here's our setup: we keep an airpot filled with one type of coffee in the morning (from a fetco 2031e) until 11am for folks who bring in mugs or just want a caffeine fix. after 11am we only do pourovers on our hario v60 brew bar.

we usually have 4-5 regular coffees plus a decaf available on the pourover bar. all are light to medium roast. currently we have an ethiopia sidama guji gr. 4, a sumatra permata gayo, an el salvador santa rita SHG, a decaf brazil serra negra, a kenya gaturine estate, and a rwanda rushashi duhingekawa from coffeeshrub.

point being, it's a good variety of coffees to suit different tastes. they're all accompanied by three tasting notes in a succinct format - the kenya, for instance, reads "winey, clean, citrus." all the coffees take roughly four minutes to brew and are $2.00 for a twelve ounce. i like the layout and it's pretty simple to see what the options are and choose one.

 

here's my dilemma - lately we've had an increasing number of people walk into the shop in the afternoon and say "can i just get a regular coffee?" when i explain to them our method of brewing coffee and show them the coffee menu, i often get a look of exasperation - like they don't have the time or inclination to pick one of the coffees. i can understand how they arrived at this mindset, considering how most places brew coffee. i understand it even though it's ludicrous in any other context - you'd have to be an idiot to walk into, say, the crappiest of bars and refuse to pick between bud light and miller lite.

one of my employees has recently started to give people an americano, no questions asked, when this situation occurs. an americano is probably closest to what they want anyways - it tastes like coffee and most of the notes in our coffees will be lost by the time people dump cream and sugar into them anyways. it's simply a waste of our time and coffee to make exasperated people choose a varietal and spend four minutes brewing it when they just want something vaguely coffee flavored into which they can dump additives.

 

so my question is twofold, i suppose: 1) how do other shops deal with this quandary? 2) should i just start giving them americanos, no questions asked - or should i try to educate them?

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a lot of good points here. but let's pose a thought experiment - let's say i am indeed doing a bit of fence-sitting and catering to two disparate scenes when i really should choose one. let's say i decide to say "screw it," stop brewing the fetcos, move my pourover prices to $2.50, and not give the everyman what he wants.

what's my reaction when someone walks in and asks for a "regular coffee" or the "darkest roast you have?" i refuse to offer third wave scorn in the face of such a request, but neither would i wish to perpetuate the person's ignorance of quality coffee at the expense of my shop's identity. what's the correct way to handle that without driving off most customers and thus going bankrupt?

do i just give them an americano? do i pick the most neutral pourover i have, like chris suggested? do i tell them what i'm doing or not? my dilemma is how to handle that situation from a customer service standpoint, even if i have stopped sending mixed signals (assuming i was doing so in the first place).

Just say, "You got it" ring them out, make it and then gauge their reaction from threre. Do they like it? I usually tel people..."your gonna love this" or something like that. Something that lets them know that they do not need to do anything else and that I am taking care of them. Don;t tell them what your doing. Let the coffee do the talking. Maybe after a few good coffees from you they will recieve you telling them about your process...but in the end all anyone really wants when they come in is a good cup of coffee.

Jared Rutledge said:

a lot of good points here. but let's pose a thought experiment - let's say i am indeed doing a bit of fence-sitting and catering to two disparate scenes when i really should choose one. let's say i decide to say "screw it," stop brewing the fetcos, move my pourover prices to $2.50, and not give the everyman what he wants.

what's my reaction when someone walks in and asks for a "regular coffee" or the "darkest roast you have?" i refuse to offer third wave scorn in the face of such a request, but neither would i wish to perpetuate the person's ignorance of quality coffee at the expense of my shop's identity. what's the correct way to handle that without driving off most customers and thus going bankrupt?

do i just give them an americano? do i pick the most neutral pourover i have, like chris suggested? do i tell them what i'm doing or not? my dilemma is how to handle that situation from a customer service standpoint, even if i have stopped sending mixed signals (assuming i was doing so in the first place).

malcolm gladwell has a genius TED talk about spaghetti sauce where he essentially says that most people cannot adequately describe what they want. they say they want a rich strong dark roast, but they want milky weak coffee. which is why i know they want an americano when they ask me for a "regular coffee," but they won't say it. i've converted a lot of people onto our americanos because they don't taste like anything more than coffee but they're strong and super smooth.

i think it's just really difficult for me to see that line between maintaining what shop identity i do have and what the customer says they want. i'm just not sure how to balance those two bits of the equation. 

