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Exploring the rise of experiential coffee shops

Roasting Plant’s Thomas Hartocollis discusses the role of the experiential coffee shop as the world gradually recovers from the effects of Covid-19.

A visit to the Roasting Plant coffee shop in London is not something you forget in a hurry.

Upon ordering a drink, its Willy Wonka-esque system of pneumatic tubes whizz roasted coffee beans across the room directly to the baristas, where they are ground, brewed, and served to customers.

It’s what marketing director, Thomas Hartocollis, describes as “complete immersion in coffee” and embodies a growing trend in the industry: the experiential coffee shop.

“Every Roasting Plant café provides a unique sensory experience,” he says. “Customers can watch, hear, and smell everything. For many, it’s the first time they’ve seen green coffee and had a chance to experience the entire process from bean to cup right before their eyes.”

Experiential coffee shops have been around for a while. Starbucks Reserve, for example, has allowed visitors to sip coffee and watch the live roasting process in purpose-built stores since 2010.

However, since the Covid-19 pandemic forced the majority of people to consume coffee at home, many businesses feel they need to offer more than high-quality drinks to draw customers back.

This has helped the experiential coffee shop thrive, pushing brands to devise increasingly creative ways to win customer loyalty.

For example, at Lavazza’s flagship store in Shanghai – its first outside Italy – coffee is served from a limited edition Elektra Belle Epoque.

Its design is inspired by the first-ever espresso machine, and it tells the story of coffee and Lavazza’s role in it. The store’s design epitomises the experiential template – high ceilings, marble finishes, and artistic murals make for an iconic setting.

elektra lavazza store

How do experiential coffee shops work?

While each brand has its own approach, in many experiential stores the focus is centred on gastronomy.

Staples such as lattes, flat whites, and cappuccinos are usually available, but it’s the experimental beverages that have the potential to draw customers in which add value.

For example, at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Milan, there is a whiskey barrel-aged cold brew, a smoked butterscotch latte, and a nitro gelato affogato.

Food is also important. At Lavazza’s flagship stores, customers can find dishes ranging from milk soup to mushroom carpaccio. At its Shanghai store, it has partnered with a Michelin-starred chef to serve Italian favourites to a Chinese market, including focaccia and cannoli alla crema.

However, all these trimmings may make it seem like specialty coffee isn’t sufficient on its own. Thomas disagrees, saying that really, coffee is “all that matters”.

“Specialty coffee is the star of the show and the essence of the customer experience,” he says. “You can taste the difference of freshly roasted beans in the cup, including fuller flavour, wonderful aroma and no bitter aftertaste from staling oils becoming rancid.”

Lavazza’s Shanghai store employs a variety of roasting and extraction techniques. Among the highlights is Bel Paese coffee, an exclusive lineup created for the local market. It blends “historical espresso recipes” and local interpretations to present a unique flavour journey inspired by different regions of Italy.

Then there is Coffee Design, a concept Lavazza claims to have “turned into a real art”. Featuring culinary giants like Carlo Cracco, Ferran Adrià, and Davide Oldani, the concept applies food design to coffee to create products and tools that elevate the drinking experience.

“Lavazza has done a beautiful job with their new brand stores,” Thomas agrees. “We also share their love of coffee by providing customers with tastings so that they can find their favourite single origin bean or blend.”

The additional attractions only serve to add to the experience and create a sense of theatre around the coffee.

starbucks reserve

Flavour and freshness first

Design, equipment, and food are all vital aspects of the experiential coffee shop. However, coffee is usually the nucleus, which means it’s important for brands to get it right.

Thomas explains that offering a freshly roasted coffee has become front and centre for a lot of businesses looking to add value to their customers’ experience.

“Grinding and brewing every cup to order transforms that freshly roasted coffee into the best tasting cup,” Thomas insists. “Freshly roasted coffee isn’t simply fashionable at the moment, it’s part of the fresh food movement. It’s growing as consumers understand that it simply tastes better.”

He notes that coffee is one of the few common food items that consumers are still encouraged to preserve for long periods.

“Everyone knows that produce, meats, bread, and even beer all taste best fresh,” he adds. “Roasted coffee stales quickly. You can taste it and the science clearly explains why.”

Ultimately, that’s why he calls “just-roasted” coffee the industry’s biggest innovation today. This will likely form the centre of experiential cafes, which are here to stay in this next wave of coffee consumption.

Perhaps, then, it’s time to brace ourselves for renewed retail strategies encompassing an interactive consumer experience. Technology will only take this further, with the digitalisation of coffee-ordering creating a host of new opportunities.

In years to come, stores like Roasting Plant, Lavazza’s flagships, and Starbucks Reserve look set to spread their model around the world. It might not be long before you have to book your seat in a coffee shop.

Exploring the rise of experiential coffee shops

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