company - education - coffee

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Telling you it's good vs Sharing the good

Our trainer Chris and I had a long discussion over lunch today about our business vision. With too much of the coffee community, it really is a bit hard to get a cup of coffee at many establishments without some snark. Attitude seems to go hand in hand with the service. Attitude either about the brand served or about the portions it's served in. We try hard to push back against that in what we do but because our offerings are so limited and our brand is low key, we struggle to get the right message across on some occasions. It is our fault when we don't communicate clearly.

The best way to explain this is the potential faux pas of putting milk in your drip coffee. We do a pour over brew which takes quite some time to brew and a whole lot of attention. I have been to many a shop which does just this in varying forms. If a customer asks us for milk, we politely provide it but softly encourage them to taste it first to determine if it is necessary or to what degree they would prefer it. We try to make sure they understand that defaulting to their previous dosing of milk might not get the same results. Granted, we are talking about a small group of our customers but they seem to be ones that really rattle a lot of other shops trying to present themselves as 'hard line' or 'purist'. Maybe we aren't so hard line/purist, just very focused in what we want to do.

A common occurrence I have seen or heard proudly discussed by barista at other shops is how they challenged the customer not to put milk or sugar in it or simply restricting options. A famous 'blow up' example of this type of '3rd wave behavior' is the espresso over ice situation. A less public version is when you hear a barista bragging about taunting a customer to not put milk/sugar in their coffee/espresso drink. Visiting with a few barista, one such incident came up where a barista bragged to me about wagging a finger at a customer not to put sugar in their coffee. I politely pointed out we had just been discussing the harshness of the crema in the shot only minutes before. It could be possible that the drink needed a little sugar to this person's taste preferences. As proud as we are to serve the coffees we do (as progressive barista in general), sometimes they aren't living up to the ideal we put in front of them. How you get someone to stop and think about it before doing what they always habitually do is a delicate challenge. Sometimes they may be right, there might be something off and it needs a little something to correct.

That's what it really is about. People and their preferences, finding a good match when they enter our shop. When someone comes in, we try to put them with the coffee they will really enjoy, not force our preferred coffee choices on them. We are however a business that only seeks to showcase coffees we like in methods we have vetted and chosen for the most unique expressions. This means we always run the line between denying certain customers and turning some people away to get at the ones who will appreciate the things we do.

The idea is really simple. Don't lecture good, share what is good. When someone likes a french press, we push them towards the deeper roast. When they like Kenyas, we push them towards v60s. So, it becomes interpretation of what they may want in our lineup rather than instigation. With trust and good interaction, eventually a discussion forms and there is room to expand the discussion to include coffees they may never have considered.

Customer is not always king, but my particular customer is. Defining what customers we want makes for an interesting debate. It starts with deciding what we want to serve, the message we want to convey around it, and if those things click then you really don't have to work as hard. We are lucky at our small outpost that the majority of our customer base comes in knowing what to expect. The lack of protruding signage and glaring marketing campaigns keeps us low key. People find us less organically and more by recommendation of others. Kinda backwards tot eh traditional business model. There is less desire to look for a normal cup of coffee and more exploration of brew methods and coffee offerings by those who find us. We are lucky to have the customers we do and we know it. Making enough menu and offering changes to get to the point that it had clarity has helped. We depend on word of mouth more than we do on anything else. Customers who like us telling their friends what we do helps ease the burden on us to explain exactly what it is we do. It's not easy to get into that position and it means you have to close a few doors and take a few chances but we're better off for it.

At the end of the day, I love coffee but I really wouldn't enjoy coffee without the people we have found as customers. The conversations, the interactions, these things make it special. I've watched customers follow us from other shops drinking large lattes and get down to 5oz cappuccino and yes, even a tight double shot from time to time. It's validating that we are doing something unique, but it's also great fun. Once you are on the same page, there is so much to talk about and so much to share.