By Mark Crawford
The quick-service landscape does keep changing. Just a year ago, I reported about the QSR Coffee Wars on QSRWeb.com. The article unpacked the specifics in McDonald’s extraordinary investment in coffee and why I thought Burger King wouldn’t be able to hoist a chalice of coffee victory in its Seattle’s Best Coffee September rollout.
While Burger King is not sitting on the throne of coffee, it is not relegated to being the court jester. In the last month, I’ve had four positive experiences – all in different cities – of the new Seattle’s Best Coffee (SBC) at Burger King. This started early December in Denver when I realized I had not tried their new offering.
So, I ordered a Breakfast Bowl and black coffee. I honestly couldn’t believe what I was drinking: No old urn taste, no stale beans, no coffee in the pot too long. I brought it back to my office to Lauren, my best co-taster in Denver. Lauren was as surprised as I was and said she’d buy one if she needed a quick coffee on the road. Wow.
Let’s look at what’s taken place since the marriage of the King to fair maiden SBC, the stepsister of Starbucks.
The Battle. Burger King came into the latest battle with severe disadvantages. No wealth in its coffers to buy new equipment, a legacy of unhappy franchisees and a wagonload of tired and shuttered properties. What would it be like from that perspective to look north to the great empire of Golden Arches in Oak Brook?...Slick new beverage stations with high tech smoothie machines, lattes and mochas with dazzling flat screen menus and an advertising blitz that thundered over everyone else relentlessly. Daunting, to say the least. McDonald’s continues to gain ground with both dayparts and demographics unimaginable 10 years ago.
Demographics. The ongoing challenge for Burger King is jumping out of its main user base: the young, heavy eating male. On the other hand, McDonald’s has deftly widened it’s audience with free Wi-Fi and tons of fresh, reimaged properties. Some reach a Panera-like feeling, blurring the distinction between QSR and fast casual. A recent article in Fast Company (“Making Over McDonald’s,” Oct. 1, 2010) about Denis Weil, McDonald’s vice president of concept and design, speaks to the remarkable transformation of the McDonald’s experience and what’s behind it. But, enough swooning on the Arches, and on to the subject at hand ...
In the name of full disclosure and accountability, here’s what I predicted a year ago:
- DRIP COFFEE: Moving from "BK Joe," a pre-bagged coffee concentrate dispensed from an automatic dosing dispenser — not fresh coffee. Presumably being replaced by fresh-ground, whole bean SBC Coffee with quality coffee brewers. Should improve its brewed offering.
- ESPRESSO: Likely none. The announced "coffee drinks and flavorings" of vanilla and chocolate are unlikely to be dispensed via espresso machine. The cost to install real espresso machines, like at McDonald's and Dunkin', is likely prohibitive for Burger King. If the 'optional flavors' are pumped into drip coffee with milk, as a substitute for a latte or mocha, it will be fascinating to see if Burger King is able to successfully market this.
I was partly right. Burger King did get new quality coffee brewing equipment that I hear Howard Shultz/Starbucks paid for. No grinder, so I was wrong on the fresh ground part. Interestingly, the iced coffee offering is fresh brewed, double strength, with a pump of chocolate or vanilla for flavor. Burger King is creatively using soft serve mix for the iced mocha base. The result is heavy on sweet and chocolate, light on coffee, but great mouthfeel. This likely will play out to be a favorite with the BK customer base.
The personal experiences
The Expert. I asked for an impartial opinion from Justin Johnson, an instructor at the American Barista & Coffee School in Portland, Ore. He had a distinctly different experience from mine – he didn’t care for it at all. Saving you, dear reader, from all the descriptors, he said that he’d rather go to a Shell station. I’d like to think it was that his was served poorly and not that my coffee palette is vastly inferior (but it could be).
The 3 Generation Test of pro and semi-pros. I took my 91-year-old father-in-law, Charlie, and my 15-year-old barista son, Max, to a Burger King in East Tennessee. Both Charlie and Max are calibrated to quality café lattes and espresso macchiatos. The test drink was a regular hot black coffee. At first sip, Charlie thought it bitter, but by the third sip decided it was fine. Max remarked it was nice, mild coffee and not very strong. Both gave it a thumbs up for what it was. Max also thought the iced mocha would be great for a hot day. I’m the middle generation (age 55) and I voted with them. To me, the coffee is what it should be: pleasant, not overroasted, no flavor notes other than smack in the middle of 'coffee.' Perhaps most surprising, I didn’t detect in any of my four experiences any sour aftertaste or other tastes ascribed to cheap beans, bad roasting or poor handling.
In my four experiences in Nashville, Denver and East Tennessee, I noticed more energy in the store, engaged front counter staff, better store graphics, cleaner restrooms and even some clean HVAC return air vents.
The BK crews I talked with seemed to understand and be proud of the better coffee they were serving. One crew member in Denver did say proudly it was “Starbucks” and pointed to the SBC logo. He knew there was some connection somewhere. Another crew member told me they rotated their coffee every two hours. That is seriously impressive.
All in all, SBC coffee has given Burger King a lift of coffee credibility. I’ll stop in once in a while now for a breakfast bowl and coffee. But there’s still a long, long road ahead to even catch a glimpse of the kings in the thrones of morning dayparts.
Mark Crawford is director of business development for Mont Blanc Gourmet, formulator of custom beverages for national chains. He has 20 years of experience in the specialty coffee industry and has been involved in starting espresso coffee programs in many venues across the country. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.