Specialty Coffee and the Coffee Drinker

Recently in Specialty Coffee circles, they’re has been a bit of talk about “elevating” coffee. The main thoughts being that coffee is widely seen as a cheap caffeine hit and a “good coffee” is simply enjoyable, or a least palatable. Whereas Specialty Coffee is about variety: variety in flavour, in terroir, in lots and micro-lots, in growing conditions, in processing methods. It’s also about transparency; that is, knowing all of the former as well as who grew it and where. Not least, it’s about freshness. It’s understanding that coffee, like any other agricultural product, deteriorates over time and is at its peak when fresh. This understanding leads to a seasonal approach to coffee. No longer buying it in bulk to last out the year, but buying smaller lots throughout the year from wherever has recently harvested.

It seems that with all the improvement in quality and transparency, the hardest thing to do at the moment is to pass this understanding all the way down to the consumer. But “consumer education” doesn’t seem to work in the retail context; either the consumer just wants their cappuccino “without a lecture, thankyou” or the barista has 10 coffees to make and struggles to keep a coherent conversation going about wet-processing. The problem, I feel, is simply in design.

I listened to James Hoffman talk about Customer Service at Tamper Tantrum 2011. He made a comment that has stuck with me, and one that I agree with more and more. (Assuming you are a Specialty Coffee store and things such as syrups and frappucinos aren’t on your menu). He said if a customer walks into your shop and orders a Large Caramel Cappuccino it is your fault because you have not communicated to the customer clearly enough what your business is about. Does your shop look like Starbucks? If people are ordering “tall” or “grande” or asking about frappucinos, you might want to think about that. Good branding means that a customer can look at your shop, your packaging or your website and know, without having to ask even one question, what your business is about and what they should expect. It’s about differentiation too.

Specialty bakeries look different to regular ones, specialty pizza places don’t look like Pizza Hut, and specialty beer bars look different to regular bars. In each of these places, it is clear from entering that these places are different.  At a specialty beer bar, a customer doesn’t ask for (enter brand name here) but instead asks “what’s new” or has a brief conversation about what they like and is offered a suggestion to try.

Take the onus off the customer to work out what’s going on and put it on your business. What is it you want your customer to think? What is it you want them to try? What is it you want them to experience? And then go about designing your shop space to facilitate that experience, without needing words. If you want your customer to be able to choose from a variety of coffees, perhaps instead of having them line up at a bar, which may force people to make quick decisions, such as “uh… um, Caramel Latte?”; sit them down, give them a menu of the coffee, give them water, give them 5 minutes to look through the menu. Also, perhaps do something with your interior that’s different than a nice looking cafe. If you are a Specialty Coffee place, be proud of it. If you know your coffee, fill the menu with it, describe it like a fine-dining restaurant would describe it’s food; be a little romantic. And, if there’s food, maybe finish it with a very small food menu on the end, only a few lines. But all-in-all, have fun with it!

Many thanks must go out to people like Peter Giuliano, James Hoffman and Kyle Glanville for inspiring these thoughts.

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