A Cafe Owner’s Guide To Choosing A Coffee Supplier (Plus a Roaster’s Insight)
When starting a cafe, the hardest part can often be choosing a coffee supplier. Not many people are sure of where to buy wholesale coffee beans and struggle with everything else involved in the process.
Know this: choosing the right coffee supplier is a very important decision that can make a huge difference in the dollars coming in and out of your bank account. There are a lot of wholesale coffee suppliers to choose from, so it’s important to know how to choose wisely and choose well.
It’s like when you are looking for a new restaurant for dinner: you don’t just choose the first one you find. You check reviews, weigh up the pros and cons and put thought into choosing the one that will offer the best overall experience – after all, you are paying to be there.
It’s a little more complicated when you open a cafe and choose a wholesale coffee supplier: instead of just one night out, you’re entering into a partnership. Your choice shouldn’t come down to who can offer you the best deal, but rather the best value.
Not all coffee roasters are going to be right for your business. This list compiles some of the things you should consider when choosing a partner and finding the best coffee roaster for your business, helping you get the most value out of your wholesale partnership.
It’s about more than just great packaging
Fact: people are attracted to what they see, so the prettier things look, the easier they are to sell. This is particularly true in the coffee space, where people often judge the quality of a venue based on the bags they see on its shelves.
Branding is important, but it should never take centre stage when you are choosing a coffee supplier. People might try your coffee after seeing the bags on your shelves, but what those bags represent and the coffee inside needs to be good enough to keep them coming.
So without further ado, here’s a list of things to consider before you choose a coffee supplier:
The Melbourne coffee scene has been at centre stage for a very long time. Pioneer roasters such as Seven Seeds, Proud Mary and Market Lane led the way in the third wave of specialty coffee. We’ve left our mark on the coffee industry and have set the tone for how a lot of the world does coffee. In fact, some of the best cafes in the world were started by people who began their journey in specialty coffee after working at a roastery or café in Melbourne.
This didn’t just come out of nowhere: it came from the legends that started their own roasteries and pioneered the specialty coffee industry in Australia. These pioneers set a standard and have pushed the industry to evolve into what it is now.
It’s important to choose from a list of wholesale coffee suppliers that will keep to these standards (and possibly even push them). If you are unsure of what to look for, ask your roaster these questions to get a better idea of their reputation in the industry:
- How do you currently source your coffee?
- How are you involved in making the coffee industry more sustainable?
- Which cafes do you currently supply?
- How long have you been involved in specialty coffee?
- What are you doing to help grow the industry?
The best wholesale coffee suppliers will care deeply for sustainability. Rod from Zest says the following: “Our job as roasters is to ensure that our supply chains are transparent and ethical relationships are maintained right back to the farmer. This is why we deal directly with farm owners and co-operatives and trusted traders such as Bosques Verdes in Peru, 3 Brothers in Brazil, Pillcocaja in Ecuador and Cofinet in Colombia.”
“One of Zest’s core purposes is to be involved at farm level at origin. This year two expeditions to origin by five of our coffee team, will explore and experiment with coffee farm partners in Colombia, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador building close relationships and bringing back top-shelf coffees to delight our clients.”
Being at the centre stage means that these roasters are not only known by people in Melbourne, but by everyone in the world. Make sure you note who the best wholesale coffee suppliers are, and choose one who shares those values. Being in Melbourne means the bags on your shelves don’t just tell a story about your coffee’s quality — they also play a huge role in how people perceive your whole business.
A lot of what takes place in the coffee industry relies on relationships.
As much as you might want to partner with the roaster that is the most popular and might provide the best coffee beans wholesale, you need to keep in mind that you’ll be dealing with these people on a very regular basis, so make sure they offer you a little more than just a good deal and some wholesale coffee on the side.
Narrow your list down and choose from wholesale coffee roasters that you know will take a genuine interest in your business. Having a good relationship with these people will set you up for success across all areas of your business, not just in coffee sales.
Although your conversations and dealings with these people (especially the account manager) might be limited at times, you want someone that will be your right hand man when times are tough.
It’s what’s in the bag that counts!
The values (and reputation) of the roaster will be reflected in the quality of the coffee they source: it should be specialty coffee always, no compromise. This — alongside their skill, experience and approach to roasting — will affect the flavour. Choosing the best wholesale coffee beans for your business should start with your customers. We’ve all got our favourites, but you need to consider what your future customers would like to drink on a regular basis.
Putting your customers first doesn’t mean you should do exactly as they say, though: you are the professional, so get your fingers dirty and call on the roasters you are most interested in partnering with to do some R&D to help you narrow down the best wholesale coffee beans that will suit your target audience’s palate.
Be smart about this: don’t just sample coffee and then pick the one you think your customers will like, try a couple coffees at popular cafes in your area to get a feel for what your target audience likes — or might even be missing out on. Have a look at reviews of your competition to see if you can meet the needs of the local market better.
After all of this, keep in mind that you can’t sell something you don’t like (at least not well), so you should also genuinely enjoy drinking the wholesale coffee beans you end up choosing.
