Thus concludes our yearly cafe feature series, the Build-Outs of Coffee. Now in its eighth installation, what was once known as the Build-Outs of Summer came back stronger than ever after a year hiatus because, well, you know why. In 2021 Build-Outs could no longer be contained by the three-month window between June and September, giving us the largest pool of entries ever in the history of the series.
And as we do every year at the end of the Build-Outs season, we’re diving into the numbers behind The Thrill of the Build to see what trends emerge and try to better understand where specialty coffee is heading as we approach 2022. In a year (two really) that has been like no other, this year’s Build-Outs class—all of whom opened during a pandemic—offer a unique perspective on where coffee is heading as the world hopefully creeps back to whatever normal life looks like. These are the pioneers, the front-runners, the risk-takers willing to put it all on the line at a time when economies both global and local may not necessarily be ready to support such a proposition. Will they hedge their bets and pinch pennies? Or will they go for it and produce the cafe of their dreams with no expenses spared? These 50+ cafes are creating the narrative, building the playbook that others who follow are likely to draw from for years to come.
So without further ado, let’s dive into the Analytics of Autumn 2021: The Return of the Data.
Where Are They Building?
The 2021 class of Build-Outs was the largest we have ever seen, and it wasn’t close. In past years, the total number of cafes featured has hovered around 40, but this year we saw a whopping 54 features. And this year’s affair was the most global to date. Whereas the past two seasons combined for a total of 10 non-US Builds—five from Canada, four from England, and one from the US Virgin Islands—there were 13 total international cafes this year representing four different continents. And for the first time Europe wasn’t the leader of the international showing; Asia takes that honor with a total seven cafes: three in Vietnam, two in India, and one each in Singapore and South Korea.
In America, the geographic distribution of cafes is becoming more bi-modal than in previous years, with new shops trending toward the coast lines and away from the center. Save for a few spots opening in major metropolitan cities like Austin, Houston, and Memphis, the representation in middle America pales to that in the east and the west.
A major theme in this year’s class of Build-Outs is coffee existing outside of the traditional cafe setting. A total of 21 cafes fall under that category, be it a weekend-only speakeasy like Citric Meets Malic in Vietnam or a summer-only pop-up like Kiosk by Frukt Coffee Roasters in Finland. There were a total of eight moveable cafes this year, including coffee shops in traditional coffee carts, on motorcycles, in camper vans and trucks, even tiny horse trailers. But the big move this year was toward shared spaces. “Coffee and” cafes just over 20% of all entries. Bike shops, plant shops, bakeries, record stores, hostels, fermented tasting rooms (both beer and kombucha), as well as high end collabs with watchmakers, all found room for a coffee bar to diversify their offerings.
Who Is Building Out?
Perhaps more important than the where is the who. Continuing the ongoing trend of “Everybody Roasts,” the majority of this year’s Builds—32 in total, 59% of all features—came from brand’s that roast their own coffee. This is actually down somewhat from previous years, where roasters comprised 70+% of the totals. In a somewhat interesting twist, the remaining 22 are almost evenly split between single- and multi-roaster cafes, going 12 to 10. This is a bit of a turnaround from previous years, where multi-roaster cafes have been on the outs. Our conclusion? Multi-roaster cafes are making something of a comeback here in 2021.
Of the 18 cafes that are not a brand’s first location, 17 of them are from roasters. This means that every non-roasting cafe is the first retail space for that company, save one for 392Caffe in Iowa. We also learned that none of our multi-roasters featured this year had multiple locations. (Maybe it’s because they had so many beans.)
Part of the growth strategy of roasting companies appears to expand their total territory. Five of the 17 roaster cafes featured new locations in town at least 15 miles from the original. Two coffee shops even jumped state lines, with Philadelphia’s Elixr opening in Nashville and Maryland’s Vigilante Coffee opening on the other side of the country in California.
Let’s just get this out of the way up top so we can move on: as they have every year we have done the Analytics of Autumn, the La Marzocco Linea espresso machine and Mahlkönig EK43 grinder are the most used in their respective categories. This was again the case in 2021, and as in past years, it’s not really close. The Linea comprises 20% of all espresso machine in this season’s Build-Outs, and the EK43 clocks in around 28%, though most of that is from the brew bar where its 16 appearances make up a total of 64% of all brew grinders.
