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Scene of the Grind: Fairway Market's Full-Service Coffee Department

Scene of the Grind: Fairway Market's Full-Service Coffee Department

Fairway Market’s signature coffee department roasts, mills and bags a million pounds of beans a year

There’s always something brewing at Fairway Market — namely, coffee.

The 12-store independent is well known among shoppers in the metro New York area for a number of specialties, including its busy deli, eclectic cheese department, affordable produce and extensive kosher selections. Coffee (and tea) are no exception.

“Everyone who loves a good cup of coffee is our customer,” said Bienbenido “Benny” Lanfranco, Fairway’s coffee and tea director since 2005. “That’s someone who is a coffee drinker looking for something different, for good quality at a decent price.”

The retailer offers roughly 100 varieties of coffee at any one time — single origin, estate blends, flavored varieties, organic and fair trade-certified — all of them heaped into wooden barrels and adorned with signs describing each type.

Lanfranco said the department offers many flavors, but there are six bestsellers.

“The one that sells the most is our Fairway Supreme Blend, our house blend. It’s a very good, medium roast, with low acidity and very smooth and delicate,” he said.

Another top seller is his personal favorite, appropriately named Benny’s Blend.

“It’s a darker roast, full-bodied but not bitter, for anyone who wants a very strong cup of coffee,” he said of his namesake bean.

Green with Envy

Coffee has been an integral part of Fairway Market’s business since the first store opened on Broadway and

74th Street in Manhattan in the mid-1970s. Since then, the category has grown into a destination department that contributes 2% of total-store sales and moves more than a million pounds of beans a year. The retailer works with specific growers throughout the world; Lanfranco travels to farms about three to four times a year on buying trips, mostly to family-run operations in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Panama.

“We plan ahead and often buy coffee on contract to lock in the price,” he said, noting coffee’s volatile commodity pricing. “This way, we don’t have to change the retails every day or every week, because they do change a lot.”

The beans are picked, packed in burlap sacks, stamped and shipped green from the farms to a temperature-controlled holding facility in Newark, N.J. From there the savory cargo is distributed as needed. Some beans are sent to Real Coffee, a Brooklyn-based roaster that handles flavored varieties, while other beans are sent directly to stores where they are roasted in one of the defining features of the department: a red and black Probat roaster.

Fairway coffee and tea director Benny Lanfranco works the Probat roaster inside the Paramus, N.J. store.

“We worked with [Probat] engineers and they customized a couple of features for us so we could make sure we got the right profiles for each coffee we roasted,” Lanfranco said. “Each coffee has its own voice, and each is roasted differently.”

Nine of the 12 stores have roasters. The Probats used by Fairway can process 12
kilos, or 26.5 pounds, of beans at one time. Each 60-kilo (122-pound) burlap sack contains enough beans for five roast cycles.

“We control 100% of the roasting, 100% of the production and 100% of the buying of the green,” said Lanfranco.

At the Paramus, N.J. store toured by SN, a large oscillating floor fan stood behind the Probat, used not only to entice customers with the aroma of freshly-roasting beans, but to keep the building’s alarms silent.

“Of course, with any kind of roasting, it can get smoky,” Lanfranco said.

Know Your Coffee

The roasting side is complemented by three high-quality grinders made in Germany. A large sign overhead reminds customers looking to have their whole beans processed further that the right grind is critical for a good cup of coffee. The sign provides details on the full spectrum of milling options, from a stove-top espresso pot to two kinds of drip filters (paper and permanent). Currently 60% of the fresh beans sold in the department are ground to order.

Customers aren’t left to their own devices in deciding which beans to purchase or which grind to use. Fairway’s coffee departments are staffed and offer full service. It’s a trait shared with other perishable categories around the store, though in coffee, customers unfamiliar with Fairway seem surprised — and relieved.

“When you see all these beans, it can be intimidating. That is why we use all different colors on the signage, green for decaf, yellow for organics, blue for caffeinated, and that’s why we always have someone here in the department to help them get what they want,” said Lanfranco.

The service aspect begins with a customer choosing beans, and ends with the beans priced and, if requested, ground to the proper size. Lanfranco helps select employees and trains them on the finer points on the art of coffee making. He said staffers don’t have to be a coffee fanatic but other qualities are essential.

“To work in this kind of business, you have to have a passion, and enjoy and love what you do, and once you get into it, to grow that fascination,” Lanfranco said.

A staffed coffee department can become quite interactive. A percentage of shoppers seek to custom blend their purchase, mixing beans from different barrels. With some 100 choices, they often look to the department associate for assistance and guidance.

“Sometimes they want to add decaffeinated to regular beans because they want to cut caffeine levels but not all the way; some want to add just a little flavor to their coffees,” Lanfranco said. “We offer decaf, flavors, blends, organic, coffee from specific regions, so it’s much more extensive than is typical, and people know exactly what they are getting when we can help them.”

Beans Are Best

Fresh off of a successful IPO in April, Fairway Markets is looking to expand. According to papers filed prior to the stock sale, the retailer recorded 2012 net sales of $555 million, up from $486 million the prior year. Newer stores are large, occupying nearly 100,000 feet of sales space.

The coffee and tea section is a part of those growth plans, with additional departments planned for new stores. “Few companies dedicate a whole department to coffee,” said Lanfranco. “It puts us far ahead of the competition.”

Nevertheless, not everyone shopping Fairway’s aisles is looking for specialty or organic beans. The retailer also offers brand name coffees in the grocery aisle.

“Some customers don’t care about the flavor,” Lanfranco continued. “They just want a cup of coffee and they’ve been doing it all their lives that way.”

Such preferences don’t stop him from trying to entice shoppers into the higher-margin whole bean side of the coffee category. Highly visible signs in the department highlight a Featured Special coffee, which rotates weekly; while another variety is marked as a Price Freeze promotion, which changes every month.

Lanfronco also pushes his certified organic and fair trade coffees, which are more plentiful in his department. There are about a dozen of each standard available, though some coffees are double-certified. Fairway is licensed by the certification organization Fair Trade USA as a manufacturer of fair trade coffees.

“For some customers, it’s very important. They buy organic food and want organic coffee,” Lanfranco noted. “Fair trade is also important to some people who follow that. It helps that we’re a certified fair trade manufacturer.”

More recently, Lanfranco has found new competition with the single-serve coffee phenomenon, which utilizes pre-measured cup or pods. He describes consumers brewing coffee by the cup as more interested in convenience, while purchasers of whole beans are “connoisseurs.”

Like those seeking brand name coffees, Lanfranco hopes he’ll entice single-serve shoppers to buy whole beans by selling single-brew baskets. He compared his effort to driving a car.

“I thought my old car was the best until I drove a Mercedes Benz. Until they taste our beans, they won’t know what they are missing.”

The Big Cup

The National Coffee Association states that overall coffee consumption jumped 5% over the past year in its 2013 National Coffee Drinking Trends study. This means that 83% of the U.S. adult population currently drinks
coffee. Daily consumption remained steady at 63%.

NCA researchers also found:

  • Gourmet coffee consumption rates remained strong at 63%, while those of traditional brews dropped 7 percentage points to 49%.
  • Some 13% of coffee drinkers used single-serve systems in the past day, up from just 4% in 2010.
  • Hispanics consume more coffee than other ethnic groups (76%) compared to Caucasians (64%) and African Americans (47%).
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