No Man Can Serve Two (or Three) Masters

Time and time again, when I talk to people about coffee business strategy it seems the top priority is speed. "I want the customer to be able to be in and out in 90 seconds or less," and the like seem to have somehow become the goal to strive for in regards to customer service.

Fine. Good. Quick service is hard to look down on, but is that all there is to it? Of course not!

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that speed isn't a noble practice. I'm saying that it shouldn't take a back seat to quality.

I know, I know. This is said time and time again. "The horse is not only dead, it ceases to exist." Yes, right. I know. Hear me out.

You have to start with one or the other. Yeah, sure, you can have fast quality, but they are never equals. I don't care what the business plan or mission statement says. I don't care what the manager or CEO says. They are NEVER equals.

Imagine, if you will, a store that wants to franchise. They want to serve the best quality possible. For this reason, they are installing super automatic espresso machines. Counter-intuitive? Why? This means that service will be fast, and the quality will be consistent.. right?

Well... yes and no. Already, we've seen another variable enter into the equation. Consistency.

So now we have to choose between: Speed. Quality. Consistency.

Yes, those three little words that are cause for much planning, much strategy, and much debate over their importance.

The thing is, people always say, "well, they're all important", and the more advanced version, "Quality is the most important, but the others are definitely high on our list." That last one sounds great... on paper.

The problem is that too many times people will say things like that, but when push comes to shove, if there is a bottleneck line out the door, and the shot didn't come out quite right, a lot of people will serve it anyway. It'll be covered in milk anyway, right?

Herein lies the dilemma. We need more than a mantra. We need more than a concept. We need a philosophical framework for how to implement these words accurately and correctly in a cognitive manner.

Actions follow thought, so in order to perform right action, we must first practice right thought. As we've already seen, words tend to be kind of cheap. Mantras and slogans show their age and get stale. They are impermanent solutions to a fundamental philosophical problem within our industry as a whole.

As it is, time and time again I hear and preach that one should focus on a few things, and do those few things well. Time and time again, the word comes up with great emphasis. Focus.

Just as we must crawl before we can walk (and walk before we can run), we must begin begin by focusing on only one element before we can learn to successfully implement the others.

I propose the same thing than any reader of this blog would state to be their primary focus of the three priorities listed. Focus on Quality.

Start by perfecting espresso preparation and milk frothing techniques. Back to basics. Practice. Taste. Analyze. Troubleshoot. Repeat. Do this time and time again until the analysis yields consistent results, and troubleshooting becomes unnecessary.

And there, we've made our first adaptational merger of priorities. We began with quality. Now, we have adapted consistency to the primary objective.

They are not equals. Consistency is an add on. Like a six-speed transmission on a base model coupe.

It's nice, but not the core of what you intend.

Now that the fundamental skill set is in place, how do we beat the clock to get from point A to point B in our slightly improved automobile? We speed it up.

Now, speeding things up doesn't mean dropping the transmission. You certainly can't speed up with no fundamental with which to increase your speed. If you sacrifice the primary objective, the entire structure falls apart, and we are no longer in the upper echelon of product prestige.

Imagine the quickness not as a physical speed, but as an efficiency. We're going to replace the conventional oil with full-on synthetic. We're going to replace the air filter for easier breathing(inhale). We're going to use some GM Syncromesh in the gearbox, and we're going to (slightly) increase the diameter of our exhaust tubing, again, for easier breathing (exhale).

We have not added anything. We have only removed obstacles that make existing power more easily accessible. We haven't sped things up. We've only made the work flow more efficient. The result, as the car will attest to, is better efficiency, and more speed(power).

"Work smarter, not harder".. again. We don't need mantras. However, if you were to take the analogy just given and condense it into one sentence, that would be it. I just feel that such verbalizations are too general and really don't drive the point home effectively enough.

So now we have adapted NOTHING to our Primary Objective other than consistency(from earlier). We've just streamlined the operations a bit. Simple. This is not in the hands of the barista. This is in the hands of the general manager, bar manager, shop owner, whoever is solely responsible for the general layout of things behind the bar.

Now that everything is primed, this little sporty coupe is ready to hit the Autobahn.

It doesn't take much effort to speed things up a bit at this point. If it's truly challenging, then I would suspect that you didn't succeed in optimizing your work station's work flow efficiency.
(Maybe you used the wrong sized exhaust tubing. Maybe your air filter is dirty. Maybe you're still trying to cheap out by using conventional oil.)

In skilled hands, speeding up the pace means just doing the normal tasks in a slightly accelerated pace. Generally, this is more related to efficiency than actual velocity and acceleration of physical movements.

And thus, we have adapted Speed to the Primary Objective.

If you'll notice, neither consistency nor speed will stand on their own if quality truly is the high priority. Both are merely an adaptation to what is already present: a concentrated and intense focus on quality.

But if a bad shot is pulled, you don't ditch the foundation. You don't throw away the car. You throw away the offensive shot and start over. Just like making a U-turn under the highway overpass.

