OCS Operator of the Year: Matt Burr, Percasso Coffee & Bottled Water Service, Inc., Portland, Ore.

Customers in the Pacific Northwest are passionate about coffee. To meet their expectations, a service provider has to have a high “coffee IQ.” They also have to be willing to make sure the customer’s coffee drinking experience is as fulfilling as they would find in any of the sit-down establishments that are omnipresent in that part of the country.

Percasso Coffee & Bottled Water Service Inc. views being in the coffee business as more than a commitment to customer service; it requires an ongoing coffee education. This allows the company to stay one step ahead of customers about the ever-changing world of high quality coffee.

This may be challenging, but Percasso has learned that educated customers, well served, are loyal customers.

For 17 years, under the direction of founder Matt Burr, the 2011 Automatic Merchandiser OCS Operator of the Year, Percasso has prided itself on its service and coffee expertise. The name of the company is intended to convey the artisan-like image the company presents. The artistic imagery can be found on all marketing materials. It also reflects the company’s commitment to personal customer service. A live person is on hand during working hours to answer phone calls.

Percasso sets itself apart from the competition by only carrying locally roasted coffee.

This past year, coffee prices have been volatile. Burr and his team have been able to keep their customers satisfied by educating them about coffee prices and offering options.

Entering OCS on a part time basis

Burr fell in love with the business after working for another OCS operation on a part-time basis. As a graduate in finance from Oregon State University, he quickly learned he wasn’t happy spending his days in an office.

The OCS business gave him an opportunity to be out and about, talking with customers and seeing different types of businesses. He also liked being able to have control over the quality of the service he provided. “It was important to be able to not only make the sale, but to fulfill what you talked about,” he said.

In 1993, at age 31, with limited resources, Burr bought some accounts from his employer and struck out on his own. Working from his garage, he delivered national name brand, fractional pack coffee and knocked on doors to find new customers.

He also offered Coca-Cola Breakmate, the countertop soda dispenser, which proved beneficial to his early development. Coca-Cola provided him customer leads, and the Breakmates got Burr into some larger accounts. He eventually placed 75 Breakmates.

The tech boom in the late 1990s also helped grow the business. In 1998, Burr hired his first employee and moved out of his garage into a warehouse.

He expanded into 5-gallon bottled water, snacks and single-serve cold beverages.

While Burr expanded his product offerings, he paid close attention to the rising quality of his central product — coffee. Starbucks was changing customer appreciation of coffee, and in the Pacific Northwest, Starbucks was being offered to OCS customers on an exclusive basis by one of Burr’s largest competitors.

“It (Starbucks) did change the coffee we delivered,” he said. “People’s expectations changed. They began to appreciate flavor and body a lot more. We were on our way to selling a lot more gourmet coffee.”

In order to compete against Starbucks, Burr found roasters who could compete with Starbucks’ quality. “I had the answers,” Burr said.

As customer appreciation of coffee improved, Burr moved away from fractional pack coffee, focusing more on 1-pound bagged coffee.

When meeting with a new customer, Burr and his team provide a blind coffee tasting with five or six different samples to taste. “They get to decide what coffee works best for them,” he said.

Burr and his team try to invite as many people at the location to participate in the taste test as possible.

When servicing accounts, Percasso sales associates clean the brewers.

Every six months, they suggest a different coffee to keep things interesting.

Percasso targets customers that purchase 10 pounds and more of coffee per month. At this volume, they can get a good product at a fair price.

The Internet has been a major factor in the company’s growth. Percasso launched its first Website in 2005, and recently upgraded it, using the services of a professional graphic design company.

The company has a customer satisfaction survey on its Website, seeking a 1 to 10 ranking in eight areas.

More customer choices

In response to rising coffee prices, this past year Percasso added a fifth local roaster to its mix. Customers can choose an alternative that allows them to keep their price and still have a great quality coffee.

Customer education continues as new products are introduced to the market.

Cause related coffees and organic coffee have proven very popular with customers, Burr said. He estimated that 25 percent of Percasso’s coffee volume is organic coffee and 75 percent is direct trade.

The company has also found a big demand for compostable cups; half of the customers take compostable cups.

In response to client demand, Percasso recently invested in its first automatic espresso vending machine that grinds whole beans and delivers a selection of eight different coffee drinks such as espresso, caffe latte, cappuccino, mochaccino and chocolate latte.

While the OCS business has become more competitive in recent years, Percasso has proven there is still a place for operators that emphasize personal attention to customer needs. The company has earned a loyal following by providing attentive service, educating customers about the quality of its products, and committing itself to ongoing coffee education.