Industry News

Why is it so hard to get a good cup of coffee in a c-store?

Retail Management Services Fuels Market News StrasGlobal

By Roy Strasburger

Originally Published in Fuels Market News

How hard can it be to have hot fresh coffee available all of the time? If you operate a c-store, you know it can be hard.


It’s early morning. While the darkness of the previous night is slowly starting to dissipate, the fog inside your head is not. You’ve managed to start your daily journey, but you need something to energize your day. A cup of coffee seems like the right move. You don’t want to pay the exorbitant prices charged by the national artisan coffee shops, so you pull into your local convenience store.

The store is well lit and inviting. The staff are friendly. You walk to the back of the store and approach the coffee counter. At this point, you know that one of three things will happen—and two of them bad.

If all goes well, you will pour yourself a fresh cup of joe and all will be right in the world. If things don’t go well, the coffee that pours into your cup will either taste stale, bitter or cold from having been in the pot for too long. Alternatively, there will be no coffee as the pot has been drained.

While it is true that you will be lucky, and caffeinated, most of the time, we’ve all gone through the trial of not having our expectations met. How hard can it be to have hot fresh coffee available all of the time? If you operate a c-store, you know it can be hard.

Coffee is one of the most perishable products that the average c-store sells. It needs to be replaced between 45 minutes (if held in an open glass carafe) and three hours (if using a sealed air pot or urn). If the product isn’t replaced in time it becomes bitter.

The two main types of coffee dispenser (glass carafe and air pot) have positive and negative aspects. As I mentioned earlier, the coffee in a glass carafe has a short shelf life due to it being exposed to the open air. The upsides are that they release a coffee aroma into the air and the employee can see when the pot is empty.

With air pots and urns, the coffee stays fresh longer because it is in a sealed container. The main downside is that the employee can’t see how much coffee is left in the pot and it often runs out. This problem is compounded by the fact that most air pots and urns take 15 to 20 minutes to brew and fill. Most of our customers don’t want to wait that long for a fresh cup of coffee.

Ironically, it is in the busiest coffee stores that running out of coffee is a major problem. If there is not enough staff on hand during the rush, the employee is so busy manning the cash register and selling coffee that they don’t have time to check to make sure that air pots and urns haven’t run out. Ultimately, we are hamstrung by our own success.

So how do we overcome these issues and provide a consistent quality coffee program? The first thing is to size your coffee equip- ment to the volume of your business. If you sell a lot of coffee, you may want to consider using glass carafes because they are easy to monitor and can be refilled quickly. If your coffee sales are slower, consider using air pots and urns because they will keep the coffee fresh tasting and hot longer.

Regardless of the type of equipment you decide on, the next and most important element is training your staff to “respect the coffee.” Coffee should be treated like a fragile plant that will die without the proper care. The coffee program needs to be nurtured and checked on regularly. This includes not only checking to see whether the pots are full, but that new coffee is brewed at regular intervals (whether there is coffee left in the pot or not), that there are plenty of cups and the proper- sized lids, that all of the condiments are set out and are full, and the coffee area is clean and wiped down (coffee drinkers are very clumsy until they’ve had their first cup). If you are using cartons or bottles of milk and cream, make sure that they have not passed their expiration date and that they are staying constantly chilled.

Setting up a regular brewing schedule is always a challenge. When coffee should be brewed depends upon how much is being sold and how old the brewed coffee is in the dispenser. Many retailers use timers for each pot or carafe that sounds an alarm after the allocated period of time. Timers are very helpful for air pots to remind employees to fill them, but the timers are not a substitute for checking the dispensers on a regular basis. It needs to be top of mind and repetitive.

Once you’ve set up your coffee program, watch your sales. Do you sell coffee all day long or are you only a morning coffee stop? How much decaf do you sell? Should you be brewing more decaf after 4 PM than regular coffee? Are your customers adding flavors to their coffee (and do your retail prices cover the costs of the flavors)? After a month or two, you should be able to fine-tune your coffee offer so as to maximize sales and profits. Keep in mind that demand changes as the weather and temperature change—the colder it is, the more coffee you will sell.

Some c-store retailers are going with a bean to cup program. This is where the coffee bean is ground at the time of serving and each cup is fresh. The main challenge with this program is that it does not handle large volumes of traffic well because it takes several minutes to grind and brew a cup of coffee. A second challenge is that the equipment is expensive to acquire and to maintain. The upside is that you always have fresh coffee on hand (as long as you keep enough coffee beans in the hopper) and you can charge a premium for the coffee—just like the national artisan coffee chains!

The person who came up with soaking coffee beans in hot water created one of the great tastes of all time. The person who came up with selling the caffeinated water created a potential gold mine.

Roy Strasburger is the President of StrasGlobal. For 35 years StrasGlobal has been the choice of global oil brands, distressed assets managers, real estate lenders and private investors seeking a complete, turn-key retail management solution from the most experienced team in the industry.

Contact him at roy@strasglobal.com.