Thursday, January 31, 2008

It's been quiet in here... (and a little industry philosophy)

As most of my readers know, I also run a blog covering the entire state of Texas. This takes up most of my time.

Even when I had started the other site, I still found things to post here, and I still do.

But why, you may ask, have I not seen an update since October? Why, if there is more to say, have I chosen to remain silent?

Call it contentment. Call it maturity. Call it a stabilizing of the flame.

By whichever name, I've come to accept certain things that once caused an internal riot to think about.

Some may have been following Ryan's rant about the customer bastardizing their cup of coffee, or compromising the integrity of the craft of the barista.

Consider this an informal response, and a "state of the Coffee Aspirer in the here and now".

Some people know that outside of coffee, my other studies tend towards philosophy in some form or another. I find that when I'm studying more in-depth into the philosophy side of things, my writing is influenced, and my thoughts tend to be more analytical, and a bit less from the "gut".

Fair warning: This is one of those times. (Eastern religious philosophies, existentialism, epistemology, metaphysics, oh my!)

The biggest complaint given is that customers will customize what the barista, and the company which that barista works for, feels that they have come to a conclusive method of preparation for a specific beverage that they find to be the best product possible with the given resources at hand. The barista spends time learning, practicing, training, all in an effort to perfect this execution time and time again for the customer. And not only is this time given, but also time is given on a daily basis to dial in the equipment and brew techniques to adapt to the conditions of that day, with on-going adjustment as required as the day burns on.

All of this work put forth in an effort to display in glorious beauty the coffee that has been lovingly tended, carefully roasted, and now is being expertly handled with the attention of the craftsman at the final link in the commercial chain we know as the barista. And why all of this emphasis on what happens beforehand? Ryan doesn't mention it, but I think we all know. Anyone reading this blog, reading his blog, reading anything and everything, and walking the walk right along with the best and the brightest this industry has to offer already knows the answer to this question. It boils down to two words, and two words alone. Love. Respect.

Like many others, I am in this business out of my undying love and passion for the romanticized and commodicized globally enjoyed beverage and culture we know as Coffee.

So much heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears have been poured into this vulnerable fruit's culmination into the small cup of coffee, and more often than not, "to go, please". It breaks our hearts to see all of this effort go unappreciated, and quite often, taken for granted.

So why wouldn't we be upset when a customer wants to modify a perfectly good recipe to suit their own solitary and perhaps condescending tastes? All this care and attention, only to be drowned in a couple of ounces of some dairy (or God forbid, non-dairy) product, and masked with some form of sweetener. And for what? So the coffee tastes like they "think" it should? What should coffee taste like, anyway? Don't they know how many people went through God knows what for the sole purpose of the production of that specific cup of coffee to exist just the way it does? It's blasphemy! It's a disgrace! (well.. at least we think so.. but not the customer, apparently, as they happen along their merry way with their bastardized cup of brew.)

Let's pause for a moment, and continue to think about this farther.

Yes, we love coffee. This love goes beyond the expression "thanks, I love it!" with a passion that burns brighter and deeper, and with more energy than an uncontrollable forest fire ignited by a flooding of gasoline and a rogue match.

But, that's only half of why we're in the coffee business. We could be happy home baristas with this love, and be content. The world's best coffees, and no-one to tell us how to brew it, and no-one to break our hearts by compromising its integrity with "unnecessary additives".

Obviously there is more to this than love. Obviously more than respect as well.

Seeing the passion and fervor from several in the industry (myself included) reminds me of religion. Not just any religion, but a new and exciting religion that you feel the whole world must know, because it will change your life.

We are not content to be happy with our coffee alone. Oh no. We got into the business because we want to share our love for this beautiful bean, and enable others to "see the light" and appreciate and understand it as WE do.

So we set up shop, work for someone with a similar vision, or, in cases like mine, spread our vision and knowledge for others to benefit from. We are utterly convinced, that once they've had it OUR way, their entire paradigm of coffee will suddenly shift, and old habits... wait.. old habits?

Sometimes, people will go into a coffee retailer expecting anything. They have the cup of coffee, taste it as its served, and are suddenly made aware of a whole new world of flavors and experiences to explore.

Unfortunately, this is just not the norm, and I feel that if it were, the business as we know it would be so far out of our minds that we would be confused if we'd heard of such a thing that we have now.