Think of it as a molecule. Quality has a couple of smaller atoms. The first one is consistency. Consistency has a smaller atom attached to it as well. It's called speed.

Originally found at CoffeeAspirations


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Comment by Brady on May 7, 2008 at 6:40am
Another thing that I see after reading this thread again - the whole "coffee for the money" thing. What money? Where is the money in owning a coffeehouse? Have you met any indie shop owners that were getting rich off of their shop? Most owners I know, regardless of their stance on quality, are just trying to keep the lights turned on.

It has been my experience that pleasing the morning commuter rush that so many people scoff at serving is how you keep your lights on the rest of the day. I liked Jason's comment about running two different places, or a hybrid. You make your operation good - great drinks, super friendly customer service. You can then serve that same great drink to "I'm late for work but stopping anyway" as you can to the "sit and read for an hour". And you get to pay your bills so that you can stay open past 10 and be a "real coffeehouse".

It is a tough balance, and I like that Jason, Kayak, and most of the others are engaging in a good discussion that might help some of us find that balance.

Yes it is about the coffee. If they come tomorrow and padlock my door, nobody gets coffee.
Comment by Brady on May 6, 2008 at 6:49pm
Wow... checked out for a few hours and seem to have missed quite a bit.

Joe, you make some great points. I agree with your stated desire to encourage the customer to slow down. I am a bit confused on some of the other aspects of the discussion though.

The point that many people in this discussion have agreed on seems valid - that by working quickly, expertly, and efficiently behind the bar, we can provide an excellent drink for your customer. Do you disagree with this?

I think that, several pages ago, there was a discussion about balance. How to give everyone a great cup of coffee in a reasonable amount of time. Encourage them to sit an enjoy, but understand if they are not able or willing to do so today. It seems to me that by taking this approach, you give them a window into "the good life". You develop a relationship and they come back more and stay longer.

I've seen this with many of my customers - they know they can come in when they are in a hurry and get a great drink fast, then they come back with husband and kids to hang out for and meet with friends over the same great drink, knowing they can spend their time sitting down and not waiting in a line.

Lets be clear - I won't cut corners, I'll toss the whole drink if the last step screws it up. However I've worked hard to develop a work layout that is efficient and a routine that makes the best drink I'm capable of yet wastes little time. This is the point of the original post. Is there anything about this approach you disagree with?

Slowing down is great. Sitting and savoring is great. Standing and waiting for an unnecessarily slow bar staff is not the good life.
Comment by Jason Haeger on May 6, 2008 at 1:02pm
Comment by Jason Haeger on May 6, 2008 at 12:49pm
Kayakman, I agree. Please read the reply directly above yours.
Comment by Jason Haeger on May 6, 2008 at 12:45pm

Most of what we have in the US is more akin to an espresso bar than a coffee house.

The only point I have ever been trying to make in all of these replies is that for some reason, someone thinks that fast quality is somehow inherently wrong.

I disagree.

If you want to go slow then go slow, but condemn not those who adapt to their customers in the name of good service. I don't have anything against those who wish to slow things down. In fact, I quite like it. But I do not agree that a fast-paced espresso bar is somehow inherently disrespectful to anyone, anywhere, at any point in the chain from seed to gullet.


Replying by saying all I offered was negativity did not address the question, and it does not somehow put you on a proverbial "higher plane". I did ask for feedback. A discussion would have been more appropriate than an attack. Kayakman has been able to give feedback. I have enjoyed his feedback.

I have actually learned something from his feedback. From you, I have learned nothing. I have learned that you wish to find non-existent contradictions in my concepts. I have learned that you enjoy making false accusations based on words that were never written. And I've learned that you enjoy making broad sweeping generalizations about the entire state of Texas based on the opinion of one individual.

I have also learned that a debate about business theory somehow fell upon you as an attack on your skills as a barista. This doesn't even make sense. I also never attacked or accused you of failing to drive for quality. The "negativity" points which you've brought up have been fabricated.

I am 100% ready for a legitimate discussion about the issue of why slow is better. Kayakman has given reasons. You have not. You have avoided the question and cried "negativity!". That just gets us nowhere.
Comment by Joe Marrocco on May 6, 2008 at 12:29pm
See,... negativity. I'm here to promote it or play the game. I've read some of your other posts elsewhere and it permeates your approach. I hope that when we come face to face at a trade show or competition we can continue this conversation without a preserved ego being the goal. I don't want to waste time on something that is not constructive. I really don't need to defend my abilities, or my drive for quality. You're not being double-teamed. We are simply trying to discuss something with you. You put the blog out there. You asked for our feed back. I agreed with most of what you said in your original post. You began to recant and defend convenience over experience and quality. This is where I take issue. It's cool though. If the kids in TX want espresso in paper, give it to them. I'm not competing with you. I just won't give it to them when they ask me in MO. I'll send 'em your way though if I hear that they are traveling by your area.

