Caffeine Rush

Hot-beverage programs excelling in coffee and moving beyond.

By  Amanda Baltazar, Freelance writer

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Customers order their coffee (and food) through the chain’s touch-screen ordering system and can personalize their drink, which is key, Weiner says.

“We offer lots of personalization, which is what everyone wants these days: the syrups and the toppings and the whipped creams,” he says. “So it’s taking on the same image as our food program, which is personalization and customization.”

“Customization is an increasing aspect of consumers’ food and beverage expectations,” says Melissa Abbott, senior director of culinary insights for The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash. “From Coke’s Freestyle machine with over 100 choices to the millennial desire to try a new beverage every week, we see no sign of this desire for personalization abating.”

Customization is also essential at Wawa, which has both coffee bars and self-serve coffee.

“Our whole brand is focused on customizing,” says Sherlock. “We have nine varieties of coffee in our self-serve program that customers fix themselves with creamers and sweeteners—and we have a large variety of those, too.” The full-service side is similar, with more than 20 specialty beverages available with different flavors, milks and so on, he says.

“I think we’re in a society where people want to feel special and want to be able to control the experience,” Sherlock says. “So it’s important to engage with the customers in the way they want to engage with your brand.”

At Rutter’s, the coffee bar is rapidly emerging as a destination that exceeds a traditional good-quality coffee program. Among the benefits beyond the menu is that it makes coffee a daylong attraction.

So while it’s no surprise Rutter’s coffee program is strongest in the morning, “a surprising percentage of our total cups go out after the morning business,” Weiner says.

“That’s because the espresso bar is a little different, since people tend to use it as an afternoon treat.”

Chocolate: No Longer for Kids

Coffee’s not the only thing that’s a treat. Hot chocolate is, too, and that’s evident at Pilot Flying J locations.

“We see it as a potential opportunity because it’s getting a lot of exposure and we’re introducing an additional hot chocolate—a premium one—this fall,” says Harson. “It’s to gear it more to adults.”

Hot chocolate has been a growing part of Wawa’s business, “and where we’ve had good success is on the full-service side, where it’s more special, more gourmet,” Sherlock says. Wawa declined to provide profit margins or prices.

It’s an afternoon treat, Sherlock says, and for good reason: It’s made using steamed milk from the espresso machine and real chocolate chips.

If you’re selling hot chocolate, make sure you have s’mores, caramel and peppermint mocha flavors; these pair well with coffee, too, says Beverage Insights’ Porter. “There’s a whole lot of mixing going on,” she says.

Tea is also catching on “more and more,” at Pilot Flying J, Harson says. Two years ago the chain introduced Revolution tea, with nine flavors, and the flavored teas are where the growth is, he says.

“Our tea program is very high-end [because of Revolution] and, like our coffee program, is designed to compete with Starbucks,” he says. “We see tea getting better every year, but it’s also a commitment to the customer.” 

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