Le Coffeeing – Some thoughts

This post is a result of the rather excellent post on Chemically Imbalanced. I’m grateful to Ben at CI for consistently writing such good stuff, even if it takes three goes to understand every sentence.

His latest post is great.

It raises, to me, a few rather uncomfortable thoughts and ideas so I thought I’d share them in order to make them less terrifying.

What we should take, first and foremost, from the food world is the accessibility of quality. This is where coffee falls down a little.

You could argue that first we have to make the consumer aware of quality within coffee, we have to change their idea about how good, how exciting, how surprisingly delicious it can be. You could argue that, quite rightly, people don’t have much in the way of expectations for coffee the way they might do for steak. a

You’d be wrong to argue, I think, that this is the consumers fault. They don’t lack the palate, they don’t lack the interest. They suffer a lack of availability, no doubt. Even if you like good coffee it is staggeringly hard to get. Do the maths – take the population of your local metro area and divide it by the number of great coffee places. In some cities great coffee places become one in a million.

But there are great coffee places. More and more open, every month, every year. The question is: are we making this coffee sufficiently accessible? I don’t just mean available, but more approachable.

99% of people you meet have probably had a less than ideal experience and past history with coffee. Marketing has always been ahead of what was produced, promising more than it delivered. People have been very disappointed, routinely, for years by the coffee they’ve bought. It makes them feel duped and angry (and more likely to leave comments on coffee articles online…)

There are places you can go to enjoy a meal that serve great food. Delicious food. They do it as if it is the most natural thing in the world, not special, not unusual, not fashionable. They charge appropriately and trust that you – the diner – will notice and appreciate the quality of what they do. No one thinks you’re a little strange because you spend a little more, travel a little further, or queue a little longer for a great meal.

Very few places serve great coffee in a matter of fact, friendly, casual way. We like to talk it up. We like to shout about it.

Are we shouting, posturing, proclaiming and promising because we worry that otherwise the customers wouldn’t notice that it’s better? Do we not trust them? Surely if it isn’t sufficiently different, better and more enjoyable that anyone tasting it would easily notice the difference – then are we doing a good enough job?

It is these last thoughts that are the most uncomfortable, the most worrying. With Penny University (there is a whole other blog post on this coming) we tried to aim high, hoping that people would be up for trying something new, something different. We still underestimated our customers, which is both incredibly exciting and a bit embarrassing.

If you opened a little cafe but made no promises, did no marketing, and served great coffee (truly great coffee) and gave no clue about its specialness other than the fact that you charged an appropriate price – would people notice? Would it be a success? If you left it to just the taste of the coffee to do the convincing – would people be convinced?

I think so. I certainly hope so. Do we, as an industry, genuinely believe so?

  1. Don’t ask me why I picked steak – except that steak something that a lot of people can get very excited about. For good reason….  (back)

29 Comments Le Coffeeing – Some thoughts

  1. bz

    your kind notes are much appreciated. it’s true, though: i’m a verbose hack.

    more later on this, but i get the feeling that “trusting the customer” is a concept that makes most in specialty coffee very uneasy. witness the growing dislike for public cuppings. also maybe the persistent propensity to promote smoothies and syrups despite a shop’s real focus on coffee quality. both of these, to me, smack of insecurity.

    and when you get insecurity, especially online, you seem to get lots of overheated arguments, purist diatribes and uber-geeking (all of which i have a personal weakness for, it should be noted). but this sort of creates a specialty island instead of a diverse and growing city.

    there just isn’t (with some notable exceptions like penny university) a farm-to-table simplicity in the approach. meanwhile, this simplicity seems to be what’s driving a lot of modern food consciousness, even among working class stiffs like me.

    interested to hear more expert thoughts …

  2. Nick Cho

    Like it or not, there will be a trickle-down effect. Just as with food.

    It’s one of the reasons I am dismayed by a lot of what the third-wave community has been putting out there. The more commonplace awesome coffee is, the better.

    The challenge is balancing making it commonplace, yet differentiating great coffee from common coffee. Yipes.

