A few weeks ago I had the chance to spend almost a week abroad - in Paris, London and Amsterdam. While much of the trip was dedicated to vacation activities in general (and eating amazing food in particular), some of the trip was intended to be about experiencing coffee. In particular I was looking forward to hitting up Penny University in London and Stumptown in Amsterdam. In both cases, I was going to be sneaking in under the wire - as both of these businesses were pop-ups (and would be closing soon after my visit).

What I experienced was both very much expected - and yet also a total surprise.


Rather than going into detail I'll simply sum it up with a heartfelt plea to quality coffee roasters and coffee bars.... Please open a location in Paris. Please for the love of god, give the poor people in Paris decent coffee.

Paris is one of the greatest if not in fact the greatest food city in the world. Paris is a great walking city and the people understand that quality costs money. And yet I've had better coffee in small mountain towns in the US than I've found in Paris. The coffee at the airport in Pisa is better.

Please. Paris deserves better.


We took the Eurostar train from Paris to London. In looking at the schedule I'd figured out that would would arrive into London about 1 hour before Penny Lane closed - forever. We were arriving on the last day they served coffee. So the extra 35 minutes spent in the boarding and security process in Paris - resulting in a departure time a half hour late - caused me some stress. After dropping our bags at the hotel, we rushed out, grabbed a cab and literally ducked under the closing garage door into Penny University. Whew...

In talking about Penny University I'm going to divide my thoughts into three different areas. First, I'll share my opinions on the place and the experience. Second, I'll talk about what I think we should learn from Penny University. Third, I'll talk about the coffee (and some implications).

I'd seen pictures. I'd read blog posts. I thought I had the idea. But the reality was different than I'd predicted. First, the neighborhood and the building set the stage far better than expected. There was a sense of seriousness and focus and energy that started before entering the space. Inside it was like some sort of hipster coffee lab spa underground mens club. There was a sense of ceremony and o a sense of reverence that I really liked -- largely because none of the ceremony or reverence was directed at the people who worked there. Instead, it was clear that this was about the customer - and the coffee. About making the introduction, facilitating the discussion but at the end of the day letting the customer and the coffee have the relationship. That's very important and very unique. In talking with Tim and James and everyone, it became clear that working at Penny University had turned out to be incredibly challenging. "Like doing your 15 minute barista competition performance but having to keep doing it all day" as it was expressed to be at one point. Being able to do those introductions and do that facilitation - being able to provide that level of customer service and assistance - and doing so in a manner where you really engage with each customer over a period of time (as opposed to "fake smile is that for here or to go it'll be $3.50 thank you") - is clearly exhausting. I can only barely imagine - and even then it scares me. But as a customer... it was a truly incredible experience.

I fear a lot of people are going to treat the Penny University experience either as a model to strictly follow or some sort of mythical icon to strive for. I think it would be far wiser to simply learn from the experience. Now... to be honest, until James and Tim post up their own learnings from doing this - my comments are only slightly grounded in reality (a couple half drunken exhausted conversations is what this is based on) and are far inferior to anything they might come up with. Given that I'm rarely unwilling to share my opinion.... here goes. There is a segment of the buying public who is dying for an experience like this. The good news is that they are also for the most part the people who not only can pay for such an experience but really don't care that much about the cost. The bad news is that it's a very small segment of the market. That last statement has just slammed the door in the mind of many coffee professionals - who think "if it doesn't have enough volume you can't make money in retail." That's bullshit. This, to me, is the biggest thing to learn from Penny University. As with any other type of business, there are generally two ways to make money in retail coffee. You can sell a whole ton of it and make a little money with each transaction - or you can sell very little of it and make a ton of money on each transaction. The former describes nearly all coffee businesses in the world. The latter was something that existed largely just in theory for me prior to seeing Penny University. This is what we need to learn -- you can make money doing a very high touch experience offered to a small but discriminating customer base when you charge a high premium and plan your operations accordingly. Basically, there is such a thing as luxury coffee. Sure... just like you wouldn't open a Vuitton boutique in Fayetteville, WV there are specific locations and markets that are best suited for a business of this type. The big question for me is.... what form is this luxury coffee going to take? I know all the characteristics of a luxury business, a luxury brand, a luxury experience... but I still can't guess what this is going to end up looking like. What I can say is that Penny University has shown that it is, in fact, possible.

The coffee was beautiful at Penny University. That being said... I love the Square Mile coffees, so this wasn't a huge shock. And the reality is that the Chemex of Tegu I had wasn't objectively better than the same Tegu I'd cupped a couple of weeks prior. But subjectively? Much better. The experience elevated the coffee (or perhaps for the first time the experience didn't damage the perception of the coffee but instead lived up to it). I also realized something interesting about the Square Mile coffees as a result. I've noticed an evolution in the coffees over time - and I don't know if it was conscious or not - but my theory is that Penny University (and in particular the range of brew methods and tight interaction with customers about the coffees) created a beneficial feedback loop which resulted in the changes in these coffees. If this is true - it's got some very interesting implications for roasters who want to emulate this kind of approach.

