The onset of the winter trading season is always a puzzle. Some café-bars go to town on it – do they make it pay? Whilst other coffee-houses seem to do absolutely nothing at all about the winter season – do they miss all the potential?
One of the biggest Christmas idea of recent years is the American one – the gingerbread latte, brought here by Starbucks and a proven success, in spite of those who consider it culturally bizarre. But is there more to Christmas in the coffee-house trade than that?
Is there a difference of opinion between what coffee-house operators want for Christmas, and what the trade’s suppliers think they want?
Christmas Mince Pie Ice Cream by Beechdean
We asked several coffee-house owners, and received many helpful responses: the first came from the irrepressible Adrian Jones of Street Coffee, noted for his irreverent use of A-board messages. Adrian suggested reindeer milk flat whites and hot chocolates would be irresistible for customers… although the main ingredient might be hard to find.
Elsewhere, responses from coffee-house operators were generally variations on traditional themes.
“I think we will go with a non-alcoholic mulled wine type drink as our differentiator,” remarked a coffee-house owner from Croydon. “Cinnamon, honey, orange and lemon, served warm. I will also pick out a nice selection of spicey fruit teas and offer some twists on coffee with interesting syrups or some house-made concoctions.
“What is lacking is creativity and breadth of choice. I think it is vital for coffee shops to have a key differentiator in their product lines as well as their design/style/target market… and I guess the big suppliers don’t necessarily make that easy.”
From Cornwall, another said: “This is a toughie – having worked for the jolly green giant (Starbucks), I’ve realised the profit making potential of gingerbread syrup, so I think in reality we will sell it again this year. A good chai bouquet garnis would also be good, a little muslin bag with all the correct spices in it to brew up a soup kettle of the good stuff.
“I have also seen what a Christmas branded bag of coffee can do – Starbucks’ Christmas blend seems to sell by the ton. Unique ideas are always tricky to come by… how about ginger chocolate coated coffee beans?”
From Birmingham came this: “We agree the gingerbread lattes are so overdone it gets very boring. I think a great blend of espresso developed for the holiday season would be great – subtle notes of fruit cake at the end, etc., without there actually being the nasty fake flavours added to the beans.”
From Brighton came the remark: “Pre-Christmas is always a relatively slow period, I think because of the shopping frenzy eating up the time that many would use to dwell in a cafe. The days after Christmas and before New Year are a different matter and can be quite busy with lots of people with time on their hands. We hate the idea of gingerbread lattes – but we have found that mince pies do go well with coffee.”
The most comprehensive comment from the café-operator point of view came from someone who has a foot in both camps – the well-known competition barista Howard Barwick, who has been working at the Opposite Café in Leeds and has just been appointed to an ambassadorial training position at Grumpy Mule, from the Bolling roastery.
“From my personal experiences, maximising Christmas trade is based around being able to take advantage of the increased predictable footfall, and those looking for gifts, rather than specific menu options or one-off drinks,” Howard told us.
“Christmas brings a massive increase in retail coffee sales, so being stocked up is crucial. People are seemingly happy to pay higher prices for gift coffees, so bringing in Cup of Excellence or other specific lots can work well. When I was at Opposite in Leeds, we would sell more retail stock than we could carry in the latter part of December
“Home equipment sales are usually good, but are sometimes awkward as unusual equipment often requires a demonstration – typically when you have a massive queue in front of you!”
In this regard, Howard also helpfully pointed out the need for re-thinking service procedures in the busiest Christmas times – one of his suggestions is that making strategic use of bulk-brew filter equipment eases pressure on the espresso work. Either the till person can immediately serve the coffee, or the filter station can be placed with one member of staff at the front of the shop, thus removing people from the main queue.
That is what the café side of the trade had to say – does it match what the suppliers have on offer?
In talking to suppliers, we found that we were able to break the Christmas offer down into several sections – coffee and tea, customised drinks made by the café, and snacks and cakes.
There are three ways of approaching coffee for the Christmas season – a conventional everyday blend that just happens to suit the season, a special seasonal blend from a roaster, or a menu ‘special’ made on the premises.