  3. Edmund

    If you opened a little cafe and served great coffee you would not be able to stop the marketing in fact it would grow out of your control, the best kind of marketing – word of mouth. Of course there are other factors in becoming a successful cafe but if you get the coffee right you have got to be more than half way there…

  4. Mr Sifter

    I’m not sure great coffee (for most consumers) is the main factor in a Cafe being successful. Location, snack choice, price and good service are, in my view, what a cafe stands or falls on. Naturally, for most reading this blog, the quality of the coffee is what influences our purchasing decision. I believe we are in a minority. Why else do the big chains thrive?

    That said, if you build it, they will come. If you have all of the above and great coffee that speaks for itself then the shop will be a success, no matter who you are competing against.

    As a footnote, can Michelin starred restaurants start serving high quality, well made, seasonal coffee? I had a stunningly outstanding meal in Le Gavroche on Friday. The filter coffee to finish the meal was brutal, amongst the worst I’ve ever had.. If the great and the good of the coffee industry can’t convince the finest eateries to serve the finest coffee then the wider public won’t be reached.

  5. Bek Freeman

    “There are places you can go to enjoy a meal that serve great food. Delicious food. They do it as if it is the most natural thing in the world, not special, not unusual, not fashionable.”

    Hit the nail on the head, I think. How much do you think they worry whether people notice, whether it’ll be a success, or if people will be convinced? Why do they do what they do?

  6. Jesse Bladyka

    I agree that we need to do more to make quality coffee accessible. I think because of its history as a drug in the morning, a nickel cup after lunch, bottomless cups all afternoon, or as an afterthought to dinner, it has been difficult to introduce it as a culinary specialty and then to balance that quality with the ubiquity of the stuff in general.

    I have mixed feelings about how to go about it. I agree that an obnoxious barista yelling about this and that $15 coffee is, well, obnoxious. However, when I go to the taproom at a brewery, or my favorite wine or whiskey bar, I go to learn something. I think there is a thin line between educating the customer in a way that engages them and promotes all of the things we want to promote, and coming off as another elitist barista. Professionalism is something that I am constantly striving to achieve and project, in the way that a sommelier is(should be) a professional, not a snob. Sure I drink wine all the time and know a thing or two, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate that level of service, that’s why I go out!

    Great post though, and I agree with Nick, we need to make specialty coffee commonplace without making it common.

  7. John Piquet

    Coffee is still the red-headed step child of the beverage world and garners barely a mention in culinary circles outside of our own. I think that this is the most difficult hurdle to jump – that of making great coffee approachable but with the customer knowing full well it’s on par with that Pinot Noir, Riesling, or fine ale they may have had.

    But just as wine, from good to great, or steak from New York Strip to Wagyu to Kobe is not for everyone, great coffee doesn’t need to be for everyone. That doesn’t mean it’s not approachable, or can’t be appreciated by people for what it is and the craftsmanship that goes into it. As Nick said, there is a difference between great coffee and common coffee. Sometimes I think that the notion that everyone has to love us and let’s do A, B, and C to attract them all — really hurts us.

    As each year goes by there are two factors that are competing. The first is that the general populace will become more and more educated. If not by a tidbit here and there in the news, then by more and more quality focused and/or innovative shops opening. On the other side you have a society that is more and more bent on instant gratification. We must have this now, we must have that now, we need to send a Tweet and everyone will know how awesome this espresso is or how great this washed coffee is, etc.

    Most of us discussing this haven’t even hit our first decade in the industry. Be patient. Eventually great coffee will have it’s tipping point.

  8. Hunt

    Mmmm, that’s really tough, James. We live and work in a border community that marks the line where a very large metro city meets the rural countryside. Our community has aspects of both woven into the local consciousness, but finer things, and perhaps more importantly, the propensity to recognize finer quality, is still in the early stages of development. We didn’t initially set out to open a shop here, we intended to set up a homebase for our roasting operations, but there was enough demand to start serving. The locals had no expectations except what some remember from when they drove to the next town and stopped in at Starbucks on the way to the mall. At first, most of them gagged at our pricing and couldn’t understand why we didn’t have a 20 ounce coffee or why our capps were “so small”. We spent copious amounts of time with public cuppings, open coffee classes, writing articles for local publications, and lots of late nights full of guerrilla online marketing. Eventually, we got a reputation locally for being the place with better coffee, but this is still within a town where buying generic or brand name dog food is a legitimate financial decision. We have to constantly keep up the pressure and keep our brand in front of their eyes.

