LA Coffee Festival and a New Generation of Cafes


LA Coffee festival and a new generation of cafes

Our own Jenny Willits and Adam Carr collaborate with other industry leaders to explore the question: what’s next in the world of coffee?

Jenny Willits (our CEO) and I have just returned from the City of Angels where we were part of the Allegra CEO forum, official LA ‘Best of LA Coffee’ tour and coffee festival, and boy did we learn a lot.

The big takeaway you ask? 24oz coffee cups. That, and we saw what’s being called the ‘Fifth Wave’ cafe starting to take form.

But what are these ‘waves’? Aren’t we in the third wave now? Fear not, for a helpful infographic below should clarify what we’re going on about.

Image & Concept by Allegra Group CEO Jeffrey Young

The waves of coffee

First wave is typically defined as either all-instant, and/or terrible coffee (note: not all instant is terrible). We move on.

Second wave is defined by a forging of decent coffee by now larger corporate chains, such as Starbucks, or large international roasters such as Illy and Lavazza.

Third wave is defined by the creation of a ‘specialty’ market, or a breakaway from large corporate coffee with smaller players, distinguishing themselves by their higher quality, ‘fresh’ coffee offerings.

Fourth wave, the current wave, or at least where the industry has moved since about 2010, is largely marked by an increasing interest in coffee perfection, consistency and getting the ‘science’ right. We’re still on this journey, and to get to this new ‘Fifth Wave’, the fourth wave will need to be done right.

But what defines the fifth wave? Well, at the risk of digging my own career’s grave, we now understand that good coffee science alone won’t cut it. Excellence and customer service will be king. So, I’d better start being nice to people…

That said, what constitutes a café that has unparalleled customer experience? Well, here are some words that one may use to describe the ‘new wave’ (or fifth wave) café:

5th wave blog graphic

All of these qualities were discussed and elaborated on at the festival. I’m not going to go into everything here, but I think it is worthwhile discussing what these things mean. These words can be grouped into three major themes that we observed in the LA coffee scene. These themes and their practical demonstration can be used as a model of what we believe will be the basis of a successful café in 5 years’ time. And here they are:

  1. ‘Local’
  2. Genuine
  3. Exceptional

Let’s unpack these a bit.

Fifth Wave Cafes will be Local.

In Australia, ‘the local’ is a bit of a household term. It refers to our home away from home (no, not the TV show) – that place where everyone knows your name, where you can get away from regular life, and perhaps even directly talk about your problems.

I feel that Australian cafes, on average, have this right… or are at least on the right track. The best cafes here, like my local café, knows my name, my regular order, and typically involves some chit-chat about life in general with the barista. At least, during the quieter parts of the day! But that’s not to say success in the fifth wave has already been achieved even here in Australia…

What we observed throughout LA was that a lot of the next generation of cafes are paying attention to even seemingly benign details. For example, café layouts were designed in such a way as to promote both conversation with the barista, conversation between guests of the café, and, for those that just want their caffeine, a fast entry-exit to allow people to grab and go. So, architectural design is actually going to be a key factor in a fifth wave café. And we saw lots of thought given to design in retail outlets such as Intelligentsia, La Colombe, and Starbucks Reserve, all given to having effective ‘flow’ to give locals the feel they want in coming to their Café.

Another observation on architecture, even in café chains, decor was selected to be true to the building it was in and to the feelings they want to elicit in the guests. You wouldn’t have known that Intelligentsia was owned by a large multinational (JAB Holding Company), so seamless was the design. And it didn’t feel manufactured. It felt genuine, quality, and promoted the lifestyle of the locals.

The key point is this: a lot of attention of detail is given to improving the customer experience.

People are enabled to feel comfortable no matter how they choose to have their coffee.

Click to listen to our podcast episode on this topic.

The Fifth Wave of coffee will be genuine

Being genuine means a focus on authenticity: understanding a coffees origins, understanding the local demographic and personality types. It will be sustainable, with appreciation of what that term means in all dimensions {click here for our article about cafe sustainability}. Understanding ‘terroir’ and provenance will be an important aspect of Fifth Wave culture. More than that, being able to link a coffees flavour profile to create flavours that resonate with the people that frequent the café. Our discussion of the ‘coffee sommelier’ in our article regarding automation in cafes touched on this point.

Truthfully, this is actually what set third wave apart from the second wave – however I think moving from fourth wave to third wave, perhaps perspective can get lost. For example, in pursuit of ‘flavour perfection’, some people are attempting to control microflora of the local environment (e.g. foreign and controlled yeast introduction) – to get what is colloquially referred to as ‘controlled ferments’. While the resulting flavour may be an interesting experience, it also can be devastating to the local flora of the farm’s environment (at least, according to Mario Fernandez from the Coffee Quality Institute), which wholly goes against being ‘genuine’. Indeed, we care about a region’s terroir because of the natural way in which it is grown. Perhaps this is something that should explored in detail later, but the point is this: we need to be both people and environment focused, and not myopically obsess over one or the other.

