out on "positive ranking" in the guides.

More than one awarded chef has "outed" the impact and consequences of not "playing along" with the party line. Some chefs now boycott or dismiss award rankings as it seems they inevitably might one day come with a "catch".

Coffee decisions are generally delegated to a part-time beverage manager who is expected to be across all manner of different products and solutions needed for a venue, along with doing their normal job.

Problem is though the attention afforded to coffee is generally pushed to the bottom of the priority list and a fundamental lack of training for all staff expected to prepare espresso style coffees - sometimes it's a case of just closing their eyes and hoping for the best.

This only amplifies a serious disconnect when Beverage Managers expect (and in most cases, demand) their coffee suppliers to provide unlimited training to a revolving door of high turnover in casual staff at the venue.

I get it, they don't have a resource model like a cafe where a trained barista is placed on the machine to ensure the quality of the coffees meets a basic or minimum standard throughout the service period. But letting just anyone make a coffee is just asking for trouble and risking ire from a high-paying customer.

Restaurants employ staff to perform many different functions besides just serve tables so when it comes to preparing a coffee order there can be high levels of anxiety from inexperienced staff under pressure to perform.

Often the machine is not used frequently enough, the coffee sitting in the grinder might have been inadvertently pre-ground in a doser style system by unaware staff and hence it's relatively stale by the time staff members attempt to prepare a beverage. It's like fighting with both hands tied behind your back.

On one side you have the management blaming the supplier for not providing enough training and on the other side you have the supplier frustrated and the venue for not retaining trained or skilled staff.

Regardless of any way you may look at it, there really is no excuse to charge ultra-high pricing for a dining experience and treat the coffee as a less important afterthought - it's the reason fine dining in Australia has suffered rapid decline, or demise at the hands of cafes with a better focus on improving the total customer experience and more importantly an improved value proposition.

A recent discussion with a colleague at another coffee company reminded me once again of the perils in dealing with corporate organisations that promote themselves as the "finest and premium" yet act with contradictory behaviours in their sourcing of ingredients, products and solutions.

His company had been supplying part of a premium dining group with great success but had been notified they were no longer able to provide products and services due to a corporate decision to use a large commodity overseas coffee brand as part of a standardization initiative throughout the group.

Fair enough, seems reasonable to implement standards and rationalize suppliers, but as a venue group that markets itself as ultra premium across Australia's dining segments they have chosen a partner that doesn't even roast their own coffee in Australia and instead sources a rather bland range of products from a contracted coffee roasting sausage factory to satisfy the "local and fresh" equation, but which you could safely guess is designed around cheap, mass production units. A change of bag artwork with some cosmetic touch-ups should be enough smoke and mirrors to fool the punters into believing it's a premium offering.

It begs the question as to just how far reputations can be stretched before they snap - after scandals involving systemic wage fraud at premium dining venues around Australia justified as "that's normal and expected in hospitality, everyone is doing it" or the often lame excuse rolled out that it was just a "simple administrative oversight".

Nope, these are all cunning and calculated exploits from shrewd, experienced dining operators gaming a system until they got caught red-handed. They cut back on anything they can until it breaks, sometimes it has to break often before they address it.

We are indeed entering dark times for hospitality when business models rely upon recruiting cheaper labour and using the perception of threat or risk of cancelling work visas over the demands of punishing work schedules or lower pay.

The cheaper labour in the back room and cut-price ingredients are not translating to a better value menu item in these expensive establishments and Australian consumers being a canny mob can't be easily fooled. Consumers are smart and these days many are wary of the free license used by premium and luxury brands to over-charge and under-deliver upon their promise of a "premium experience" - you can only get away with it for so long.

In the current economy of stagnant real wage growth, real estate price volatility and tougher access to credit, the slowdown of discretionary consumer spending will see more of these premium pretenders fall upon their fake swords.