    I do agree with Edmund that word of mouth can grow like wildfire, but that it just happens spontaneously wherever you are with no push to give it momentum is just not so. This also translates to a slightly more macro market – the greater metro coffee industry. As a start-up roaster no one had ever heard of, we have had to push ourselves to within an inch of our lives to make every sale; even now, when I can say that our coffee stands up to any coffee being made within 200 miles, we still live and die by every account we have.

    If those who are supposed to be our professional contemporaries in our local metro market either can’t tell the difference, or worse, won’t pay or charge for an upgrade in quality, I think it may be naive to expect recognition of quality from the everyman consumer, urban, rural or otherwise, if we do not inform them with every tool at our disposal (obnoxious hucksters aside).

    I don’t say this with a defeatist mindframe, rather a pragmatic one. Ultimately, if most of the public wanted Michelin Star cuisine, then there would be a Gordon Ramsay restaurant where every McDonald’s now stands. I don’t think that the sector of the coffee industry we are talking about right now will ever be “commonplace”. I do believe it will outgrow its current bounds as it has consistently over the last few decades, but it will not be because we, as the professionals leading the charge, sit back and wait for an unsuspecting public to be struck by an unprovoked coffee epiphany. We have to get them in the door and provoke a new experience on their behalf. It doesn’t have to be self-congratulatory or Bulls on Parade, but I think we still have to draw their attention to our better product.

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  10. Mike White

    Where producers fail is in not allowing the product to speak for itself. What makes a business approachable (for me) is the quiet confidence they exude when they know the product is perfect, so good that the questioning of the quality isn’t even a possibility. There’s no pressure to agree because it’s never crossed their mind that you wouldn’t. They’ve created something so perfect, from the limits of their abilities, that there’s nothing they can do to improve it. Even if it isn’t the best product I’ve ever consumed, my perception is influenced by the energy of those producing it. If marketing has always been ahead of the product it may due to underlying insecurities in what is being produced. The places you go that serve delicious food as if it was the most natural thing in the world are able to do so because it is the more natural thing in the world. For them. There’s never a question in their mind that they haven’t put their best on the plate, that you may not appreciate it. It’s those that are not sure, that don’t have that confidence, that feel the greatest need to shout.

    But this is not entirely the producers fault either. It is a very young industry, and that type of confidence can only come with maturity and growth. Ironically, it’s the same insecurity that can lead to innovation. If everyone was satisfied with where they were, this conversation wouldn’t be happening.

  11. Rich W

    There’s a lot to discuss here, but I’ll limit this response to Jim’s last question from the OP and Edmund’s reply – one of the best coffeehouses in our city is a place that’s absolutely loved by other baristas and straight espresso drinkers, but is hanging on by a thread.

    Location is more important than coffee, marketing or any other element in planning for success. Coffee alone isn’t going to do it at this time. The shop in question would be wildly successful in several other locations in the city. They do everything right. However, they simply miscalculated that enough people in their immediate area would care.

    Hopefully that won’t be the case in a few years.

  12. mat

    A lot going on there Jim, to address your last point first;
    yes, every city will have one coffee shop that does well without shouting from the roof tops by simply focussing on quality and letting word of mouth spread, take Max @ C&S as an example.

    In our need to tell the customer what we are doing are we taking the thrill of discovery away from them?
    More importantly are we blinding them with choice?
    There is a very convincing study on how choice affects our buying patterns, in this case with jam.
    to precis, when customers were presented with 6 choices to sample 30% of customers made a purchase, by contrast when the number of choices rose to 24, that dropped to 3%.
    if we apply this to coffee, by offering too much exotic choice are we increasing the chance that the consumer will stick with the comfort of what they know and not venture into the unknown.

    it is of course worth noting that the purchasing figures worked along side rates of initial attractiveness, where higher choice piqued passing interest to a greater level, but resulted in lower buying rates.

    just found the link to that study, its an interesting read: http://www.columbia.edu/~ss957/whenchoice.html

  13. pj mcnally

    Great posts (the original, and James’).

