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Monthly Archives: July 2012

James Hoffmann brought it up at the SCAA Symposium, Peter Giuliano discussed it on the the portafilter.net podcast and Ben Bicknell wrote an article on it for Five Senses. The technical word for it is “market differentiation”, it refers to a particular product changing in price due to something like variation in quality.

I couldn’t agree more with this idea in coffee. As Ben Bicknell wrote, it’s just not right that you pay the same for an unpleasant coffee as you do for a remarkably grown, processed, shipped, roasted and brewed one. I see two positives from differentiation: one, as consumers we want great coffee, and as roasters buy more and more expensive coffee they need to be able to charge more to help continue to do this; two, price differentiation can help set specialty coffee apart, in the mind of the consumer, from other coffee shops . Variation in price is the most obvious way to communicate to the consumer that the coffees available are different from one another.

But although I agree with differentiation, I see a possible problem if one were to simply re-write the menu to add variation in price (not that anyone is suggesting this). That is, buying a fantastic green coffee doesn’t mean that the consumer will experience a fantastic coffee. As we are all quite aware, there are many steps from buying a green to serving a cup. Even though a coffee may be graded as Specialty, this would mean nothing if the final step of brewing was done improperly. It may be a “specialty” coffee but it could still taste horrible if prepared poorly. And this is the thought I wanted to get down. As a customer, if i’m paying $10 for a coffee, I think I’d be in my rights to expect it was prepared very well, or even better. No? As baristas we have be totally on top of our game.

This is what’s enjoyable, but also inevitably more difficult, about coffee compared to beer or wine. If a Craft Beer or Wine Bar business pays more for a bottle, they can charge a price with little concern that the quality of the beverage will decrease when it is served. But, as i’ve said, coffee is a very different ball game. That final step involves preparation immediately before the beverage is served, and if we’re not careful the quality of that cup could be far lower than the green from which it came and therefore not worth the $10 we attribute to it.

I know that most places advocating differentiation have well structured training programs in place to ensure quality makes it all the way through to the final stage, but I think it’s important to remember (or realise) that some of us will need to up our game (we don’t all work for the best – haha). And if we do double, or triple, the price of a coffee, it’s understandable that a customers expectations will also double, or triple.

To emphasise the challenge that baristas face in this, read this poem by Nick Cho.

Cheers for reading my rambling thoughts!

Today I had the job of fixing a lock to the inside of a bathroom door. It was a rather simple job, four screws through a metal piece, but it’s amazing where your mind goes during such simple tasks. After fixing the bolt i pulled the door closed to check the lock by using a piece of wooden frame fixed to the inside of the door.  I wondered if customers would think to use this piece, seeing it wasn’t immediately obvious. Maybe they wouldn’t. I thought of two things I could do: one, attach a handle; two, write “pull here” on the piece of wood. And here’s where my mind drifted elsewhere.

A handle would be an obvious indicator of what to use/do to close the door. The wood was not obvious, so it needed an explanation. And here I go: from what I’ve read Specialty Coffee shops have a hard time differentiating themselves from others. They are aiming for quality in an industry that requires volume to survive. And so we write on the piece of wood. Looking very much the same, we write  on menus and cards and blackboards who we are and what we’re trying to do. Because, maybe we fear, that if we don’t, customers won’t get it. (Another example I can think of is the “order here”, “pay here” signs. We resort to explaining how it works because it’s not immediately obvious).

I thought to myself, while fixing that lock, what is our handle? What is it that makes what we do plainly obvious? Something that is self explanatory.

Just a thought.

Read James Hoffman’s article “A Linen Napkin” for one good example.