Monday, 24 September 2012

Stage Fright

Disclaimer: If you work in a coffee business that predominantly targets customers who are experiential, niche or already speciality coffee fans, rather than the general public, that's great but this post isn't for you. It is written with consideration for those who want to see good quality, speciality coffee reach its full market potential and be the norm with the general public and in coffeeshops across the UK.

Around 18 months ago I wrote a short blog post entitled Can We Make It Easier For Customers?  At the time I was a still relative newcomer to speciality coffee, and wanted to learn more. But it struck me that people within this niche industry were prone to using coffee descriptors that alienated customers like me.  I found it tough to relate to the use of ornate language, and was frustrated.  I also found it intimidating to order at some coffeeshops because (a) I wasn't sure what or how to order these types of coffee, and (b) the guy/girl behind the counter gave off seriously intense vibes that he/she wasn't interested in helping out people who didn't understand. Their expressions actually frightened me off.

But hey... what did I know?  I was a newbie, right?

As the months passed I became, as we all do, a coffee obsessive. As part of my learning process I worked on improving sensory skills. Early on I wrote How To Taste Coffee, which rather than being a tutorial (I was not qualified to write such a thing), was my (slightly embarrassing) attempt to work my coffee tasting and descriptive abilities into some semblence of a process that I could consistently repeat. I discovered the Wine Aroma Wheel and with it sought to expand my coffee vocabulary further. I took part in a competition, requiring me to (amongst other things) furnish the judges with a clear description of my drinks, using typical barista vernacular. I eventually learned the true nature of Ted Lingle's Coffee Flavour Wheel when I read the SCAA Cuppers Handbook, which provides masses of detail regarding coffee aromas, flavours and descriptors. I began adopting a formal cupping procedure to help develop my palate.  I became a home-roaster, delving deeper into the factors that influence the cup. I no longer felt like a newcomer. I had leapt over the bar and now stood behind it, beside my fellow baristas, talking the descriptive talk. In my quest for coffee knowledge I deliberately unlearned what it is like to be a relative newcomer to speciality coffee.

That's worth repeating. I deliberately unlearned what it is like to be a relative newcomer to speciality coffee. In other words, what it is like to be an average customer.


For anyone who (like me) has been on a coffee journey, investing time, effort and money in their passion, it is difficult to admit to having lost one's wider perspective. After all, we are speciality coffee evangelists, and we have conditioned ourselves to promote, with unwavering zeal, the path of righteousness. (Or could that be self-righteousness?)  In a bid to encourage dialogue between customers and coffeeshop staff regarding coffee quality, I set up a Facebook page to encourage sending back bad coffee - in the politest possible way.  I was so sure it would help the cause.  It didn't. No matter how tactful I was when returning the bad coffee, the dialogue was always awkward and feedback was always rejected. The gulf between my vision of coffee and their vision of coffee was so great that we could not even begin to find common ground.  Eventually I deleted the Facebook page as it was at risk of making things worse. Of making the gulf even larger.  Perhaps of making coffee afficionados like me look like cocks. In a completely unrelated incident, a sign appeared in an independent cafe window in Brick Lane. It read "No Coffee Wankers!"  It made me wonder...

But my self-assurance in preaching the speciality coffee gospel soon returned. "We know best, we self-proclaimed coffee geeks.  Yes... we know best. If only we could convince the general public. Those poor ignorant souls drinking bad coffee. " So we're back to dialogue. To communication. To good signage. To setting the stage. Surely these things will help convince the general public... the relative newcomer to speciality coffee, won't they?

As I write this I begin to see the similarities with Jehovah's Witnesses who knock on your door in pairs, like an odd version of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black. There we are, we enlightened coffee folk, certain of our message, trying to find someone who will listen, who will be readily converted to the Church Of The Third Wave.  Normal people point at us and snigger.

I actually do passionately believe that effective dialogue and communication is so important to our industry's aims. Improved dialogue between the speciality coffee world and the relative newcomer/average joe customer. If done well then newcomers will flood to speciality coffee on a mass scale, rather than the dribbling niche movement that it remains to this day.  Effective dialogue and communication. This is something I think many in the industry agree upon, and the need for it has been documented exceedingly well by the 2012 UK Barista Champion in his blog.

But how can we do it well? How can we make the dialogue effective?  These are, to my mind, the big questions.  Despite some compelling arguments made by credible industry members, there is room for further debate. My view is we are still failing to get through to the public at large, still failing to make it easier for customers.  The messages are still not clear.
- We still use lengthy descriptors and flavour notes, and because we love them, and coffee-educated customers love them, we wrongly assume relative newcomers to speciality coffee will love them too. We bang on to the unsuspecting public about temperature, grind size, the altitude the beans were grown at, and how complex the brewing process is.
- We then demonstate this by pulling our a syphon with a halogen beam heater, temperature probes and squiggly stirring techniques. This makes us hope the customer will realise how skilled we are, and will suddenly realise the error of their ways & become a speciality coffee convert.
- We keep moving the goalposts. For example, last year we said that latte art a difficult thing to achieve and was a sign that your barista has devoted time to developing his skill. This year the cool kids are saying that latte art is easy to teach and should be avoided by any self-respecting barista. How are customers supposed to know which is good and which is bad?