    Food in general, and steak in particular, are excellent cases to examine, if only to see just how differently they have been taken to heart by (most, if not all) consumers – unlike, for the most part, really top-rank coffee.

    My grandparents are beef farmers in Northern Ireland (retired, but still working, like most farmers). They work hard to raise fantastic Aberdeen Angus cattle, not the usual half Angus half dairy crossbreeds. (Like with JBM, if it has Angus in it, it’s often labelled Angus. The small print then points out that it’s only been sired by pedigree Angus bulls).

    However, they do this without the slightest bit of pretension, shouting, posturing etc. They know their beef is damn good, and their customers know it too.

    In fact, when a large supermarket chain approached their farmer’s cooperative, to buy a steady supply of prime beef, month by month, and to bring it to more consumers than had access to it before, and for the right price, they didn’t turn their noses up at this. They made a deal which works for them, and works (in some ways) better for the end consumer.

    How much of the coffee industry, as it stands now, would do the same? Could a coffee roaster cut that sort of deal with a supermarket, and come out on top?

  14. Rich

    I read your blog post with interest and thought I share a few of my own thoughts as someone whose experience with coffee is far more an outsider looking in, as well as having some experience with (I hope) great food. It also touches upon some of the things I want to achieve with Otto, as well as some of the problems we face.

    The trouble with coffee (or certainly espresso) is that great skill is needed at the instance of sale. We’re realising just how much difference the Barista can make to the quality of coffee we serve.

    With our food, the really hard work is done during the day when we’re prepping. That’s when the skill of the chef comes to the fore. When someone orders a pizza, the cooking is actually pretty simple. It’s the same in most restaurants. Service is really no more than reheating. Add to this the fact that if something doesn’t quite taste
    right, we can add a little seasoning to help correct it. We have time to make sure everything is right.

    Not only that, but we can make (almost infinitely) large quantities. We pay for one skilled chef, and they can ensure the quality of all of the food for that night. They have the skill to taste and to tweak until perfection, and if we needed twice as much, we’d still only need the one quailty chef (though maybe an extra pair of hands to chop all
    the onions In fact, larger volumes actually allow us to get the taste even more perfect – We have recipes that add 1/4 teaspoon of spice to a 6 litre batch of sauce. That sort of finesse is impossible in individual portion sizes.

    These two things combine to mean making good food is scaleable.

    Coffee offers none of this. We can’t make 200 shots at the start if the day and just reheat them when someone wants them. We have to make them when the customer wants, which means having someone with that level of skill available all day. Not only that, but if we need to do twice as much coffee, we’d need a second skilled Barista, not simply someone being overseen by the first.

    I guess my point here is that good coffee will always be less available than good food, because it doesn’t scale so easily. A good barista can make a number of coffees a day, but a good chef can feed many more people as long as they have a bit of help from someone (not necessarily a skilled chef).

    I’d also argue that great coffee needs to sing it’s own praises because otherwise people would stick with the familiar.

    Food is definitely different in this respect. A good coffee shop will have customers who visit every time they want a cup of coffee. No restaurant in the world has such loyal support. People value variety in food, and therefore will make an effort to try new things.

    We didn’t need to market opening our restaurant, we just opened the doors and people came. The first people loved the food, they told friends, wrote blogs and filled in online reviews. Within six weeks, we were regularly so full we had to turn people away. That said, we’re happy if we see a customer once a week. We know that means they enjoy the food, but we also know that no one wants to eat the same thing every day.

    Could you do that with coffee? I think not. The problem is getting those first people through the door. Sure, you may get your die-hard coffee afficionados who’re keen to try a new thing, but in my opinion, most people aren’t looking for a better cup of coffee. They’re happy with what they’ve already got. However, by shouting about how great your coffee is, you might just get a few of those people tempted to give it a try. And when they do, I’m sure you’ll find them coming back.

