Is any coffee roaster truly authentic?

  • Within the first 7 years of operation in Australia, Starbucks closed 70% of its locations due, in part, to a lack of localisation
  • As coffee roasters scale, they face the challenge of appealing to existing and new markets
  • Specialty coffee roasters’ authenticity is put under greater scrutiny, as their brands are often built around a strong value system

AS SPECIALTY coffee has grown over the years, brands have typically approached the market in contrast to larger, commercial companies. Rather than trying to capture the largest market share possible, they have generally targeted specific demographics by prioritising values such as quality, sustainability, and an element of being “cool”.

In the early days, coffee roasters positioned themselves in this way through their branding, merchandise, and other non-coffee products they sold that told the market, “We aren’t like any other roaster”.

As specialty coffee gained traction, these brands have been able to allocate more money towards this effort – evidenced by how many coffee roasters have partnered with celebrities to elevate their “cool” status.

This trend is only becoming more of a defining feature as an increasing number of specialty coffee roasters enter the market and look to scale. For example, many brands in the US offer free tattoos at their exhibition stalls; sell natural wine to position themselves alongside another trendy, emerging sector; or any number of ways to convince their audience that they have retained their “edge”.

Catering to local markets

While it’s not always an “edgy” image brands are going after, this trend of investing large sums of money in presenting a particular identity is seen across many markets. In this effort, coffee roasters are trying to address one fundamental problem: the challenge of appealing to both existing and new customers as they scale.

Some may be able to capitalise on their existing brand reputation, making little to no change as they expand into new territories. Often, however, they adopt a different approach to their branding depending on the local market.

And this can be crucial – even for a brand as big as Starbucks. The coffee giant famously failed in its attempt to expand into Australia, accumulating $105 million in losses and closing 70% of its locations within its first seven years of operation on the continent. This failure was attributed to both overly rapid expansion and a lack of localisation in the Australian market.

Of course, consumer preferences and values vary on a geographical basis. As such, many coffee roasters will remodel themselves depending on the local market – adapting their branding, menus, and values to appeal to their new audience.

“In Portland, there are several 100% vegan coffee shops serving only non-dairy beverages, and they do well,” says Andrew Coe, head roaster and green buyer of Elevator Coffee. “A shop like this might not survive if it were in the rural midwest.”

Ultimately, for a coffee brand to scale, it must consider how it will succeed in a new consumer market. As such, rather than successful coffee roasters being founded on principles of originality and creativity, it could be argued that they have simply done the best job of catering to what the local market values. 

When a coffee roaster scales, it risks losing its authenticity

Scale vs authenticity

Having said this, growing and adapting to local markets is exactly what a business does; it’s what large coffee chains do, and no one bats an eyelid.

The expectation is different for specialty coffee roasters, however. Historically, these companies have built their brand around a strong sense of identity and a value system catered to a relatively niche corner of the market. As such, they are held to a higher level of scrutiny when they come to scale and adapt to new markets.

Some suggest that to grow and become so malleable to the wants and needs of customer demand is, in effect, going back on what made these brands special in the first place – a selling out of their authenticity to grow into new markets.

As such, it seems as though “scale” and “authenticity” are two mutually exclusive concepts. According to Andrew, the way to address this is to establish a set of original values that aren’t restrictive in terms of scalability. 

“I think the real key is having a firm sense of identity and business core values that are scalable,” he says. “If your business is all about the cafe, then you do need to be selective about your locations and find spaces for your shops that will be sustainable in the long run, for example.”

Nevertheless, specialty coffee brands and the values they hold are put under the microscope as they scale – and some see this as unfair.

In reality, any time a specialty coffee roaster makes any kind of concession in this way, it is just another example of the growing prevalence of commercialisation in the sector. This doesn’t necessarily mean these brands are dropping their founding principles – but they are certainly becoming increasingly driven by growth.

Coffee Intelligence

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