 

This is a great discussion and I hope that it continues. I'm following you Jared, and I think you're going somewhere with your gladwell example. What I'm learning more and more is exactly what deferio said about letting the coffee do the talking. While education is important and vital to a healthy company, it is a process. A new customer, in a way, has already been sold on something, otherwise they would not walk into your shop in the first place. It may be word of mouth or it could just be a convenient location at the time, but there is some driver pushing them to walk into the shop.
If a customer, especially a new customer, seems confused on what to ask for then we must educate by simply recommending them to try something. Manual brew, when executed properly, has already proven to be an enjoyable experience by most people...therefore, we must be confident in directing our customers with our recommendations.
I also think that it is important to look at one other factor, layout. If a goal is for regular coffee customers to be bought in on the manual brew process then the layout of the coffeehouse must align to the process. There are many places that execute this well and a couple that come to mind are Intelligentsia and Coava. Their bars scream to the regular coffee customer "this is how we do it". What it simply comes down to is brand identity....what is your value proposition for the customer? Once that is defined roll it out throughout the entirety of the brand and be confident in that decision. While some customers will be lost others will be gained because of it!

 

Great discussion so far, and some great thoughts presented.

 

Couple of questions for you Jared...

 

Is your shop more about the results in the cup, the process to make it, or the education aspect?  I guess that's the real question in my mind... and it might lead you to different answers to your question.  Do you focus so heavily on manual brew because it is the most practical way to get the results you want in your customers' cups?  Or is it more about the identity you want your shop to have - to be "that place that crafts every cup by hand"?  Or do you do it mostly to encourage a discussion and involvement of the customer in the process?

 

Do you feel like the customer exasperation you describe is more related to the time they have to wait, or do you feel its more related to them having to make a decision?

 

One big disconnect that I do see here is the statement that your americano will be "good enough for them, once they add their cream and sugar"  I've had your americano, and thought it was an excellent drink that is totally consistent with the rest of your offerings.  If you don't like it, though, tweak it until you do!  I do agree that it is an excellent choice for someone that wants a "bold" coffee, or one to add cream and sugar too, but am not sure that just offering it as a default is consistent with your approach.

 

I would not approach this by adding a ho-hum coffee to your lineup.  There are plenty of outstanding coffees that have a relatively broad appeal, you probably always have one in your lineup anyway.  If people balk at your simplified descriptors, just make them that.  You could probably even do a pourover to order, giving you time to speak to why.  People understand fresh. People like "just for you".  You can tell them what they are drinking... over time they'll probably realize that they actually do care where it comes from.

 

Chris makes a really good point...  let the coffee do the talking, perhaps with a couple of easy suggestions about what they are drinking.  Many will come around and learn more about coffee in spite of their initial lack of interest.  Its a big leap - intimidating and scary for some.  Give them the chance to take baby steps.

 

BTW, Jay... I too found your statement about Fetco and Bud Lite kinda confusing.  Thanks for clarifying.

i think i want to encourage the involvement of the customer in the process, and i think what i'm struggling with is my reaction when people resist that - they don't want to make a decision, or don't want anything more complicated than a "regular cup of coffee." that's where it gets tough for me, that exasperation that i'm asking them to do something more than simply consume caffeine.

 

and the reason i suggest an americano isn't because i think they're bad (i love our americanos) but instead because it's the most "regular coffee" thing we have.

"let's say i am indeed doing a bit of fence-sitting and catering to two disparate scenes when i really should choose one. let's say i decide to say "screw it," stop brewing the fetcos, move my pourover prices to $2.50, and not give the everyman what he wants."

