Rather than doing a retrospective analysis of 2010 (too obvious and there are people better than me at doing this), or doing a set of predictions for 2011 (my ego isn't THAT big) - I'm instead going to share my hopes for coffee in 2011.

I'm going to structure this quite simply...

What I hope happens with coffee in 2011

1 - Better focus on customer experience

2 - A move away from elitism

3 - Better consistency

4 - The pendulum swings on espresso

Customer Experience

If, as a semi-outsider, I were to rank the perceived focus for top US (artisan) coffee companies, it would look something like:
  1. Volume of sales
  2. Green bean purchasing and management
  3. Marketing (coolness, buzz, brand, etc)
  4. Preparing coffee the right way
  5. Roasting
We now have a situation where customer experience is (depending on the company) anywhere from inconsistent to terrible. I've been to retail locations for almost all the top US coffee businesses. I've literally never had a "great" customer experience. In any of them. Ever.

At this point the customer experience almost always lags so far behind the quality of the coffee that it's insulting to the coffee. Seriously.

Folks... we need to fix this. Let's start by trying to understand who our actual customers are. Then we should probably figure out what they want from us. And what kind of experience they hope to have. Then we can determine what kind of experience they're actually getting - where the big gaps and failures (on our part) are - and can take steps to solve the problems.

But, to do so, one thing has to change first. Note the above "... big gaps and failures (on our part)." Right now we blame the customers. Always. And that's fucked up. Until we fix this - we can't fix anything else.


Coffee has always had a problem with elitism. It's an industry that - to many - seems driven by not only the need to be considered "elite" but also by the need to constantly redefine the criteria by which one is considered elite. This results in tiers of greater and greater elitism and a junior high school clique behavior that is at best irritating and at worst highly destructive.

This elitism creates some of the customer experience problems that coffee has (similar to the behavior you get from the clerks at a vinyl record store). But it also creates problems within the coffee industry. It's distracting, it creates unneeded conflict. It's just lame. You aren't really that fucking cool.


The lack of consistency in coffee is increasingly troubling for me. At this point in time, customers of the best US coffee companies shouldn't be getting dramatically different roasts of the same coffee on subsequent days. Two back to back shots of the same espresso shouldn't taste like completely different coffees. In some ways I think consistency has actually gone down in the last year or two for the top companies.

What I'd really like to see is not the above minimum level of consistency, but actual consistency at a higher level. I'd like to see these coffee companies have consistently good coffee across all coffees and all roasts over time. I'd like to see them buying consistently good green. And I'd like to see coffee prepared to consistent standards and quality (at least within their own business) across all coffees and all staff.

This is where the commodity speciality coffee companies are killing the artisan ones. Sure, Peet's coffee is usually not good. But it is 100% consistent in how it's not good. If you know how you like it - it will always be that way.


Life is all about watching the pendulum swing - and go past it's optimal point. By overshooting again and again we get a better idea of accurate targeting.

This is true with coffee as well. And right now, the pendulum has swung too far when it comes to espresso. We can see the obvious drivers (a return to brewed coffee, single origin espresso, better equipment, baristas becoming roasters / green bean buyers, etc) but what's important is to look at the results. I'd honestly say that (for the top coffee companies in the US) the espresso over all has become less pleasurable over the last 2 years. It's become more interesting, for sure, but it's not as enjoyable.

It would be worthwhile I think to start reconsidering desired flavour profile in creating espresso. The current models (particularly the "nothing but sweet and tart" model) seem to rarely produce espresso that is actually something you'd enjoy drinking every day.

So... those are my hopes.
Do I think we're going to do any of them or see any of them being addressed?

I have no idea - but I can dream now can't I.


Nick said...

"This is where the commodity speciality coffee companies are killing the artisan ones. Sure, Peet's coffee is usually not good. But it is 100% consistent in how it's not good."

Don't you think this is a little bit fallacious? That's like saying, "We need to increase production of 85-90 point coffees. See how much 80-84 point coffee there is?"

chris said...

Nick: I think you're missing the point.

By focusing on consistency (even at decreased quality), commodity companies are satisfying a basic desire in customers. Most customers are likely to choose a consistent experience (of lesser max quality) than an unknown experience with large range (and greater potential max quality).

Keep in mind that customers care about the experience and the end result - not the process behind it.

firebus said...

Thanks for this post, it puts into succinct words a lot of what I'm feeling about coffee today as well.

I think I might argue that points 1 and 2 are essentially the same - if coffee vendors can find a way to get their heads out of their asses and focus on customer service, then the problem with elitism goes away.

Or, from the other side of the room, elitism is a human constant. There's no real way to get away from it in any field, let alone a field like coffee (or any other totally aesthetic area like food or fashion where "good" is completely subjective). The trick is to make it possible for customers to choose the level of snobbery they aspire to, and to provide a good (and respectful) experience no matter what level they choose or achieve.

I'm not sure I'd hold up Peets as a model of consistency, at least as far as espresso is concerned. But maybe they've improved since I started boycotting them 8 or 10 years ago. When Peets did their first big push to become the Pepsi of the coffee world (to Starbucks's Coke) espresso consistency (and, I guess, barista training) was a casualty and I switched to Starbucks for my "predictably bad espresso" experience :) Peets is definitely consistent for brewed coffee though.

parchment said...

You seem to be pretty damn comfortable with your own elitism. Commodity specialty coffee companies...is that code for the company's size or a roast style you don't like? Such a weak, cheap shot.

chris said...

