Single Origin Shots

It’s all about value: Wholesaling true specialty coffee

The phrase “selling specialty coffee” is often used interchangeably with “being in the wholesale coffee business.” But clearly there is a difference. One that sells specialty coffee sells a value, supports a lifestyle, and improves lives. Whereas others, well they simply offer a commodity based on price, and clearly, that’s not selling specialty making it best saved for soft drink salespeople.


Let’s start with the coffee—and your commitment to it.

If you’re sure you’re selling specialty beans your company’s unique value proposition (UVP) should embrace this fact. A UVP differentiates your company from your competitors while matching a need from your target demographic—and being easy to communicate in 30 seconds or less.

SCAA Executive Director Ric Rinehart’s comprehensive explanation of specialty, at every phase of coffee’s lifecycle:

• The term “specialty coffee” refers to the highest-quality green coffee beans roasted to their greatest flavor potential by true craftspeople and then properly brewed to well established standards. Specialty coffee is not defined by a brewing method, such as the use of an espresso machine.

• The definition of specialty coffee begins at the origin of coffee, the planting of a particular varietal into a particular growing region of the world. But the definition cannot stop there. The concept of specialty includes the care given to the plant through harvest and preparation for export.

• Specialty coffee in the green bean phase can be defined as a coffee that has no defects and has a distinctive character in the cup. It is not only that the coffee doesn’t taste bad; to be considered specialty it must be notably good.

• The next phase is roasting, and there is a lot of opportunity here to continually define specialty. Every coffee in combination with every roaster has a potential to express itself in a way that will be most satisfying for every customer. Bringing out a coffee’s distinctive character is the roast master’s challenge. If he comes close to succeeding then it is still specialty if it started out in the green form as specialty.

• In roasted coffee, most agree that freshness is a part of the definition for specialty. If the coffee is not highly aromatic then it no longer deserves to be called “specialty.”

• Then there is the brewing phase. There are many different methods, and all are capable of brewing beverages that can qualify as specialty coffee, but only if done correctly. The right ratio of coffee to water, the right grind suited to the method and the coffee’s physical characteristics, the proper water temperature and contact time, a good preparation of the coffee ”bed” or “cake” are all fundamentals that must be satisfied to produce a specialty cup of coffee.

• Specialty coffee is, in the end, defined in the cup. It takes many steps to deliver that cup into the customer’s hands. Each of those steps can uphold the classification of specialty if quality has been maintained throughout all the preceding steps.


There is no shortage of specialty coffee roasters adhering to the above criteria, many with their own UVP that differentiates them from you. What’s left is value. Selling on value, rather than price, is perhaps the single most difficult strategy to execute in the industry. And value translates into impact. What is the impact on your customer’s business when buying from you? The challenge is to continually educate them on value while building relationships so the cost benefit analysis (CBA) works in favor of value over price.

How do you know for sure that your value (which includes not just the coffee but your company’s level of service) is in place so you can make an impact? This foundation should be laid while performing demographic studies in the early stages of building your company. Let’s say you’ve chosen to focus solely on coffee shops where success relies on the coffee and support offered by their roaster partner. Once you have successfully navigated the gatekeepers and find yourself in front of decision makers for potential new accounts, consider the following:

Let them tell you how they perceive value right from the start, ask questions about their business, and encourage them to tell you why they’re proud of it. Don’t interrupt; simply listen and summarize the situation. Listen for key words that emphasize what they are pleased with and where their opportunities lie. This is where your UVP comes in to play: tell them how you can add value to their business where they need it most. If you listened and are in front of an account that matches your target, it will feel right, for both you and the potential customer. This gives the decision maker a reason to see value in aligning with you. From here it’s a lot like knowing when to kiss your date, timing is everything-ask for the sale, and close.


Working it at the tradeshows

Recently many of us attended the largest family reunion on the planet, the SCAA Conference and Expo. I say that tongue-in-cheek, but it’s a place that helps us recognize the intrinsic value of strengthening relationships while also pursuing new business. Aligned with the above-mentioned approach to on-site calls, the trade show’s UVP is that it brings potential customers to you. One could easily argue that trade shows are the single most expensive choice of marketing. I suggest that they don’t have to be, if done correctly. I can say from experience that the statistics can work in your favor.