First off, I think you need to consider the environment you are providing.  Is it conducive to offering a $2.50 cup?  Meaning: how does your place look and feel to the customer?  Is the idea of "excellent coffee" congruent with the environment?

 

Let's consider the restaurant biz for a moment.  Places like McDonald's, Chick-Fil-A and In-N-Out offer a very affordable product in a clean, fast and spartan environment.  A six dollar meal is congruent with their scene.

 

Now think Fine Dining.  It could be places like Providence (LA), Per Se (NYC) or Morton's (everywhere).  In those environments it would be incongruent to offer the six dollar meal and its accompanying quality.  In those environments you are expecting something elevated and are willing to pay more.  In many ways, the environment is what separates the Ruth's Chris Steakhouses from the Applebee's and Steak'nShake.

 

So what kind of environment and approach are you offering?

 

There are numerous examples across America of places that deign to offer quality coffee at higher prices but fail to offer an commensurate environment.  Is your place one of those places?

 

What I mean is that Dunkin Donuts does not try to be more than it is and what it does very well.  They focus on their core: cheap, quick coffee to the masses. Sure they may dabble in additional product lines but what works, they keep and what doesn't they eliminate.  Even today, Dunkin Donuts core product is it's pot brewed coffee.

 

"what's my reaction when someone walks in and asks for a "regular coffee" or the "darkest roast you have?" i refuse to offer third wave scorn in the face of such a request, but neither would i wish to perpetuate the person's ignorance of quality coffee at the expense of my shop's identity. what's the correct way to handle that without driving off most customers and thus going bankrupt?"

That Third Wave scorn is nothing more than a demonstration by so many baristas that they lack experience and mastery of craft.  It's insecurity taken to a visible extreme.  It's the major reason why I've been very critical of 3W over the years.  In fact, I'm embarrassed by the whole 3W thing.

 

But how do you approach that situation?  It's really quite simple: how would you like to be treated?  Answer that and you know how to proceed.

 

No one, including yourself, wants to be met with condescension and derision - yet that's what so many of these "Third Wavers" do to their customers, and then they whine in wonderment why our profession isn't regarded as "serious" by people.

 

I give a pretty intense workshop on customer service and how to work with customers but that's the core, and it's so simple:  treat others how you would want yourself to be treated.

 

"do i just give them an americano? do i pick the most neutral pourover i have, like chris suggested? do i tell them what i'm doing or not? my dilemma is how to handle that situation from a customer service standpoint, even if i have stopped sending mixed signals (assuming i was doing so in the first place)."

Why not just stick with crafting and perpetuating an amazing batch brewed coffee program?  Choose a focus and do it well.

 

At Spro Hampden, we practice what seems to be the most progressive coffee program in the industry today.  Multiple brew methods paired to each individual coffee to deliver the maximum flavor experience.  Coffees from multiple roasters in an environment that is dramatically different than any other.  Each coffee is hand-brewed a la minute from open to close.

 

Then there's the original Spro in Towson.  Even with the opening of Hampden and the coffee program there, the program in Towson remains relatively unchanged.  Some changes were made during the development phase of Hampden when we tested and proofed brewing methodologies, but the coffee in Towson is large pot French Press brewed, the selection limited with a focus on quick and efficient coffee service that meets the desires of our clientele there.

 

Certainly the discussion has come up for Towson if we should elevate the service level to that of Hampden but I have decided to hold off on that, for now.  Mainly because the environment and clientele is different there.  They're used to a particular way of doing things and I realize that changing the coffee program there would be more of an ego move than a real response to a change/demand in our market.

 

More importantly: give them, within your means, what they ask for.  Or at least do everything you can to give them what they desire.

 

"i think it's just really difficult for me to see that line between maintaining what shop identity i do have and what the customer says they want. i'm just not sure how to balance those two bits of the equation. "

Don't take this the wrong way, but that's really your problem.  Persistency of vision is a necessary factor - whatever that vision may be.

 

Perhaps now is a good time to sit down and really think on what vision you want to present of your shop and your coffee program.  Find it, believe in it and stick to it.

