“Ready to Brew” coffee hit the scene against the odds. With a description that sounded to many like an oxymoron (“specialty instant coffee”), these new coffee products had a lot to prove in a landscape whose consumers fashioned themselves connoisseurs. Expertise—not convenience or accessibility—has long been the main value proposition of specialty coffee, a fraught reality with which the industry is presently grappling on many fronts. Fast forward a few years, though, and the unlikely “specialty instant” category has proven a hit—even amidst a global pandemic, where the notion of convenience “on the go” has been radically shifted.
With the jet-set crowd largely grounded, it seemed likely that sales of ready-to-brew products like Swift Cup and Voila's specialty instant coffee sachets, Sudden's coffee vials, or DripKit's single-serve pour-overs, might too take a dive. Instead, COVID-19 has proved an unexpected boon for almost all of them.
“May sales of Sudden Coffee, to date, are three times where they were at in January,” says Eileen Rinaldi, founder of San Francisco's Ritual Coffee. On the other coast, representatives for Joe Coffee say they saw an almost 450% increase in sales of the company's instant sachets, which are manufactured by SwiftCup. In Ireland, Colin Harmon says that the Voila-made packs of instant his company 3fe introduced for the first time in April are “flying out” the door.
Though the established audience for a fancy instant coffee may have been travelers, worldwide shelter-in-place restrictions—and the internet—opened up a couple key new sales channels. One was a little drink you may have heard of called Dalgona coffee.
“There's a very good chance that that goddamn whipped coffee thing saved our business,” said Nate Kaiser, founder of Swift Cup. “I think there was a huge spike in sales because of that. It came at the perfect time—to peel back the curtain, we had hit a moment where we saw a mountain of accounts receivable that weren't going to get paid, it was a nightmare situation,” says Kaiser of a time when of Swift Cup's steady customers had had to reduce or temporarily close their businesses. Instead of falling apart, Swift Cup's business soared as their online sales multiplied just as the Dalgona craze took hold.
Joe Coffee's director of roasting, Amaris Gutierrez-Ray, says her company saw a similar effect in early March. “One of my sisters ordered instant from us because she heard about Dalgona coffee, and she's not normally a coffee drinker, so that's probably indicative of this trend appealing to all kinds of folks outside our usual customer groups,” says Gutierrez-Ray.
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Roasters report both direct to customer sales and wholesale sales of instant and ready to brew products have taken off since March.
“I think the Dalgona Coffee wave is the biggest influence on this, but I also think there's added interest for coffee drinkers to have any new way to enjoy their coffee at home,” says Olympia Coffee Roasters‘ director of sales Honor Forte.
“Without access to a coffee shop, most people are drinking coffee from the same brewing method without additives every day. Instant coffee, and making whipped coffee too, is a fun break from that that doesn't require buying new equipment—and luckily it can be really exceptional too.”
Verve Coffee in California reports seeing more and more customers turn to creative uses for instant coffee, such as in recipes. The brand offers both a Swift Cup-produced packet and a ready-to-brew package made by DripKit. The same thing is true for BLK & Bold, a Des Moines, Iowa-based roaster whose partnership with ready-to-brew bag brand Steeped launch in late 2019. “Steeped is doing well,” says BLK & Bold co-founder Rod Johnson. “There's still some education that comes along with it as people are not familiar with the new brewing method, but for those that know, they swear by it!”
Coffee drinkers' switch from (any) out-of-home consumption to “only at home” consumption appears to have benefitted online sales channels greatly. Among those who lack brewing equipment, those who want to try something new, or those who simply don't have time to make traditionally brewed coffee while facilitating online learning for kids and transitioning to new work from home lifestyles—ready to brew products have been a surprise pandemic boon. And with today's technologies, these coffees taste good enough to be a viable alternative for many.
“I think there's evidence that folks intentionally purchasing instant coffee that has been responsibly sourced, intentionally roasted, and thoughtfully crafted care about the quality of their morning cup,” says Alvin Kim, marketing and e-commerce manager for Olympia Coffee Roasters. “I suppose the fact that many of our customers are adding our top-of-the-line Reserve coffees to the same cart backs that up!”
Though the category has been a success overall, the realities of small business during COVID-19 did write a different story for Sudden Coffee, the first-to-market VC-backed wunderkind of the instant world. Unfortunately, the company shuttered this spring.
“We were venture-backed from the beginning, and needed to fundraise more than most companies,” said Joshua Zloof, Sudden co-founder and CEO.
“Our economic model wasn't profitable, and when COVID happened there was no way we were going to be able to fundraise,” says Zloof. “We were down to only a few months worth of cash and then we were kind of like, ok, well let's try to produce what we can. And once there was a lockdown in San Francisco we couldn't really do that anymore safely.”
The closure is a loss, says Ritual's Rinaldi, whose remaining stock of Sudden instant continues to sell briskly. “It was a great product. They had just gotten to a place where the years of R&D were about to pay off,” she says.
For those companies left standing, the future of single-serve coffees like these may prove rosy—especially as people in environments such as foodservice gravitate away from communal serving vessels of any kind. But as to seeing how it will all shake out in the long run? Fans of quick-brew coffees will find themselves—for once—having to wait.
Liz Clayton is the associate editor at Sprudge Media Network and is based in New York City. Read more Liz Clayton on Sprudge.
Top photo courtesy Joe Coffee, Sudden Coffee/Equator photo courtesy Akash Saini.