Though the top spots remain unchanged, there has been some jockeying amongst the top five for each category. The big surprise in the espresso machines comes from the two spot, which is now held by the Linea… Mini. At a total of seven, the Linea Mini beat out the likes of the Slayer Steam and Victoria Arduino Eagle One—both at five—as well as the Modbar, holding strong in the top five with three mentions.
Overall, La Marzocco (including Modbar) remains the top espresso machine producer with 27 of the total 50. Victoria Arduino comes in a distance second with six and Slayer takes the third spot with five.
Mirroring La Marzocco’s results in the espresso machines, Mahlkönig further strengthened its position as leader of the pack with new-to-market equipment. On the espresso bar, the Mahlkönig E65S took the top spot with eight and the E80 took third with five. The Mythos by Victoria Arduino was the second most used espresso grinder with seven.
In total, Mahlkönig accounts for 36 of the 61 grinders from this year’s Build-Outs, a total of 59%; breaking it down by brew and espresso bar, the King of Grinders comprised a total of 44% and 80%, respectively, of all grinders used. Victoria Arduino and Mazzer tied for second with seven each, just above 11%.
What’s The Deal With Sustainability?
If there is one area where it feels like coffee has room for growth, it is in sustainability. We’ve asked cafes about the steps they are taking to this end for the past two rounds of Built-Outs, and many of the responses have been… complicated, to put things politely. And while every step toward a greener future is a good one, many of the responses we received—including implementing reclaimed building materials, buying from local purveyors, and the ever-vague “sourcing”—are more or less the same thing specialty coffee bars have been doing for years, retconned for 2021 as a sustainability effort.
Composting, however, is on the rise, and represents real ecological benefit coming out of the coffee bar sustainability push. And some of the cafes this year took a laudably rigorous approach to sustainability, implementing solar power systems (three cafes in total) or, in the case of Vigilante Coffee in San Diego, taking steps toward going fully zero waste.
A few of the cafes in this year’s series took our question prompt—”How is your company considering sustainability?”—to address important questions around financial sustainability, particularly with regards to paying their staff a living wage. This is a point well-taken, and certainly in the spirit of these questionnaires being an open template for individual business owners to express their goals and dreams for each project. And it’s a great data point for us here at Sprudge—next year’s questionnaire will more fulsomely explore these questions.
Like with just about everything in life that has taken place over the past two years, it’s not hard to view the 2021 Build-Outs of Coffee through the lens of the coronavirus. And there are certainly through lines from this year’s class of cafes that imply some sort of pandemic effect. When we look at who is opening cafes right now, for instance, it heavily favors companies that roast, many of whom opened second locations or had already established themselves as a roasting brand before opening their first. This seems to imply that the folks opening have the proof of concept and financial stability to take the risk.
Many of the first timers, on the other hand, were able to hedge their bets by opening in non-traditional (and less expensive) cafe spaces or by operating multi-functional spaces to diversify their earnings potential.
This had led to a shift in equipment used, most notably in espresso machines. Smaller spaces mean smaller footprint machines, and traditionally the single-group champion has been the La Marzocco GS3; this year it was the Linea Mini. The GS3 is a commercial machine that can find its way into home use whereas the Linea Mini is the opposite. Theoretically, the GS3 makes more sense commercial use than the Linea Mini, but it’s also about $2,000 more, perhaps making the Linea Mini a more attractive option for a shoestring budget.
When cafes did spring for the big ticket espresso machine, this year more than ever they stuck with a manufacturer’s most popular options: the LM Linea, Slayer Steam, and Eagle One by Victoria Arduino, most notably. When dropping five figures on a machines, folks this year seemed to favor time-tested reliability over new tech.
Nonetheless the mere existence of these 50+ new cafes is itself noteworthy. In this unprecedented time of economic uncertainty, one must truly want to open a cafe in order to make it work. In the time of brand expansion in coffee, this year’s Build-Outs harkens back to more of the freewheeling days, where new coffee bars were being opened by bright-eyed baristas-turned-cafe-owners. It was a fulfillment of a dream. And this year, that dream was fulfilled for dozens of new cafe owners, pandemic be damned.