One of the great things about being an ex-insider is that I have a little more perspective than those who work in coffee - and those who don't.

As a result I'm both the most elite (one of one) and the least elite (part of neither).

This is, in fact, something I'm quite comfortable with.

In response to the question hidden in the insults...

"Commodity speciality coffee" is not code for anything. It's exactly what it sounds like -- the (large) segment of speciality coffee that sells coffee as a commodity and buys commodity green coffee. These companies are very big, very small and all sizes in between. They roast very dark, they roast very light. But they treat coffee as a commodity. End of definition.

Enjoy your paranoia and bitterness my friend.

firebus said...

What's the opposite of a commodity coffee company?

On the buying side, how does a company avoid buying commodity green beans? Do they have to forge individual relationships with individual farmers or collectives?

On the selling side, does this mean selling directly to the public instead of in bulk to other resellers?

On the elitism side, again elitism/tribalism is a human constant. For some domains, like science, elite status should be tied to something objective - like intelligence or research results. Obviously there are other considerations in science, but it's at least a partial meritocracy.

For something like coffee, elite status has nothing to do with anything objective. What you choose is an exercise in tribal affiliation and nothing else. So if you choose *NOT* to care about what makes a good cup of coffee you're being JUST AS ELITIST at the snobbiest barista.

Michael B said...

I like what you had to say here. I've seen several industry blogs talking about customer service lately. Maybe some of the big wigs (the 'elite') will listen. Probably not though, until someone new actually builds a business model on the customer first, coffee second, WITH great coffees.
I think it's been proven that you can have a successful model with customer service and consistency first with terrible coffee. So who's gonna take the leap and focus on customer service, consistency, AND great coffee?

Nothing gets under my skin more than being treated poorly at a coffee shop that has great coffee. It's not a great coffee shop unless i can get great customer service. Period. Doesn't matter how great the coffee is.

caffe d'bolla said...


I believe that consistency and customer service go hand in hand. The experience has to start with consistently good coffee, otherwise it's all smoke and mirrors. I'm not into "white glove" service, but customers should be seated and waited on if staying, and not hurried to be in and out. Allow them the chance to experience something new rather than the same old same old coffee shop experience.

I think the goal should be for the customer to know they are encouraged to stay and truly understand what they are getting and enjoy the coffee, espresso, capp, latte, etc, rather than just be another volume customer in and out the door.

Agree on your consistency issues. The sad truth is Starbucks, Peets, and Dunkin Donuts are, on average, better than most indies.

Espresso should ideally have flavors that you could enjoy any time of the day. I think there is a balance between daring and boring, it's finding it that is often tricky.

Best to you in the New Year.
Post more. Whether I agree or not, I always enjoy your well-articulated opinions.

Unknown said...

I think most folks in the industry can appreciate your hopes for 2011. However, as a barista I know there is only so much I can personally do. Of your four points, it seems as though your first is the most achievable goal for a barista.

The difficult part for a barista though is understanding what makes a great customer experience, especially for a guy like you. What is the ideal?

chris said...

It's unlikely that I'm a representative sample of your customers - so I think it would be a bad idea to try and create a customer experience based on what I want / like. Talk to you customers (and ask them what could be better and what is great) - and talk to the folks who aren't your customers (and ask them whey not).

This is a good place to start - http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/10/grass-fed-a-few-beefs/

LeeA said...

Customer Service and the Eliteism definitely goes hand in glove. The one big issue that "coffee snobs/baristas" don't realize is that when you break it down to brass tacks - you are selling the experience, atmosphere, and the product. Just because the barista is a (self imagined) coffee expert doesn't mean that the commerce that they engage in has some sort of higher calling for the customer. Maybe the customer just wants to download for a few minutes and relax in your business establishment. Light'in up you self proclaimed coffee experts - its not like you just "pulled" the cure for cancer or solved world hunger or poverty - its just a shot your SELLING TO A CUSTOMER !!!!

Emanuele said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
onocoffee said...

I'm fascinated by some of the responses you've received, especially those who question the validity of consistency and then point out that certain companies are the Coke and Pepsi of the coffee biz.

To my mind, Coke and Pepsi are the EPITOME of consistency. On a worldwide basis. Quite ironic…

It's nice to see someone else thinking about the customer experience rather than the "barista experience." When I started training the people who would become the baristas of Spro Hampden, the first lesson I taught them was that pretentiousness and condescension were not allowed and if anyone had ideas of Third Wave elitism, they would be routed out and released.

As I tell my staff, our first priority is the customer and the experience of the customer, second is coffee quality.

For us, everything is geared to our guests. We want them to feel welcome. We want them to feel as though they are being taken care of. We want to cultivate an environment of warm hospitality. We want them to be comfortable and to enjoy their visit. To achieve this, one must do away with all the trappings of the Central Perk and Third Wave mindset.

One of the best examples I can offer is that of music. Spro offers no music in either of our environments. Our new baristas keep trying to convince me of the "need" for music. Truth be told, unless carefully programmed, things such as music are not presented for the enjoyment of the guest but rather at the personal pleasure and whims of the baristas - who without a doubt, believe that their taste in music is superior to that of others.

Playing your own music is not caring for the guest. It's placing your needs above those who provide your living. It's selfish and arrogant. Not to mention a perfect example of forgetting the desires of the customer.