  15. Daniel M.

    “If you opened a little cafe but made no promises, did no marketing, and served great coffee (truly great coffee) and gave no clue about its specialness other than the fact that you charged an appropriate price – would people notice? Would it be a success? If you left it to just the taste of the coffee to do the convincing – would people be convinced?

    I think so. I certainly hope so. Do we, as an industry, genuinely believe so?”

    Am I wrong to say that much of the business of most coffee shops is based on proximity? Coffee is quick. It’s easy. It’s something most people get on their way to somewhere else. Somewhere close by. Even with quality coffee, much of your business is going to be based on how close you are to where someone works or plays or lives. I search out great coffee. Most people do not. I’ve seen the blank stares of my friends. To them, my desire to go “over there” for coffee – because it’s better – when there is a shop just up the way does not compute. No argument for the quality of the close-by shops offerings. No “yeah, I know it’s better but…”. It just doesn’t compute. Coffee, for most people, is not a destination beverage.

    So, yeah you might be successful but I am going to say that most of the success of your business is going to be based on location rather than quality. People will notice the quality – I’m not arguing that they won’t – but they won’t go out of their way the way they will for “the best” this or that cuisine.

    “Are we shouting, posturing, proclaiming and promising because we worry that otherwise the customers wouldn’t notice that it’s better? Do we not trust them?”

    Given my proximity argument: all that shouting? All that posturing? It’s to keep them from going to whatever is convenient and to opt, instead, for quality. To go out of their way. To announce over and over again that coffee is not just a drug, not just a commodity product. The shouting is to differentiate yourself – that “one in a million” – from the other shops that are purely interested in pulling in customers the way a trawler pulls up fish: en masse as they pass into the net.

    Once they taste the quality maybe they’ll come back. Maybe. To fight the tractor-beam pull of the combination of proximity and commodification I believe you have to keep shouting. At least for now.

  16. Jeremy

    This is where I think the specialty coffee industry is becoming more like an art community than a culinary community. Certain, (I’m not saying all) high art communities form an “us against them” mentality. Those who “get it” are in, and those who don’t are just too mainstream. Half the battle in those art communities is playing the part, or posturing. Throwing the big art shows, having a persona, using the lingo, and out “arting” your competition just to convince the otherwise confused public that your art is worthy of purchasing. I seriously wonder how many baristas would still be around if amazing coffee was more mainstream, and not a subculture? There’s something exciting about building gallery cafes, blogs, elaborate descriptions, and brew method wizardry. All of that is fun! I get a certain joy from going into extreme detail to describe a COE coffee to someone who has only been to Starbucks, (it tastes like lemon candy, lavender, and plums!) and I feel defeated, or even angry when they decide on the Sumatra instead. I think the question is: as coffee professionals, are we willing to swallow some pride, and let coffee become accessible to the mainstream, or are we too afraid that they won’t “get it?”

  17. bz

    another excellent analogy, jeremy. the subcultural artist vibe is clearly an attraction. i personally am a sucker for it. but the question seems to boil down to, “how much do you love your customer?”

    location and all that is important to success, sure. shouting is sometimes necessary. but, to me, this topic is more about your motive in doing these things. your attitude toward and understanding of people who are not like you.

  18. mat

    re: the subculture vibe,
    does this not carry the risk that the sense of elitism that can come across from this alienating the casual customer who is just discovering speciality coffee?

    It seems to me that we are treading a very narrow line balancing our need for a degree of exclusivity with our desire to champion better coffee. Unfortunately it is not obviously apparent that the two can co-exist.

  19. Mr Sifter

    How many of your average punters sit down and savour a coffee? How many want to sit and decide if the coffee tastes of summer fruits or has red liquorice flavour tones?

    I’m not suggesting if they sampled a well made coffee from a micro roaster versus one of the big brands they couldn’t taste the difference but how many people actually care?

    This cuts across not just coffee but all foodstuffs. Processed cheese sells very well, as do battery chickens.

    A cafe serious about coffee should just content itself with serving the best expresso and espresso based drinks and offer maximum of three brewed single origin coffees. Like James said in an earlier blog about Gwilym’s menu at Prufrock – keep it simple.

