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Restaurant operators battling for a.m. business know that pleasing coffee-and-food pairings are likely to enhance the customer experience while encouraging repeat patronage.
“There is a trend happening right now in the world of coffeehouses, placing heightened importance on coffee and food in the morning,” says Jenifer Hagness, senior director of marketing and product innovation at Minneapolis-based Caribou Coffee. “Caribou and other retailers are really looking at how to maximize the morning daypart.”
Here are some exciting coffee and food pairing strategies happening today.
Seasonal Matchups. “We’re seeing more and more consumer interest in our food portfolio,” says Beth Hammond, director of food and merchandise at Peet’s Coffee, headquartered in Emeryville, California, in an emailed statement. Peet’s fall offerings include the complementary pairing of Pumpkin Latte with pumpkin baked goods. Patrick Main, senior R&D manager at Peet’s, cites the affinity of the special edition Vine & Walnut coffee blend, which has notes of nutmeg, orange zest and malt, with the new Turkey Sage Sausage and Sweet Potato Biscuit.
“Creating pairings that bring out the key flavor notes in our coffee or pair nicely with our espresso beverages is key to our business,” says Main. Another example from Peet's is its Matcha Bread, which “paired perfectly” with the limited-time Honey Matcha Tea Latte.
For its part, breakfast giant Dunkin’ Donuts, based in Canton, Massachusetts, promotes the “perfect pair” of Maple Pecan Flavored Iced Coffee and its Maple Sugar Bacon Breakfast Sandwich.
Not a Science. Operators agree that putting coffee and food together is an informal, creative activity, not an exact science. A lot of different combos can work. “Just about any of the foods we offer will go well with any of our coffees,” says Mike Valent, director of café operations for The Roasterie, a Kansas City, Missouri-based company with seven coffeehouses.
That said, some pairings are better than others. “If you are enjoying your coffee black with a cup of yogurt and fruit, we would suggest a lighter roast coffee that’s a little more acidic, such as an Ethiopian,” says Valent. “But if you are having something really sweet, like a chocolate croissant, we might go with a darker roast, perhaps a Guatemalan or Costa Rican.”
Single-Origin Pairings. The unique flavors of single-origin coffees can shine in food pairings. Caribou Coffee rotates single-origin coffees with seasonal pumpkin, ginger and molasses breads. At The Roasterie, Valent enjoys the ripe, red fruit character of Kenya AA with a fruity or chocolate pastry, and the dried fruit nuance of Sumatra with a plain croissant or muffin that is not too sweet.
Cold Versus Hot. “I like cold coffee, but I prefer hot coffee with a pastry,” says Valent. “The heat of the coffee helps cut some of the sugar and fat in the pastry. Cold coffee doesn’t clean your palate after a sip as well as hot coffee.”
However, cold brew has greater versatility, according to Matt Gray, coffee concepts manager at Sheetz, a convenience store chain based in Altoona, Pennsylvania. “Our cold brew actually goes with a wider range of flavors than hot coffee,” says Gray. He credits a cold brew process that yields java that is naturally smooth, sweet and less acidic than hot brew.
Illuminating Roast Level. Light- and medium-roast coffees exhibit more nuanced flavors than dark roasts, says Hagness. Thus the blueberry and cherry notes of a light-roast, single-origin Costa Rica are quite distinct from the bold character of Caribou dark roasts like Eclipse and Mahogany. “Our operators suggest to customers: ‘We’re brewing X coffee and here are three bakery items that would be great with it,’” says Hagness. “Customers appreciate help in navigating the menu.”
At Sheetz, the launch of four signature coffee blends with different roast levels two years ago “has tremendously improved customer satisfaction,” says Gray. On a progressive scale of light to dark roast they are Breakfast, Classic, Sumatra and French.
As the competition over the morning daypart rages on, pairing coffee and food is likely to grow in importance as a sales tool for operators. Look for seasonal specials, limited-time offers, single-origin coffees and cold brews to play expanded roles in this effort.