“Christmas is a time where people are looking for something special and are more willing to experiment and trade-up,” suggested Nicola Pearson of Cafedirect. “Why not offer some single origin coffees beside your house coffees – Cafédirect’s Machu Picchu Peruvian coffee is a Christmas coffee, rich and smooth with overtones of dark chocolate. Serving single origin coffees from a brew bar takes time and space, but will really set you apart from the others.”
The concept of a specific seasonal blend is one that many roasters have tried – Union Hand-Roasted will have its annual seasonal blend ready soon.
“Rather than looking just at Christmas, we choose to look at the season, and will launch our Winter Blend in October, roasting it through to the end of February,” the roastery’s Alan Miller told us. “The seasonal approach allows operators to build a fan base for the coffee, especially if they offer it as an up-sell or guest coffee, and keep it going in time for repeat business. The blend will reflect the season’s tastes and flavours and be available in 1kg and 250g packs for foodservice, along with counter point-of-sale material. There will also be a 227g retail format for pack sales.”
A Christmas blend we had not come across before is from Bolling of Yorkshire, whose Grumpy Mule brand has introduced the Grumpy Yule, a triple certified 100-per-cent Arabica blend.
Pre-flavoured coffees are often to be found at this time of year. Cherizena offers a Christmas flavour every year, typically a Colombian with rum, nuts, and spices, and a newcomer brand to the sector this year is Smith’s – which is the long-established roastery who have just entered the flavoured coffee market.
Christmas Coffee by Cherizena
“Spicy or alcoholic-style beverages would suit the season, so we have our own Christmas pudding flavoured coffee,” says Colin Smith. “It’s a blend of brandy flavourings with orange and spices.”
The Christmas cake flavoured syrup was introduced last year by Taylerson’s Malmesbury syrups, who point out that it can be used in several ways in the season – not just for a ‘Christmas cake latte’, but as a topping on ice-cream, puddings and cakes. The product is made of cinnamon, ginger, almond, and ‘Christmas spices’. A mulling syrup for producing seasonal drinks is also a neat idea, adds Taylerson, and the brand’s chocolate orange syrup also seems right for winter drinks.
At Monin, there are even more ideas for flavoured syrups. Look beyond the obvious ones, says Darril Ling, and experiment with blackberry, or cranberry. Blueberry syrup makes an interesting seasonal latte, as does chestnut. A good winter special can be dreamed up with chocolate mint syrup, toffee nut, and white chocolate.”
There is another aspect to Monin’s syrups – this was the brand which invented the ‘pie’ syrup, with its ‘hints of pastry’ taste… the apple pie syrup makes for an unique winter latte.
At Beyond the Bean, there is a winter ‘box’ of appropriate Sweetbird syrups. It includes their gingerbread flavour, with a bottle of eggnog syrup, one of toffee syrup, and point-of-sale material.
Is gingerbread not what we expect from the big chains? That’s just the point, says Sweetbird.
“With the two big chains, you’ll find that they replicate what each other is doing, and others follow them. The seasonal line becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We introduced eggnog because of that – it’s not a British thing, but it has crept in over here. It’s one of the flavours that we sell in huge amounts in the States.
Christmas by Big Train
“An eggnog is brandy-based, which means we have to replicate the alcohol, and the rest is nutmeg and vanilla and so on. It has to be a milky drink, so a latte works well with it.
“How do you promote what are American seasonal drinks? You take the view that Starbucks has already done it, they’ve done the legwork, and the consumers already know what these drinks are. It is important to know that the independent can take advantage of the work the big ones have already paid to do!
“A lot of coffee houses do not generally want to be seen to be apeing the chains, but there is a lot of business to be gained from the average coffee-drinker by doing so. Look at the offerings of the chains, see what you can realistically emulate, but remember that you are more flexible than they are. The chains will have bought in so much stock and prepared so much point-of-sale that they will find it difficult to adapt to changes in the weather – you can react to the weather quicker than they can.
“So, if you’re looking at your winter menu planning, think of what you can implement between September and February, and what you can ideally feature in these five months. In a hot winter, you could still be getting away with frappes in September, but if the weather changes, you want your creamier and warmer drinks… so have a plan, but have a contingency plan for if the weather changes.”
Also remember that shakes and frappes can go on through the winter, says Robyn Hawkins at Big Train.