    What’s one of the first things Gordon Ramsay does in Kitchen Nightmares? He screams some obscenities then tells the owner to cut the menu down to roughly three choices per course.

    Looking at all the successful independents in London I can’t say that any of them undertake much, if any, marketing to the public at large. They’ve succeeded without it so I guess the coffee and experience they offer speaks for itself.

  20. TC

    I’d like to suggest that we have trouble connecting with customers the way the local, seasonal food movement does because there is no folk tradition of good coffee in the way that there is with other agricultural products. We all know our grandparents/great-grandparents ate local and seasonally, but they also probably boiled coffee in a pot on the stove and then poured it into a cup. People have only been turned onto the idea of “good” coffee in the last 15 years or so and then mostly by Starbucks, where it was presented as a luxury…definitely not a beverage “of the people”. People look at our shops and see them as an extension of that luxury idea of coffee rather than connecting them to an ancestral idea of seasonal food. My gut feeling is that people are more receptive to the idea of seasonality and community than tasting notes. So maybe focusing more communicating the idea of seasonality (i.e. freshness), more environmentally friendly growing conditions (shade-grown, less pesticides and fertilizers etc.), and the fact that we pay above fair trade for most of these coffees will do more to connect with the public than starting off by telling them that this El Salvador has notes of candied orange.

  21. tonx

    the biggest issue facing good coffee is that too many of the people on the front lines of advocating for it are A) willing to polish turds, presenting meh coffee as great and B) a culture of young coffee pros that (consciously or unconsciously) is more interested in status, role-playing, personal validation, and petty competition.

    more and more *we* have become too much a part of the story while the coffee stumbles or is dressed up in the emperors clothes.

    we’re very obsessed with whether our customers are *getting it*, whether the restauranteurs, celebrity chefs, foodie authority figures *get it*… I think the fundamental misapprehensions about coffee are actually *coming from inside the house*, so to speak.

  22. Hunt

    I’m on my first cup of the day so I hope this is coherent. I had a conversation with a friend last light that ran parallel to this post, and I don’t think he had read it yet. There were passionate speeches and a whole lot of give and take – ultimately, I think my position has softened on this because of a sharpening of perspective which is simply this: just because a staff’s attitude may not be brash or arrogant relative to some of what exists in other companies within our great industry, doesn’t mean it still doesn’t translate as such to the “common customer”.

    To quote my friend, “how we handle our coffee is extremely important to me, but I want to make some money!” We all love our jobs/careers, but in the end, we are all in business to make money, facilitate the continuation of having our jobs/careers, and to accomplish some larger professional goals as we get further down the road. What if we could streamline the purchasing experience in a way that accommodates the “common customer” while maintaining the level of precision and detail that keeps our culinary coffee regulars coming back? There have been many opinions of ways to do so here in the comments: focus the menu so the customer isn’t buried under the number of drink selections, focus the bean menu for the same reason, cut the chatter to what is appropriate for a regular v/s an ‘on the fly’ customer, etc.

    I have never been to London and have no personal frame of reference (aside from knowing a few very excellent UK’ers) for what is actually being done in coffee there, but perhaps they have attained something in their coffee community that we (read as ‘I’), in the States, have not truly grown into yet. I guess what I’m saying is, maybe all the measures we have taken (at our own shop) to de-eliticize our work just hasn’t been enough and we have yet to find our footing on what can be a very slippery slope of balancing quality and accessibility, not as in a sacrificial compromise which lessens one or the other, instead, in a focused way that maximizes both to the true benefit to the customer and the business. I actually want very badly to realize this.

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  24. Bluecold

    The problem with comparing food to coffee is that there is only bad or good coffee, and they are both about as expensive.
    There is no average coffee that’s also a lot cheaper. You have to go to the equivalent of a michelin star restaurant to get something that’s drinkable.
    There is no coffee equivalent of a small restaurant that serves simple, but well prepared food for a modest price.

    As most of the readers here know; in Italy, there are zillions of little bars that serve well prepared, if a bit bland coffee for 80 cents.

