The perfect cup of joe

| March 05, 2008

Today’s trucker can be choosy about coffee.

In the Starbucks age, coffee is the new Coke. The sheer number of varieties – from different roasts and flavored beans to the myriad methods of brewing and varieties of milk and creamer – has resulted in what TravelCenters of America’s food-service category manager Pete Chrystal calls the truck driver’s “educated palate.”

As indicated by Truckers News’ coffee survey, conducted online in December 2007, the tastes of that palate reflect the ever-expanding coffee options. Finding your favorite brew might not be a priority, but odds are whether you take it black, as espresso with steamed milk, or Canadian and northeastern “regular” (cream and sugar), it’s become more and more likely that the perfect cup may be closer to the cab than you think.

In pursuit of variety
Alan Merfeld takes his coffee black. According to Truckers News’ coffee survey, he’s among a near majority of coffee drinkers who do so (46 percent of truckers reported drinking black coffee). The company driver in pallet manufacturer Millwood Inc.’s private fleet first caught a whiff of the notion of “better coffee,” as he puts it, “close to 10 years ago. My wife and I were invited over to dinner at some friends of ours. Another couple was there and both husband and wife worked for a local coffee distributor.” The gentleman of the pair brought up the subject of coffee by asking Merfeld whether he’d ever tried some of the “premium” coffees out on the market. “I told him that I did drink premium coffee,” Merfeld says. “I told him that it was Maxwell House. He gave me sort of a little grin.”

Merfeld’s story is emblematic of America’s embarkation on the search for the perfect cup of coffee, the Starbucks phenomenon functioning as an early- to mid-1990s highly-caffeinated wake-up call to sleeping palates. A few minutes after Merfeld’s Maxwell House declaration, he heard about Starbucks for the first time, and later, while working as a northeast regional hauler (he’s mostly local these days), he happened upon a franchise at a travel plaza and tried a cup. “I couldn’t believe the fuss that people were making over the brand,” he says. Then he bought his second cup. “I was hooked!”

In 1998, Starbucks and Kraft partnered to deliver packaged Starbucks roasted beans and ground coffee to major grocery-store chains, and Merfeld tried some out in his home drip brewer. “My results weren’t as good as what I had tasted out on the road,” he says, which led him to embark upon a course of self-education into brewing practices, quality beans and even home-roasting, of which he’s something of an aficionado today. “I have tried to brew the perfect cup of coffee over the years,” says Merfeld, a quest which continues for many drivers.

And for truckstop owners, to a degree. They’ve at least followed the Starbucks phenomenon in pursuit of greater choice for their customers. The year 2001 saw the introduction of the first Starbucks franchise in a TravelCenters of America location in Lodi, Ohio. “That was a bold step for Starbucks, because they are very, very concerned about image and synergy,” says Guy McNeil, TA’s director of quick-serve restaurant operations. Starbucks’ propagated image as the coffeehouse home away from home didn’t immediately gel with the image of a truckstop. “It started off pretty slow,” says McNeil.

But in the long run the partnership proved effective; after all, as any trucker will tell you, a good truckstop succeeds by being much the same home away from home that a good coffeehouse is. In about year three, McNeil says, long lines formed, and the Lodi location’s sales went through the roof.

And it wasn’t just froufrou urban four-wheelers looking for a pick-me-up in those lines, either. “We had a tough time figuring out what we should charge for a thermos of Starbucks coffee,” McNeil says, “because the truckers were right there in line with everybody else.” The concept spread to three other TA locations – one in Roswell, Texas, and two in Connecticut – before TA developed and launched in mid-2005 its proprietary Café Express concept, offering several premium roasts, eventually among them its TA Extreme blend, a highly caffeinated variety tailored to the alertness needs of the professional driver.

Pilot Travel Centers, just a few months before, had launched its own line of premium coffees, partnering with Sara Lee for its various roasts, and Petro soon joined the fray with its Java Junction concept, utilizing North Carolina’s S&D Coffee (longtime partner of McDonald’s) in tandem with TA, making their recent merger that much more convenient.

All of the truckstops’ new coffee programs are driven by a trend that TA’s director of advertising and public relations, Tom Liutkus, says took the world of colas by storm years ago. “If you draw an analogy to soft drinks and you go back 50 years,” he says, “you had cola and maybe you had ginger ale or some milder flavor. You look at the proliferation of soft drinks now – you’ve got multiple flavors, colas with lime, colas with lemon, colas with cherry – and it’s because people like variety.”

As Liutkus suggests, while caffeine content is considered the top attribute of coffee by 3 percent of drivers in our survey, taste is the defining factor, reported the most important aspect of a cup of coffee by a whopping 85 percent of drivers. Out of all that variety, the trucker’s educated palate directs the selection.

From variety to perfection
Truckstop coffee, once a euphemism in the wider culture for a highly caffeinated cup of flavored water, has clearly taken on new meaning. As drivers trade their free thermos with a fill-up (though Petro, among others, retains that policy to this day) for flavorful specialty roasts on offer, many drivers have done one better.

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