Once again, I hope a face to face happens at some point. I frequent the trade shows and comps. Maybe we can talk over a nice cup some time.
Comment by Jason Haeger on May 6, 2008 at 12:14pm
"I'm just in it for the coffee"

Your words again.


You're right. My motives are not the motives of my customers. I am not my customers. My customers are not me. Why do I work in coffee? Because I love coffee. Hence, I'm just in it for the coffee.

I can see you were attempting to point out some contradiction or other, but you haven't specified where or what this contradiction is. That is, if it exists at all.
Comment by Jason Haeger on May 6, 2008 at 12:11pm
My tone is that of defense, Joe. When I happened to say something about the cafe culture in the US being about SERVICE(the word "profit" never was mentioned, sir, and I'll thank you not to make false accusations), I was doubled teamed and told that it was akin to inexpensive, unhealthy, "on every corner" food joints.

What would you do in such a situation?

Are you going to disregard the morning customers because you aren't willing to adapt to their pace?

I understand you want to slow things down. What I don't understand is WHY you want to slow them down so badly. It's definitely not about the quality. We've also established it's not about the customer's ability to "savor" their coffee experience. The culture argument has also fallen.

The only remaining element is the desire to be distanced from fast food. I don't think slowing down is necessary for that. If you've read the post, and the comments, you'd know that I do not agree with sacrificing quality for a little extra speed.

So, I'm really just trying to understand. Aside from YOU wanted to go slow.. what's the reasoning? What is it that I'm missing? It's not about the coffee, since we've already established that in the blog post... meaning, speed or slowness has little to do with respect for the bean.

Clue me in.
Comment by Joe Marrocco on May 6, 2008 at 12:05pm
"I'm just in it for the coffee"

Your words again.
Comment by Joe Marrocco on May 6, 2008 at 12:02pm

I too study philosophy and anthropology academically. If you study philosophy as you say you do you would certainly see how my post was pertinent. You have your theory of how the coffee shop should run and I have mine. In the end, you may make a bigger penny than me. That's totally fine with me. That's the whole point. If you are in the coffee business for money, then maybe you should find a new industry. I am in this because I am passionate about the art of coffee. I am in this because I am passionate about restoring a sense of community to my world, my city and my block. I am in this to provide people with a place where they can disconnect from the pseudo-importance that they put on their quest for more stuff, faster. I am not in this solely to make a living. I could do much better in another career. As a matter of fact, I went to college not for the bachelor of arts in philosophy and the minor in anthropology, but for the ability to be a better listener, and knower of people. We only have one shot at this life. We only have the chance to make a difference once. Through coffee we can change it all. We can slow down the technocracy, provide a mixer for the social stratus, improve the quality of life for our third world brothers and sisters, supply an arena where people can discuss politics, art and religion, and generally build bridges. The coffee is a catalyst to a greater good for me. And, contrary to what you may think, I am not alone in this endeavor. I am in constant contact with multiple people, shops, roasters, and organizations that share my heart beat. You can build your own band wagon if you'd like. But, i want to do something real. I want to do something that makes a difference that will last past my lifetime.

Am I turning my nose up at you? No way. Do I feel as though you have done that to my idealism? Absolutely. Your tone with both Kayakman and me has been quite dissonant. I'm sure that you are an amazing barista. I'm sure your shots would make my tongue do back flips. You may be able to make a drink twice as well as I can in half the time. To that I would say bravo. I am all for excellence in a proficient, efficient manner. I'm just not for have convenience be the goal. I know a LOT of people who drive well over 30 miles for good coffee, and do so a few times a week. In the mid-west there is really no other choice. If people want excellence, they will find it. These are not just a couple of instances. Many people within my community have worked long and hard at developing a coffee culture. It takes time and effort, but it is worth it. We do more than serve a sleek drink in under two minutes. We serve an experience. This is how Starbuck's started, (which I am sure you are well aware of).

"Actions follow thought, so in order to perform right action, we must first practice right thought. As we've already seen, words tend to be kind of cheap. Mantras and slogans show their age and get stale. They are impermanent solutions to a fundamental philosophical problem within our industry as a whole."

These are your words. This is what you said against speed being the goal. This is what you have said against convenience being the sacred cow. Yet, when the blog began to get deeper your true colors and views pointed out that these words were in conflict with your true attitude. Fine crafted artisan espresso drinks, coffee pulled through a clover or good 'ole French press should never be handed through a drive through window. If it is, I do not consider it to be third wave coffee.

I wish that there was a way that we could further discuss this over a nice cup of coffee instead of through cold wires. I wish that we could get past our egos (which I am entirely aware is showing through in some of the things I've said) and get to the truth. You are a philosopher and so am I. I respect you and would love to continue our discourse. If you find that you entirely disagree with me and think there is no hope for you to see my side of this, or if we are going to continue undermining each others intelligence and knowledge, I do not see this conversation bearing any fruit. If there is no fruit there is no point. I hope to hear back from you.

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