Convenience stores brewing coffee

JAPAN - Sales of freshly brewed coffee at major convenience stores have been brisk, as customers seem eager to get their hands on a cup of real coffee quickly and at a reasonable price. With each chain offering a different product lineup, finding the best cup of joe from among the current crop of offerings can be an interesting challenge.

Businesspeople were lined up recently in front of a coffee machine at a FamilyMart convenience store in Toshima Ward, Tokyo. "The coffee here tastes fresh, and it has richness and a pleasant aroma," said a 30-year-old woman. "I buy it every day."

FamilyMart Co. purchases quality coffee beans from contractor farms in Brazil. As of the end of January, the average daily sales per store were more than twice its initial projections, according to its merchandising division.

Lawson Inc. launched its current brewed coffee service three years ago. A store employee personally serves coffee to customers, rather than treating it as a self-service item. Lawson offers 10 kinds of coffee, including cafe latte. "We plan to offer more sandwiches and sweets that go well with coffee, and we want to increase the number of stores that serve coffee," an official from its merchandising and logistics division said.

Seven-Eleven Japan Co. introduced drip coffee machines that were jointly developed with Fuji Electric Co. Its coffee tastes less acidic and bitter, aiming for a simpler, more drinkable brew that has been enjoying popularity among a wide range of customers.

The total number of cups sold between January last year and the end of this February is expected to reach 450 million. "We plan to ensure maximum flavor when we reevaluate our coffee beans," an official from the public relations department said.

Aid from hi-tech machines

According to a leading coffee chain, the boom is mainly due to coffee machines with such advanced functions as grinding and dripping. In addition to their falling prices, such machines can serve authentic, freshly grounded coffee in as fast as 30 to 45 seconds.

In the 1990s, US-based coffee chain Starbucks began to gain popularity, leading to the common sight of people drinking coffee while walking. Meanwhile, people have become accustomed to the self-service coffee at family restaurants and other places since coffee machines have become widespread. These factors have benefited convenience stores.

Doutor Coffee Co., a leader in the coffee industry, welcomed such success at convenience stores, saying, "This is a chance to expand the market."

According to data from such institutes as the International Coffee Organization, Japan was the world's fourth-largest consumer of coffee in 2012. However, its annual per-capita coffee consumption that year, 3.36 kilograms, was less than that of the United States and all European countries outside of the United Kingdom, which is famous for its tea culture. As the number of businesses selling coffee increases, the market may see further expansion.

Goes well with sushi

The restaurant industry has also been entering the coffee business. Sukiya, a chain of gyudon beef bowl restaurants under Zensho Holdings Co., has been offering coffee made from quality East Timor beans priced at 100 yen including tax since 2008.

Last December, giant sushi restaurant chain Kura-Zushi started serving four kinds of coffee including hot coffee priced at 157 yen with tax. The chain aimed for freshness in its coffee, assuming customers would drink it after eating sushi, and at the same time did not try to eliminate its richness.

Although some stores still serve bitter coffee that has been boiled down, the time has come when authentic fresh coffee can be found almost everywhere, thanks to the entry of convenience stores into the coffee business.