    If those were here too, I’d could grab a quick cup for ordinary days, and visit any higher end coffee shop for the more special occasions.

  25. matt

    So many great comments here, and so many issues raised.

    Like Jeremy, I’m a little disappointed when someone chooses “the Sumatra,” but also acknowledge that their decision to do so allows me to purchase and roast and drink the washed Sidamo. (And I also know that the Sumatra is quite tasty in its own right.) And has been noted in previous threads, the qualities in coffee that pros gush about are not always the qualities that customers are looking for. When I do a sampling, there’s a good chance that my “quiet confidence” in the exquisite and harmonious estate Costa Rica will be met with something like “yah, that’s tasty. But do you have something a little more bold?” LOL.

    And there’s also the hurdle of interest (on the consumer’s part) in trying something new and remarkable, or “finding” quality/qualities that are not self-evident. This is one of the more interesting questions James brings up. IS truly superior quality coffee obvious to most consumers? I know the wine analogy is tired, but can most folks identify and appreciate why a prime Chateaux Margaux scores at 95, while that solidly crafted table wine is an 88? I’m not sure that it is so (never mind the “bang for buck” issue that rears its head here), though certainly most folks know when something is truly bad. Education is necessary, in most markets, but carnival barker-type promotion is always just poor form.

    And some people just know what they like, and I think it’s important to respect this. Ritual and fidelity are things to celebrate. Habit? Not so much, but sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

  26. Jay C.

    Anyone can tell good coffee, the key is being exposed to quality coffee so that you have the opportunity to discern the difference.

    That’s a quote from the Spro Coffee website and I agree with you, the consumer has to be exposed to quality before they can truly discern the difference.

    However, I would also challenge the assertion that people have greater expectations for steak – as a visit to any of the major steakhouses in America will attest: the quality there is only marginally (if at all) better than what you can buy at the local supermarket chain.

    One of the greatest problems facing the American consumer (and with the advent of Tessco, I can only presume the British face the same conundrum) is the over-abundance of product mediocrity. While people presume that the beef at the steakhouse is superior, it’s still the same feedlot beef with thicker cuts and a higher price tag.

    And while we can argue the dearth of quality coffee, I find that same scarcity with quality foods. Meaning, if I want to eat at a restaurant that’s sourced its ingredients thoughtfully, I’ve got to seek it out and travel across town – and I live in a metropolitan area!

    I like how you separated availability from accessibility. It’s one of my peeves with our craft. So much pretense and hipster-mindedness that we exclude many people from great product because of our holier-than-thou attitude. Instead of welcoming and informing, we’re spewing rhetoric about farmers and coffee from on high. So much for meeting the Salt of the Earth.

    I can only say that Spro Coffee has, for 4 years now, been delivering high-quality coffee in an unassuming, non-pretentious and friendly environment of hospitality for our customers. Our baristas, while passionate, are very matter-of-fact about what we do on a daily basis.

    The funny thing is that customers notice! They come, day after day, for a great experience with our baristas. I think that your rhetorical question above is essentially Spro. We don’t make promises, we do no marketing and we serve really nice coffees. You want to see that “test” in action? Well, it’s being done here and now in Baltimore – a city that grew up on Taster’s Choice and Folgers.

    On any typical day, a customer walks in and finds an environment designed to focus on the coffee. The walls are a muted cream color, with slightly deeper wainscoting. Mahogany cabinetry and dark granite counters with pine floors and mahogany tables set the scene. A warm welcome greets the guest, as well as a full menu of brewed coffee, espresso drinks and allied items.

    The menu is simple and lists a selection of coffees from six different coffee roasters: Origins, Ecco, Barefoot, Intelligentsia, Stumptown and Counter Culture. The coffees have been cupped and selected by our baristas and are offered in one of seven brew methods: Aeropress, French Press, Chemex, Clever, Chemex, PourOver or VacPot. The coffees are brewed as a “default” – meaning a brew method paired to that particular coffee, or the customer can select a method of their choice. Their coffee is brewed by-the-cup and to-order.

