Food, Wine & Spirits in St. Louis

Monday, August 20, 2012 / 4:30 PM

No Drips Allowed: Kaldi's Reinvents the Cafe, Again (Part One)

Editor's Note: This week, Byron Kerman investigates the recent changes at Kaldi's coffee and discovered so many that his article will appear in two segments. Part one is below; part two will appear in this space tomorrow. 

At Kaldi's Coffee, there's always something new brewing (Thank you, thank you, I'll be here all week...) But in recent weeks and months, the java juggernaut has pursued innovation on a mind-boggling array of fronts, including a sea change at the cafe's original, flagship location on De Mun Avenue.

That cafe has introduced the Hand-Brew Bar, whereby customers are encouraged to order more deluxe and more painstakingly brewed coffees, and to watch the brewing process, which looks very much like a lab experiment. First, special glass and ceramic vessels called Chemexes (at left) or Beehouse Pour-Overs (below right) are preheated with hot water. During the preheating of vessels and paper filters, the beans are ground to order. Then, the hot water is dumped from the vessels, ground coffee goes in the filters, and water at precisely 205 degrees is gradually poured over the ground coffee.

The pour stops when the scale on which the vessels sit displays a designated weight (see right). The single-origin coffee brewed this way takes a few minutes longer and costs about a buck more per serving than the batch-brewed stuff, said Ferguson, but the results speak for themselves. "We're trying to get people more excited about better-tasting, higher-quality coffee," he said, although mainstream "batch" coffee is of course still available. Another sign of the times (and the progress): Kaldi's has eliminated the bottomless cup at De Mun. "It's just not sustainable for these high-quality coffees," said Ferguson.

Kaldi's is surely responding to changing markets, too. With gourmet coffee cafes and ever-more-micro-roasting companies like locals Sump Coffee, Goshen Coffee, and String Bean Coffee, Kaldi's can't afford to rest on its laurels.

The changes at the De Mun location include some tweaks to the interior design, as well. "Before, the baristas’ backs were to the customers as they made drinks," said Ferguson. "They weren't able to interact with them, to discuss the coffee they were making. Now, the first thing people see when they walk in is the face of the barista at the espresso machine." Barista culture has emerged from the back of the house in more ways than one. Regulars at this Kaldi's will also recall that the line in front of the counter could easily become a strangely freeform blob. Now there's a "cattle chute" bar to line up the customers (below right), which actually works much better.

These changes to the coffee menu and the cafe interior will be instituted at the other Kaldi's cafes in a year or so, said Ferguson, depending on how the various experiments fare.


Other recent Kaldi's news includes their collaboration with CoMo's Patric Chocolates on two rewarding chocolate bars. The Espresso 700 Cappuccino Bar is a sneaky confection that tastes like milk chocolate on the front end, with a rich coffee punch soon after. It melts in your mouth like creamy coffee ice cream. The Espresso 700 Mocha Bar is deeper, darker, and more complex. It's dusky mix of dark chocolate and espresso beans that tiptoes up to the bitterness line, but then changes its mind and retreats back into a relaxin', addictive, endorphin-firing happy place. Really, it's what a chocolate-covered espresso bean dreams of becoming: refined and deadly-good.

This partnership doesn't end there. Kaldi's is using Patric's dark-chocolate shavings in its eight-ounce mochas. This European-style confection-drink is dark, deep, and fortifying. Those who welcome a touch of bitterness in their dark chocolate will find it here.

Look for a few small changes to the cafe's breakfast and lunch menu, too. Steel-cut oatmeal has been added, along with a crustless quiche for the gluten-free types. A "Crunch Burger" made with Match meat-substitute and a chickpea wrap have been introduced to mollify the vegans. Kaldi's continues to make baked goods at each cafe, along with selling some of Companion Baking's sweets.

For some time now, Kaldi's has endeavored to educate coffee drinkers about the not-so-simple politics of coffee. A new, large, world wall map (at left) diners can pore over while waiting in line shows all the cities and countries along the Equator where coffee is sourced. Nearby, a selection of 5-by-7" cards describes the exotic locales, the farms and production facilities, the tasting notes, and so on for each bean Kaldi's is currently using. Ferguson has been to some of these facilities in places like Rwanda, Burundi, and Colombia, where the farmers are often overjoyed to enter into a partnership with Kaldi's, he said, and vice-versa. "It's a great honor to help people with their livelihoods," said Ferguson (below), "and being greeted with a drumming ceremony in Burundi was amazing."

Plenty of these coffee growers have it far from easy. "In Burundi," said Ferguson, "50 percent of the male population is under the age of 15, due to a devastating civil war. When we were there we drove through the jungle, and kids just poured out of the woods to see us because they very rarely see a car. To see them changing and to help them change for the better is a life-altering experience for us, too."

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Aug 21, 2012 05:45 pm
 Posted by  matiszik

I wish Kaldi's luck, but after my first visit to the DeMun location today, and after watching four consecutive customers leave disappointed, this seems like an ill-advised move.

Why did people go to an independent coffee shop like Kaldi's in DeMun (note the following is only my opinion, but is also a distillation of what I saw today)?

(1) It wasn't Starbucks.
(2) Every day it had a new selection of coffees brewed that you might otherwise never try.
(3) (especially for parents dropping off a kid at Captain Elementary across the street) You could get a fairly priced coffee, and get in and out quickly, or stay and enjoy the ambiance.

I think Kaldi's has missed something here:

Unless you want to wait for a Hand-Brew (which I saw no one do in 20 minutes watching), they only have a flavored coffee, a decaf, and a house blend - Cafe Kaldi - available.

When Starbucks started serving only decaf and their disappointing house blend - Pike Place Roast - you were stuck with no good option for a quick, decent cup of coffee. The same now holds true for Kaldi's.

If you want a Hand Brew, it is over $3 for a 12 oz. cup. So again, unless you want to pay more than you intended, you're stuck with the house blend.

Here is what a typical exchange looked like today:

Customer (smiling): What kind of coffee do you have today?

Barista: Well sir, we'd love to have you try a Hand-Brewed coffee (hands them a laminated card).

Customer: Well, I don't have much time, do you have anything brewed.

Barista: Yes sir, our Cafe Kaldi blend.

Customer: That's it? Um, how much does the Hand-Brewed Cost?

Barista (asking another for the price, since it is not clearly posted on the menu) Um, $3.45.

Customer: Really!? Well, just give me a large Cafe Kaldi. (ALL FOUR CUSTOMERS then went to the sugar/cream bar muttering and unhappy).

So bottom line, I'm sure this was financially motivated, and I hope it works for them, and I do not begrudge a small business from making money. However, you're disappointing customers.

A few more things to add:

* No more bottomless cup option at all. Heck, if you use a Starbucks card to pay, even they give you free refills.

* Only five blends and one decaf blend of beans available for purchase, which is a much smaller selection than they had prior to the change. Today, the decaf was out.

* Across the board, all prices are up. Again, a business needs to make money, but along with everything else it annoyed two of the four customer I watched to the point of them actually commenting.

Kaldi's, you had a great thing going. We loved you. Now, you just seem like you're aspiring to be a Starbucks.

It will be interesting to see if the number of people who want Hand-Brewed coffee makes up for the revenue lost from regular, frequent customers. You'll be a convenience, but my bet is that you've lost your status as a destination. Time to head back to Shaw's.

Your customers used to all leave with a smile. Now, many of them are leaving disappointed. Never a good move for a retailer.

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