Does specialty coffee have to compromise on its values to sell in supermarkets?

  • On 16 October, Waitrose began selling coffee from Caravan Coffee Roasters and Pact Coffee
  • In order to reach a wider audience through supermarkets, specialty coffee brands may have to compromise on quality to some degree
  • Coffee destined for supermarket shelves can sometimes be stored for up to a year

WITHIN A few days of each other, specialty coffee roasters Caravan Coffee Roasters and Pact Coffee have both secured a distribution deal with UK supermarket chain Waitrose.

Caravan will sell its “The Daily” and “No Boundaries” ground coffee in over 250 of Waitrose’s 329 UK stores. Additionally, its “The Daily” and “Market Blend” coffee pods will be available in more than 120 stores. Both ranges will be accessible on Waitrose’s online platform. The roaster says this is part of its goal to make “great coffee accessible to all”.

Starting on 16 October, Waitrose began offering six Pact Coffee products across all of its stores. This includes a Rwandan “Single Estate Microlot” ground coffee sourced directly from Kibirizi Washing Station – a collective of 1,130 farmers that each have less than a hectare of land, on average. 

These distribution deals expand Waitrose’s coffee selection, which already includes products from major roasters like Costa Coffee, Caffè Nero, and Starbucks, as well as Grind, Union Hand Roasted Coffee, Roastworks Coffee Co, and Grumpy Mule.

Ultimately, this is just further evidence of the fourth wave of coffee: another step towards the mass commercialisation of specialty coffee.

A smaller piece of a bigger pie

Entering a supermarket’s distribution chain is a huge step for any specialty coffee roaster – as it is a fundamentally different marketplace. Against larger brands that have the supply chains and infrastructure in place to dominate on price and convenience, specialty coffee roasters are competing for a much smaller share of a much bigger market.

However, given the complexities and increased volume required to supply a supermarket, many will need to invest in infrastructure to build their capacity. This kind of investment carries with it a significant amount of risk – but Pact and Caravan are committed.

At the same time, it’s also worth acknowledging that there are going to be natural conflicts for any specialty coffee brand entering the segment. While it is certainly an exciting opportunity for growth, the compromises a brand has to make to sell coffee through a supermarket may be at odds with the values they were founded on. 

Specialty coffee roasters, like Caravan, may have to compromise their values to sell in supermarkets

Standing out from the crowd

There are a number of reasons why specialty coffee brands may hesitate to start selling their products in supermarkets. For one, they may find it difficult to stand out from the crowd.

“To distinguish themselves from mainstream supermarket brands, Pact and Caravan need to lean into what made them unique in the first place,” says Dev Dhillon, a retail and foodservice industry expert.

“Without additional shelf POS support, it may be difficult to get across origin stories, ethical sourcing practices, and the artisanal nature of their roasting process. I also question how they can educate consumers about what differentiates specialty coffee from standard supermarket fare.”

For example, Pact Coffee pays 76% above the 2022 Fairtrade base price and attained B Corp certification in August 2022 – which it attributed to its ‘ethics-first’ approach and carbon-neutral UK roastery. But conveying this to consumers in a marketplace driven by convenience and price is much more of a challenge.

Another obvious sacrifice is freshness – something that’s long been a core principle of specialty coffee. As coffee stays shelf-stable for a long time, supermarkets are unlikely to dispose of it, meaning that bags of unsold coffee could be sitting on shelves for weeks or months.

All of this leads to another question: how much do specialty coffee brands have to compromise in order to sell their coffee in supermarkets?

A new level of scale

Ultimately, it’s not really any surprise that two of the most successful specialty coffee roasters in the UK are making this shift. 

As the market matures, it’s only natural that it comes to be dominated by a handful of established roasters who have successfully scaled. The question, however, will be whether or not they can maintain what made them popular in the first place as they operate in a space where convenience is king.

“Entering a supermarket chain does not necessarily mean abandoning your roots or compromising on quality,” says Dev. “However, the challenge will be to strike a balance between scale and maintaining the qualities that endeared them to their loyal customer base in the first place.

“It’s crucial for them to ensure that their growth doesn’t come at the expense of their founding principles. Given the discerning nature of their original clientele, who value the relationship with their roaster and the promise of freshness, any significant drop in quality would be immediately noticeable and could hurt their brand.”

Ultimately, any brand entering this marketplace is going to have to make adjustments. Pact and Caravan aren’t the first specialty coffee roasters to do so, and they won’t be the last. What remains to be seen is how much of a change it takes to be successful in a new marketplace – and how a fundamentally different consumer base responds. 

Coffee Intelligence

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