On top of this, coffee will not be the only drink on the menu. I think the ‘Third’ and ‘Fourth’ wave of coffee may have lost touch with customers a bit by suggesting that coffee should never be served with caramel syrup, or at least, dying a bit too much inside when customers request one. I think that Fifth Wave wouldn’t think this way. Indeed, they’d go a step further. A Fifth Wave coffee shop may well serve a caramel latte that has been made with house-made caramel fudge, rather than a flavoured syrup. You heard it here first (though I’m sure it’s already out there somewhere…). A stroke of ‘my recipe, my heart and soul in the drink’ to knock it up a notch. Bam. Very Fifth Wave.

Verve nitro cold brew cans

We saw some of the above trends happening in various cafes across LA. We saw nitro-powered effervescent vanilla-flavoured almond-milk lattes in a can by one specialty café chain. And it was indeed rather delicious. We saw ‘Shrubs’ gaining in popularity (or at least more numerous on café menus), drinks that are vinegar/sugar/herbal infusions. Again, while not my favourite combination, fifth-wave thinking embraces cultural influences and seeks to improve customer experience.

Fifth Wave will be exceptional

Exceptional is where technology and amazing customer service merge seamlessly.

An Apex Café, if you will. The coffee will be extracted to perfection. It will be this way consistently. And it will be served with a smile and by a barista that knows your name. Who wouldn’t want to frequent a place like that?

Does this mean robots will make the coffee and only top-level waiters will be employed at cafes? I don’t think so. Not entirely. Not yet. I think machine engineering is at a stage where only a few flicks of the wrist are needed to get a near-perfect extraction, though a person needs to be behind the machine to get the taste just right (machines still can’t taste, and I think we’re a long way off that).

However, I do think that hiring practices may change in the future. I suspect there will be fewer people hired based on a pure machine-operation focus, and more will be hired with a customer experience focus. Certainly, emotional quotient (EQ) will matter just as much, if not more, than IQ.

As an industry, where are we now?

In Australia, we are perhaps making our way through the Fourth Wave, though I think we already have a number of Fifth Wave elements already well established. Local Café culture is certainly thriving – I have one just down the road from where I live. I think many cafes, especially those regarded as ‘high specialty’ have the ingenuous quality there as well.

In the United States, I think there is still a huge demand for ‘local’ style cafes – though café chains like Blue Stone Lane are starting to fill these gaps. Honestly, I was a bit surprised that this chain was perhaps the only one where you could get a decent cup of coffee (by Australian standards…) and a decent breakfast at the same time. In the US, it’s either one or the other. Perhaps in a short time, this may no longer be the case.

I do think that many cafes worldwide are a little deficient in the marriage of art and science, though perhaps some leaders are paving the way for mastery in this area. There are a lot of people making noise that, perhaps, don’t know what they’re talking about, though no doubt their hearts are in the right place.

But good science (coming from a scientist’s perspective), or even relevant science, in coffee roasteries and cafes is still lacking.

However, in Australia, I don’t think that we are a long way off from good science, married with fantastic artisan coffee.

So, let’s keep up the good work. Fight the good fight. Get the data. Put on a smile. And know where your coffee is from, and where it is going. And for goodness sake, give the tradie his pumpkin spice caramel frappe!


For more on the work of the Coffee Science & Education Centre, click here.



Adam Carr
Coffee Science and Education Centre (CSEC) Ph.D, B.E. (Chemical Engineering) Adam has worked in research for over 8 years, with an overarching focus on high temperature water technology. He has worked in Australia at the University of New South Wales, and internationally at Cornell University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Aerodyne Research Inc. The applications for his research have been diverse, including advanced particle production technologies, reaction engineering, sustainable fuels processing and novel extraction technologies. Once he discovered the application of his experience to the coffee industry, there was no going back! Adam returned to Australia in 2015 to pursue his interest in designing his own coffee technologies. He created the startup Highpresso PTY LTD to provide research consulting services to the coffee industry, and build new coffee technologies. His research led him to designing a new roasting system that prevented charring of the raw beans. Now at Seven Miles, Adam uses his skills and deep love of coffee to improve our understanding of coffee science and technology through our coffee science and research center. He designs experiments around testing the latest and greatest coffee gear available to the industry, and uses his connections to develop research projects centering around brewing better coffee.