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 Jason Haeger on May 6, 2008 at 12:01pm
So.. you were arguing about how fast coffee (not fast food) was an insult to culture, and now since we've agreed that that highly depends on the culture, you want to go against culture in order to arrive at your goal.

Do I have that right?

What's the real motivation here?
Comment by Jason Haeger on May 6, 2008 at 11:30am
Culture is behavior. Culture is not consuming a recipe that was imported from another culture and adapted to fit.

Besides, have you ever timed how long it takes you to consume a traditional cappuccino? Consumers in the US don't "slam down" their coffee. They take it to go, and they take forever to drink it. The thing is, despite what the outward appearance may seem, most people DO savor their coffee. Much more so probably even than those who take the time out to spend with it.

Why? For them, the coffee IS the break. For those taking time out, the TIME is the break, and the coffee is something to pass that time.

I know a cappuccino doesn't usually last more than five minutes, and that's if I'm taking my time. Espresso takes maybe one minute. And this is me just relaxing with a cup. This is not rushing.

I'm all about getting rid of the paper cup, and pushing tradition and the quality difference of enjoying a drink in ceramic. But I am not one to tell a customer how to spend their time.
Comment by Jason Haeger on May 6, 2008 at 12:12am
Actually, I do study philosophy. Quite extensively. So much so, that I went to school for it.

Your comment about "isn't this all to achieve the good life?" Well, yes and no. For some, it's about maintaining a standard of living. If maintaining this standard means sacrificing time, then it's worth it to them. Others still relish in the fast pace of our culture. For them, this rushing about IS "the good life". An endless pursuit of progress and motion of some kind or other, and if you're a coffee CUSTOMER, I'm willing to bet that your pursuit is not coffee based.

I think you pick out a very small portion of US residents. I don't believe that most people work their tails off so they can eventually STOP working their tails off. I think most people stop because they have to. Not because they want to.

And still, I have no idea what any of that has anything to do with the study of Philosophy. In fact, I'd venture to say that it doesn't. Sociology, perhaps, but certainly there is no practice of Philosophy in the paragraph referencing it.

You HAVE time when you MAKE time. If the time is never made, it is never had. I don't think that it's outrageous at all to say that most people "don't have the time." They don't. They could, but they haven't made the time, as it's not a priority for them. They'd rather be busy LIVING the so-called "good life", which seems to carry a very subjective and variable semantic definition, if even such a definition exists. It's non-universal, to be sure.

I would be hard-pressed to find a specialty coffee consumer who would draw a comparison between a properly made espresso beverage and a Big Mac. I think you and other critics are alone in that one, because those who you criticize are likely never to consider it valid, if they ever consider it at all.

The bottom line is that we are in the service industry. We live to serve others. Be it the farmers. Be it the customers. It is never ever about us, what we want, or what we think those we serve should do.

I disagree with you when you say that "fast is before I ask for it." Says who? Is this a norm, or is this just a handful of isolated incidences?

Is fast service cheapening the experience? Really? I suggest you find a new field if you wish to practice that stance in the US. Fast service is good service. If it takes three more seconds to improve the product quality, then by all means do it.

The goal is to respect our clientele while respecting the coffee. I don't think I ever said any different. But to respect the coffee and disrespect the customer's time is a fault. One that can easily be avoided.

Coffee is a drink that fits the culture in which it is consumed. There is no universal. There is, however, a norm in any given country's broad average. In the US, that happens to be speed, quality, and convenience. I have to tell you, I don't know many customers who will wait in line for a great cup of coffee if it's going to make them late for work. I also don't know too many who will drive 30 minutes out of their way.

There is a reason why location is such a significant part of the business planning. There is a reason why people are installing drive-thrus in more and more new retailers. There is also a reason why people are shelling out the cash for brand new Synesso Cyncras, LM GB/5's, fresh roasted coffees from reputable roasters, Mazzer Roburs, Anfim SC's, Clover 1S's, and so on.

The reason? Quality. The other reason? Speed. Go to Ritual and tell them speed isn't important. Go to Albina Press and tell them speed isn't important. and so on.

