Opting In

Restaurants have a complex set of rituals, etiquette and laws governing the interaction between the establishment and the guest. Jeffrey Steingarten (and I wish I could quote it but my copy is out on loan) talks about how the best waiters are so good that they become invisible. Plates arrive, glasses are filled and the table is cleaned without any unnecessary interuption. This idea being that people come to restaurants for two reasons: for food and for company. If making sure each of these is as enjoyable as possible is the goal then you can work back and justify the seemingly curious rules and laws laid out in fine dining.

When it comes to coffee I think many places that want to improve service tend to take inspiration from restaurant service, but people come to a cafe for different reasons, expecting a different experience and if we just crowbar restaurant service into a cafe setting then it is going to be very awkward.

Success, from a commercial point of view, requires selling coffee to a great many people every day. It also requires selling coffee to a lot of people who really just want the nicest way possible to get caffeine into their system. They want little more than to exchange money for a cup of something both caffeinated and enjoyable, and to go about their day. Outside of coffee we are just like them when we buy lots of different things.

When it comes to interaction, one key idea for me I would call the “opt-in” moment. When you go to a high end restaurant you (knowingly or not) agree to a number of conditions, from how you are expected to act to how you are expected to interact.  You understand that the portions may not be very large, and they may be hesitant if you ask for ketchup.  For the server to detail ingredients in great length is acceptable (if interesting!) where it may not be in a small neighbourhood place.  Through a series of cues (both verbal and non-verbal) we have an expectation of the experience before we commit to it. a

With a cafe we will struggle to really interact with consumers, to talk to them about the coffees, the producers and nuance until they agree to let us. If I am working a bar I can’t just start talking to someone excessively about the coffee without their consent. The problem for many cafes that want to push service forward is that they don’t have an “opt-in” moment or space.

Whether we like it or not, a lot of the public’s expectation comes from their experiences with larger coffee chains.  The process of queuing, ordering and collecting is a familiar one – it is routine.  Many cafes choose to model the experience of buying coffee on the same process.  Very rarely, in a branded outlet, will anyone say anything other than the bare minimum to you – you know what the barista will say, and when they will say it.  If they didn’t know what was going to happen, it is unlikely they’d be brashly yabbering into a mobile phone as they queued.

A question from a customer is a great opt-in moment, but without that it is a very dangerous assumption that the customer wants to know anything. By choosing to start talking about the coffee you are assuming a great deal about their mood, their needs and their level of comfort interacting with strangers. I wish I was always in that mood where everything is fascinating, but sometimes I just don’t care. I want that piece of steak/usb memory stick/that shirt without needing to know any more than I do about it.  Getting more information than you want, especially without asking for it, can be an irritating, incredibly annoying experience and can permanently damage a relationship between a customer and a business.

One of the best pieces on coffee service was by David Schomer. It was wonderfully practical and demonstrated a great sympathy for how his customers felt when they walked in the door. He has doubtless served more cups of coffee to customers over the years than just about anyone writing about coffee today and I think it shows through.

I think there are many opportunities to create other opt-in moments. We can create areas in a cafe where customers can clearly see that they are going to get a different experience, and by sitting there they agree to us doing something a little different. If you walk into Tea Smith in Spitalfields and sit down at the long bar, read the menu and chat to the staff then it is pretty clear that it is not going to be builder’s tea with 2 sugars, but a more involved tea experience. You understand that it is absolutely fine to ask your server anything about the tea, you can ask for guidance without feeling stupid and that as they brew the tea they may tell you more about it, pass you lids to smell after the brew and throw out little bits of info about what you are drinking. Watching them prepare the tea right in front of you, dialling in brewing temperatures, carefully monitoring time, almost invites you to question the process.

Giving people a little taster is another good opportunity to get their permission to talk to them a little more.  You could argue that this kind of persuasion is a little manipulative (I’m sure you’ve all read Robert Cialdini‘s book), but if you are asking for nothing more than their attention for a few seconds then I think that is fair.

