You Just Got Served... Coffee... Sir

Firstly, if you want to read a professional blog on the topic, I recommend this one. It’s my boss’s but I don’t get brownie points for it. His is more like an article… mine is an unprofessional rant which he doesn’t get to have a say in. Fun though.

I’ve seen a ton of things about coffee service recently. Most of it has been pretty piss-poor. I’m pretty new to coffee; I’m not a business owner, I’m not a customer service expert. Then again, most people aren’t. I actually serve speciality coffee to the general public, which is more than I can say about most people doling out advice. Roasters, barista champions who haven’t served in a shop, people that might someday open a shop… all of these people have valuable things to say. Maybe they even have something intriguing to say about service, we can always glean something interesting from across different parts of the industry. But I doubt that they have any real experience with something that they do not do, namely:  serve speciality coffee to the public.

Why do we even need to talk about service? Why don’t we serve our coffee in the established norm? Well… it’s speciality coffee. It’s special. It’s right in the damn name. It’s niche. It’s inherently different. Speciality products generally warrant special attention. Speciality items get their own shops, their own space, and their own service. You wouldn’t bat an eyelid seeing a speciality tobacco shop. Do you think they get people in there looking for Camel Lights? No. A particular space is needed for a speciality product; otherwise it’s out of place and can’t compete with the conventional stuff. It’s not supposed to compete with the conventional stuff.

 I think it’s hard for coffee because it’s a barely established speciality item. Wine, whiskey, cheese, and craft beer have been around for centuries. Well-brewed speciality coffee has only been widely available since… the near future. And it’s not just that we’re new. We’re coffee, coffee’s not new, ipso facto, we’re not new. We’re not specialists in the public eye. We’re just people with ego problems serving the same old thing.

What would you think of the hot dog guy if he started serving speciality hot dogs? He’d charge more and he’d scoff if you didn’t know the merits of each casing type, or if you requested the wrong condiments for his single origin hot dog. Maybe he’d do some ketchup art. You might think it was speciality gone too far. You might think that his approach was overly specific and ultimately lacked value. You’d likely make an ad hominem argument against the concept itself. There are going to be some people that would love a speciality hot dog stand, but it’s an easy idea to laugh at, especially if the service of it is poorly executed. Speciality coffee suffers in this way.

If we had a completely new product, maybe called ‘toasted Arabica seed extract,’ we could define the market that we sell our coffee in. However, there is a very specifically defined market for coffee already. It’s nice that it’s a popular beverage, but its role has already been stipulated. It is a convenient caffeine delivery system. Or it’s an excuse for a grown adult to have really cheap sugar syrup flavorings, without the social stigma of sucking on a lollipop. Commercial coffee is already well-established.

Commercial coffee is like speciality coffee’s slutty older sibling. It’ll do anything. Chocolate, sure. Milk and sugar, oh yeah. Whipped cream, ooh baby. Now speciality coffee comes along and people are all like, “Hey Hotness, you look good… I’d like to put some sugar in you!” But speciality coffee doesn’t like sugar; it’s the au naturale type. It’s anything but a prude (it prefers bottomless portafilters, for example), but it enjoys having a good time without marshmallows or caramel sauce. It’s hard for speciality coffee because a precedent has been set. Far too often, we fall into the trap of just dressing speciality coffee in it’s big sibling’s clothes.

There’s a large camp of people that think that speciality coffee is like traditional coffee… only better. This is clearly stupid. Craft beer isn’t like Budweiser, only better. It’s better because of the many ways it’s so dissimilar to Budweiser. If it’s better, it’s different… otherwise it’s not better, it’s the same. Frankly, I’m a bit upset that I feel the need to clarify this. Speciality coffee is different. It doesn’t work in traditional ways, so you have to serve it differently.

Basically, if you have a café that serves speciality coffee, and you just act like a normal, traditional café, you are bound to piss some people off. They came to your shop to buy a traditional coffee. They gave you money. You took it. You gave them something that wasn’t traditional coffee, something that reacts very differently to sugar and other ingredients, something that’s got fruity, weird flavor… something that, frankly, isn’t what they ordered. Oh yeah, and it took longer to make and cost more. If you give no advice and no information, you basically just scammed someone into having a speciality coffee. The worst thing is that the individual has now had an avoidable negative experience with speciality coffee. Framed in the right way, they may have been open to a different experience. If they had been told that the coffee was different, that it was exciting, that it really shined without added ingredients… they could have loved it. Or, if not, they could have at least known what they were getting into, and the experience would have been better.

Here’s an experiment. Get the nicest stout you can find; something really special, a good Russian Imperial or something. Do some research, spend some money. Put it in a glass and tell someone it’s Guinness. Someone who knows and loves Guinness. Now watch them drink it. See how they react to the quality of the product you gave them. See if they judge it by its merits, or if they merely find it aberrant to the drink they were promised. See if they think it’s, “like Guinness, only better.”

When you serve speciality coffee like it’s conventional coffee, not only is it unfair to the customer, but you also do yourself a disservice. People should know that more effort goes into what you do. They should know that more quality and care has been put into their coffee. They deserve to be told that they are getting a unique experience, and you deserve to get some credit for it. How are we going exalt the virtues of speciality coffee, if people don’t even know they’re drinking it?

So, what can we do? Do we start telling people how to drink their coffee? Do we blab on about growing regions and variety? Fuck. Yes. It doesn’t have to be in people’s faces, but it’s cool stuff. It’s neat information to have. We should know it, and be on hand to dispense that knowledge. Obviously, there’s no reason to make people uncomfortable or to yap on about something they don’t want to hear. We should be sensitive and courteous. We should smile, be polite… all the Customer Service 101 stuff will still apply. As an industry, we shouldn’t need to be talking about smiling and being polite. We should be talking about how to skilfully deal with customer expectation, because we’re serving a product that is far, far away from what they may be expecting.