Where did Starbucks or branding come into play here, anyway? I think your comment would be better suited as its own independent blog post.
Comment by Joe Marrocco on May 5, 2008 at 11:39pm
America is synonymous with speed and convenience: coffee is not. There is nothing about coffee that should be fast. From the seed, to the tree, to the harvest, and all of the way through the primarily hand driven process, coffee is not fast. From the farmers to the roasters, every hand that touches the process does so with skill, depth, science, artisan wisdom, and grace. However, once the hand crafted art hits most American shops it is slung out with not much more thought than a Big Mac. This is true. This is the way it is. Yes, we may not all follow the Starbuck's business model. Yes, we may achieve a higher quality cappuccino. Yes, our environments may be a bit warmer and more "homey". But, we still tend to bend our ways to meet the fast paced desires of the Starbuck's customers that we are trying to reach out to. We try to say, "You can get a better coffee with the same convenience." Well, this is simply buying into the Starbuck's model on a deceptive scale. Mr. Kayak is not unfairly judging the US customers. He is calling it as he sees it. Crying foul on him out of a defensive stance is not hearing his point well. His point is not only valid, but it is true. We DO need to slow down. We ARE cheapening the experience. If life is made of small experiences, and just one of those experiences is cheapened, then life itself is cheapened. That's just the way it is. (Hypothetical Syllogism)

Is it the coffee shop's job to slow down the masses? No. It is not our job. But, just because it is not our job doesn't mean that we should pass on the opportunity. People who want fast coffee will find it. People who want good coffee will find it. People who want good coffee will wait for it. Quality over speed. Cliche': Good things come to those who wait. We are talking about seconds here. We are not talking about waiting around for 10-15 minutes for your drink. It takes a few seconds more to be warm to the customer, be completely absorbed in each individual drink, and to treat each drink as if it is truly the final brush stroke on a masterpiece that many other hands have put their lives into. This is what separates us from McCoffee. This is what allows us to build society, not just further the rat-race norms.

To say that Americans do not have time to wait a few extra seconds, or even minutes for an excellent cup of coffee is to say that you don't understand Americans. Americans are the most entertainment driven nation in the world. We make time for the things that are important to us. It is not a matter of not having the time. It is a matter of not making the time, or using our time wisely. We spend hours in front of our TVs, with our iPods, on the cell phone, in restaurants, shopping, on the net watching UTube, etc... To say we are in so much of a hurry that we cannot sip on a cup of coffee for ten minutes is ridiculous. It's just that we don't like waiting. It is not a matter of needing things fast so that we can get on to the next priority. It is a matter of wanting things fast because I deserve it to be so. It is a commentary on American values. We value ourselves. We value speed and efficiency above quality. When we do opt for what we think is quality, we opt for a brand so that we can let everyone else know that we are elite. It is a big continuous competition.

This is why coffee houses are so important to our society: it is a place where we can say, "Hey! Welcome! Slow down a moment and smell the coffee. Be warm. Be yourself for a moment. Take a breath. Focus on you for just a couple of minutes. Your boss is not here. Your kids are not here. Your worries are not here. Savor the good things. Drink the art of life in."

I don't know if any of you study Philosophy, but isn't the point of all of the hustle and bustle to finally achieve the "Good Life"? Well, it's pointless. Life is happening while we are on our rigorous quest. By the time we reach the good, our lives may be over. The two will never have a chance to meet. But, we can offer it in little pieces every day. We can be that oasis. We can allow a person to take in that one deep breath that they so desperately need before they dive into their day, or right when they come up for air from it. We can be a small voice that says, "The good life is staring you in the face and you're passing it up. SLOW DOWN!!"

Since when did "Costumer Service, Consistency, and Quality" turn into "Speed, Consistency, and Quality"? Did I miss that meeting? Costumer service is not the same as speed. It may entail efficiency, but nowhere in the 3rd wave, high end, artisan coffee shop does it mean speed.

I do hear the point about espresso meaning "fast" and starting out in Italy for that end. But,... the paradigm of fast over 100 years ago in Italy is something TOTALLY DIFFERENT than what we are talking about today. Today fast is before I ask for it. This is a tragedy.

I know that some of my views here may seem idealistic and over the top. I know that the business savvy realist will have some problems with my take on things. I just think that some things are more important than the bottom line, no matter what it seems like to our competition. Coffee is more than a simple commodity. Coffee houses are more than just business ventures. For people that this is not the case, well, have fun with the speed thing. "Stop and smell the coffee" is not a slogan that was developed by Strabuck's. "Swing by and give me your money in exchange for a branded cup" was.

As for me and my coffee house, I will serve the quality.
Comment by Jason Haeger on April 29, 2008 at 2:27pm
Blog the adventure. 8)
Comment by Jason Haeger on April 29, 2008 at 2:16pm
I think you'll do a fine job of doing it.

Seattle's Best is owned by Starbucks.

Dunn Bros. isn't really known for quality, and I'd say that Starbucks has better quality, despite the better odds of fresh roasts at Dunn Bros.

Caribou is also not really known for quality, but it certainly has built some brand recognition.

Alterra rocks my socks. They do awesome work.
Comment by Jason Haeger on April 29, 2008 at 1:51pm
Mr. Kayak, I agree with you about Starbucks, but I doubt Howard Schultz is reading this blog right now.

