Every Tuesday, before I make my weekly outing to grocery shop, I stop by my favorite coffee shop and get a black coffee and a donut. The shop used to be a hubbub of activity — freelancers hanging out on their laptops, friends catching up, kids running around — but now it’s quiet, with a masked barista serving up to-go coffees to patrons who line up outside to be served.
Like most other foodservice establishments, coffee shops are feeling the pain of COVID-19. To compensate some are cutting hours, reducing staff, or trying to incorporate new revenue streams, like selling local products, flowers, and emphasizing bagged coffee.
Bellwether Coffee, a company that makes electric, ventless zero-emissions connected commercial coffee roasters that can go into cafés, is trying to help coffee shops supplement their income by roasting their own beans. To try and get more partners during the pandemic, they’re offering to waive the first two months of roaster fees — provided the shop installs it between May and July. The roasters can be delivered in as little as a week.
On the one hand, coffee shops who are struggling to stay afloat probably aren’t able to commit to purchasing a pricey coffee roaster (the machines cost $75,000 to buy or can be rented for a monthly fee), even with the deal. On the other, Bellwether roasters could offer these shops a new revenue stream as they sell bagged beans roasted in-house. The coffee shops could also use their house-roasted beans in their drinks, so they don’t have to purchase coffee from other roasters.
The only reason this is actually feasible is because Bellwether’s roasters don’t require any special setup or expertise. The device, which is about the size of a standard fridge, is automated, so baristas or café managers don’t have to have any roasting experience to figure out how to use it. It runs on electricity and is ventless, so coffee shops don’t have to build out expensive ventilation systems to start roasting — something which would be especially tricky given the limitations around the pandemic.
The software that controls Bellwether’s roasters also features a marketplace where users can browse and purchase green coffee beans in 22-pound boxes. That way, shops don’t have to worry about setting up relationships with suppliers or buy massive amounts of beans if they’re just trying to set up a temporary roasting solution.
With all of that said, the roaster is still pricey. The Bellwether website notes that shops can lease the roaster for $1,150 a month for 60 months, but that’s still cost-prohibitive for small, local coffee shops — coronavirus or no.
Since coffee shops already have to-go infrastructure set up — takeaway cups and containers, etc. — they might actually have a better chance of surviving the pandemic than, say, full-service restaurants. They can also operate pretty easily with a bare-bones staff, since a single barista could take orders, make coffee, bag up pastries, etc.
That said, coffee shops, like all foodservice joints, still have a significant amount of overhead. Just like restaurants, we’ll continue to see cafés get creative to figure out new ways to cut costs and spark new revenue streams. Roasting their own beans could help coffee shops do both of those things. The question will then become whether or not cafés want to keep their Bellwether roasters after they’re able to reopen their doors post-pandemic.