More thoughts…

If you read the comments on my last post, you’ll have read Stephen Morrissey’s rant… I agree. It’s disheartening to watching packets of sugar being dumped into your coffee…. Here’s my question then…

How legit is what we are doing?

We serve a very large number of good drinks… Machiatto, Espresso, Cappuccino, and even our standard Americano is a 5 oz. Then people pay $2 and up for great cups of coffee… Many take the leap and opt for our $4 or $6 cups. But, I see so much sugar going into these drinks.

Have we hit a point where we as craftsman must let go? Where can we go from here to see less adulterated coffee beverages?


11 thoughts on “More thoughts…

  1. We’re not that legit, but if you look at what legit was five or ten years ago, you would probably say otherwise. Right? You definitely would if competition is any indicator. Five/Six years ago people were still bringing Illy, dude. Goddamn.
    If there were no condiment bar, you would probably then have a million customers every day asking for milk and sugar. I think you gotta just do business as best you can, and then you hold a lot of cuppings and events in the hopes that the people who attend will know better the next time they walk in during normal hours. Eventually, you may not have to refill that sugar jar…
    It’s not really fair to ask “what’s the endgame?” at this point, when we still have so much to do. Maybe there is a limit to how far we can take the coffee bar model, but its certainly not anywhere in the near future.
    (I don’t want to be inconsistent from post to post, but theres a difference in my opinion between taking the options away from behind the bar, than taking them away from in front.)

  2. I do agree about not removing options from in front of the bar. I mean, it is the point where we try to balance out between giving the customer what they want and giving them what we want them to have.

    It is too early to have this end result in mind, but I guess I want to keep things real in my perspective. On the surface, it could feel like we’ve made it. I mean, we’re not using syrups, we’re brewing only Clover and Chemex, we’re charging substantial prices for brewed coffee, and the list goes on of all our advancements. But somehow it’s that damn jar of Splenda that seems to be the deal breaker for me.

    In some ways it’s something I would have never noticed if it weren’t for the industry veterans like Kyle Glanville and Doug Zell. Until I met them, it was all about what options you would have for customers, not how much much you really were effecting and educating them…

  3. I think you have arrived at an interesting concluison. If you never get the audience’s attention or if your audience is so small that they are irrelevant and can only influence very few, you have little opportunity to meaningfully educate them. It is very unlikely that anyone’s first visit to an excellent coffeebar results in the purchase of an espresso or a cup of black coffee (using your favorite brewing method). However, if you are patient and generous of spirit you can guide them in the right direction so that ultimately they will be drinking what you wish. If you never get their attention by being exceedingly exclusionary and condescending, you’ll never get the chance to educate them and change their minds…forever.


  4. …for perhaps the first time in coffee history we have their attention. I suggest we not alienate the audience, but rather engage them fully. Unlike before, I think they are ready to listen.


  5. Changes are coming. It’s hard to be patient or to have perspective when you are in the thick of it, but fundamental shifts are under way. The coffees are all better this year than last. Last year’s coffees are all but unrecognizable when compared to the coffees of four years ago, which themselves were almost unknown in quality fifteen years ago. So the baseline materials are now really good, but it is going to take a while for the retail chain to catch up. It will take numbers (on the retail side) before you see fundamental shifts on the consumer side. Remember, for the general (non-coffee-blog reading) consumer, Starbucks is synonymous with baseline quality. No wonder you have people dumping five packs of sugar in their drinks– old habits die hard. Also consider that it takes about a year for a business to go from business plan to realization. I bet that there are at least a dozen people reading coffeed every day who are planning to open shops within the year that we don’t even know about because they have no voice in the forums (or are too busy to participate, but are still keeping close tabs on the threads). I’m certainly hoping that these next-gen shops (and Silverlake is certainly a model) will have a significant impact on how coffee is perceived. Look at NYC: seven years ago you had an impossibly difficult time finding good espresso drinks there, and now it is developing a vibrant culture of espresso and brewed coffee. And (finally!) it’s all about experience and education. Don’t punish your customers by not giving them what they want; help them along by teaching them that they want something better. Regular public cuppings are so important. The direct trade website is incredibly powerful (I saw a draft version over the summer and was knocked out by how useful/powerful the graphics could be for education); you all need to get that done and publicized!

