From exclusive blends to elevated service, restaurants are transitioning coffee from a commodity beverage to a craft sensation.

As a coffee aficionada, Kelly Fields—executive pastry chef and partner at the year-old Willa Jean in New Orleans, a restaurant also operated by celebrity chef John Besh—knew regular drip coffee just wouldn’t do. “I am a little bit of a coffee snob,” she says. “I wanted what I thought was the best coffee experience we could offer in New Orleans.”

Looking beyond brewing methods and the beans, Willa Jean sought out a roaster to create a custom blend exclusive to the restaurant. The restaurant found a match in Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee, which—in addition to wholesaling coffee—operates cafés in Chicago, the Los Angeles area, and New York City. “Our values as a restaurant group align perfectly with Intelligentsia,” says Fields, “as far as sustainability and the desire to treat the farmers they work with in a fair way.” She also points to the roaster’s reliance upon issuing seasonal coffee—in other words, only when the beans are at their peak—which means, she explains, “You get all the nuances of the flavor and the personality of the coffee.”

After trying “a bunch of blends” prepared by Intelligentsia, Fields says the winning Willa Jean Blend—brewed as pour-over and drip—“is chocolatey and fruity.”

While offering customers an exclusive coffee to drink alongside entrées and other menu fare is trending, there is one eatery that has long been considered a pioneer in this type of partnership. Twenty years ago, Nora Pouillon—chef-owner of Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C., open since 1979—sought out a coffee roaster to further drive home the point of her farm-to-table concept. At a food show, she met a Massachusetts coffee roaster—Jim Cannell, founder of Jim’s Organic Coffee—who buys coffee beans from small producers in Central America. “We are (also) into supporting small farms—chicken farmers, dairy farmers, and beef farmers, for example,” Chef Pouillon says.

In 1999, when Nora’s became certified-organic (and was the first American restaurant to do so), Jim’s Organic Coffee followed suit, so the two businesses could continue working together. After many trial tastings, in which the coffee roaster shipped small samples (plus a grinder, to ensure maximum freshness) to Restaurant Nora, “We chose one,” says Pouillon, “it’s called Nora’s Blend. It’s a very mellow, very neutral coffee you can drink without any milk.” This was important to her because, in keeping with the restaurant’s commitment to using all-natural ingredients, cream is not provided with coffee service—just whole milk, raw sugar, and stevia are offered as more natural options. And while initially the restaurant ground its beans on site, Jim’s Organic Coffee now does the grinding for them.

Just like Restaurant Nora and Willa Jean, Happy Cooking Hospitality—a group of five restaurants in New York City’s West Village that includes Perla (Italian) and Fedora (a supper club)—sought out a roaster that aligned with its mission. For the proprietary blend served in its restaurants, it was important that the beans be roasted to order, purchased as directly from farmers as possible, and 100 percent organic—adhering to the same philosophy used for sourcing food served at its eateries.

Although Stumptown Roasters might be clear across the country in Portland, Oregon, it had recently grown its presence in New York City with a café inside the Ace Hotel and a stand-alone café in Greenwich Village and, more importantly, it ticked off all the boxes on Happy Cooking Hospitality’s wish list. In 2014, a match was born, and the result is the Happy Cooking blend, merging South American and East African beans. In addition to touting the coffee on its dessert menu and the coffee section of its breakfast menu, the restaurant group also sells 12-ounce bags of the Stumptown Happy Cooking Drip. 

Grind On

Developing a signature coffee can also be a way to modernize a restaurant. Michael Johnson’s grandparents began operating Pheasant Restaurant & Lounge in Brookings, South Dakota, during the 1960s. The restaurant, however, has been open since 1949 and is an institution among locals. Now, Johnson is at the helm. Six years ago, after sipping amazing coffee with his breakfast at a restaurant in Sioux Falls, he was intrigued, wanting to bring that same level of coffee to his family’s eatery. 

He turned to Cherrybean Coffee Company, a small-batch roaster in South Dakota run by Shawn and Jennifer McCormick, a married couple who are the third owners. Shawn is a full-time farmer in addition to helping with the coffee business, which they purchased this year.

“I sought them out to see if they’d be interested in doing an exclusive blend for our restaurant,” Johnson says. After some trials—using organic and Fair Trade beans per Cherrybean Coffee Company’s commitment to supporting coffee farmers with a fair wage—the two businesses homed in on a match.

