Flat White Lies

We all tell lies sometimes. 

Most often, we lie for our own convenience. For example:

“No, your moustache doesn’t make you look like a pedophile.” 

Unless you’re speaking to Tom Selleck or Burt Reynolds, this statement is probably a lie. This lie helps you to avoid an awkward social situation. You can claim that you do it to spare someone’s feelings… but I know the real reason. You lie because you don’t want to deal with the fallout of telling the  truth. That’s mostly why I lie, anyway… maybe I’m just projecting. Tell people what they want to hear and you don’t have to deal with hurt feelings or offended friends. They won’t kill the messenger for news that isn’t bad. I’m not here to pass judgement on how you live your life. 

I am, however, here to pass judgement on how you serve coffee. At least as a cynical blogger/barista, it’s what’s expected of me. And I’d hate to disappoint, that would be awkward.

In coffee, I’ve noticed that baristas lie to their customers… often. Probably not every shop… but more than you might think. Not only that, but lying is often represented as a good idea. I used to work in a shop that wouldn’t steam hot milk above a certain temperature. Now, I’m not going to argue the merit or folly of that choice in this blog post. The thing that bothered me is that we wouldn’t steam the milk extra hot, and we told the customer that we would. A lie. A simple one, but a lie nonetheless. On Twitter, I’ve recently seen two speciality shop owners enthusiastically discuss how to trick the customer into drinking the right kind of coffee. “I just heat up the handle of the cup and they think the milk must be extra hot!” “Oh wow, I never thought of that! Can’t wait to try it!” The advice is to lie and then cover your tracks, to make the lie more believable.

During a recent workshop in San Francisco, this gem of a story was shared by some coffee pros (quoted from Sprudge.com):

     “During their talk, they spoke on the importance of bringing customers in, and told the story of a man who came in who wanted the darkest coffee they had. Instead of telling the man about their approach to alternative roast styles, elevation, and their recent win at the SWRBC, they simply served the gentleman a cup of their espresso blend. He loved it. He came back. After several visits and short interactions, he noticed that the crew all drank espresso. He wanted to try it. Now, this man is a regular. They brought him in slowly and now? He loves talking about coffee, reading about source trips, and hearing about signature drink preparation.”

I get it, it’s meant to be a heartwarming tale about a man discovering speciality grade coffee. I just don’t want to forget it started with a lie. He asked for a dark roast, and he wasn’t told that he wouldn’t be given a dark roast. He paid real, hard-earned money for a drink he was promised, a drink he didn’t receive. He was given something else entirely. He was duped, plain and simple.

So why are we doing this?

Well, in my eyes, the problem is twofold: laziness and arrogance. Harsh, right? But I don’t see any other reasons. We want people to drink the kind of coffee that we know is best. Yet we don’t want to do it in a way that takes too much explaining or effort. The lies let us serve good coffee without the bother of unnecessary customer interaction.

Doesn’t sound very cool, does it? The problems are more than just moral.

Let’s take the “darkest coffee you have” example. It’s a win, right? The customer is now drinking the good stuff. However, what would have happened if he brought in a friend the next time? Do you continue to lie? What if word gets around his office, and business meetings become the norm. Then you have fleets of people in suits asking for “the darkest roast you have”. Imagine the recommendations that they are giving to potential new customers— “They have the best dark roast there!” If I heard that recommendation, your venue would be on my list of coffee shops to avoid. I’m looking for something else. You’ve suddenly got people running around town giving bad advertisements for your coffee. 

What’s worse is that  you’ve done the industry a disservice. You could have said, “We’re not big on darker roasts, but I’ve got a coffee here that’s bursting with flavor,” and you’d have a guy running around town singing your praises for the right reasons… singing the praises of specialty coffee in general. Instead he just has verification that dark roast is the best… that dark roast is his favorite way to have coffee… that dark roast is an extension of specialty coffee… and the very definition of speciality coffee is muddied further. He’s confused and when he walks into another specialty shop with your misinformation, he will have a bad experience because you’ve misrepresented what specialty coffee is. This is bad, lazy, arrogant customer service. You think your coffee is best to drink, even if you have to trick customers into drinking it. Yet, if we want this industry to develop, we need people to understand what they are buying and why it’s awesome.

Now, I don’t honestly think that people are lying because they are evil. I think they are trying to make interactions with customers simple and enjoyable for both sides. They want to move away from the image of an arrogant, unhelpful barista. You want to be accessible. I just think that the coffee itself needs to be accessible too. However, if you are hiding the coffee, playing the gatekeeper that knows best, treating the customers like children that couldn’t possibly understand… You are being just as arrogant as the stereotypical barista that scoffs if you don’t know what a Yirgacheffe is.

The very definition of “pretentious” is representing yourself as something you are not. Lying about your coffee to save face is the absolute height of pretention. Honesty is the opposite.

We are an industry that is defined by precision… and precision is almost another way of saying truth. We cannot afford to lie. Not to ourselves, and not to the customer. We are developing, we are creating a space for ourselves. We want to be next to wine and whisky, because coffee has comparable nuance and depth. Yet, we want to be accessible.. like, well, regular coffee. To walk this razor’s edge, I think we have to be honest with the public about our endeavors. 

  • Yes, we are picky about how we brew and serve.
  • Yes, it’s important to us.
  • No, it’s not great with sugar. 
  • Yes, I realize that’s weird, since traditional coffee works well with sugar.
  • No, you’re not going to get what you define as a regular coffee. 
  • Will you enjoy it? I’m not sure… but I do… and I can tell you what I love about it.

The truth will set you free.