Coffee, once primarily drunk hot and in the morning, is now virtually everywhere — consumed all day long, served at varying temperatures and flavored with everything from cinnamon to bananas.
“There’s a generation out there that aren’t hot-coffee drinkers, but they want their coffee,” said Ric Scicchitano, senior vice president of food and beverage at Corner Bakery Cafe, a 140-unit fast-casual chain based in Dallas. “They like it for; they like it at 2 o’ clock in the afternoon. They’re not drinking the hot coffee as much as cold.”
As consumers remain judicious about dining out at restaurants, they are nonetheless stopping by for drinks with increasing frequency, according to The NPD Group. The consumer research firm said in September that beverage-only visits to restaurants have been on the rise. That’s compared with total restaurant visits remaining flat, and visits that included food and beverages declining by 2 percent in the year ended June 2012.
Meanwhile, orders of coffee in particular are up, especially after lunch. The number of coffee servings ordered in the afternoon was up by 4 percent in the year ended August 2012, according to NPD.
Kat Cole, president of 900-unit Focus Brands subsidiary Cinnabon, said the fact that consumers now view coffee drinks as snacks has helped the chain retain customers who have decided to stop eating pastries in the afternoon. In addition to it long-running Mochalatta Chill, the chain also offers cinnamon-roll flavored coffee, available either poured over ice or blended with ice as a slush beverage. The suggested retail price of the Cinnabon Flavored Iced Coffee is $1.99 for 16 ounces and $2.29 for 24 ounces.
“There’s a group of people who, thanks to Starbucks, treat a blended beverage as a snack rather than as a drink,” she said. “That allows us to tap into those people who have adapted their eating habits so that many of our baked products don’t fit into the category of snacks they will treat themselves to.”
Starbucks also has trained coffee drinkers to expect variety. Scicchitano, who introduced a frozen-beverage program at Corner Bakery this summer, said the cost of entry for blended coffee includes having vanilla, caramel and hazelnut flavors on hand. From there the challenge is differentiating your brand, he said.
Scicchitano said his approach has been to make his coffee drinks from brewed espresso, which is made quarts at a time in the morning, chilled and made into blended drinks to order. Corner Bakery’s frappes and smoothies range from $3.79 to $3.99.
Finding new flavors that customers are willing to try can be a challenge, Scicchitano said, adding that even seasonal flavors such as peppermint and pumpkin have become so widespread that they’re no longer a point of distinction.
“It’s become a giant ‘me-too,’” he said. “That’s what keeps us awake at night.”
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Although Starbucks has offered a Pumpkin Spice Latte during the fall for years, other players have entered the game, too. Dunkin’ Donuts is offering pumpkin-flavored K-Cups for home brewers this fall, and it rolled out new Pumpkin Mocha and Pumpkin White Chocolate coffees and lattes, available hot or iced, for the season. Pumpkin coffees and lattes are $1.40 and $1.99, respectively, for a small.
Frozen yogurt chain Red Mango joined the fray in July with the introduction of its first coffee-based frozen drinks at its more than 190 units. The Frozen Coffee Chillers are available in four flavors: vanilla, caramel, mocha and natural coffee.
Red Mango’s Coffee Chillers are $3.95 for a 16-ounce serving and $4.95 for 20 ounces.
Jim Rees, co-owner and partner of Hash House A Go Go, a casual-dining restaurant with four units in Nevada, one in San Diego and a new one in Chicago, pointed out that adding flavored syrups gives him the opportunity to offer “a virtually endless selection of coffees and mochas,” he said.
Hash House makes mochas simply by adding chocolate milk to coffee.
The restaurant then distinguishes each drink with different garnishes. For example, the banana latte — one of the most popular coffee drinks — is made by adding banana syrup to a latte and then garnishing the plate it’s served on with a quarter of a banana, still in the skin, caramelized with a blowtorch. The butterscotch latte comes with a piece of butterscotch candy, and the cinnamon-roll latte is garnished with cinnamon sticks.
He added that nut flavors are performing particularly well with mochas, including almond, hazelnut, macadamia, pistachio, praline and toffee-nut flavors.
The regular lattes and mochas are $5.95, and specialty coffee drinks, such as the s’mores mocha topped with marshmallows and Graham crackers, are $6.95.
Independent restaurants are also getting creative with coffees.
Area Four, a bakery and restaurant by restaurateur Michael Leviton in Cambridge, Mass., serves a drink called bicerin that was invented in the Italian city of Turin. Made by layering espresso with unsweetened chocolate and whole milk in a shot glass, the $3.50 drink has become a popular afternoon pick-me-up for nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology students, Leviton’s spokeswoman said.
Giacomo’s Cibo e Vino in Houston is one of many Italian restaurants serving affogato, a scoop of gelato doused with a shot of espresso. The dish derives its name from the Italian word for “drowned.”
Owner and executiveLynette Hawkins also serves a Sicilian specialty: granita al caffè.
“It consists of slushy ice crystals of frozen sweet espresso topped with whipped cream,” she said. The granita is $5.50, and the affogato is $6.