Sugar and Milk: The White Devils

There is a huge contention over the issue of recommending coffee without milk and sugar. I just want to clear the air before we get any further.

This. Is. Not. A. Moral. Issue. Morality doesn’t come into play here. It doesn’t. Adding sugar to your coffee doesn’t make you a bad person. Adding Sweet and Low and skim milk to your Hacienda la Esmeralda doesn’t make you a bad person.

Got it?

Also, there’s nothing morally wrong with recommending certain ways of having a Speciality product. Wine and cheese recommendations are often made by industry experts. There is nothing morally wrong with that either.

Got it?

It’s stupid that we have to go through this, but I really see the need. People from both camps like to take offense at the other.  Everybody just calm the crap down. How’s this for a rule: Nobody be a dick.

Now, speciality people… I’m talking to you. You should probably taste your coffee with milk and sugar. Don’t whine, just do it. You don’t just make coffee. You make and serve coffee. Stop pretending you’re just some persecuted craftsman, and just get good at the two (2) aspects of your job. After tasting your coffee with milk and sugar, decide whether or not it sucks. For example, the filter coffee at my place of employment is terrible with milk. It’s literally worse than instant coffee with milk. It’s sour and awful. Try yours and be sure to have fun, you guys. If it’s bad with milk or sugar… you’ll have to see below.

Above, I talked about customer expectation. When we get someone that is new to speciality coffee, they don’t necessarily know how to drink it. That’s okay. They are not the expert, you are. You have an interest in them having a good experience… we ALL have an interest in people having a good first experiences in YOUR shop. You screw it up at your shop, you might turn someone away that would have come into my shop. You jerk. Back to the customer. They are excited. They just ordered a coffee that will be bursting with blackcurrant, lime, toffee, and vanilla. Goodie. Are you really just going to sit there while they unknowingly add sugar, which will hurt their chances of getting those beautiful flavors? What will you do if they complain? “Sorry, dude, you added sugar… voids the warranty…” Well they didn’t freakin’ know that… and you probably have sugar right out on the damn counter. Imagine that in another industry. “Oh, sorry sir, you added pepper to your salad… with this special lettuce, the combination creates a taste similar to sick cat dung… I didn’t say anything before because I thought you might be offended, and I left the pepper on the table because it’s traditional. It’s really just decorative.”

 We, in the industry, should recognize that we are different than traditional coffee. Traditional coffee is the cat’s meow with sugar. You make good coffee, so the customer makes the not-so-irrational leap that your coffee will be good with sugar. It won’t be. Gently inform them of that. Come up with good, non-offensive ways of doing that. You’ll suck at it at first, probably. You’ll get flustered, the customer will get embarrassed… but again, it’s not a moral issue. Don’t turn it into one, and don’t let them turn it into one. Understand where they are coming from. Communicate. At the shop I work in, we let the customer know how we recommend the coffee. We let them know why we recommend it that way. And, if needed, we let them know why we’re telling them how to drink coffee like they’ve never done it before. For example a customer orders a filter coffee, you know your filter is God-awful with milk:

Them: “Could I try the Kenyan?”

You: “Sure, is that alright just black?”

Them: “I was hoping for a bit of milk”

You: “We recommend all the filters without milk. The filter coffees here are really different to traditional filter coffee… almost more like a fruity, juicy tea than like a roasty coffee. With milk they get a bit sour and odd.”

They look like they’re trying to decide whether or not to be offended…

You: “Yeah, a traditional coffee works great with milk. These are interesting; each farm will have really delicate, unique flavors. These are roasted lighter to preserve those flavors, and it just doesn’t seem to work well with milk. The espressos will work really well with steamed milk, if that’s what you’re after.”

I made the recommendation clear, and gave the reason for it. I also threw in that part about traditional coffee, so they could see that I knew where they were coming from. This isn’t meant to be a script. If you serve people as part of your job, you should get good at reading people and responding in a way that both: a) Lets them feel comfortable and b) Doesn’t compromise their experience with your product.

When I started in speciality coffee, I found the service side of it to be particularly challenging. I still do, and I continue to improve. 

When I started in speciality coffee, I hadn’t really given service a thought. I was coached on what advice to give, and how to give it. I loved the product, and I even understood the methodology and the logic behind the specialized service of it… but I had a very hard time internalizing it. I still had that moral judgement when people asked for sugar. At first, I loved the idea of getting people to drink the “right” coffee the “right” way. In a small way, I approached service with this in mind. I was earnest, but I was making the simple act of drinking coffee into a moral issue. This didn’t seem to work out very well, people reacted negatively to my advice. People are sensitive social creatures, it seems. I wasn’t getting the reaction I wanted from people and I started to dread giving advice. I offered it apologetically, like it was something to be ashamed of. My traditional service reflexes were telling me to run, to distance myself from the problem, to apologize. People reacted negatively to that as well. I was presenting the advice as a negative, like I was making up for a defect, when in reality the advice was just another valuable part of the product. Luckily, with coaching, I started to more fully understand. With practice, and the right reasoning… I’m starting to find a balance. It’s not easy, but worthwhile things rarely are. Now, it’s no problem if people want sugar in their coffee. Why should it be? It is, however, my responsibility to the customer, my shop, all of speciality coffee, and myself to give advice and information. I don’t have any moral superiority; I just have knowledge in my chosen field. People generally react very positively to this.

Those who don’t… well, their loss.

EDIT: Last paragraph for clarity. 

Jason Gonzalez

bath, uk