For starters, too many times I have seen roasters create entitlements within their organization, which leads to a large chunk of staff attending with little or no measurable outcome. Given the cost of travel and taking employees away from your business, everyone who goes must do so with a clearly defined mission. Some staff plan on attending for educational enhancement, others for competitions; these things are measured intrinsically. Other staffs “booth jockeys” are there to sell your product, which is the key to your CBA, demonstrated empirically by working toward sales goals on the tradeshow floor.

A sales goal is the pursuit of qualified leads, not any and all business cards you might collect at the show. The cost of shipping $20.00 worth of samples to 8,000 people will not likely contribute to a positive return on investment (ROI). Be smart before the show: more time planning than exhibiting is always time well spent. One idea is to send out invitations to potential new customers. A resource that always worked for me was the SCAA new member list. Sending a simple self-introduction welcoming newcomers to the industry accompanied by some type of incentive to visit you can work wonders. The trade show industry reports that attendees are 75% more likely to award loyalty points to the sender before attending.

Training the people who will work in your booth is imperative. Not to drag corporate philosophy into this, but some structure here will also improve your batting average. Consumer behavior studies tell us that the UVP is your 30-second “commercial,” and your booth must communicate your UVP in the same 30 seconds as attendees pass by. In short, people must quickly learn who and what you are and how you do it, sometimes while navigating congested aisles. One more note about the look and feel of your booth: keep personal effects out of site—lunch, water bottles, BlackBerrys, etc. They shouldn’t be part of your commercial or otherwise clutter your image. Enough said.

Sales staff: the rest is up to you. Mathematically, it’s like going on a fishing trip. How do you know which ones to snag at the risk of wasting time you could spend on a trophy (buyer)? As with on-site selling, summarize with leading questions. Who are they with, what is their niche and what is their role with the company? Chances are, they one of the following: enthusiast and product user (baristas and potential future clients), managers or owners. All of these are worth your time, but you should distribute your time by identifying opportunities as you listen for variations of two trigger words: “price” and “quality.” If it sounds like price is most important to them, find the right time to bow out gracefully. You can try to convert them to the quality side while all the other potentially bigger fish swim by, or simply put something in their hand as they leave—a latte, business card, glow stick, whatever. And finally, always huddle with your sales team for a few minutes at the end of each day to discuss leads and apply them to goals (definition: numbers) while everyone else is rushing out to “strengthen relationships” and re-hydrate.


Now that you have a new customer, reinforce your value

Once you’ve been successful with one of the two approaches described above, or any other assortment of new-account landing, you must continue to be sure your UVP becomes concrete, hence making an impact. Some degree of brand loyalty is already in place already, since your new customer wants to work with you. The truth is, they want their store to emulate your store if you have one, or those of your successful clients. To deliver on your end of the bargain you must extend your educational artillery to them with jams, cuppings, and customer service trainings, throw downs or hoe downs—you get the picture. Show them how to perform alternative brewing methods with the Chemex, TruBru and other equipment with more preciseness and confidence than their competitors.

These trainings will help maintain your relationships with your customers, but they don’t guarantee retention. Take it further by bringing them programs that include them in your own purchases of Cup of Excellence coffee, or other special lots. Remember that you sold them on value, not price or strict talk of profit margins. Give them simple menus for them to offer their customers and suggested pricing to improve their execution of the program, thus improving the odds of impact. Continue to create points of difference for yourself and your customers, and your UVP will remain true—and your customers loyal.

Changing a culture of set expectations—like making decisions based on price—is a slow process that can take generations. But small movements can be noticeable. Recently I started working with a client in Greece, after an industry visionary contacted me with the idea of converting the country to specialty coffee. The market there was built on price, oh, about 2,500 years ago. But now, that’s starting to change, even with the country’s economy in utter turmoil. Value is bringing change, because value is recession proof.

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