  6. What I wanted to offer with simple “Don’t let it bother you” comment is a push to stick to your loving guns.

    It’s not fun to hear “I hate I hate I hate” in so many different ways. One of the great challenges to becoming a professional is how you deal with the negative. If you let those things eat at you, if you let them cause you to stare at people with dagger eyes, or ignore your customers’ wishes, you’re never going to get them to listen to you. A customer who feels alienated, or insulted is less likely to listen to you when you try and offer them something better.

    I love these conversations b/c it’s a challenge to get people to be more positive about the things that irk them. In Norway I was in an interesting discussion with a Swedish barista asking why nobody was pouring latte art at Mocca. What I saw were lattes in tall glasses poured in plain view, most of the time whiteouts. I was told that the reason for this, especially the aspect of pouring in front of the public, was so that the customer could see how much milk was going into their espresso, thinking that the customer would think, ‘that’s too much! stop!’. My response was that negative effort was useless, and those people ordered milk w/ their espresso b/c that’s what they wanted, meanwhile the barista is behind the bar groveling and being grumpy. So if you want to be as pure as possible w/ coffee, you do something like this?

    In El Salvador, most of our mornings were started out with coffee from the mill, made from a Mr. Coffee. The Ultimos and Goodrow from D.C. brought Aida a Cafe Solo, and the response we got when we went into all the details (boiling water for a preheat is easiest example) that should be followed to get the perfect cup was quite interesting, like “What!? What a pain in the ass!”. It was clear two extremes of quality were present, but operating in different ways for different reasons. A couple unspoken glances were all that was necessary to convey our surprise for what we drank and how it was made, there was no need to preach.

    I’ve written too much already, but wanted to offer my take on times when what you think isn’t the same as what someone else thinks. Negative need not factor in for the sake of professionalism and a long love for coffee.

  7. So newest example comes now after my experience at Alterra’s holiday party. We’ve got this DJ, he has credentials, but for some reason isn’t playing all the easy hits/top 40 whore-dom that could really tear up a dance floor. And when this DJ goes the crowd pleasing route of something along the lines of Styx or BIGGYsmalls, it’s some lame remix that takes 70 sec. to decipher.
    In his mind he thinks, “this is what i think they should have.” In our mind we think, “what is this…. oh, ok, i think it’s cool.” If he would have given us what we wanted, mixed it well with skills and smoothed it out, he could have had us in his own world no problem. But since there was such disconnect with what he thought we should be listening to and what we wanted (which really isn’t premeditated, from the view of the dancer, you just get on the floor and expect the best, mixed with the most skill) too much time was spent confused and unsatisfied.

    Stay positive, warm up to your customers, and when you’re sure they’re loving what you do for them, take the chance to ween them from their rubbish habbits.

  8. You can only paint the experience in the frame you’re given. What we created in silverlake is definitely a big frame, and its allowed us to work outside of the narrow set of expectations most customers would bring to a typical coffeebar experience. To move beyond that to something more austere would require a very different frame, a very different context, than the wait-in-a-line/order-at-an-espresso-machine experience.

    Discouraging adulteration with sugar is a hard problem where almost every conceivable cure would be worse than the disease. As it stands I’m really impressed at the number of people who take it straight in a town where 99% of the coffee outlets still serve stuff you wouldn’t dare swallow without some prophylactic. Don’t lose sight of how much the tide is already shifting in the direction you want it to move.

  9. How about rebranding all your sugar sticks to be black with a skull and crossbones on it with a dire health warning sign over the sugar jar.


    blood insulin
    attention span problems
    diabetes (including photos of related complications)

  10. Inasmuch as coffee is an acquired taste, good coffee unadulterated is that much more so. I feel your pain, too. But we have the tools and the knowledge to educate and redefine a history of mediocrity. Big picture, small steps.

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