As an industry we are desperate to inform our customers.  Their increased understanding is essential to the success of our businesses.  We must, however, give them opportunities to give their consent for us to do this.

  1. As a fun exercise – next time you visit a cafe, try to take note of what it is that gives you an impression of what they do: bottles of syrups, syphon bar, sugar on every table, baristas yelling out drinks, a display fridge full of cans of soft drink etc. etc.  (back)

14 Comments Opting In

  1. AndyS

    I would love to visit a cafe and see a neatly lettered sign by the bar:

    We are passionate about the coffees served here. Please feel free to ask us more about them.

  2. JMarrocco

    Thank you for posting this, James. It was such a refreshing read. I feel like a lot of times baristas turn into the parents on the Peanuts… “Wah wah wah wah wah wah” and the customers feel lectured. Social skills, timing and a knack for reading patrons are just as important as being able to dial in a shot.

  3. Anthony Silverbrow

    It might just be as simple as holding events, but ones that fit in with the customer. So perhaps you have ‘Tasting Tuesday’ – with every coffee ordered you get a slip of paper explaining what you’re drinking, the coffee etc, plus a taster of something else – either that the customer chooses or the barista recommends. It’s way of latent opt-in.

    There is another point and that is accepting that all of the good coffee shops I’ve been to in the UK are of a type. The servers are quite similar, the music is similar, the offering is similar and the clientele are similar. For similar read achingly hip. I think it can therefore all be a bit intimidating to some. The top end of coffee shops need to move out of just being achingly hip and become more attractive to others, especially if they’re to sustain in the long-term and not just be a passing fad.

    I trust you know me well enough to be assured I’m not advocating the Starbucksisation, but rather than appreciation that we’re not all young, hip and trendy.

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  5. tonx

    Great post. I’ve always used the analogy of a cult initiation process. Start with offering the ‘free stress test’ and lay a careful path in small incremental steps toward deeper levels of understanding, knowing that only a handful of initiates will be interested in going long haul.

    Our real problem in coffee isn’t so much that we are failing to convert all of the masses that pour through our doors, but that we still have frustratingly poor resources for the truly interested customers that would like to become connoisseurs but instead stumble into legacy mythologies and geeky, fussy rabbit hole tangents. Most consumer education remains of the smoke-and-mirrors variety, impressing consumers with our bullshit expertise and esoteric rituals, but imparting little in the way of useful information to help them make informed decisions or do peer advocacy.

    Collectively, we are doing more to feed the growing backlash than we are doing to slake the curiosity of the genuinely interested.

  6. Ben

    Tasting opportunities, are a great way to get patrons interested in coffee. If the barista can show a consumer two completely different coffees where they can be amazed at the range of flavours, the consumer will become more interested in what results in that newly discovered depth, perhaps fueling a new found desire to taste the spectrum of coffees available where the barista will be should be well qualified to advise.

  7. The Onocoffee


    One of the key components that I think you touched on is the expectation on the part of the customer. If a person has a reservation at TFL or TFD, they’re expectations are different than had they popped into their local McDonald’s. Table service, decor, attitude and presentation are all components that create a distinctive whole.

    While dining at TFL, it’s perfectly “normal” to learn a bit about the dish and its ingredients. If you should desire deeper information, that is at the ready as well. The captain is more than capable of “geeking out” as much as possible concerning the dish, its ingredients, their sourcing and the techniques used to achieve that dish. In turn, the overall experience is superior – even if you’re just a casual observer and not a fanboy.

    The coffee industry doesn’t offer that level of experience. We barely offer thought beyond the basic “here’s your cuppa joe.” I’ve always found the incongruence between “the best” coffeeshops proffering themselves as “something special” when they doing very little beyond the status quo. To visit TFD and engage the captain on the origins of the tenderloin is expected. To be told of the origin of the beef at McDonald’s is just odd.

