The keys to longevity in a ‘COVID normal’ world

longevity COVID

Maurizio Marcocci of Service Sphere on how to navigate a year without fear, and why innovation and communication will be key to longevity in a ‘COVID normal’ world.

Throughout the tragedy and stress of 2020, one thing that can’t be denied is how much our community values coffee – as a beverage, craft, and ritual during what was one of the most challenging years our industry has endured. 

Maurizio Marcocci is the Director of Service Sphere.

At Service Sphere, circumstances changed overnight. As the pandemic took hold of our city, many of our food service customers had their work put on hold. Office closures and that of big entertainment complexes, supermarket chains, and cinemas meant our preventative maintenance work was put on pause. Staff that could work from home did and on-road technicians came back into the workshop to help keep up with the growing demand for domestic machine sales and repairs.

We’ve been “pivoting” online for years, but this pandemic was the impetus that forced people to finally make the shift. As a result, we saw an uplift of online purchasing. People were enthusiastic to purchase or upgrade their home coffee grinder, espresso machine, and the gadgets involved to ensure they had the equipment necessary to develop their craft as well as their local barista. This was an indicator that despite hospitality and offices being closed, people still saw coffee as “an essential service”. They were prepared to invest and use the downtime to elevate their skills with new equipment or update their home setup to continue to be part of that ‘illusive coffee culture’. 

We also set up the online Bean Bottega coffee portal as a one-stop-shop for customers to access some of the best local and imported coffee roasts with 5 per cent of sales donated towards the My Room Children’s Cancer Charity.

We engaged with customers and those in the supply chain to understand how the pandemic was impacting their businesses and how we could best assist. On a global scale the situation looked harrowing. We had to question our methods, determine how to best engage with our peers and colleagues, and learn how to do the work and get through it.

What was also important was the need to protect the welfare of our staff, which can be so easily taken for granted. Victoria’s first lockdown was treated like a novelty. The second was much more impactful and hard hitting on our demeanour. In some cases, two incomes became one with the unemployed member of the household left without a utility or purpose to get through the lockdown. In other instances, resources were stretched with two people working from home, and many had to manage home schooling with their kids. It was tough, and there was a lot of fear involved in decision making based on one’s concerns for their family’s safety.

Our suppliers shared the same challenges as we did: relying on other manufactures in the supply chain, manufacturing factories closing down with COVID-19 outbreaks, orders starting to slow, shipments staggered, air freight pricing quadrupled, and customers waiting months for stock. We still kept engaged with our suppliers and encouraged training for new machines. We’d normally commit to hosting or travelling to meet our international suppliers, but on this occasion, Zoom had to suffice.

In the early days of COVID-19, it was easy for fear to put doubt in our minds and think: ‘Is this the end to hospitality as we know it? Will food only ever be delivered to our door? Is it the end to social interaction? Will there still be an appetite for hospitality and to eat out like we used to once this is all over?

But as we have seen, time and time again, Australians are a resilient bunch. We are social, and we are still the leading international market when it comes to utilising coffee as an experience. Australia is synonymous with coffee culture – it’s not just about the machines we use. It’s about providing good hospitality and great products presented in the cup or on the plate in a consistent and meaningful way.

Hospitality may not be back to the way we knew it, but it’s clear there is a need for our cafés and the experience it brings. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think coffee fairs very well via UberEats. As such, expect to see more QR codes in use with the government and café owners doing everything they can to keep us safe. We can’t forget the training, level of commitment, and investment in technology business owners have had to endure to make their venues “COVID safe”.

The lockdown has also taught us about the value of tourists. Melbourne in particular is typically a popular tourist hotspot and the nation’s sporting capital, but in fact, we haven’t been an appealing destination since October 2019 when bushfires wreaked havoc on regional towns and blanketed our city in a thick fog. Then COVID-19 arrived in March, cancelling the Motor Grand Prix, and we were convinced 2020 was cursed. 

But what we’ve realised, is that we need the support of tourists to fill our hotels, restaurants, and stadiums. We need more people, more mouths to feed, more international students and labour to jump into hospitality jobs. We need to get the fear factor out of the market so that customers can enjoy themselves once again, and one day, we invite those international workers back.

Without them, I really do think we’ll see a greater push for automation in coffee shops. With a great number of baristas lost to restrictions on international visas, business owners are looking at super automatics as a way to produce coffee consistently without the skills of an experienced barista. All of the machines launched at Host Milano 2019 are yet to make their way to the Australian market. For this reason, what excites me about 2021 is the innovation coming our way with a strong push towards automation, fully automated machines, and even vending machines and brewers that unskilled operators can use. 

In a case of ‘paint by numbers’, people will turn to super automatic machines and integrating automation into their coffee making process to maintain in-cup quality with less labour and skilled staff. We have seen a trend from our customers who have integrated and automated their tamper process and milk heating/texturing process with technology. Now, these same customers are upgrading to super automatic machines like the Eversys Enigma or Cameo along with considering traditional espresso machines that are “clever”, such as the LaCimbali M100i espresso machine. This model dispenses espresso coffee and heats/textures milk at the touch of a button, coupled with the LaCimbali elective grinder, which tamps the coffee in the portafilter and “talks” to the machine via Bluetooth. It makes micro adjustments from shot to shot. 

Throughout lockdown we saw a high volume of super automatic machines ordered and installed. Just the other day, we had a Sydney café owner purchase two super automatic machines as city foot traffic resumes and he saw a need for machines that could deliver the quality of coffee people expect, without the skills of a World Barista Champion.

If you’ve made your way back to a restaurant to enjoy a hospitality experience like I have, you would have noticed the immediate difference compared to having your meal delivered to your door. It’s not as we remember, with time constraints, online check-in and masked servers, but it is where hospitality can shine again around the story telling of their products. You can hear about the story of the farmer, the coffee, its origin, the barista, the machine and manufacturer over a cup of coffee. It’s not just a conversation for coffee, but for all food service.

I think 2021 will be a year of stop starts and uncertainty. I think we’ll see a lot of questions around the COVID-19 vaccine with an attempt to get back to “business as usual”. This virus has created a lot of disruption but when it comes to business strategies, what we’ve learnt is that communication is key. We still need to be consistent with our service levels and marketing to have our voice heard, and we need to be adaptable to the needs of our customers. Whether we’ll see a V-shaped recovery or an enduring one, only time will tell. Currently it still feels like the chess board is tipped over and we need to start the game again.

Pre-COVID, life was all about transactions, and now, we take the time to enjoy the little liberties of life. In testing times people rose to the occasion and supported one another. We won’t forget the year we’ve had, but we will begin 2021 with a renewed strength, and start again without fear, with a good cup of coffee. 

Coffee is good alone, but I think coffee shared is even better. 

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This article appears in the February 2021 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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