“We provide exceptional seasonal beverages that can be served hot, blended or cold along with posters and point-of-sale materials to help notify the end consumers that the products are available. The selection varies each year, but there are definitely returning favourites – the pumpkin spice latte, peppermint mocha, gingerbread chai, apple spice chai and eggnog.
“New this year are pumpkin pie chai and caramel chai. We are always looking for new drink recipes that can be made by using our drink mixes as a base and adding other ingredients to make them ‘seasonal’. An example of this is adding gingerbread cookies to our vanilla bean blended crème base to make a ‘gingerbread cookie smoothie’.
Seasonal teas are an equally good addition to the menu. Several suppliers suggest the wide use of chais and rooibos teas – Novus now has a spicy rooibos, with red pepper, cinnamon, cardamon and cloves, and a hint of orange, which they say is caffeine-free and Christmassy.
The same idea comes from Teapigs, whose spicy rooibos uses ginger, cinnamon and cloves. It can be brewed as a latte… which brings up Teapigs’ favourite subject, the use of the chai latte. It is not difficult, says the company, and it’s still unusual enough to be an attention-getter.
What goes beside these drinks?
This year’s seasonal Byron Bay cookie is the same as the last winter one – dark chocolate orange. “This is because the demand took us by surprise, and people have been asking for it,” says the company. “Rather than just stick it in the jar, you can do things with it – either offer it as a standalone cookie, or as a drink-link promotion – and you can blend it as a hot shake!”
Christmas means cakes – so try a cake which isn’t brown, says the Handmade Cake Company. This is the white chocolate and cranberry tiffin. Or, the brand’s twist on the mince pie – the Christmas crumble slice, which is an apple and mincemeat traybake, cut into 12 portions.
It also means the time for adapting existing cake ideas, says Jacqui Passmore at Dawn Foods. “Products like muffins, cookies and cup cake bases are frozen for batch baking so you have a constant supply of fresh product and vary the decorations throughout the festive season, keeping your offering fresh and interesting.”
Christmas Cup Cakes by Dawn Foods
Equally, Christmas means chocolate, says Rococo. It means drinking chocolate, such as organic spiced drinking chocolate, and it means some extremely profitable and high-priced solid chocolates, which are the brand’s speciality.
There are two highlights in this category – one is the gold, frankincense and myrrh chocolate bar, which retails at £5.50 (the gold is achieved in leaf form as decoration on the bar). The second Rococo item is the 240gm Advent calendar – the trade price is £32.50, and the recommended retail price is £65.00.
If your business offers dessert, where is the Christmas option? It’s an unexpected one, says Beechdean – it’s their mince-pie ice-cream!
Beechdean is made by a husband and wife team using Jersey milk and double cream from their own Jersey herd. The seasonal product uses raisins and currants with pieces of orange and lemon peel, nutmeg and cinnamon, and a dash of Courvoisier. The use of crisp shortcake biscuit adds an unexpected ‘crunch’.
“We first produced it last year for fun,” says the company’s Andrew Howard, “but we have brought it back by demand for this year. It seems to appeal as being easier to eat than heavier traditional Christmas puddings and desserts.
Whatever you do for Christmas, says Alice Rendle of Edgcumbes, do something – and as well as thinking about it now, ask yourself whether your suppliers are set up to come with the oddities, curiosities and novelties that a season brings.
Alice has been a supplier to the southern counties coffee trade for several years, and was recently approached by some specialist online entrepreneurs who were seeking to launch a business selling a range of beverage and associated products to the trade nationally. Their result has been www.value-coffee.co.uk.
“I find that Christmas can be more of a damp squib than some caterers expect,” she says. “It’s because they don’t do enough for it – small cafes are not always good marketeers, and they’re up against a lot of competition.
“The answer comes down to suppliers like us coming up with ideas. It can also be very difficult for a café to try things out through the normal wholesale route, but guess what – there are now places which will sell small quantities to you at low delivery charges!
“This online revolution is beginning, so look at the specialist sites for how it may, for example, be easy to buy a sleeve of cups instead of a box. The idea is that for Christmas, you can go online for the small quantities of those things that your usual wholesaler may not stock. This may be where you are going to get your point of difference.”