Whenever I hear these two words I am reminded of something I teach in my customer loyalty class at Coffee Fest. It is a fact that most people have been hurt by coffee in the past. They come into yours and my cafe with baggage accumulated over the years from countless experiences and interactions, not only with coffee, but the people who sell it. Based on the current landscape of specialty coffee I would say that most peoples interactions have left them feeling taken advantage of and treated poorly. The promise of a special experience turns into a very awkward situation much like that experienced by psychics who are exposed on live television. Instead of saying “you are right it was a con I actually don’t know” they instead default to the position that those who mistakenly trusted them are somehow the ones confused and then fiercely stick by their original false assertions ad absurdum. Bringing this back to coffee, when we promise a special experience and then fail to deliver, once we are faced with he truth of our own inadequacies we have an odd tendency to default into a psuedo-logical and dogmatic state of denial…”but…I use “x” coffee” , “My whole staff won a competition” , “I made this with latte art” , “it was pulled to the correct weight ratio, temperature, etc….” , “I though it tasted good” blah, blah, blah. etc….we search our mind and all we can find are technical reasons why we are right and that “The customer surely must need to be educated”. No, sadly it is we who need to be educated. We need to be educated in some ways, how to be human again. After being “geeks” for so long is it possible we have lost our ability to empathize with a normal person who wants “just coffee”? I submit that customer confusion and dissatisfaction is our greatest tool as it is the most abundant source of highly valuable feedback we have. Instead of saying, “what can I do to make the customer like what I like” we should react to customer befuddlment with “what can I do to create an experience for this person that will first make them feel valued, then satisfy their desire to buy and enjoy coffee from me.” That is after all why they are there. They have “bought in” thus far. But we have a tendency to use a weaponized form of “us vs. them’ mentality to throw cold water on the kindling.
We are at a pivotal crossroads in specialty coffee. So many of us now are in leadership positions in cafes, as trainers, as wholesale reps etc. We have the ability to apply our resources where we want based on what we see as valuable. Are we secure enough in our choice of career and our abilities as a coffee professionals that we can now focus on purposefully, even competitively developing hospitality in our establishments? We must first bear the burden that is placed on us, whether fairly or unfairly, and that is the emotional baggage of customers hurt by coffee and its professionals. Now is the time to work on winning their hearts and minds with warmth and love equally as hard, if not more so, than we work at perfecting our bar skills, sourcing, anddrink techniques. We, specialty coffee shops, are not in my mind, included yet in the hospitality industry. We have to earn our place in the mind of the consumer and that does not start first with great product. That starts with great staff who deliver to the customer what every customer wants…comfort, security, feeling valued, and being taken seriously. Use and view the weight of the customers confusion or skepticism not as a burden but as momentum pushing you forward, increasing your commitment to the path of heart felt hospitality. If you are like me …sometimes you fear that you may swing the pendulum too far in the direction of accommodation so that you start compromising quality. But this is nothing more than an excuse to continue being selfish and lazy. It is my job and yours to innovate ways to both have a great hospitable service and atmosphere where the guest is valued, listened to, and fulfilled AND to do that through the lens of high standards in coffee service. Of course it is not “just coffee” the very statement undoes itself as it connotates a deeper meaning than what the user believes it to. “Just coffee” is a plea for accessibility, hospitality, quality, simplicity, and civility. The question is , do we hear it? And if so what are we prepared to do about it?