Selecting a Commercial Espresso Machine

Whether your new business is centered around a quality coffee program, or if it’s just one of many items in your repertoire, choosing an espresso machine is a major part of your buildout. For coffee focused business like cafés and roasters, your espresso machine may be the most important purchase you make for your bar. In this article we’ll break down some key factors in deciding what machine is right for your bar. 

Your Coffee Identity

We talk about it in our 5 Things document that you may have already read, but coffee identity is key to working out machine purchasing choices. If you are a coffee focused café or roaster, your espresso machine says a lot about your business to the customer. You’ll likely be placing your machine in front of the customer on the bar, and you might even expect that they’ll want to interact with their barista. You’ll probably also have a skilled staff that can effectively use a more complex machine and manual steam wand for milk drinks. In this instance, a powerful, multi-group mahine from a brand your customers will recognize is probably what you’re looking for. But what about the bakery, bar, or restaurant that wants to offer cappuccinos and lattés? In this instance, it’s likely that you’ll want simpler, easy to use options with less concern for aesthetic. You may also expect a lower volume of orders as well.

This aspect of machine selection is less scientific than elements like utility access, volume, and space concerns. With that said, working out what this identity looks like and how to think about that in relation to machine choice is going to be key. This distinction relates to other coffee equipment as well, and should be informed by (and inform) the way you think about the other sections of this article. One of the first questions you should answer that’s directly tied to this question is a major one that will change your decision flow for the rest of the process: Superauto or Semi-Automatic?

Super or Semi

Superautomatic espresso machines simplify the brewing process immensely. With just a few button presses and minimal user interaction your staff could be making lattes and espresso left and right. These machines are typically on the higher end of the cost spectrum, but can usually be highly customized to include elements like a built in refrigeration unit for milk, and varying degrees of menu control. This type of machine is a great option for restaurants and bars, because they make solid drinks without a high degree of staff training. On the flipside, the more hands-off approach could be a turn off to more discerning customers. On top of that, superautos often can’t recreate distinct dialing in for single origins and other more adventurous coffees.

For the coffee focused business, the best solution will likely be a semi-automatic machine. These machines are distinct from a manual machine because they use a pump to create pressure, rather than a large, manually operated lever. Semi-autos are generally preferred over manuals because they offer a degree of programmability and aren’t as tiring to operate over the course of a full work shift. These machines *do* require a degree of knowledge to successfully operate though. Rather than simply push a button, a barista must grind, tamp, brew, and steam milk effectively to create a quality drink. With all of that said, a skilled barista using a semi-automatic machine will likely outperform a superauto 9 times out of 10. Further, coffee focused customers will always prefer the human touch to the machine. For these reasons, semi-autos typically make great options for coffee shops and cafés with a focus on their coffee service.

Space, Utilities, and Workflow

There’s a world of articles that could be written on planning your behind the bar flow, but for now we’ll just tackle how that might result in selecting an espresso machine. The first thing to consider is workspace. No matter what you do, it’s likely that space behind your bar will be limited. One of the first things you should plan is where your espresso machine fits into that space, and by making that choice early and planning around that decision you’ll save yourself headaches after you open. 

One major consideration for physical placement of the machine is where your grinder will fit in. You will want to keep your grinders close to the machines they service, especially for espresso. Ideally, your baristas will have room to grind and tamp and then place the portafilter in the brew group of the espresso machine without needing to turn around or walk anywhere. This keeps traffic behind the counter to a minimum, minimizes accidents, and streamlines the flow and timing of getting drinks to customers. You’ll also want to minimize the distance from the machine to the serving counter to minimize spills and drops. Obviously this changes when you’re working in a restaurant or other table service establishment, and in that instance you probably have your espresso machine off of the front bar as well. Still, keeping the grinder near the machine is important for workflow.

How does this affect the machine that you buy? In ways as simple as the dimensions of that machine. Making sure your new brewer will fit along with a grinder and tamping mat is key, and different machines take up different amounts of room. Another consideration is the number of groups you want on the machine. A single group will only be able to handle programming for one type of espresso, but with trained staff you’ll be able to serve a range of beans from one machine by having them make manual adjustments to shot timing and pre-infusion. Multiple groups can also allow for multiple baristas to work at once, which is especially useful in high volume shops. In this instance planning workflow and counter space is even more important to accommodate multiple baristas.