Half the fun, is the challenge of the customer conversion.

patience grasshopper... it takes time

Most Americans have been drinking coffee for as long as they've been allowed to by their parents. In many cases, this means "most of our lives". Throughout the years of our lives, we've developed certain expectations and behaviors to which we have become accustomed. For years, many of these ideas have gone unchallenged, and unchanged due to the stable nature of our experiences. For millions of people (literally), part of this collection is the category of "coffee". And for a vast majority (I dare say) of these people, filed in the platonic archives of data, the words "bitter", "hot", and some variation of the phrase, "add milk and sugar, or you won't like it" are quite likely to be found. We'll call this person, "Cx"

So, back to the beginning of this post. We're in our new coffee retail center, we've spent hours and hours in time, and thousands of dollars into making absolutely certain, that our methods will give coffee the most due respect possible, and the product will be absolutely outstanding.
Cx comes in and looks blankly at the menu. "I just want a cup of coffee..." The craftsman politely and expectantly asks, "Which coffee would you like?" Now, to us, this seems innocent enough.
Cx says, " you have just regular coffee?"

If you are the craftsperson who can relate with the undying internal flame of coffee passion, then odds are, you've had a situation like this, and you can probably recall that same situation, and how frustrated and possibly angry you were at the lack of respect for the coffee you brew, and the craftsmanship you've honed up to the moment.

But.. from the other side of this equation, can the customer hardly be blamed? Is it their fault that they've never had the honest exposure to an exceptional cup of coffee?

Project this concept further, and you can see where this is headed.

They order their coffee (often at your suggestion as to which coffee/beverage this is), and look around for the cream and sugar. They head to the condiment bar, and, just like they've learned, add a healthy dose of some sort of dairy, and a packet or four of sugar.

They have not yet tasted the coffee up to this point, but already, it's been polluted, damaged, disgraced by the addition of external contaminants.

Can they hardly be blamed? They've never had coffee any other way, and when they had tried, the liquid was so bitter, so acrid, so... BAD tasting, that they had been scarred for life, and had sworn off any form of the stuff without first having been smoothed over by some handily available additives. They would probably just stop drinking coffee altogether if it weren't for its stimulating chemical properties, and now-familiar taste (and the pleasing aroma) that has become a part of the daily ritual.

And now they have been served one of the best coffees in the world by one of the best baristas this country has to offer. Do they know the elevated status of the coffee contained in their cup?

Maybe, but usually not. Most people don't even realize that there are different grades, or different types of coffee outside of brew methods. Espresso is some esoteric voodoo in a cup that Italians love, and Americans are warming up to for some ungodly reason. (who can love such a bitter concoction, and so strong! That's just too much caffeine!) You see, these people don't know about this whole world of Specialty Coffee. And for most that do, they only know that "there is something better" than Folger's, Maxwell House, and the like. They're still just barely scratching the surface.

How are we going to open their eyes, and awaken them to the nirvana that awaits if we keep shooting them with daggers from our eyes, and gritting our teeth in an effort to contain the negative feelings we experience when the coffee we've just prepared with such precision and care has just been defiled and disrespected?

The holistic approach is this. True progress takes sacrifices. If we want the market to grow, and the appreciation to increase, we need to get more people on board the Specialty Coffee Appreciation Express, and the tickets aren't sold at a garden-variety ticket booth.

If you treat Cx with as much care and respect as you give the coffee, they will begin to notice. If you are constantly perceiving Cx as your enemy, or the enemy of your product, you will gain nothing but the reputation or perception that you are nothing but an elitist snob. We are not snobs... are we? We certainly don't think we are. We're just doing our best to express the coffee as accurately as possible. We respect our customers too, by sourcing only the finest, and going through inexhaustible education time so that it is possible to serve them the very best that we are capable of producing.

The only problem is that the Cx just isn't aware of all of those variables. They need a guiding hand, and some tolerance before you can gain their respect enough to be able to suggest something different, something new, something "superior". They obviously notice a difference, or they wouldn't keep coming back to YOU rather than your less-than-stellar competition.

We are, like it or not, in the service industry. We need to focus our attention on service to our customers, and in time, we can respectfully and in good faith guide them in the right direction.

Of course, it's often hard to teach an old dog new tricks, and Cx may never break out of their habits, but don't you for a second even begin to think that they don't love coffee for what it is. Some people have a harder time trying to quit smoking than they consider to be worth the health benefits if they do. Some people retain particular mannerisms, just out of subconscious habit. And some have learned to appreciate coffee only when accompanied by the texture of milk, and the sweetness of sugar.

It's not their fault. Let it be, and consider it a necessary sacrifice. The odds are that Cx will tell their friends, family, and co-workers about your outfit, and ZING!... more opportunities to spread the good news arrive on your doorstep.

As I said. The flame has stabilized. It burns bright and hot, but the combustion is under control.

There is comfort in watching progress unfold. Step back, and take a look.

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