    Coffees range in price from $2 per cup and go up from there depending on the price of the coffee. Top tier coffees have sold for $13 – for the Aida’s Grand Reserve and was featured on April 7, 2010 on CNN.com.

    But what do I mean by all of this? This means to demonstrate that quality coffee is viable and that people respond to quality and appropriate prices – provided that the experience is congruent and commensurate. What I always found odd and laughable were the places that deigned to serve expensive coffees in shabby environments with disheveled baristas who were too self-important to learn your name and pumping your coffee out of airpots.

  27. Jay C.

    I wanted to also touch on your point about Trusting The Customers. I think that’s absolutely a key to the program. One of the points that I discuss with my staff is that we must build trust with our customers. The customers have to learn to trust us and our guidance. Far too often, we see many players expecting the customers to trust them off the bat, but that’s not how it works. We need to develop a relationship first before the customer can trust us and then they will be open to our guidance.

    However, if we fail to build that trust, then we can never achieve our potential.

    I speak a lot about building trust in the customer’s mind and not so much about “us” trusting the customer because, with Spro, we’ve built a place that already trusts the customer and their palate. We trust that they can tell the difference in quality. We trust that they will enjoy the experience. We trust that they will taste the value in our offerings and source the best ingredients we can lay our hands on and charge commensurate with our costs.

    Mr. Sifter asks if Michelin-starred restaurants can start serving high-quality coffee? Hmmm, good question. I know Keller is serving Equator at per se and TFL (but Illy for espresso). I had the chance to talk shop with the per se barista a couple of years ago and the notion of quality is starting to take hold. Had a brilliantly poured rosetta cap at Eleven Madison Park, but decided against coffee while dining at Pierre Gagnaire last month.

    From my experience working with chefs and restauranteurs, it really depends on them. If they see the value and make the commitment, then restaurant coffee can be as good as top-notch coffee joints, as is being done at Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen. But like in our own industry, if the commitment is not there, it isn’t going to happen.

    Bek Freeman notes: “How much do you think they worry whether people notice, whether it’ll be a success, or if people will be convinced?” Well, I’m pretty sure they worry – especially with tens or several hundred thousand on the line. They believe in themselves, their product and their vision, but you bet their worried about making it a success. Only the very few have the luxury to build a place without worry of rent or return on investment.

  28. Scott Lucey

    I’m aware this is a topic about more accessibility with specialty high quality coffee available in more places. A great conversation, and to me it’s also a core element as the larger topic, “the future.”
    I’ll be honest w/ you James, both this post and Ben’s post were very difficult for me to read, I needed multiple “walk away, come back’s” – the language within so much of the original posts and the comments smell of unconscious attitudes, they’re on par with anti syrup rants living in the house of the half-caf hater and the such.
    I’m sorry, this isn’t as bad as that, I only suggest extreme comparisons just to highlight the tone, language, and spirit of how we (everyone including commentors) are speaking on these topics.
    Would we ever talk to our consumers this way? I hope not, if so, we’re going no where as an industry. Not to pick on Tonx, but he’s even quoted in Ben’s blog as saying
    “I’ll concur with much of what is being said here and elsewhere. my own thoughts on this are pretty harsh and generally unkind toward to many colleagues and friends. suffice to say, we all have a *long* way to go in the cup before we’ve earned much more time on the high horse.”
    (sounding as if it’s coming from the high horse)

    What good is any attitude that isn’t conscious, strategic, and positive?
    As a reply to Ben’s post, I referenced the bartender and the similarities to supply and demand on the quality/quantity spectrum, I like the parallels that get suggested in these topics and I’m happy to offer one of my own, but the instant folks are encouraged to type the don’ts won’ts not’s aren’ts and the never’s etc… someone needs to push the eject button.

    Is it difficult to write something advancing these topics with an entirely positive spirit? I think so, and that’s largely why I don’t have a blog, but James, so many impressionable baristas are reading your words and I think that if you seemed even slightly jaded by our future, so will everyone else. I hope not though, and perhaps I can craft the drafts I created to respond to both Ben and you and throw down something sweet on our BGA site. Servant Leadership.
    Here’s to our lofty goals and dreams of the future.

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