October 24, 2008

Team Pursues More ‘Satisfying’ Coffee

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At any upscale restaurant one might expect a wine list presented with the menu. However, when it comes time for dessert, it is rare for such an array of coffee choices to be offered.
Many may think that Starbucks is as good as gets when it comes to coffee, Craig Shelton, a world-class brew chef of the Ryland Inn in New Jersey, is working with the School of Hotel Administration to educate the clientele of upscale restaurants and hotels about luxury coffees through his company, Chef’s Coffee Company.
“Coffee was so dissatisfying. I was saying to myself, ‘why is it that in these ultra luxurious restaurants is the coffee so bad? Why is it so bitter? Why is it so uninteresting?’” Shelton said.
Shelton is working alongside two Cornell graduates who helped link him to the Hotel School. After several conversations about Chef’s Coffee Company and the Pilsbury Institute for Hotel Entrepreneurship, Chef’s Coffee Company was chosen as the pilot company for a new partnership program between real companies and students, which gives students a hands-on, entrepreneurial experience in the hospitality industry.
“Why work so hard to impress hotel guests with everything else and then present them with a disappointing cup of coffee in the morning?” he continued. “It leaves a bad taste in their mouths, literally.”
Shelton, who is an avid wine connoisseur, sought out to taste all the best coffee beans available and to find one extraordinary bean. His background with wine gave him a unique frame of reference when tasting over 1,000 beans.
“In my study of wines I had been trained to pick apart all of its elements. What are the initial, middle and ending tastes? What are the fragrances? Is there layering? Complexity? Much to my chagrin, I could not find a single coffee bean that provided the complete experience,” Shelton said.
He began blending coffees together — a common practice done by many coffee companies — but differentiated his coffee by roasting the beans at different temperatures.
Varying roasting temperatures provides more complexity, harmony and elegance in the coffee, and an overall satisfactory experience, according to Shelton.

Shelton and his team also created the first type of coffee that is not affected by a higher altitude, where water boils at a lower temperature. These Aviation and Mountain blends help to sufficiently extract the oils necessary for coating the tongue and disguising the bitterness of coffee, which had previously been a major problem in the coffee industry.
Prof. Alex Susskind, food and beverage management, is overseeing the project.
“We are doing research to determine demand for their product in the market, taste tests to gauge consumers’ reactions to their coffee, and developing a plan to market the product based on our findings,” Susskind stated in an e-mail.
Susskind has commended Chef’s Coffee Company for their work with the students.
“They are ideal partners for this learning opportunity because they are willing to put our educational goals for the students in line with their company’s goals.”
So far the team has done taste testing with hotel students and faculty members in the hotel school. They are now in the process of doing taste tests with guests at the Statler Hotel.
Joesph Delli Santi ’09, one of five students working on the project, emphasized the importance of educating the consumer.
“Right now people don’t care where the beans are from. What [Chef’s Coffee Company] is trying to do is basically take coffee to the next level and educate the consumer. They are trying to make their palates more sophisticated,” Delli Santi said.
C.J. Slicklen ’09, a Sun columnist, another one of the five students working with the company, described some of the challenges in trying to market Chef’s Coffee.
“Coffee is different. Coffee is not established like wine is. You don’t know what you’re getting. If you go to a restaurant can you really charge more because you are serving a higher quality product? We are working to convince people that this is the best way to go,” Slicklen said.
Delli Santi justified the cost for Chef’s Coffee Company, which costs about $4-5 more per bag than Starbucks.
“Chef’s Coffee Company has blends that are much better,” he said. “If you break it down by the amount of coffee beans you’d need for one cup it goes from 20 cents to 40 or 45 cents.”
“How many people wouldn’t want to have the best there is for a mere 20 cents difference?” Shelton asked. “I can’t understand why you wouldn’t.”