There is almost limitless choice when it comes to selecting a coffee machine for a cafe. It’s critical that you make the right choice for your business, but what are the key issues that you need to take into consideration when making that choice? It’s not just a case of buying the most expensive coffee machine; there are a number of key factors at play, as I found out when I talked with Danny Feddis of Milano Coffee Systems.
“The single most important factor to consider when buying your coffee machine is your cafe location, this determines what type of café you’re going to have; how many coffees you will serve a day and when you’ll sell them, what level of takeaway coffee you’ll sell. This determines the type of machine you need to make these coffees.
For instance, let’s take two cafés; both doing 200 coffees a day. However, one of them has mainly commuter passing trade and makes most of their coffees in a short space of time. The other is steady throughout the day and never has a ‘coffee rush’. Now, both of these cafés do the same amount of coffees in day but their machine needs are completely different.
For the café that has that high volume of traffic in short bursts, their focus, when buying a machine, needs to be about making the baristas job of producing a good coffee as easy as possible so that the customer receives a consistently good coffee as quickly as possible.”
It’s all about time.
The higher end machines have features that speed up the process for the barista and that is the key difference between the high end machines and the more traditional standard machines. This makes a huge difference when it comes to serving a lot of customers in a short space of time.
“The standard machine won’t have a timer telling you the shot times, it won’t have water buttons set for the correct measure of water per cup size, it will have twist knobs for your steam, which are slower to turn on and off. A high end machine will have flick switches for turning on and off the steam wands; these give the barista more control over the steam pressure and the temperature of the milk, it’s all about speeding up the process and making it easy for the barista to produce a lot of good quality coffee quickly, so each cup is still consistent for the customer.
This is really, really important, because when you have a large portion of your business coming in that pre-work rush, you need to make that time count. People on their way to work want their coffee quickly, if they see a queue that’s slow moving they’re not going to wait 10 minutes for their coffee; they’ll move on to the next café on their route to work. This is especially true if your cafe is located close to a train or bus station where you have a high volume of customers passing your door each time a bus or train comes in.”
In this type of scenario speed really is absolutely crucial, but you still must be producing quality too, or people won’t stop at your cafe again. However that doesn’t mean that a lower spec machine won’t make just as good a coffee.
“If you are working on a more traditional, basic machine you can still make an excellent cup of coffee, you’re just going to work that little bit harder and it’s going to take longer to do it. The training of any barista needs to be good, but having an appropriate machine for your working conditions means you are more likely to produce an excellent cup of coffee every time. In high volume locations that could mean having an automatic steam wand as well as a manual steam wand so the barista can have two jugs of milk going at the same time.”
This is really where the high-end machine’s features come into play; they allow the barista to multitask whereas the more basic machine needs a lot of attention from the barista. So what about the size of the machine, is bigger better? Not really. Again, when it comes to size, it’s the working conditions that dictate your requirements, the type of coffees, the volume and traffic intensities are all key.
“The two-group is the staple machine, you can do two to three hundred coffees a day on it if they are spaced out across the day, but if you have to make that many coffees in the space of a few hours and you have long quieter periods, you need something more versatile. When you’re selecting your coffee machine you need to plan for your busiest periods, not the average. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you get a big 3 or 4 group machine, a lot of the time (especially in cafes located in train stations) you see busy places using two two-group machines, and there’s a good reason for that.
Having two machines gives you the ability to have two baristas working at once independently of each other, but more than that, during quiet times it allows you to power one machine off and this has a big saving on electricity usage. There is no need to have a big three/four-group machine if you know you will have long quiet periods during the day.
Indeed, the only place you really see a need for four-group machines is in countries where the type of coffee served necessitates it. Take Italy for example, coffee consumption there is almost exclusively espresso, and the average person consumes quite a few espressos per day with possibly an 8oz cappuccino in the morning; that’s just the culture. It makes sense for cafes there to have a big four-group machine as they’ll need it for the day to cope with the demand for espresso shots, but here there’s no real need for it. Our culture is similar to the UK and US; larger milk-based coffees are the norm.”
So what level of financial investment can you expect to make on a coffee machine?
“If you have a steady or even low volume of coffee, say one hundred cups per day, you need to go for a traditional, reliable two-group, which will cost around €5,000. Your one hundred cups a day will gross you approximately €1000 a week, or €50,000 a year, and a two-group has all the basic features you need to make good consistent coffee; grinder, knockout drawer, accommodates high cups, all the features you need for a standard cafe.
If you’re doing three hundred coffees a day you’re generating €150,000 a year in coffee alone. A higher spec three-group machine can cost up to €10,000, which is no great shakes considering the amount of profit your coffee is generating for you; you only need to make 15 coffees a day to cover the cost of the machine in your first year.”
While you can give this type of advice to people, in Danny’s experience, many people still go with the cheaper option. Only experienced cafe owners will see the sense in making the investment in the right option for their business need. Going with a cheaper option against your requirements only puts pressure on your staff and slows down your service to your customers, which ultimately results in less coffee being sold. However, it’s not just a case of buying the machine with all the bells and whistles to meet your needs, you need to think practically about running the machine too.
“Many baristas tend to want the machine that is being used by the big name baristas, while these machines are certainly top of the range; they are not always the right choice, or even practical, from a business perspective.
You must ensure that the machine you buy can be serviced, and have parts sourced, quickly when needed. If you import a machine from Italy or Germany or wherever, how quickly can you get parts if it breaks down? Can you even get it serviced in Ireland? These are crucial issues for your business, but I’ve seen it time after time when people buy based on want and don’t use their head. We get calls almost every week from cafes that have issues with machines that they’ve imported, or were purchased from a former coffee supplier who they no longer use, and so, are not a priority when it comes to servicing.
These are the practicalities of selecting a coffee machine, it’s like a car purchase; sure, we’d all love a Ferrari or a Lamborghini, but try getting them serviced or sourcing parts when you get a breakdown. If you have to wait a few days for parts to be sent in from abroad, what do you tell your customers? Come back for your coffee in two days? It just doesn’t work for a business and yet we see it all the time.”
Like everything, how you pay for your machine is another choice you need to make. You can lease, rent or buy outright; it all depends on your cash flow and capital, but you’ll pay more in the long run if you opt for spread payments.
“Obviously paying upfront is the ideal option as you’re going to pay the least that way, however, that’s not always financially viable, especially for a start-up. If you rent the machine you’re going to pay two if not three times the price over the lifetime of the machine, roughly five to seven years on average.”
While the ideal financial option may be to rent initially for a year or two and then buy, Danny reckons this rarely happens.
“The main barrier to renting short term and then buying is probably laziness. People get used to renting and having €200 a month going out in rent. They also tend to not want the upheaval of having a crucial piece of the business changed unless it’s absolutely necessary. Ultimately we find that the long-term thinkers buy, the others tend to rent.”
Danny Feddis was speaking in an interview with Stuart Boyle of Bunzl Irish Merchants. He started working in Milano Coffee Systems in 2008 and has been working in the coffee industry for 14 years.