 

I've said to many people (including my bankers) that I would rather go bankrupt pursuing my vision of coffee than to chug along doing the average coffeeshop thing.  Not to denounce those who do that and do it very well, but I might as well quit at that point and go back to making movies - much more financially rewarding.

 

Take Spro Hampden once again.  When I was envisioning the project, I thought about simply exporting Towson's program, but that would be too easy and just lazy.  As the hand brewed program developed, I thought about the morning "rush" and how to "handle" it.  Morning batch brewing was a consideration but one that just seemed, well, just lazy too.  

 

That's when I considered psycho friends like John Piquet and Anthony Rue.  Two people in very disparate parts of America promoting high quality coffee to an unsophisticated and unsuspecting clientele, and brewing that coffee by-the-cup from open to close, those "rushes" be damned because they knew their quality was worth the wait.

 

You need to have that persistency of vision because everyone can and will conspire against you.  Plenty of people said that morning batch brewing was the way to go.  My own staff lobbied me for music in the shop.  People lobbied me for art on the walls.  Squatters lobbied me for free WiFi.  Charlatans asked me for fruity flavored syrups.  Vendors hounded me to buy all sorts of things I "needed" to be successful.

 

When faced with all these external forces, you need to have that strength of vision in order to carry through.  That vision actually made the choices very simple and quite easy.  It then became easy to tell people "no, we are not going in that direction."

 

"i think i want to encourage the involvement of the customer in the process, and i think what i'm struggling with is my reaction when people resist that - they don't want to make a decision, or don't want anything more complicated than a "regular cup of coffee." that's where it gets tough for me, that exasperation that i'm asking them to do something more than simply consume caffeine."

Involvement by the customer comes with time.  First you have to impress them and deliver on your promises, then you build rapport and trust - and then you get involvement.  It's really just like any relationship: there has to be trust.  It's your job to develop and nurture that trust with your clientele.

 

At Spro Hampden, we offer anywhere between four to six coffees per day, each brewed by hand, to order.  This weekend, the coffees range from $2 to $9 for a 12z cup and are printed on a menu with descriptions that our baristas have written.

 

We regularly get those customers who just want "a coffee" - they don't want to think, they don't want to talk, and they certainly don't want a dissertation by the barista on the merits, flavors and origins of that coffee.  They just want "a coffee" and they want it straightaway.

 

For those people, we don't even get into a discussion or question. It's the $2 pourer and it's going to take four minutes.  We tell them this and then they can watch their coffee being made.  Cream and/or sugar and then they're out the door in, hopefully, under five minutes.

 

Again, give them what they desire.  We let them take the coffee without grand explanation because I believe that they will recognize the quality in the cup.  They will notice and then return.  As they return again and again, they know they like the coffee, they start to trust in the coffee and then discussion becomes possible.  A relationship has been nurtured.

i definitely think our coffee is quality, jay, but you're right about the a bit of vagueness with the vision. i think i've done the average coffeeshop thing very well. our coffee is good, our pourovers are consistent, we make our own limited selection of syrups, we do have wi-fi, a comfortable environment, etc. it sounds a lot like what you do at spro towson, just with pourovers. i suppose the real question then is where do i want to take it - keep doing the average thing well or step it up and tighten everything. it's definitely something to spend some time pondering.

Jared, you are far too modest.  I'd never call your place "average".  Between the focused menu, outstanding execution, and competition-style signature beverages on the menu, your place is definitely a cut above.


Jared Rutledge said:

i definitely think our coffee is quality, jay, but you're right about the a bit of vagueness with the vision. i think i've done the average coffeeshop thing very well. our coffee is good, our pourovers are consistent, we make our own limited selection of syrups, we do have wi-fi, a comfortable environment, etc. it sounds a lot like what you do at spro towson, just with pourovers. i suppose the real question then is where do i want to take it - keep doing the average thing well or step it up and tighten everything. it's definitely something to spend some time pondering.
Just to get my two cents in, if autodrip is like any beer, it's Olympia. While a damn fine tasty brew in it's own right, I'd rather have a Orval Trappist Monk ale. But, in a pinch, an Oly can be pretty dang satisfying. 

