I feel like there's been a lot of introspection within the "Third Wave" coffee community lately, and I'd like to add to it with consideration to the creamer station. We all know the feeling of pulling a good shot of espresso, only for it to be downed with 2 splendas and grimace. For kicks, I tried an espresso with a splenda in it-- it tasted horrible (to me). Now, I don't blame a customer who comes into my shop and orders a double espresso-- almost every espresso you find around this area is high in volume and low in flavor. I suppose a splenda would be fine in that situation.

There's been a huge push in the "barista knows best" direction recently, whether it's no iced espresso or no 20 oz. cups. We're constantly filled with the desire to impart our knowledge of our product onto our consumer, and we all know the adverse reactions that have been sparked from this. You can usually bypass being thought of as a 'pretentious coffee snob' by the way you phrase things-- but it's very hard to tell a customer what to do with their cup of coffee after you give it to them. I've tried casually saying to a customer, "Wow this espresso looks like it's going to have a lot of flavor, you might want to try it before you put any sugar in it." She remarked, "What did you do to it?" Well, I pulled it to a shorter volume to maximize its natural sweetness. She said "I think I'm ok" and put the sugar in.

I've seen people that are so unaccustomed to drinking coffee that they'll order something like a mocha (already sweet and mostly hot milk) and then go put cream and sugar into it. That's probably pretty gross too. Most people know at a fine restaurant not to ask for salt, because you trust that the chef has good enough taste to season your dish adequately. This is not the case with a fine coffee shop. It's ingrained in a lot of people that coffee needs cream and sugar, always. So, as this "Third Wave" progresses, I wonder if the "barista knows best" attitude will find its way into the dissolution of the creamer station altogether? As in, if you don't put the salt on the table, they can't throw a bunch on before they even taste the dish. I'm not even close to curious about doing this in my cafe, but I am curious if there are any shops that have done this already, or if anyone sees this as a future progression within the current coffee movement.

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I'm with John on this... if it really bothers you, bring the condiment operation behind the bar. Limit the sweetener options to the ones that are complimentary - natural sugar, honey, etc. No pinks, blues, yellows. Make it a quality and service improvement and make a big deal about it.

We "fix coffee" (it was broken?) for a few special customers. The interesting side effect is that they begin to expect this level of service and actually think less of other shops for NOT doing this.

This also creates the opportunity for you to use half the sugar requested, slowly dial them down, limit excessive cream usage, pull the shots on top of the sugar, etc. Wouldn't work for all customers, of course, but would be an interesting approach.

Interesting discussion, btw.
Funny in NYC are fixing the coffee is what lower end places do, like deli's or hot dog street carts. There is terms even with, "light and sweet","regular",black and sweet, it goes on. So for us fixing peoples coffee would bring us back.
Mike Love said:
Funny in NYC are fixing the coffee is what lower end places do, like deli's or hot dog street carts. There is terms even with, "light and sweet","regular",black and sweet, it goes on. So for us fixing peoples coffee would bring us back.

I have to disagree.

While certainly part of the "low end" experience is getting sweet and creamy coffee, merely the absence of a condiment bar and the preparation of the customers' coffee is hardly a step backwards.

The Spro has never had a condiment bar. In fact, during the design of both the space and the service, it was the condiment bar that was first to go. Gone is that filthy station. Instead, we interact with the customers and have the opportunity to start that conversation about coffee. Our approach is not necessarily to lessen the quantity of sugar or cream because we add them to the customers' specifications. Instead, we now have this opportunity to wow them with greater service and greater attention to detail.

Without a doubt, it takes longer, which gives us the chance to engage the customer more. In those few extra moments, we can chat about their lives or their coffee. The opportunity is there to earn a deeper connection.

Of course, there's also the New York Style of just grumpily dumping a bunch of cream and sugar and hoping the customer pisses off...
I don't think it is step backwards to remove the station. That isn't what I mean. In NYC you have to fight the deli style. It isn't just sweet and creamy coffee people ask for. It took us a couple years to get people to stop asking for it. When we started out there where only 2 espresso bars we would go into in NYC. That isn't the case now. Things have changed. It is a strong NYC thing the deli coffee. I the beginning, when we opened,to have the costumer make it them selves was to say you where different from the deli style, in The New York area. It was important here. I don't think that goes for everyone. Location & demographics denotes a lot sometimes. It could mean something else in Maryland.
taking away cream and sugars (even the artificial ones) seems like a huge disservice to customers. remember that the ones who dump three equals and two inches of cream in their coffee are just as important -- and in our shop's case, loyal -- as the customers who order straight-up espresso drinks daily.

however, i, too, think that coffee is definitely an industry where "the customer is always right" motto does not apply. i can't stand when you tell a customer that espresso to go is against your policy and they give you the "but i'm the customer, give me what i want" bullshit. no.
I would love to take away the condiment staion, but sadly that would eliminate too much business.

