This is the Mack daddy of the whole business, your life blood. DO NOT SKIMP ON IT! However, having said that there is the line of overkill you do not need to cross either and that depends on your anticipated sales volume. I say, two group maximum, if you need more power or want a backup, get a one group as well.
The feasibility of a three or four group is great but it’s difficult to get more than one person working on them due to spacing of the group heads, etc. Ordinarily, you do not need more than one person pulling shots and making the espresso beverages anyway. It is almost impossible for one barista to use all four groups at one time so you be the judge! However that may be up to debate if you get REALLY busy. However, a two group is always my choice.
Semi-Automatic, Automatic or Super Automatic– Well my choice is always the automatic because you can program them to cut off a shot at 23 seconds, or whatever you choose but still do it manually.
Semi-Automatic – Requires manual shut off by the operator.
Automatic – Can program a shot duration or perform it manually.
Super Automatic – This machine will grind the beans, tamp, pull the shot, shut it off and even discard the used grounds. Yes, I am serious. Most *$ are using these to get bad coffee through their cattle call rushes. I believe you lose a lot of ‘art’ when you use one of these. They are also big bucks and costly to repair. If you have to send one for repair, you have just sent your grinder too so think twice.
Boiler capacity – large enough for a big rush, 9-14 liters should be sufficient. You cannot run out of steam or water in a rush and with a smaller boiler that will happen! Trust me on this from experience! L
As stated, you can get a used two group for back up just in case if you can afford it. If your new machine goes, you can get service out rather quick and most likely a replacement for the time yours is being fixed. But you might be down a few hours or at worst, a day or two till you can get service. That is all lost revenue. The backup will be well worth it. It can also be used as an overflow in times of extreme business!
Buy a machine based on the availability to get parts and service locally. Do not buy based on price alone, or ‘coolness’ or ‘features’ of a machine. They are all good these days. Features will not mean anything if you cannot get local service on your machine. Top machines, in my opinion are LaMarzocco and Nuovo Simonelli. I have three Simonellis.
The other thing to consider is getting one with a double boiler. This means that there is tank that holds the water which creates the steam and another tank that holds the water which is used for the shots. This system is supposed to ensure that the water for the shots stays consistent in temperature, allowing you to create the best quality you can. It also ensures that there is always enough water available to create steam. LaMarzocco is the only machine that employs this system, and their price reflects it.
However, depending on whom you talk to, the double boiler system is up for debate. Some say it is not a sure thing to keep the temperature constant because the second boiler is so small. I have not noticed any differences as I have worked on both machines. Nuova Simonelli’s and all the rest of the espresso machines have what is called a heat exchanger. That is, cold water is fed up to the heat exchanger and it is heated and ready for the group head to disperse it to pull a shot. I think they both work just as well. I say buy the machine that has what you need, not what you want but one that you know you can get parts and repairs for in the shortest amount of time.
In all reality, the choice to get a whole water system softener is going to depend on where you are located. In Central Texas, the water is VERY hard but I chose to not soften my whole water system, just for the espresso machine. If you are not familiar with hard water, this is what causes lime build-up. It’s a white, crusty looking build up that will kill your $8000 espresso machine. It clogs up the piping that in time, builds up to the point of the water not being able to get through. Then your machine needs to be completely taken apart and de-limed (aka de-scaled). Not pretty and not cheap!
I had my one group de-limed for about $900 in the beginning. The 2 group needed to be done but I actually tackled that one myself. What an experience! Avoid lime scale build-up by getting a water softener.
I say regardless of where you are you should get a water softener. Aqua Pure (formerly Cuno) makes an in-line water softener filter that will last for about 30-90 days based on your volume. The replacement filters are about $40, and can be bought by the case. This is not recommended for large volume stores as it can get costly. There are a variety of water softeners you can get, do some checking around.
I have clients using a softener called INOXDEP. It is a small, cylindrical shaped container that you add salted water (i.e. salt pellets) to every month or so. It’s kind of a small, manual version of a large, whole house-type water softener. I have this same softener and I love it; it works great. If you are to have a lot of kitchen equipment like an ice maker, dishwasher, etc you may want to consider getting a large water softener for the entire water supply. Or at least the cold water supply. I have another client that has only his hot water softened as he has a restaurant and he wanted to protect his dishwasher. The ice maker is on its own filter system and so is the espresso machine and coffee maker. So there are numerous ways you can go. Hard, bad, unfiltered water will not only kill the taste of your coffee but will kill your espresso machine and other expensive equipment. Do not overlook this! Ask me how I know!
Whole systems softeners cost about $2000-4000 and may be overkill for some, but worth it for you so you do not have to change out a filter monthly. Just replace the salt. You may want to talk to your city water department about the hardness and overall water quality so you can plan accordingly.
At any rate, some industry gurus will tell you to go to a water softener specialist or get reverse osmosis but in my opinion, that is overkill. Just take care of the water for your espresso and coffee and do not worry much about the faucets. In reality, a whole house-type water softener from Home Depot will work just fine if that is the way you want to go.
On a side note, be sure to test your water at least weekly to be sure it is in the soft zone. A company called Hach makes test strips under the “Softech” brand that will do the test job for you. You can get them online.
In my Ebook titled “Tony’s Coffee Shop Business Plan”, I take you step by step from start to finish: concept to open for your coffee shop. It is on sale for a limited time only and at any time I may take it down. Do yourself a favor and don’t start a coffee shop without it!