The scene is eminently familiar: a sleek zinc bar behind which a trio of servers sporting pressed aprons move swiftly in coffee choreography: dialing in, adjusting the grind, grinding the beans, tamping the ground coffee and extracting the shot. Clients sit, rapt, on orange leather-coated barstools and lean over the counter to make small talk as the ritual unfolds. Dangling from walnut wood rods behind them are the morning’s issues of Le Monde and the International New York Times. This image has many of the defining components of a quintessential Parisian café.
Here, there is a little mention of specialty or craft coffee, but rather un café juste, a right or equitable coffee. The setup is industrial chic, with exposed stone and piping, a bespoke Marzacco with transparent sides, revealing the machine’s wiring for extra effect.
There are no colorful ceramic coffee cups but feather-light alternatives made of Borosilicate glass, and the stools are are only as comfortable as the time it takes to throw back an espresso, a smooth flat white, draught coffee on tap or the Cascara tea, made from the dried skins of the coffee cherry.
This isn’t a place for the laptop contingent (which isn’t such a bad thing) or to camp out for hours with a book. It’s meant for reflective degustation, or a quick visit. And much like Ducasse’s bean-to-bar manufacture a few blocks away, where a glass partition separates the roastery from the boutique, coffee-goers here have a clear view of the coffee operation at the back of the space.
The New Barista
The journeymen (and they’re predominantly men) who run the show have impressive-sounding credentials: French Barista Champion and World Roasting Championship finalist, among others. However, they don’t bare the title of barista but cafelier (the Alain Ducasse website offers the ungainly English translation of coffeeist), a term coined by Ducasse himself, which he feels better captures his vision of the operation: an haute cuisine interpretation of the ceremonial pause café.
“The first advantage of the word is that it’s French. But it also designates a reality; the cafelier or cafelière welcomes clients with a passion the stems from real skill in the industry. They are, in essence, coffee sommeliers,” Ducasse tells Fortune via email.
The term alone has made more than a few eyes roll in the industry. But what his presence means for the world of quality coffee in France goes beyond highfalutin labels and sleek packaging. One thing he brings—beyond merely his influence—is an exacting gastronomic-style of service that has the potential to attract a broader audience, one that the mature but still relatively niche specialty coffee market in France has been unable to reach: the affluent fine-dining consumer who appreciates the finest wines, exceptional cooking, and sumptuous dining environments, but has been—for a host of cultural and educational reasons—willing to overlook the acrid sludge usually served at the end of a meal.
Food writer Caroline Mignot says that what she finds most interesting is his sui generis approach, connecting the skills of a cook or pastry chef to those of the coffee specialist.
“It’s the way his staff stages the coffee,” Mignot says. “It was like watching a performance as they prepared a café viennois, which came topped with freshly whipped cream and chocolate shavings grated like truffles just before they served it. The hazelnut cappuccino was made with homemade hazelnut milk and served with hazelnut praliné chocolate. It’s a different kind of café experience.”
French Coffee Culture
It took years for quality coffee to find a foothold in Paris and even longer in the rest of France. That goes back to the long-standing lack of care applied to the fresh product: the roasting, the brewing, and employee training. Coffee’s role in France has largely been as an accessory to a social gathering or a cigarette break or simply consumed for the jolt it offers. If the third wave movement really took off between 2012 and 2013, it was because of the tireless work and endless awareness-building campaigns led by a number of foreign coffee professionals and a smattering of French people who had spent time consuming the good stuff in coffee capitals like San Francisco, Copenhagen, Melbourne, and London.
Now that specialty coffee has entered the vernacular and, more importantly, become an integral part of the food and beverage landscape across France, Ducasse comes into an established market with an audience that’s already familiar with the product or, at least, more open to learning about it (and learning about why it costs more).
“My desire to explore the possibilities with coffee isn’t new. We started by roasting coffee at the chocolate manufacture to serve in some of our restaurants,” Ducasse says. “But my trips to Laos and Panama were the real catalysts. The more I learned about coffee, the more I wanted to share it widely.”
Channa Galhenage, the owner of Café Loustic in Paris and Marseille, says it helps that he’s French with a certain stature and credibility. “Specialty coffee in France has been languishing in what I would call its ‘foreignness,’ catering largely to an immigrant or tourist crowd seeking out the good, better or different coffee they drink in their home countries,” Galhenage says. “The movement has barely moved out of this domain and it needs high profile actors like Ducasse to help explain it to a French public that still takes their coffee like medicine and lack the awareness or access to it.”
A Slow Brew
Getting into good and responsibly sourced coffee isn’t about stuffing coffers with quick profits. Specialty coffee is expensive, particularly if all the actors in the long chain of production—from farmer to distributor, roaster to cafelier—are earning fair wages. Add to that the cost of labor in France, and you have a business that can be timely and costly to scale.
The benefit for Ducasse is efficiency. He makes it himself, he controls the quality, and it ends up in all of his 30-some restaurants across three continents. But it also means an opportunity to set a new norm in dining. Gradually, as Ducasse rolls out his coffee to his various establishments, the coffee will be treated as an equally important element of the experience, not the push-button afterthought it has long been in some of the world’s finest restaurants.
His staff, serving his Signature blend alongside a sampling of his exceptional chocolates, can deliver the right message and help the consumer understand why they should care about the coffee they drink, as much from a taste perspective as from a concern for human welfare. That’s partially how he justifies selling a 15 euro cup of filtered coffee from war-torn Yemen. “We work with Faris Shebaini of Oima Coffee, a Yemeni living in London who is in direct contact with local producers,” Ducasse says. “Not only is the coffee the best in the world, entire families producing it depend on the support of their trade to survive.”
Still, when it comes to the roastery and the tasting cafes—which opened simultaneously in the 11th arrondissement and on the Rue du Cherche-Midi on Paris’s left bank, in addition to an outpost in Coal Drops Yard in London—some coffee industry insiders aren’t so convinced that his influence will be beneficial or widely felt. Mihaela Iordache, a coffee roaster in Paris, says his foray into coffee feels inconsequential.
“It’s hard to make out what the Ducasse coffee brand is about. The above standard high prices of the beans [for purchase]—twice as expensive as other shops—don’t necessarily reflect higher prices paid to producers,” Iordache says. At the end of the day, Iordache says it comes down to how we address the promise of specialty coffee: “We must create value across the chain, economically empowering all actors involved, build on the culture and tradition, communicate these things through the narrative of our brands, try to do better than what history taught us, and bring delicious, sustainable & fair coffee into everyone’s lives. For a brand of his size, I don’t see any of this thus far.”
It’s worth remembering that when Alain Ducasse stepped into the world of chocolate-making, the industry was similarly dubious. Six years later, his operation has more than established its legitimacy and excellence among a large pool of artisanal chocolatiers. Like the best of coffees, perhaps cultivating a following in and out of the industry will require time.
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