A Critical Coffee Community: An open letter to specialty cafes
Over the last week there has been much discussion over the blog post by Kevin Knox taking the “3rd wave” community to task for what he believes is a damaging system of both brewing and purchasing coffee. I personally disagree with much of what was said. Yet it makes me pause to think…do we come off as “narcissistic” or “elitist” to the customer? To me it all begs the question, are we as a community open to criticism? Do we pursue it or do we run from it?
There is a tendency for us to judge a cafe based almost entirely on two things…
1. The impressiveness of the bars design and build out: lets face it…if a bar opened in NYC, PDX, or where ever… and it had a Strada, with 3 Roburs, a pour over bar serving the best roasted coffee around AND had a USBC regional champ working some shifts…we would almost immediately assume that they are doing a great job with little thought to what the customer may experience. Truth is…we have no clue until we are a regular customer there.
2. The quality of the roasted coffee: this one is tricky because the raw product is so important…yet we focus so much on a false humility stance of…”getting out out of the coffee’s way” (which in some sense is true) it creates a sort of “mission accomplished” attitude even before we brew it.
What is missing here?
—The quality and consistency of the bars staff and the brewed product as experienced by the customer. Also how it translates to an over all friendly and valuable exchange and experience that breeds loyalty.—-This we do not put much value on when rendering judgments about which cafes are best.
Problem is that we in the “third wave” coffee community have no system of critique by which we can objectively judge the quality of the bars that we tout as being the best. Mine included. It is a dangerous blind spot. Now, individually we all say that we want to know if there is a problem…but as an industry we have only systems that reward or critique individuals or roasters but not cafes. These matter very little to a customer. Mainly because we have all been to a bar where a star barista was employed using award winning coffee and were served a drink that was pretty bad and with a side of attitude. But we blow it off because we are so tuned into the hype that it warps what sense of urgency such an experience should elicit. The customer however does not have such a pair of rose colored glasses…they see our bar much more clearly than we do…but they have the least say in determining which cafes we should be held up as examples. I believe that the central issue that the Knox post brings up for me is that of perceived value and value delivered.
Customers will not suffer an increase in prices etc. if we do not also drastically increase the standards to which we hold ourselves at the cafe level. Though I have had a myriad of great experiences in famous trail blazing shops…I have also had many many bad drinks and fantastically poor service from the same reportedly great shops. Shops that we tell people to go to when we find out they are traveling close by. Imagine if the Micheline Guide suggested restaurants in such a way…you would arrive and the food would be spotty at best, service apathetic and after the whole ordeal was done you would not only have lost faith in the Guide…you would also have a sullied impression of the type of food which was served there. Now whether or not that is fair is beside the point. This is the reality of our current situation. With all the energy we put into competition and traveling to this event and that event …we would do well to put an equal or greater amount of energy into bringing our “A” game at home instead of being so concerned about looking good in the eyes of our peers.
The reality is that we are way better at roasting quality coffee than we are at running quality cafes… and that will be the nail in our collective coffin if we do not start really getting honest , stop being so sensitive to critique, and start seeking out honest criticism. I hope that anyone who comes to my shop will tell me honestly what they think. How else can we improve if the only voice we ever hear is our own? Is it possible that what we have surrounded ourselves with are “Yes Men” and sycophants ?
How many of our most beloved shops ever use customer comment cards? How many of us ask the customer “how was the coffee?” and mean it? How concerned are we about honest feedback..even if it hurts? Would you tell a famous cafes staff or management about your disappointing experience? Or would you just assume that you are the one that needs to change because after all this is
“______ cafe” or “______ roasters”? I know it is hard for me. If a customer tells me that they hate a certain coffee I love…I feel something resembling indignation rise up in me. Something I have to fight…and then work at finding a coffee that they will love. The degree to which we are gracious and non hostile toward customers with “ignorant” questions or who ” just want coffee” is the degree to which we have successfully integrated empathy into our service mindset.
All this so ask, who is keeping our cafes accountable? We have to start innovating systems of reward and critique. It has to be industry wide and collectively accepted.
One small step we can take in the direction of building a system of cafe accountability is to make a commitment to not just sit on a disappointing experience and hold our tongue but every time but to constructively relay the experience to the appropriate people in charge. Also we must commit to relaying the positive experiences. I think if we all start getting honest with each other we will start to see a healthy community emerge. One that can be frank but do it out of genuine good intention in the best interest of the cafe. I have heard it said that: “The one who loves you the most, tells you the most truth “ ….The sooner we start really holding each other accountable the sooner the customer will reap the rewards of a greater over all experience forged by a collective concern for excellence in all areas, especially when it concerns our customers experience in our cafes.
It is not enough to just be a coffee community…we must be a critical coffee community.
Please note: Much of this is simply a working out of a relatively ambiguous idea. I would love input and thoughts on this subject as I do believe it is integral to our progress as a quality conscious community. These are just one baristas thoughts.