Another reason we are failing in our communication is our over-aversion and over-reaction to the branded chains.  We all know the saying... "You can't hope to compete with Starbucks, so don't try. Focus on your strengths instead." So we focus on making good coffee, which we do exceptionally well. And we do a rotten job of various other factors that the branded chains do well, and which customers enjoy. For example,
- We spend as little as possible on environment.  We offer uncomfortable seating on makeshift or shabby second hand furniture, because we're distancing ourselves from the Central Perk comfy chair thing with its 16oz latte connotations. Little or no heating in the customer area. No background music and tweets about how annoying background music is (honestly - when did music of your own choice and played at your own volume become annoying?)
- We offer a tiny food menu, if any, thus making it all about the coffee. Admirable, but ultimately many speciality coffeeshop owners eventually either close down or increase their food focus as they realise (a) many customers like to eat something when they drink something, and (b) you have to sell a helluvalot of cups of coffee to cover your rent.

So we assume all of the above are the right things to do. And this false assumption is reinforced because we see other baristas and coffeeshops doing it too, and we tell ourselves that it must be right if that is what they're doing at that amazing artisan coffeeshop everyone's talking about. It must be right if our favourite roaster is doing it. It must be right - because if it turned out to be wrong then our egos would be crushed by how misguided we were. This highights another quirk of the specality coffee industry. We have our industry luminaries... often people who have achieved success in a coffee competition somewhere around the world. And because they have succeeded in that we listen to them. And often we trust their opinions more than they necessarily deserve or want. In a recent discussion someone said to me:
When a coffee pro, a respected one with great accolades, stands up and announces something… we should listen, then digest it, and THEN come up with a response that takes time to craft. MORE time than the professional spent on their original statement. Why more time? Because they have more experience in the field.
I agree with this statement... insofar as it refers to coffee and the preparation thereof.  But coffee industry accolades do not equate to business management success. Just because a World Barista Champ says something, that doesn't mean it is correct. Particularly if it is about marketing, or pricing, or interior design, or customer opinions across the entire nation.  It just means they have an opinion.

Like I say, we have these views regarding the right things to communicate what we do. And I admit it,   they are right - for some coffee businesses. Some customers like it. Some customers are immediately won over by what they see and experience. And some are attracted to the niche nature of artisan coffeeshops. And some are influenced by their friends and acquaintances who are already speciality coffee lovers. And some, like I was, are intrigued and interested enough to press beyond their initial confusion with this new and different way of presenting a cup of coffee.
But we in the industy are deluding ourselves if we truly believe we've found the best approach to dialogue and communication - one that will work nationwide, with the general public in its many shapes and sizes.

Saying anything unflattering about the speciality coffee industry feels weird, like I'm some sort of traitor.  But it is the opposite. I care about this enough to risk the wrath of my coffee colleagues. And I'm not alone in recognising this situation. As I type, the online coffee news magazine Sprudge have just published a piece on this subject, contrasting two US writers' views. In Time Magazine, Josh Ozersky's article The Perils Of Coffee Snobbery opening paragraph includes the statement - "The cult of coffee, at least in its most puritanical form, is deeply alienating, even to me". He goes on to say that "So-called third wave coffees...are the best coffees that can be had in America", but goes on to use terms such as "insufferably pretentious", "self-congratulatory" and "sanctimonious", and alludes to contempt for consumers.   Erin Meister's article All Get Along also recognises the jarring reaction that can happen when hipster baristas and ordinary customers meet.  Meister reminds baristas that customers are "not the enemy, and they are not 'beneath' you".

Initial responses to Ozersky's article from those in the speciality coffee industry are very defensive and somewhat savage, as expected.  Rather than take it as useful feedback, they see it as an insult and respond with more insults.

The US has a stronger coffee-drinking culture than the UK, and arguably experiences a lot of coffee-related scenarios a few years before the UK market does (for example, Intelli had customers queueing out of the doors for V60s long before pourovers were readily available in UK independents). So we in the UK have an opportunity to listen and learn from the experience of the US speciality coffee industry, and try to avoid history repeating itself - to curtail that disconnect betweeen baristas and customers before the phrase 'coffee wanker' becomes commonplace amongst the UK customer base, and Costa start using it in their adverts.

I don't have the answers, of course. Mainly because there is no single correct answer. The answer, if there is one, is that each of us ask ourselves the right questions... and come up with our own right answers rather than using someone elses.  So I can tell some of you MY answers, the ones we will adopt in my own cafe.

