Are these cups all worth the same? What are the factors that determine the value of a cup of coffee? (Image courtesy of Henry Hargreaves and Coffee Cups of the World)

Cape Town, 2015: What does a cup of coffee cost?

The highlights:

- Most expensive cup: R34.80.
- Cheapest cup: R19.00.
- Average price per cup: R23.35 for a double shot espresso with milk.

A penny for your thoughts

When you sell a single product to hundreds of people each day, you get to hear a lot of thoughts on what that product should or shouldn’t cost. You also get a glimpse into how people value that product. In the case of a cup of coffee, the metrics for determining value are as bizarre as they are varied. Here are some real thoughts (some obvious, and others not) shared by customers looking to share their well conceived notions of value:

  • “R23.00? For such a small cup?”
  • “That [latte art] is beautiful. You should charge more for art like that.”
  • Customer: “You’re overcharging us.”
    Barista: “I’m sorry ma’am. What should we be charging?”
    Customer: “Never over R16.00.”
    Barista: “But what about inflation?”
    Customer: “No.”
  • Customer: “Are your coffees FairTrade? It’s very important that you pay the farmers more money for the coffee. Also… your coffees are too expensive.”
  • “This coffee is incredible. And you’re cheaper than Wimpy! Why is that?”
  • Customer: “R23.00? Sjoe! That’s a bit greedy.
    Barista: “Why is it greedy? Do you know what it costs to produce that cup of coffee?”
    Customer: “No. R23.00 is greedy.”
    Barista: “Did you know that more than 100 cherries were picked by hand in order to make that cup of coffee for you?”
    Customer: “R23.00 is greedy.”

With all these thoughts being tossed out each day, I thought I would set out to develop some sort of process by which one could value a cup of coffee in our beautiful city. But the more questions I asked surrounding the accepted value of a cup of coffee, the muddier the issue became. It appeared impossible to determine any such framework or rationale through which both customer and purveyor could arrive at the same conclusion surrounding the correct “fair trade” value for a cup of coffee. And so it was that I abandoned the quest to discover what a cup of coffee should cost and turned my attentions instead to what a cup of coffee actually does cost. But before one can do that, one has to define what one means by “a cup of coffee”.

A latte by any other name…

It seemed logical to design the survey around the most commonly ordered drink amongst urban Capetonian coffee lovers. As it turns out, this drink is milk-and-espresso combination ranging in size from 220ml through to 350ml. Regardless of what the drink was called (“flat white”, “cappuccino”, “latte” etc.) its ingredients remained roughly the same. One cafe’s flat white was another cafe’s latte, which was another cafe’s cortado, so quoting the price of particular drinks (IE flat whites only) didn’t really tell me what I wanted to know, which was “what are customers willing to pay for coffee in Cape Town?” For this reason, I simply took the highest of the prices listed on each menu for a cortado, flat white, or latte, in order to more accurately communicate how much people are willing to pay for an espresso and milk drink.

UPDATE for those who feel I have slandered their favourite cafe:
My rationale was that by always communicating the higher end of the price spectrum at each cafe, I would get a better spread of the prices across the city.

While there were discrepancies between the quantities of milk used per cup from café to café, these discrepancies never amounted to more than 15% of the total cost of production.

In contrast, the cost of the coffee used in each cup varied by as much as 400% from the cheapest coffee per KG through to the most expensive coffee served in any café beverage. So it seemed justifiable to set fairly strict parameters for the coffee content, but far more lax parameters for the milk content.

But then…that is irrelevant to the conversation. Because we aren’t trying to figure out what coffee should cost, but what it does cost.

Method and Results

The experiment laid out reduced itself to me trawling online menus and making phone calls to restaurant managers (wherever said online menu was ambiguous). The result was a price listing compiled from 50 cafés or eateries around Cape Town.

The List

DISCLAIMER: To reiterate, the prices listed here may refer to a latte, or a flat white. I have simply chosen to list the higher of the two prices in order to try and get a bigger spread of value propositions.

R34.80 — Spur (EDIT: Spur don’t offer a double shot latte, and were only willing to sell me a single shot latte, plus the cost of an espresso. I just included it because I thought it was amusing. The actual cost of a single shot capuccino is R18.90. Apologies if I have offended any people with a taste for life.)

R26.00 — Giovanni’s
R26.00 — Kauai
R26.00 — Primi Piatti
R26.00 — Woolies Café
R25.00 — Bootleggers
R25.00 — DearMe
R25.00 — Espresso Lab
R25.00 — Jarryd’s
R25.00 — Loading Bay
R25.00 — Origin
R25.00 — The House of Machines
R25.00 — The Larder
R25.00 — Tribe
R25.00 — Truth
R24.50 — Mischu
R24.00 — BeanThere
R24.00 — Caffe Neo
R24.00 — Exclusive Books café
R24.00 — Illy Café
R24.00 — Kamili
R24.00 — Melissa’s
R24.00 — Oways
R24.00 — Seattle
R24.00 — Starlings Café
R23.50 — Vida e Caffe
R23.00 — Café Magnifico
R23.00 — Café Paparazzi
R23.00 — Knead
R23.00 — Rosetta Roastery
R23.00 — Schoon de Companje
R23.00 — Wimpy
R22.90 — Mugg & Bean
R22.00 — Bacon on Bree
R22.00 — Culture Club
R22.00 — FEGO Café
R22.00 — Hard Pressed
R22.00 — Honest Chocolate Café
R22.00 — Limnos Bakers
R22.00 — Motherland
R22.00 — Rootbar
R21.00 — Hudson’s
R20.00 — Cassis
R20.00 — Clarke’s
R20.00 — Superette
R20.00 — The Blend
R20.00 — Yoco Eatery
R19.00 — Deluxe Coffeeworks
R19.00 — Field Office
R19.00 — Haas Café