steam wands pouring milk

Steam wands: Do they stifle productivity in coffee shops?

Jordan Montgomery speaks with Kresten Thøgersen of Father Carpenter about the challenges of steaming milk and how modular technology is helping cafés improve workflow.

With soaring overheads, rising wage costs, and the growing demand for quality coffee, productivity and a successful workflow in cafés have never been more important.

The workflow of coffee shops starts as soon as the customer enters the premises to the time moment at which their drink is served.

However, during this process any number of disruptions can arise, from poor café design to inefficient equipment and undertrained staff.

When service is hindered and bottlenecks appear, it can quickly lead to a loss of revenue and longer queuing times.

Kresten Thøgersen is the founder and co-owner of Father Carpenter in Berlin, Germany. He believes that an efficient workflow affects not only the quality of coffees produced, but the overall environment and success of cafés.

“Great workflow in any space needs two things– great ergonomics and a singular system of service,” he explains. “You need a way of doing things that is the most effective time, energy and quality-wise, and a workplace that makes sense and you interact with it in a positive way.

“You need to start with whatever takes the longest and inside of that time, get everything else done in the most efficient way time-wise, quality-wise, and ergonomically sound.”

With the growing demand for coffee across the world, it’s not only smaller businesses that are seeking to improve productivity. Over the last few years, global coffee chain Costa Coffee has worked with system and processes consultants, designers and analysts to improve workflow and shorten customer wait times.

Productivity specialist and co-founder of ReThink Productivity, Simon Hedaux, assisted Costa Coffee with their transformation, which included improving the coffee shop layout, updating menus and streamlining the preparation of coffees.

“No detail is too small – whether it’s how to measure milk efficiently, making sure everything their baristas need is within easy reach or having the right ovens to heat food for waiting customers,” he says.

steam wands in a coffee shop

Are steam wands limiting productivity?

Since their introduction at the 1906 Milan Fair, steam wands have been an essential component of espresso machinery, enabling baristas to prepare espresso and milk at the same time on a single machine.

Since then, espresso machines have been built with a range of different steam wand designs and integrations – however, nearly all have used the original design as a blueprint.

However, more than a century later, as coffee shops seek to satisfy customer demand and improve the efficiency of their work, some believe traditional steam wands may be limiting workflow.

Colin Harmon is a four-time Irish Barista Champion and the founder of 3fe Coffee, a roastery in Dublin. In his book, What I Know About Running Coffee Shops (2007), he provides insights into how the demands of steaming milk can hinder the success and efficiency of coffee shops.

“In the vast majority of cases the issue is not space, machines or staff but just workflow and how tasks are being performed, “ he writes. “The biggest stumbling block amongst these is milk, and how it is being steamed and poured.”

The reason for this is relatively clear to see.

Most traditional espresso machines are built with more group handles than steam wands. This means there is often a disruption to workflow when it comes to preparing milk coffees, because although multiple shots of espresso can be poured at once, only one or two jugs of milk can be prepared at any given time.

The meteoric rise of plant-based milks is also creating additional pressure for baristas and business owners alike. Not only are they driving the demand for more milk-based coffees, but also create increased pressure on baristas to serve quality coffees using multiple milks. This results in further backlogs on the steam wands, meaning that businesses may have to invest in additional equipment at the cost of revenue and space.

“The backlog of milk drinks in a café is a familiar scenario that I see in coffee bars and one that is usually addressed by the café owner investing in another machine or even swapping their machine for one with extra groups,” Harmon writes.

However, while this bottleneck may create problems for productivity, some see the preparation of milk as an opportunity to build rapport with customers.

“Steaming milk in general limits productivity, which is bad,” Kresten says. “But it does something positive too, which is that it is the only point in the coffee-making process that allows a barista to look the customer in the eyes while working and talking to them – it’s powerful stuff.

“That said, if we were to weigh up the pros and cons of steam wands we would inevitably arrive at a lopsided list, with the majority of the weight on the cons.”

steam wands milk coffee shop

Is the future of milk coffee modular? 

When it comes to improving productivity and workflow, the answer may lie in modular machinery.

Modular equipment allows coffee businesses to install additional units of the equipment needed to improve productivity – including additional steam wands. This is in contrast to the majority of espresso machines which are manufactured as a single unit with a fixed amount of group heads and steam wands.

Having gained immense popularity since the mid-2000s, advances in modular technology are now allowing coffee shops to customise their workspace by installing a number of different modules to facilitate a more productive workflow.

Companies such as Heylo Coffee are creating standalone modules for espresso and milk preparation. These allow businesses to create a workflow to suit their specific needs.

Cafés that have previously been limited to one or two steam wands can now add multiple milk modules to an espresso module, thus improving productivity in the preparation of milk coffees.

The smaller size of modular equipment also allows coffee shops to capitalise on space behind the bar, while gaining more space to interact with customers. This improved organisation not only improves productivity, but can have a positive outcome on customer service.

“An organised bar not only works faster but also gives you a huge advantage in terms of customer service,” Harmon writes. “Yes, the service will be better, that’s a no-brainer, but people often overlook something very important about calm, controlled and efficient workflow and that’s the perception that your customers develop of your business.”

Despite the advantages of modular espresso machines, they are yet to be adopted as mainstream equipment in coffee shops around the globe. However, for businesses seeking to improve their overall productivity, the advantages are clear.

“Not every café will be suited to modular machines,” Kresten says. “However in businesses such as high volume cafés and bakeries, an automated milk frother or dispenser, and an ‘automated as possible’ espresso machine would make the world a better place with a lot better coffee in people’s hands.”

Photo credit: James Huetas/Father Carpenter

Steam wands: Do they stifle productivity in coffee shops?

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