I like aleternate options though, Tim Wendelboes shop does "black week", they take the condiments away for a week to educate the customers. Gimme! gives away shots of espresso on New Years day with the stipulation that you have to have it straight. So we can't fully take away the condiments, but that just means that you need to find creative ways to show people that they are ruining somthing that a bunch of people worked really hard on.
I certainly couldn't advocate making customers do without something I occasionally enjoy, myself ;)

Sure, it would be fantastic if the majority of our customer base were as intrigued and interested in the flavor of coffee as we are, but they aren't, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Why be condescending and snobbish about it? Use it as an opportunity for discussion. Stop acting like someone's "ruining" their coffee by adding some milk and/or sugar. I enjoy my coffee in a variety of ways. Sometimes I like it straight and black, sometimes (especially early in the morning when I'm not quite awake yet) I enjoy a nice au lait. FORCING people to drink it your way does a disservice to the bread and butter of your business.

Feel free to host coffee parties on your own time, where you force people to drink black coffee and taste the varietals. That's why many wineries host tastings open to the public. Hold triangulations and cuppings. But there's no need for a bad attitude about it. Openness, tolerance, and a willingness to discuss and compromise goes a long way.

Oftentimes I try to work with the customer - if they want a lot of cream in their drink, I try to talk them into an au lait. If they want to sweeten their latte, I offer to do it for them so I don't have to experience the trauma of watching my rosetta get all stirred up :D There's an odd psychology to customers, though, who don't want to buy the last cookie, don't want to make you go to any trouble (like steaming milk), etc. That's where your attitude will make or break - if you ACT like you're put out about it, they're definitely not going to want to trouble you. If you act like you REALLY want to do it, they can be convinced. It's a lot easier, and less stressful, to just work on meeting them halfway.

I mean, how many of us started out drinking black single sources or straight espresso?
I did, my mom wouldn't let me have coffee unless I drank it black. Thanks Mom!
Thanks for all the responses! I agree with most all of you are saying- there's no feasible way for most of us to kill the creamer station because of cost that would do to the business. I have customers that I adore that use cream and sugar. I have absolutely no desire to take it out of my cafe. I guess for me it's just a philosophical issue of when your business makes a concerted effort to push the individuality of a certain coffee, and the effort that has been put into that coffee before it entered your hands, then how remarkable it is to hand them that cup and point them into the direction of an area where they can neutralize those aspects. I do understand that you can still tell a good coffee from a bad coffee after doctoring it, but it's the uniqueness that suffers. This is why I feel sometimes 'at war' with the creamer station.

The other issue that bothers me with coffee is yes, when I first tried it, I tried it with cream and then progressed towards drinking it black. But similarly, when I first tried beer, I didn't like it because I thought it was too bitter. Why for something like beer to we take the time to train ourselves to appreciate it, but with coffee we just add foreign elements in order to make it tolerable? In a lot of ways what I'm getting at here is how to reconstitute the consumer mindset that coffee is inherently intolerable and "needs" fixing-- that coffee and cream are complimentary. And this is what cuppings and something like Gimme's new year's day accomplish, and I'm excited to think about more ways that we can try to change that mindset.
Agreed, Jonathan.

I've had conversations with customers on days when we offered one of our uber-smooth varietals, sharing other customers' observations that the coffee didn't need cream or sugar. This seems a surprise to some people. It doesn't seem to occur to them that they could revisit their routine, or that a better coffee wouldn't need anything.


What about a day where you did a free size upgrade, with the caveat being that they had to drink it black?

Or a sign over the cream station
"XXX's coffee
so good it doesn't need cream"

Good thread.
Interesting analogy... With beer, it seems to become an accustomed taste more by virtue of peer pressure, and you can't really add anything to beer to make it taste better. You just try and drink it as cold as possible. I never was much of a beer drinker, and still am not. I'd drink it to get drunk in college and that's about it, but if there were other options, I certainly went for them. It wasn't until very recently that people have been aware of various beer brews. I don't recall, growing up, seeing all the IPAs and lagers and stouts and whatnot sitting on grocery store shelves.

With coffee, you CAN add things to change the taste, and it's traditional. I think we'd be hard pressed to argue any coffee purity - if you wanted to, you'd probably have to drink it turkish or cowboy style, because that's where it started, so saying black is best seems to be an attempt at elitism? ;)

There are just different approaches to coffee. Being "at war" with the cream station implies there's a One True Way of coffee drinking, and that's a fallacy. Auto-drip, press, pourover, chemex, espresso, etc. etc., they're all various ways of appreciating different aspects you're seeking, and some people seek coffee that tastes like melted coffee ice cream. Given the history of coffee in the US, it's taking a while for folks to realize that coffees even have different tastes and flavors - and when you have the largest open arms in the industry serving coffee that's essentially a cup of charcoal, our jobs as baristas can be even more difficult. We're moving in the right direction, though. I'm sure we all see customers changing their patterns on a daily basis, and the more we chat about it in a passionate manner, the more they'll decide to give our suggestions a try.

Instead of a free size upgrade, why not just offer a small amount for free, that they have to drink black? Maybe with the purchase of another drink, so you're not just tossing out free coffee.
Educating customers is the way to go in my opinion, at my shop our menu is stripped to basics i.e. solo, doppio, cubano, cappaccino, latte, au lait ect.... with that our customers are almost forced to ask questions which in turn allows us to educate. Most often people are intrigued and want to try something new. Then there are customers who know what they want and could care less. They want what they want their way... And you know what that's fine, I say pick your battles; you'll have more success with people who want to learn as opposed to those who don't. let those who don't want to learn stick to their starbitch over sugared mess. It is what it is and besides you can't force anyone to change, they have to want to.

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