That is indeed "sage" advice. I'm in the same boat as Sage in that we are mobile and cater to people on the go. People see all the options on our menu and say "can I get just plain coffee?", even though drip/brewed coffee is clearly on the menu. I've had people not even be familiar with "drip/brewed" coffee as they refer to it as Mr. Coffee as in the machine brand. We do have a fair amount of people not familiar with espresso and all the drinks that can be created from it and want to know more. That leads to a few minutes of discussion which usually leads to them buying something espresso based, therefore spending more money in the process.

 

I guess my point is to do whatever works for the majority of your customers to keep them coming back as well as minimizing waste/effort on your part. Seems as if we all cater to different walks of life and to me that is what makes coffee so interesting. No matter the extraction method used we (humans) can all relate to what coffee has to offer from the mildest to the wildest.


sage said:

jared, those are some beautiful offerings!  wish i could do something similar, but the majority of my customers are usually rushed for time, especially first thing in the morning when they are trying to get themselves and their horses ready for competitions and the show ring.

but, i kind of heard you answer your own question.  i think the best you can do is educate when you can--when you see/feel a customer has the time, interest, and appreciation for coffee quality and barista skill. to me, that particular customer is what this industry is all about.  that particular customer keeps me interested in trying to learn and share all that you have mentioned in your discussion opening.

and sometimes, i believe so many people/customers are simply maxxed out on daily, sometimes trivial (not coffee subject matter!), and sometimes repetitious (not coffee subject matter!) questions, that they simply want someone else to make the decision or choice for them.  it sometimes just boils down to that.  when you have this customer, just make the decision for them.  you're going to sell them a great cup of coffee regardless of the choice, right?...including an americano.  so, do that, and smoothly inform them (briefly) the roast type or the bean/blend combo you've chosen for them.  i believe that customer will be relieved of not having to impose on their brain one more choice/decision, and i believe when they return again, they will ask you to offer them the same choice.  win-win. bravo!

(those are great comments, chris/dale...wish i could have summed it up so succinctly!)

Honestly, in these cases I would jump on the line of thinking that To Much Info is far worse that To Little Info.  One thing that we have found about the "just a cup of coffee" folk (obviously) is that they don't wanna hear your shit about terroir, extensive cupping notes, or even why your brewing your to order.  (Talking from the customers head here).  But, if you can blow them away with "just a cup of coffee", suddenly they do wanna here a little more info each time they come it.  Anyway....

 

If you ARE doing manual brew, I WOULD NOT just jump to an americano for these people.  Ask one simple question... "are you looking for anything specifically?"  You will either get "No, just coffee" or "Yea, something dark" or "Yea, something not to strong/bitter."  While these answers really don't mean anything specifically they can help you judge what coffee to brew up for them, either your base coffee (just coffee), your sumatra permata gayo (heavier chocolate body to give them a quality experience of what they think the want in a "dark roast"), or your el salvador santa rita SHG (never had it, but I'll go ahead and assume that this is a sweeter balanced cup for shits and giggles).  Then just say "cool deal, we'll get a sumatra started for you, its got a nice heavy chocolate body."  In a way disregard what they have said (in this case "Something dark", while still giving them what they want.

 

The problem with just making an americano is that you suddenly have done absolutely nothing special to brew your coffee in the eyes of your customer, so of course they're just gonna load it with whatever crap they usually add.  But, if you stick to your guns and they see you doing something special (pour-over, FP, siphon, whatever), you have put in thier mind (subtly) that "hey, this is different" without making it difficult, and 7 times outa 10 these people will sip the coffee first before adding anything.  Now, they may still add stuff after, but, if you honestly have kick-ass coffee you have just made them rethink some shit.  And all you did was ask one, easy to answer question.  Do the thinking for them, but make sure they know you are doing something different and usefull.

 

I would argue the point that you will have a far less conversion rate (from "just coffee" to coffee person) with the americano approach.  

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