Thanks to Tim. Thanks to James. Thanks to Tobias. You guys rocked it.

Other than Penny University - the coffee I had in London ranged from mediocre to world class (by my standards). The two worst shots I had were both marginally drinkable (on par with a slightly below average shot from a decent coffee bar in the US). The best shot was served to me by Gwilym. It was at Prufrock @ Present and was a shot of the Square Mile Summer Espresso. It was quite literally breath-taking. In fact... I think I simply wandered somewhat shell-shocked from the business without even commenting to Gwilym (or thanking him). I might still have had the demi in my hand for all I know. It was one of the top 5 shots of espresso in my life. Thank you Gwilym. Thank you Anette. Thank you James. In general, I would say that the coffee is slightly better than the coffee in San Francisco. It seems like the biggest weakness in London is on the roasting side. There were a ton of shops that seemed to know how to pull decent to good shots (far far more than what we have in SF). But the vast majority of these shops serve Square Mile. That's great in the sense that I like their coffee. But it's bad in that there is no range as a result. There is no competitive play. And that hurts coffee in London IMHO.


I arrived at Stumptown to discover that the espresso machine had broken down just prior to my visit - and to discover that I was hitting the coffee bar on the second to last day. Feeling a bit like some sort of coffee Angel of Death - I tried to help diagnose the problem with the machine. After several experiments we actually managed to get the machine back on line at the right temp. And as a result... my visit to Amsterdam started off with a lovely shot of Hairbender.

After the first couple of hours in Amsterdam the Stumptown pop-up suddenly made sense to me in many new ways - while also clearly not making sense in a few new ways. I'd never spent real time in Amsterdam - especially not in the area Stumptown was located in. That part of Amsterdam on a sunny summer afternoon is stunning and wonderful. Everything - from the design sensibility to the cultural values; from the pace of life to the street culture; from the beer cafes to the coffeeshops -- it all says "a coffee bar like Stumptown will fit RIGHT in here." And then I ate some food. And then I had coffee at a different coffee bar. And then I tried dinner at what was said to be a very good restaurant. And I saw the problem. While Amsterdam is culturally a great fit for a Stumptown location - there is an enormous disconnect under it all. Stumptown is about flavour as well as experience and values. The food and coffee in Amsterdam make it clear that flavour is far far lower in importance.

I think there is something important to learn from this. I think that a coffee business that is about experience and values (and who has a great match-up with Dutch values and culture) would do incredibly well in Amsterdam. But I think a business that is first and foremost about taste is going to struggle.

Summing up

I think we're about to see a radical change in coffee in Europe. It's already started in London - where the coffee has progressed more in the last 5 years than I could have believed possible. I think that it's possible to see the same changes occur in Paris and in numerous other European cities as well. Eventually, cities like Amsterdam will also likely become viable markets for change.

If I were going to start a new coffee business right now - I'd start it in Europe.


onocoffee said...

Interesting comments. Sadly, in Paris, there really is only one place to go for decent coffee: Solunas Cafe - Le Cafeotheque in the Marais.

I like your thoughts on Penny University and agree with you regarding the high price/low volume v. low price/high volume models. With that in mind, let's have a look at the potential of a place such as Penny University.

While individual cups may cost £3,50, a three cup "flight" costs £9,00. If you can fill those six seats from open to close (presuming an eight hour day) with 30 minutes per flight (two seatings per hour), then you can make up to £864 per day. This translates into roughly US$1,300 per day, $6,500 per week (five days), $39,000 per month and $468,000 per year. Eek out 8% take home profit at the end of the year and the company can pocket $37,400. It's not Intelligentsia L.A. numbers but it's not bad either.

I think the big question considering Penny University is whether or not they could make it into a viable enterprise if they had to cover many of the costs they did not have to cover due to its pop-up nature.

But back to the Paris question - which has been close to my heart for over two years now. Sadly, the location I scoped out in 2008 (next door to Berthillon on Ile d'Saint Louis) has been rented and a new spot must be found. Unfortunately, the challenges of starting up a business in France seem quite daunting and extremely expensive. That said, if there's a group of investors willing to put up the mil to get it rolling, we can build the most kicking coffee place in France!

Tim Styles said...

What we're overlooking with the Penny University figures there are retail coffee sales, brewer sales, classes and the like.

These were the real avenues of income that we wanted to utilise in the store, and the service of drinks was more as a showcase and experience.