“Just coffee”

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?


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.

What owners and manager wish baristas knew

I Started a thread on Barista Exchange that I feel will be hugely beneficial for baristas. Especially new baristas. I should note that I in no way think of myself as having achieved perfection in these things but I have, for ten years as a barista, learned some good lessons about them. And so as one who is still learning I hope you find this helpful.

With the exponential increase in baristas knowledge of crafting coffee the temptation may be to focus so much on the coffee that the shop crumbles around you. We are service providers. As professionals we must strive to achieve excellence in all the relevant facets of the coffee shop where in we practice our craft. A craft that is more than just the coffee but a craft of service and atmosphere.

Baristas need to earn the value they believe they deserve. We are blessed with great organizations like the BGA going to bat for the craft of the barista, yet it must be stated that the value that you desire to be associated with your job is something that must be earned daily by you. No organization can give it to you only your boss can. And no self respecting or barista respecting boss for that matter will just hand it to you because you can pour a tulip or because you win a competition. It is earned when mopping, when cashing out, when rotating stock. It is earned by exceeding your bosses expectations, by keeping a clean condiment station, by sweeping the walk and being nice to jerks.

If the barista craft is ever to be taken seriously we must start becoming more than just people who make coffee but people who create and maintain an excellent quality experience. This discussion is meant to direct the baristas attention to the street level reality of what it takes to make progress as and to attach value to the profession of  “Barista”.


Below is what I posted:

If you could….List off the top three things that you wish baristas would get a grip on.

Often times the day to day of the bar is hurried and thoughts of “I really need to tell them_____” quickly forgotten when a order gets delivered, a fire needs to be put out etc.

Quite frankly, many managers and owners hold their tongue much more than they ought to and this leads to a tense work environment, un met expectations, and a drought of communication.

I have been on bar for about ten years now in many different bars. Now that I am a manager and trainer I try to communicate to my baristas the things I wish my managers had communicated to me and pass along the good stuff that they DID communicate to me.

If you are serious about your job as a barista then you need to heed the advice of those who post here as it will most likely determine whether or not you get a raise or not…or whether you are viewed as a valuable asset at all.

I will start:

1. Don’t argue with me. Just follow instructions and bring up concerns later.

I love feed back and discussions but their is a fine line between honest questions and suggestions and just being contrary. Even if your Boss is wrong, they are still your boss and your arguing a “right” point does not make you an asset to your boss it makes you a liability. Best thing to do is to ask honest questions, gain understanding, and follow the directive. If you have a better way then ask for a moment to chat and bring it up as a way to enhance what your manager has already worked hard to put in place. If you come at it like you want to tear down and re-build…then good luck.

2. Be self directed and innovative.

If I have to tell you to clean, or stock, or wash etc…fine you are a new hire and you are simply learning the ropes…but if that continues… even if you follow instructions to a “T” you will not be viewed as an asset to the company but as one who needs to be baby sat constantly. You may have a check list on your computer or hanging in the mop closet. But if you don’t work beyond that, if you only do what is explicitly asked of you…you are not going anywhere with me. The type of person your manager is looking for is the person who automatically does what is on the check list without really ever needing the list. This is a behavior that CAN be learned but is difficult to instill in a workforce that expects too much too soon. You must earn you place.

3. It is not just about the coffee

Ok. I remember working at Gimme! Coffee years ago. And in my review time I always did well in my drinks and efficiency behind the bar etc. In fact I became a trainer at gimme later on…but I consistently had bad marks when it came to the up keep of the greater coffee bar, ie: condiment station, stocking, cleaning tables etc. This was frustrating for me because I was, and still am, even more so, passionate about the quality. But it was to a fault. I had blinders on to the world around me. I hid behind the machine.I strove to improve this and gradually learned that it is more than just the coffee people come for, it is the service, and atmosphere too. I needed to channel my energies to those things if I ever hoped to be a professional in any sense of the word.

Because I went through it myself, now I can see it in baristas and call it early before it becomes ingrained. The specialty coffee world does not need any one trick ponies we need efficient and flexible work horses.

So then, you, though you are passionate about pour-over, and latte art, and awesome espresso. You need to realize that you may have blinders on to the other areas that need your attention. The sooner you realize this, own it, and correct it, the sooner your boss will take notice of you. You will be seen as a MVP because you embrace the total package and don’t just retreat to the espresso machine.

So then, managers and owners…what would you add to these?

What do you want Baristas to know that will make them valuable to you and to the greater industry?

Post your top three HERE

Latte Art…the unfortunate ( but cool) distraction.

In the weeks after winning the Late Art comp in Vegas I have been thinking about latte arts place in our industry. Certainly I am pigeon holed as a latte artist, by my own doing I might add, but I am inclined to think of myself as a barista first and latte artist as a bi-product. I remember when the guys at Cafe Artigiano were winning the Millrock Comp. and actually stepped away in order to shift the public’s focus on them from latte art to the entire craft of coffee. Sammy is one of the best Latte Artists in the world yet what he was aware of , and what I believe every barista out there needs to be aware of…is that latte art can be a HUGE distraction.

You get praise from almost everyone around you even if you are just moderately “ok” at it.  No criticism = no growth.  It is much harder to make an outstanding shot than it is to impress your customer with a leaf.  You can get a big head and concerning your skills make much ado about nothing. Where latte art in the hands of someone who has a healthy respect for both their integrity and their ability to violate their integrity will never allow Latte Art to be anything more in their  mind than an enhancement to the beverage…not the point of the beverage.

When you earn a customers respect and praise  through TASTE…not ART …then you are starting to achieve something.