All of these things can sometimes be quite difficult to balance, especially if you are on a very tight budget or you don’t anticipate much demand for black coffee. If this is the case, try to find something that suits both milk-based coffee and black coffee, like Libertango, so that you cover all your bases and have something for everyone.
The capacity of the roaster often determines how well they can service you. It’s quite simple: more resources = more capacity. Even though it’s a simple equation, its byproducts aren’t always as straightforward.
A lot of what happens in coffee hinges on relationships. I’ve found that the best wholesale coffee suppliers often prioritise having a real relationship with their wholesale accounts. It’s quite hard to form a relationship with anyone if you barely see or talk to them, so these relationships are often heavily influenced by capacity and availability.
In my experience, bigger roasters might have more capacity and can offer you more, like more wholesale coffee equipment options, but they aren’t always able to provide you as much one-on-one support as a small roaster, as their account managers are often stretched pretty thin. Smaller roasters can deal with the same struggles, but their biggest struggle is that they can battle to service accounts that need more as they don’t have the resources, industry experience and contacts that bigger roasters have.
I think it’s best to try and find a middle ground between these two: you want to partner with someone who has the resources to comfortably service you, but also someone who values you and your business.
Having worked with Zest, I can truly say that they have set everything up so that they can have the best of both worlds. They’ve also been operating for over 10 years, so they’ve worked out the kinks and have developed a truly streamlined service. It feels like being a part of a family; they work to see their partners thrive. They know that their success doesn’t just affect the food on their table, but the food on their partners’ tables too.
Five key questions you should ask before committing to any coffee supplier
You’ve heard it from a cafe owner’s perspective, now get some insight from a coffee roaster. Here are five questions a coffee roaster thinks you should ask before committing to any coffee supplier. Get your notepad ready, cos these are some pretty great tips!
What products do you offer?
Let’s face it: as a cafe owner, you have more than enough on your plate. Managing budgets, suppliers and staff whilst also trying to train and support staff requires a full team in itself.
I feel your pain.
Try to find someone who can help you take things off of your plate and streamline your business. One of the best ways to cut out on admin is to partner with a roaster that does it for you by consolidating everything you need for running your cafe into one place: the roastery.
Rod says the following: “We cover all your needs. From a range of blends, to delicious rotating micro-lots for black and filter coffee. We also supply artisan chai, chocolate, tea, panela and much more. Packaging consumables such as compostable and recyclable cups and carry trays are also part of our offering.”
Do I have to sign a contract?
Owning a cafe seems a lot more glamorous than it actually is: one week you’re having to turn people away because you’re too busy, and the next you’re working every shift and closing early to reduce expenses and save some coin.
It’s difficult to predict what will happen, so it’s important to partner with a wholesale coffee roaster who won’t try to bind you to an inflexible, unfair contract. A simple piece of advice: ask questions if you aren’t quite sure about something. If the roaster deflects them, or is unwilling to answer them, consider partnering with someone else.
Rod says the following: “At Zest we do not believe in binding and punitive contracts. We are confident that our coffee, our people and our support will be enough to retain your business. Our stance is that if any customer wants to leave Zest for any reason, they should be free to do so.”
Do you offer barista training?
The barista is the middleman between you and your customer.
We know cafe owners are superheroes, but we also know that nobody has developed the skill to be in two places at once, so as much as you’d like to be crunching admin and keeping on top of QC (quality control) at the same time, it is just not possible.
The easiest solution is to make sure you can leave quality up to the barista. Read our article on the importance of barista training to get a better idea of what barista training is and why it is important.
Rod says the following: “We feel that constantly helping our customers develop their barista skills is essential to serving great coffee and retaining and growing your customer base. We have excellent people in our training team to help your team progress. And, as a Zest customer, it is always available to you as staff may come and go and new members need training. And, it’s provided at no cost to you.”
Do you have after sales technical service for my equipment?
Your roaster should be like a safety net: you should be able to call on them in times of need– and when you call, they should respond quickly –because not many people can afford to have their machine out of action for too long.
Rod says the following: “Whether you own your equipment or whether it is provided free on loan, we look after the maintenance and repairs to keep your espresso machine and grinders running smoothly, and, importantly, we cover the cost. Our in-house and external contractor technicians cover your needs 24/7 for a fast and reliable response to your needs.”
How do you do your deliveries and is there any cost?
Part of streamlining your service is ensuring coffee is delivered on time at an affordable (or free) rate. This will help you offer a reliable and affordable service to your customers.
Rod says: “Our tireless despatch and delivery men work hard to provide you with fast, free delivery. We understand how important dependable on time deliveries are for your business especially of your life-blood ingredient – coffee beans!”
Make sure you can rely on your roaster to deliver coffee when you need it.
Choose wisely, choose well.
Even though it will take a lot of work, it’s worthwhile finding a common ground between all these things and committing to a collaborative partnership. The roaster you end up choosing is often a huge reflection of your values, so make sure you pick someone who will service you well and do your business justice.