1. We will serve good coffee. I am happy with that descriptor. The best coffee, I hope. We will buy our coffees from a roaster who we believe is the one of the world's finest, for all the right reasons.
2. We will train our staff, and train, and train, ad infinitum, and they will self-train too. Not just in coffee, but in Hospitality... the industry in which we operate.
3. Our equipment ... I believe there is far too much emphasis on which machine a coffeeshop uses. The machines coming out these days are amazing, and make it easier for a barista do his/her job consistently well, but the machine must be fit for purpose and not just a badge to prove that you're in the Serious Barista Club. Excellent espresso does not require a multi-boiler with endless steam and a reflective plate on the drip tray for eagerly watching the naked portafilter drip at a rate so slow that the espresso tastes acrid. We are able to devote time to building love for our HX machine. Our grinders are possibly our most important fixed asset, followed by our building's water supply and treatment.
 4. We will not overwhelm customers with this information unless they ask us to. We will give them what we think is amazing coffee and let them decide. Often it will be free, as a sample taster.  I believe they will be able to taste the difference, and that will be one of the catalysts for their permanent transition to speciality coffee.
5. As I mentioned the syphon earlier, yes we will use that brew method. But judiciously, and only when it suits the beans and helps produce that amazing coffee.
6. We will use descriptors, and in truth we will not be afraid of simplifying our narrative. I would not call it dumbing down though. Dumbing down, whether in news articles, Saturday night TV, or indeed coffee, generally results in a lower quality product. Our product will retain its quality, despite being described in an accessible manner.
7. We will offer a mix of comfortable seating and reclaimed dining chairs to go with our handmade farmhouse tables.
8. We will use Extract Mojo for quality control and to help us dial in brewed coffees, but behind the counter, both literally and figuratively.
9. A significantly larger part of our net profit will come from food than from coffee. Shock horror. I said it. So does that mean our coffee will be any worse? Many will assume so before trying it, because it is usually difficult to find good coffee in a restaurant, so they will do the 2+2+5 thing. I hope I can change that.
10. There are different ways to apply it, and we will never compromise on quality, but we will consistently adopt a time-honoured principle that many coffee professionals have found difficult to reconcile with their own view of the world.  The Customer Is Always Right.  As a means of improving communication and dialogue, it's a good start I think.


  1. great post mike,coffee blogs and opinions are everywhere but good coffee is not.look forward to your doors opening,jim g

  2. "The Customer Is Always Right" hmm don't i hate that phrase. naturally it is of course not true. I think it is much better to say "The Customer very often believes he/she is Right".
    That said you will cope better with the disappointing and frustrating decision making by customers, quite possibly negating the careful crafting of a coffee, by adopting the approach of "some I win over many I wont".
    To often do we as baristas forget that customers are divided into/over three groups: Caffeine need, Comfort and Taste; the latter being by far the smallest currently.
    So any converted soul is a major success and should be celebrated rather than growing grey hairs over the chap who puts 4 sugars into your wonderful Colombian espresso even before tasting it.
    With your enthusiasm I am certain of a higher than normal conversion rate.
    Best of luck Michael

    1. Thanks very much for your comment, and the best wishes :)
      The barista's ability to cope with customer choices is a subject that could be examined much more deeply than it generally has been, I believe. We're generally left to our own devices in that regard, as comprehensive barista training (in the UK at least) is scarce and at best one-dimensional i.e. hard skills. Soft skills usually aren't formally trained. We pick up habits and ways of handling customers as we work, or as we read a blog, or as the boss tells us exactly how to respond to certain customer requests. How is it that a customer-facing role like a barista can end up being so overlooked in the soft skills stakes, I wonder? The SCAA/Barista Guild of America's certification programme offers a CP103 Customer Service module right at the outset in the Level 1 training. Counter-intuitively, perhaps, branded chains are better at this than independents. Many years ago I worked for Pizza Hut, a statement which rarely wins much respect from anyone, but it was one of the richest educational experiences of my career and played a big part in my returning to hospitality so many years later. Pizza Hut's customer service training was very effective. It helped overcome many potential flare-ups and disappointments, and ensured that customers left feeling happy even after a (rare but still too common) disasterous dining experience. The correct mindset for working in hospitality and coping with customers doesn't come naturally for most people, but it can certainly be taught. So I think if I was going to modify the Customer Is Always Right statement I'd probably just add "even when they are wrong". It's a mindset on the barista's/host's part rather than one of product quality, and requires the barista to be estabish how they can please the customer without sacrificing (a) the business' product quality standards and (b) the barista's own core principles and beliefs. But ultimately I think if a barista really has a hard time accepting the desires of their customers then they are probably not cut out to work as a barista in the hospitality industry... which I've just realised is one of the points Erin Meister makes in her article.
      Cheers :)))

  3. Nice article, talks about coffees in a very good way and I like it, goodluck there!