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Coffee Roasters Brewing Hot Growth

Posted 08/30/2011 02:54 PM ET

Top coffee roasters have been brewing up frothy results even as fans have had to shell out bigger bucks for their morning cup of Joe. Soaring bean costs have prompted price hikes over the past year or so from top coffee roasters, including Starbucks (SBUX), Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR) and Peet's Coffee & Tea (PEET). For the month of July, the retail price of roasted coffee was up 43.8% from the prior year to $5.55 a pound, the biggest spurt since June 1995, when the price soared 56.2%, according to the Department of Labor.

But by the end of 2009, that buffer had dwindled. The rise of Starbucks (SBUX) and other coffee chains was whipping up global demand. In addition, many of Brazil's farmers had turned to more lucrative crops, like soybeans. The coffee harvest was falling behind.

The increase is enough to cause sticker shock when combined with rising prices on everything from clothing to food and a struggling economy. But the higher price tags haven't stopped java lovers from buying their favorite brands.

All three players are enjoying strong sales and profit growth. In the most recent third quarter, Green Mountain's sales climbed 127% and earnings popped 158%. Starbucks' third-quarter sales rose 12% and earnings grew 24%, according to Thomson Reuters. Peet's saw sales increase 12% and earnings climb by 23% in its most recent second quarter.

"You have an industry that's been very capable of passing through rising commodity prices," said Canaccord Genuity analyst Scott Van Winkle. "They've probably been more successful at passing them through than the broader basket of food companies."

Price Declines

But the tide may well be turning. Green coffee futures prices have declined nearly 14% from their May 3 peak. The decrease caused J.M. Smucker (SJM) to cut the list price of its coffee products sold in the U.S., such as Folgers and Dunkin' Donuts, an average of 6%, it announced Aug. 16.

Kraft Foods (KFT) soon followed suit with a net decrease of 6% in the price of coffee in its U.S. on brands including Maxwell House and Yuban, effective Aug. 22.

Van Winkle expects other mainstream rivals to cut prices as well. He also expects lower bean prices to lead to better margins for coffee roasters and retailers.

"Demand is strong, and thus lower input costs, even with offsetting lower retail prices, is a net positive," he said in an email.

That healthy demand has to do with the popularity of coffee, which has enabled coffee roasters and retailers to thrive, despite the economy.

"It's clear consumers still consider their cup of coffee as something they're not willing to give up," said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic, a restaurant industry consulting firm.

He says consumers go in for the quality, variety of flavors and types of specialty beverages coffee chains have to offer.

Overall, he adds, the coffee chains have been doing a good job of marketing and selling more than just specialty beverages with items such as snacks and dessert.

He cites Starbucks, which features everything from tarragon chicken salad and turkey sandwiches to very berry coffee cake, in addition to its wide array of specialty coffee flavors and variety of drinks.

In addition to serving up strong sales and earnings, global same-store sales increased a healthy 8% from a year earlier, driven by a 6% rise in traffic and a 2% gain in the average ticket.

Green Mountain has enjoyed a long-running winning streak. The main driver of its business lies in its Keurig unit, which makes single-cup brewing systems for offices, homes and hotel rooms.

Its brewing system combines a pressurized hot-water brewer with varieties of portion packs called K-Cups. Green Mountain sells the K-Cups separately. The company offers more than 200 varieties of coffee, tea and other beverages in K-cups.

Keurig brewers have been piping hot. In 2010, Keurig was No. 1 in coffee maker dollar share across all retail channels in America, according to research firm NPD Group.

Green Mountain's specialty coffee arm produces, markets and sells coffee, tea, hot cocoa and other beverages in its K-Cups as well as whole bean and ground coffee in bags and packs sold mainly to wholesale channels such as supermarkets.

The continuing consumer adoption of the Keurig brewing system helped propel growth in the third quarter, says spokeswoman Suzanne DuLong. Roughly 82% of the quarter's sales were from the Keurig brewing system and its recurring K-Cup sales. The remainder came from bagged coffee and sales from its office coffee services business.

Also, during the quarter, the company had ramped up K-Cup production capacity, which helped it fill some pent-up demand from the prior two quarters when capacity was constrained.

K-Cup sales popped 136%. Van Winkle credits the big jump in sales to the company's improved ability to meet K-Cup demand.

This year, Green Mountain signed pacts to add Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts coffee to the K-Cup lineup.

It started selling the Dunkin' Donuts-branded K-Cups in Dunkin' Donuts restaurants the first week of August.

Starbucks coffee K-Cup portion packs will be available in grocery stores and specialty retailers in the U.S. starting in November, it was announced Tuesday. They'll be available in Canadian stores in March 2012 and through Starbucks' and Green Mountain's websites next August.

It plans to have the packs at Starbucks stores in the U.S. and Canada in late 2012.

"Green Mountain will certainly get an incremental boost from selling K-Cups for a major brand like Starbucks," said Van Winkle. "The real payoff is what the Starbucks brand can do for consumer adoption of (Keurig) brewers."

Raised Estimate

He raised his estimate of brewer shipments for 2012 by almost 1 million brewers as a result of the Starbucks brand being available in the portion pack.

Starbucks plans to build sales of its branded K-Cups to $1 billion over time, said Jeff Hansberry, president of Starbucks Global Consumer Products group in a statement.

Tristano says making its brand available in K-Cups is one way Starbucks is competing with consumers making coffee at home.

It remains to be seen how a prolonged soft patch in the economy will impact coffee roasters. Van Winkle says the impact on coffee in general is going to be lower.

"It's not going to derail the adoption phase of Keurig brewers," he said.

He notes that when the economy rolled over at the end of 2008, it didn't impact the growth rate of Keurig brewer sales.

"I don't think it will change this time around," he adds.

Tristano says the trends are likely to remain positive for the coffee chains.

But the jury is still out on the direction bean prices will take in the near term.

Shawn Hackett, president of Hackett Financial Advisors says roasters' recent price cuts were "premature" and they may well have to reverse that later in the year and get prices back up again.

He expects bean prices will go much higher heading into the later part of the year, when supplies will be "record tight."


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