The audience is clearly independent business owners who do not wish to emulate Starbucks.

Starbucks is only one company to come out of Seattle. There are many others who are doing a fantastic job of putting the coffee first. To say that Starbucks is what's wrong with the coffee culture coming out of Seattle is to say that you don't know the coffee culture in Seattle. Starbucks is not to be taken as an example of the entire business profile demographic in Seattle's specialty coffee market.

That's pretty much it. Thanks.
Comment by Jordan on April 29, 2008 at 12:59pm
I'm not personally a coffee shop owner, but when deciding to open a shop the owner should think long and hard about what kind of shop they want to be. Regardless of whether the shops focus is on quality, speed, convenience, etc. the shop is inevitably going to alienate certain demographics of people. For example, I don't mind waiting for my drink as long as it takes for the barista to make my drink to the best of their ability. However I think it is safe to say not all people are willing to wait.

For me at least the real issue is what kind of demographic of people do you want to serve. Those who are willing to wait for quality, or those who are looking for speed and convenience, or perhaps something in between. Regardless of which route is chosen a clear choice should be made. More importantly this choice should be kept to or the risk of alienating your original costumer base will become a problem.

Ideally I believe a balance of quality and efficiency can be met as Jason describes. I think the easiest way to achieve this balance is by designing a bar which can handle a busy rush were it might be necessary for more than one person to get on the bar, but bar shouldn't be too big that it is uncomfortable for just one person to work on. Efficiency I believe is the key to achieving a successful quality oriented shop and a speed/convenience oriented shop.

All my comments are in the hopes of summarizing/synthesizing what has already been said here. Of course these are only my opinions and I don't presume to speak for anybody but myself. Hopefully my impute will be found helpful in this discussion.
Comment by Jason Haeger on April 29, 2008 at 9:15am
Here's the thing.

The function of the specialty coffee retailer here takes a major shift at around 10:00am.

Once the morning rush is over, yes, it is a third place. Some people even begin treating it as such before the end of the morning shift.

Like I mentioned earlier. Location is everything (in more than one respect).

I don't think we need to maintain the historic concept of the coffee house. Not in the least. I don't think cappuccinos need be judged by color rather than form. I don't think clay pipes need be scattered for patrons to enjoy. I don't think coffee should be limited to one option, with variations only in additives (milk, sugar, cinnamon, or whtaever else).

I honestly don't like the term "McCoffee". I feel less like a number at McDonalds locations here than at most local coffee retailers. We are not serving hamburgers. It is not a valid comparison, as tempting as it may be to draw.
Even still, if you wish to draw the comparison, it is not a model of speed and treating customers badly, it's a model of consistent quality at a fast pace with a smile... in an every increasing number of locations.

Most retailers reading this don't ever intend to expand beyond maybe 5 shops at most. The espresso bar has always been fast-paced. If your shop is focused on coffee, and not espresso, the strictly "Third Place" environment makes perfect sense.

If you focus only on espresso, it makes none. We find ourselves in a hybrid scenario where people expect to find both in a singular concept.

I don't rush in and out of coffee houses either. But I don't judge those who do. I'd rather they stop by for a quality cup of coffee in a rush than go without. Absolutely.

The podcast is a bit late in its observation, as coffee houses in the US have BEEN a "Third Place" for a while.

In the end, it's about representing the coffee correctly while providing a service that customers appreciate. In this case, swiftness is a necessity.

We agree on the core issues here, and that's good. But I get the feeling our markets are very different. We don't get a little cookie served with our espresso. Rarely does it come with a glass of water. Most people want a rather large caffé latte with a flavoring syrup of some kind to-go.

Are there niches? Yes. And some people are locking into them. But even those companies are having to speed things up for their morning customers. It's just the nature of the business here.
Comment by Brady on April 28, 2008 at 5:59pm
Kayakman, we are in agreement (but apologies, first, as I didn't bother to check your profile and assumed that you were an American as well).

What you and Jason have discussed here is the big challenge that we've tried to balance at my shop - a quality coffee served with little delay in a welcoming atmosphere. That is a tough line to walk, but I think worth the effort. Its very nice when a coffee shop can get that balance, I have fond memories from several places that did.

I guess this is a shared frustration. I really, really wish that the pace of most of my customers was slower. We do have quite a few ceramic cups to serve our coffees in, but most orders are still to-go. Fortunately we are seeing more people take a few minutes to enjoy, or come back on a Saturday afternoon when they have a few minutes to relax. We'll do what we can to encourage this, and give them a good cup of coffee to go when they can't.

Good discussion. Now I'm off to savor a glass of something else...

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