    At least at McDonald’s they’re dressed neatly and uniformly – how many of “the best” coffee places can claim that their baristas look at least showered? Incongruity.

    We like to expend a lot of time and energy trying to convince the public that we’re something special when the visual indicators point elsewhere. We lack basic standards of appearance and environment – how possibly can we deliver something extraordinary?

    Tonx complains that we have “frustratingly poor resources” at our disposal. Well, whose fault is that? It is our own. How many places have we been to where the barista is reciting from memory a description he read off a card from their roaster? The opportunity is at hand to built a great coffee place that embodies all the best aspects that we can offer. Are we leaning on “bullshit expertise and esoteric rituals” because at best we are charlatans?

    To my mind, and what I’m imparting to our next generation of baristas, is that we need to develop rapport with the customer. Yes, it’s important that you possess the knowledge and technical ability of our craft, but it’s more important to develop that rapport and build trust. We want our customers to come to us because they feel comfortable leaving their experience in our hands. It’s something that we as a community have been too busy being cool and knowing it all, have missed out.

  8. James the Manc

    Is the coffee bar a place to talk in depth about origins, process, roast, etc or is that the role of a coffee retailer? I reckon it’s the places that do both, well, that give customers the most opportunities to buy in to what is wonderful about the coffee experience. Eg I know the way Monmouth leave coffee out in display bins isn’t the best, but customers get it and feel safe browsing, taking in all those messages without feeling threatened or patronised. The grafting Barista beseiged by drink orders hasn’t got time for all that, besides to most a well made flat white with latte art is revelation enough!

  9. Jason Coffee

    I know just the moment you are talking about. I love creating these moments with my customers by asking them intro questions while I make their drink. Even something as simple as “How are you today?” can go a long way towards building a deeper connection and having them opt in at a deeper level. I also really like utilizing the french press as a way to taste new coffee with customers. This really helps give a easy on-ramp for introducing them to some new knowledge about coffee that they may not be acquainted with.

    I like the phrase “Opt-In Moment” it really helps shed some light on how to provide awesome customer service by respecting someones space while noticing cues that may indicate the customers willingness to go deeper. Great post!

    Jason Coffee
    Coffee Cup News

  10. John Piquet


    A brilliant piece.

    We do our best to create moments by telling every (most) customer about our daily espresso and that we micro-roast everything on site. Those who want to know more will ask in future visits, or when the espresso is different AND it tastes different to them, then that often starts a conversation.

    There is a distinct difference between someone who wants to sit at the bar and order a siphon coffee, or just a shot of espresso and talk coffee and someone who just wants a latte to go, but I think there our opportunities to reach both at some level.

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  12. Josh Spyker-Elias

    I am going to these older posts only because I have not read them yet.

    Regarding this entry, I may be veering off topic a tad but I would like to start off by saying that I love coffee, but unfortunately don’t know much about it since I have only worked in the industry less than a year.

    That being said, I love fine dining as well. This year I will be attending school for chef training.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but where I see coffee at right now is only in a cafe, a bistro and places that serve desserts to compliment the coffee being served.

    What I would like to see, is for the specialty coffee industry to expand to more than just a syphon bar. I have not been able to find any place that when you walk in, says fine dining to you straight away and also serves specialty coffee. I visited my school today and their espresso machine was a Nespresso machine.

    To bring this about, if coffee should be as highly regarded as wine in the culinary world, I would love to go to a fine dining establishment (maybe even a black tie restaurant) and have them offer coffee (and maybe different blends of espresso) as much as they offer any other beverage. I mean think of it, what would your reaction be a a customer if they offered you a syphon brew and then upped it a notch and performed the syphon brew process table-side?

    I love food. I love coffee. Why can’t coffee establishments branch out and pair their coffee with something other than dessert? Why not rum? Or steak? Lamb?

    I’m just saying that here on the western coast of Canada, we don’t get much in the way of amazingly brewed coffee in restaurants as you do in the dedicated cafe.

    Is it possible?

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