Next, access to water and power is a big deal. Obviously you’ll need a lot of power to run a commercial espresso machine. It’s key to ensure that your power lines to your machine’s space can handle the load of the machine. You’ll also want to plan for plumbing the machine into a water line, and have a sink nearby for washing pitchers and other equipment. These considerations matter less for machine selection than machine placement, but keeping all of this in mind will help you set up for success while choosing a machine.

Parts and Installation

At Seattle Coffee Gear we work hard to put you in contact with technicians for installation and support. With that said, it’s important to make sure that you can get parts and maintenance assistance for whatever machine you purchase. This is often a problem with older machines purchased used, or with more obscure brands. It’s key to make sure that there is a local technician that can work on your machine when you need them to. Working with SCG is a good first step, as we can handle finding someone for you that knows the machine you’ve purchased, and we work with them to find parts if they need.

Volume

One of the biggest questions we always get about commercial equipment is “how many shots can this machine pull per hour?” For a commercial machine, the answer is usually “more than you could physically serve.” This is because commercial machines usually feature multiple boilers at large volumes that can be physically impossible to outrun by even a highly skilled barista. Volume only really becomes an issue if you have multiple baristas pulling shots and steaming milk simultaneously on a machine without the boilers to handle it. It’s key to note that it’s highly unlikely for this to occur in even the busiest coffee shops. For this reason, we recommend prioritizing reliability, performance, price, and size over going too big on volume. 

Ratings

One thing to ensure before you consider a machine for your business is that it carries the proper NSF rating to be used commercially. This is an element that changes based on location, as some counties and cities are much more lenient on what kind of equipment you can use. For this reason, we have customers hoping to use smaller home machines in coffee carts and restaurants, and we recommend strongly against this. Even if your area allows for a wider range of machines, an NSF rating guarantees that the machine will be safe and capable of keeping up with a commercial environment. This rating usually means that it’s a commercially built machine designed to handle more volume. Finally, you also future proof your business against possible changes to code down the line. It is still important though, to get a firm understanding of the existing codes in your area in case there are other requirements for using a machine commercially. 

Brand

Many new and prospective business owners think strongly in terms of brand. Whether it’s a preference for an old standby or a trendy new machine, some customers get their heart set on a brand name before they think about the things we’ve discussed in this article so far. It’s important to let go of preconceived notions about brands before you begin searching for your commercial espresso machine. Why? Because brands focus on different aspects of their machines, and focus different machines entirely, to different users. 

Some brands seek to deliver on versatility and ease of use, allowing for programming and customization of the brewing process. Other brands look to provide the most reliable, easy to maintain machines on the market. While we seek to guide customers to machines that achieve as much of this as possible, we find often that different brands are a good fit for different customers. For these reasons, brand is definitely a thing to consider, but you should do it later on in your process, after you’ve answered a few other questions about where you’re headed on your commercial espresso journey.

Where To Go From Here

The concepts laid out in this article aren’t the full picture of everything that you should consider when selecting a commercial machine, but they are a good starting point, and with these things in mind you’ll be more equipped to work with a consultant to make more decisions on what machine will be a good fit for you. One way to get the most out of your time with a consultant is to answer the following questions before you speak with them:

  • Do I want a superautomatic or semi-automatic machine?
  • Will my machine be placed on the front of the bar, back of the bar, or in a kitchen or other space?
  • What are the dimensions of the area I have for espresso equipment?
  • How many groups do I anticipate needing?
  • Will I have experienced staff with a high degree of training to operate the equipment?
  • Will there be a sink within arm’s reach of my espresso brewing area?
  • Do I want my bar staff to be able to interact with customers while preparing their drink?

By answering these questions you can help consultants like Seattle Coffee Gear’s get a head start on a recommendation for you. 

This process can seem daunting and exhausting, and truthfully, it is. But it is also worth it. Delivering a great product to your customer will only be helped by taking the time to get your equipment purchases right, and depending on your business, your espresso machine may be the most important thing you purchase.

 

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