Here's some little-known Kansas City coffee talk.

Grounds for Success 

Here's some little-known Kansas City coffee talk.

Over a cup of coffee -- not a great cup of coffee, but a fair one -- with my luscious bread pudding at the Cornbread Café (see review), a friend of mine who no longer drinks the stuff revealed the ugly, hidden history of restaurant coffee. We had both started our careers as waiters back in the 1970s, when most upscale restaurants charged 35 cents for a cup and no one gave a damn whether it was a gourmet brew. In fact, the corporate chain he worked for preferred to serve the worst coffee. The reasoning? If the coffee was bad, the customers wouldn't linger at their tables after dessert chatting and keeping the table from being turned for a new set of patrons.

That made sense. I started waiting tables when newfangled multipot coffeemakers were replacing percolators (which made coffee really taste old) and we were all pretty haphazard when it came to brewing the stuff. Some servers added too much ground coffee to the filters, some too little. And the bulk coffee we used was never what I would call robust or flavorful.

Danny O'Neill did plenty to change the taste of restaurant coffee when he started the Roasterie, his specialty coffee company, eight years ago. He says he was able to capture the restaurant business because "waiters and waitresses were complaining to their managers that customers were getting up and leaving their tables, often not ordering dessert, because they were tired of the shitty coffee that restaurants were serving."

Those servers "were like my first salespeople," O'Neill says. "They realized that the restaurants were losing money by serving mediocre coffee." At first, O'Neill worried that fine-dining restaurants would be the last to jump on the bandwagon. "But Fedora and the old Boulevard Café were among my first customers," he recalls.

O'Neill now delivers custom blends to about one hundred restaurants and sells his own brands to a hundred more. His most successful blend, he says, is the one he created for Café Allegro.

"I have restaurant owners tell me, 'Can you really taste the difference between the blend you make for, say, Café Allegro and the one you make for a different restaurant? Don't they all essentially taste the same?' Well, I can taste the difference, but that doesn't matter. The important thing is that the restaurant owner loves his or her coffee. And that the customers love the coffee."

Kansas City's restaurant community is more linked to coffee than it might seem. One of the city's oldest restaurants, the Savoy Grill (and its adjoining hotel) was built at the turn of the last century by the New York-based coffee kings the Arbuckle brothers, who created the popular Yuban brand (which still exists as a General Foods product). And the brothers reportedly suggested that young California coffee roaster Jim Folger move his business to Kansas City after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, according to Mike Ferguson, marketing director for the Specialty Coffee Association.

"The Arbuckle brothers' coffee was very successful in its day, but probably wasn't that good," Ferguson admits. "Yuban was a slightly better blend because it had been created as the Christmas blend that John Arbuckle gave out as gifts to his friends."

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