coffee talk

Pod People: Nespresso’s Push to Become High-End Restaurants’ Go-To Coffee

The kinds of Nespresso pods that consumers are familiar with.

The kinds of Nespresso pods that consumers are familiar with.Photo: Melissa Hom

When you go to a great restaurant (and spend hundreds upon hundreds of dollars for a meal), you want to be coddled. You want all sorts of exquisite foods, prepared to unimaginably high standards, served with the finest wines and spirits on the entire planet. It follows that if you want coffee after your meal, you want the best. At hundreds of Michelin-starred restaurants around the world, what you'll actually get is coffee that comes from a metallic pod. In fact, Nespresso is increasingly common at high-end restaurants, and the group is pushing hard to make sure use of its machines becomes even more ubiquitous. And discerning chefs are more than happy with the arrangement.

For the unfamiliar: Nespresso is Nestlé's brand of pod-based coffeemakers and coffee, marketed as a far more high-end option than something like Keurig. (George Clooney and Penélope Cruz pop up in Nespresso ads.) Its household popularity is clear: The brand was responsible for a half billion dollars in sales in the U.S. alone last year and continues to build branded boutique shops around the country. People who own a Nespresso machine can sign up for the Nespresso club and have pods sent straight to their house, often overnight. Devoted Nespresso converts will tell you it's not the best espresso they've ever had, but it's very good when you consider how easy it is to make. (Insert pod, hit button, done — newer machines will even tell you when they need their water supply replenished.)
 
But what people might not realize is that of the 2,400 Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, Nestlé says about 30 percent partner with its haut-coffee-pod brand. When Heston Blumenthal's much-celebrated (and three-Michelin-starred) Fat Duck made Nespresso its coffee of choice several years ago, the move led the British daily the Independent to wonder, "Could it really be the best cup of coffee money can buy?"
 
New York's own highbrow partners include Nobu 57, Marc Forgione,Forcella, Brasserie 8 ½, and Corton, Paul Liebrandt's progressive French spot in Tribeca. (Nespresso also counts hotels like the Ace, Robert De Niro's Greenwich Hotel, and The Four Seasons among its clients.) Liebrandt says that for Corton, the practicality is inarguable: “We have three square feet.' His Nespresso machine is "small, efficient, easy to use, consistent, and very clean.”
 
The space issue is a big one, especially for New York restaurants. Gramercy Tavern contracted Blue Bottle coffee to train its baristas and provide beans. They use the Hayes Valley blend — Blue Bottle's darkest espresso roast — exclusively. But managing partner Kevin Mahan says even though it's the best, most robust coffee he can buy, it's not always a crowd pleaser. Ideally he'd provide three options: a light option, a medium-bodied one, and his darker roast. Logistically, it's not possible. Corton, on the other hand, can simply swap out whatever pods it wants. In fact, it offers eight coffee options: four kinds of espresso, two "lungos" (long espresso drinks that are more like regular cups o' joe), and two decaf picks.
 
Other spots proclaim similar benefits. Last summer, Marc Forgione swapped the pro machine and micro-roasted beans (from Irving Farms) at his Tribeca restaurant for Nespresso capsules and its professional Gemini machine. The restaurant's general manager and head sommelier Matthew Conway concedes that in ideal conditions, perfectly extracted Irving Farms espresso "would probably equal a better shot," but "in our business, you spend so much time trying to be perfect with food and service that it's very hard to put the same dedication into a coffee program."

More room isn't the only consideration. Atera, in Tribeca, uses a Slayer espresso machine that retails for around $20,000. Gramercy Tavern's La Marzocco GB/5 runs between $12,000 and $16,000. And while both can put out better coffee, neither can guarantee it, since they require a constant supply of fresh beans, mechanical upkeep, and trained professionals that actually know how to operate them.
 
Nespresso pods, on the other hand, are vacuum sealed (so they last more or less forever), filled with coffee sourced from high-quality beans, and only require that someone knows how to press a button for optimal results. As Marc Forgione's Conway says, "They’ve taken something extremely variable and made it foolproof." He compares the consistent quality of Nespresso to Krug Grand Cuvée: Better bubbly exists, but "everyone agrees it’s the benchmark for Champagne across the world."
 
For Nespresso, the benefits are double. Restaurants, of course, buy a lot of coffee and Nespresso machines only work with Nespresso pods (though third-party knockoffs have appeared in recent years). But the branding potential is enormous, too: If consumers start to think Nespresso coffee is good enough for the world's best restaurants, it only makes sense that many of them would want to buy that same coffee for their homes.
 
No wonder Nespresso is making such a serious sales pitch. In addition to actually selling machines and pods, Nespresso developed a program that teaches chefs and sommeliers to think of coffee like wine and addresses issues like “gustatory-olfactory persistency,” and how different coffees pair with chocolates or eaux-de-vie. Nestlé even sets up weeklong seminars that have attracted chefs from the French Laundry and Jean Georges to talk about differences in origins and blends, as well as conduct blind tastings and food pairings. (Neither the French Laundry nor Jean Georges are Nespresso partners — yet.)
 
But no matter how much marketing muscle Nestlé — one of the world's largest food companies — puts into the business-to-business back-end, discerning diners, the types who spend $300 or $400 on dinner, might not be so excited to learn that they're paying for coffee that comes from machines they might have in their very own kitchens. “If I had more room, would I do something different?” Liebrandt muses. “Sure, maybe.”

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