“We were looking for something very special. We have roots as an old-school South Dakota café. We have a lot of Scandinavians in the community, and it’s common to sit around and drink coffee all day,” Johnson says. Equally important was a coffee that would drink well with breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert—not just breakfast. He adds that the “robust, medium roast of three (bean) varieties” has been a hit with customers who like to brew coffee at home, too. 

It’s that interest in elevating awareness around coffee that led Zingerman’s—a collection of boutique food and beverage artisans in Ann Arbor, Michigan—to start working with restaurant clients on developing a signature coffee blend. After all, since its founding as a deli in 1982 by Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw, Zingerman’s had built a reputation as being the go-to guys for everything from loaves of bread and bagels to cheese spreads and gelato, just a few of the wholesale products offered to restaurants and cafés. The company even wholesales chocolate products, such as its Zzang! chocolate bars, sold at Murray’s Cheese Shop in New York City’s West Village.

“We have always felt that [signature coffees] are something that our partners want,” says Steve Mangigian, a managing partner with Zingerman’s Coffee Company, and thus the custom-blended coffees have been offered since the wholesale coffee company was founded 13 years ago.

To nail a coffee blend, the exclusive product is “based on the profile that the chef is trying to create,” Mangigian explains. He’ll often talk to the chef extensively about the culinary mission, asking, “What is it you’re trying to create? Is it experiential or related to flavor?” He starts with a roster of coffee beans stemming from different coffee-producing regions, and percentages are assigned to each. “We’ll just tweak it until we get to a place where we’re happy and they’re happy,” he says.

Restaurateurs will often travel to the cupping lab in Ann Arbor, for a more in-depth experience, but Zingerman’s can also mail samples. But a face-to-face visit is preferred: “I really like it to be an involved process,” Mangigian says. 

He recognizes that coffee is only one of several dozen ingredients that a restaurant is sourcing, and to find the best quality takes time. This is one reason restaurants should work with a coffee roaster, because the roaster has already done the research. It is especially challenging when coffee is not grown commercially in the United States, making a visit to a producer—as one might for cattle, dairy, or wine—a challenge. “If we can be a conduit between what a restaurant wants and what’s going on with producers, then we have done our job,” Mangigian notes.

Coffee is now an elevated experience at cafés across the U.S., with customers being asked not only what coffee they’d like to drink—Ethiopian Yirgacheffe or Mexican Chiapas, for example—but also through what method of brewing they prefer—French press, drip, or pour-over. And with the higher-end experience, the cost for a cup of coffee has risen as well, in some cases to nearly $5.

Restaurants may be taking longer to catch up with the posh-java trend, but it’s only a matter of time. “Overall, restaurants treat coffee like it’s a food-cost item. It’s something they have to offer. I’ve always struggled with the paradigm that a fine-dining restaurant tops a meal off with a terrible cup of coffee,” Mangigian says. 

He’s pleased to see an evolution among restaurateurs where coffee is now as important as any other menu category, from appetizers to desserts. In fact, he feels it’s the fourth wave of coffee, following what industry experts dubbed “the third wave,” a movement to produce higher-quality coffee than ever before. “This is driving and pushing restaurants to look at their coffee programs and re-evaluate,” Mangigian says.

The value of signature brews and elevated coffee service continues to gain traction. S&D Coffee & Tea, which has been roasting coffee since 1927, has always had an eye on what diners want to sip in a restaurant setting—which can be vastly different than a cup of morning coffee to-go from a café. Developing a dark-roast coffee blend called Dark Sky Café Blend, S&D pulled in beans from Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil, and Honduras, pairing with Indonesian coffee to extract a mouthfeel that’s both acidic and rich. And the company has worked with restaurant clients to develop exclusive blends as well, like the blend developed for a multi-unit operator who then began serving it at all of the brand’s 55 restaurant locations. But the partnership didn’t stop there. After the chef started to rub steaks with Hawaiian Kona coffee, a new coffee-food pairing was born. 

Beyond developing an exclusive blend, restaurants also ought to rely upon alternate brew methods, to drive home the point that this is a place to enjoy gourmet-level coffee. To that end, Seattle’s Canlis, a fine-dining restaurant, brews coffee for customers in Chemex, a glass beaker that is used with the pour-over method. It’s worth noting that this restaurant was also a pioneer in developing an exclusive coffee blend: Up until 2010 Canlis worked with Starbucks on its Casi Cielo blend, weaving together two Guatemalan coffee farms. Similarly, Duo Restaurants, with locations in Denver, Colorado, and Brattleboro, Vermont, opts for French press coffee service during brunch.

“That’s on the very early cusp,” says Mangigian, about the alternate brewing methods, “but it’s the next big thing.” 

Beverage, Feature