I grew up playing Hockey until Jr High/High School then transitioned to full time to basketball, making the varsity team my freshman year. I remember studying and being majorly influenced by pros like Allen Iverson, Mike Bibby, Jason Williams, Tim Hardaway, and Steve Nash; guys who could make big moves in spite of their height. I saw them do flashy moves like crossovers, no-look passes, pull up jumpers and alley-oops. All things that combine misdirection with precision to do amazing things.
Then I saw the "And 1" basketball crew start doing their street ball thing and got my mind blown. So I started trying to teach myself how to do "And 1" moves in my basketball games...and they didn't work at all. Why? Those moves don't work 98% of the time in the reality of a fast paced, disciplined, fundamental basketball game. They only work in an "And 1" style show game where there isn't traveling, carrying, or many other rules that make basketball, well...basketball.
Turns out the best of the best took their inspiration and applied it to the fundamentals of the game, and that's what helped them stand out.
I fear in coffee we can try to pull off "And 1" style moves in our coffee service and ultimately hurt the message specialty coffee is trying to make.
-We have seen industry leaders open up shops with no cream and sugar.
-We have seen no decaf offered.
-We have seen by-the-cup coffee as the only option.
-We have seen espresso only.
-We have seen major variations of roast to the point where it might as well be un-roasted.
-We have seen people cup coffee and not do the R&D to see if that coffee will taste good with cream and sugar; ultimately letting down their guests.
My point is this. Coffee geeks and industry players make up less than 5%-10% of our clientele; an absurdly small percentage of the people who ultimately walk through our doors. But for some reason we seem mostly intent on impressing them before all others. Right now we have the opportunity to be either the Professionals or the "And 1" rockstars.
*Note: I will be the first to admit that I once wanted to be more like an "And 1" rockstar than a true professional, but now that I understand my goals in specialty coffee I have fully flipped the script.
My ultimate goal is to make specialty coffee attractive to everyone in order to change the way America perceives coffee. The best way to do that is to make sure we offer things that are approachable and similar to the Starbucks/Peet's/Dunkin' Donuts drinkers, but put our own spin on it. Our businesses are ultimately supported by the little communities where our shops are located...in most cases our clientele is mostly the blue collar American community, so we should probably pay attention to what they like.
So, what do I think we should do?
-Offer a gateway drug or two: Milkshakes, sweet drinks, and drinks that the average American and people who only like the smell of coffee (not necessarily the taste) will like.
-Make sure that our espresso tastes REALLY good in milk. It needs to taste unique and different while being more of an accent than an overpowering substance.
-Offer an espresso that is so tasty without milk that people couldn't deny something special is happening without it being so unfamiliar that people don't recognize it as espresso. (A more fringe option is great too, but maybe not for your mainstay).
-Serve coffee that will taste good with cream and sugar as your go-to option. Something that won't taste like the cream has spoiled or gone sour if someone wants to put a little milk in it.
-Crush Service: Stand behind what you offer while doing your best to accommodate people who are completely unfamiliar with specialty coffee. No, I am not saying we all need to serve egg nog lattes, but if they want something sweet make it happen and don't make them feel bad about it! Let them know you are trying your best to please them. Empathize with them in the understanding that you might not have exactly what their used to but you can make them something right up their alley and make sure they know how important they are to you.
-Be prompt. People value their time and they need to know you value it too. If you aren't busting your ass to help someone you are inevitably saying that guests aren't your number one focus...and they should be.
-Continue Learning: Take surveys of your guests; ask and listen. See what people want and modify your menu to win. I am not saying to listen to the one customer that wants "breakfast burritos" and change your whole approach but be mindful of what your market will support and what will ultimately make your business successful.
So if your attempt to do by-the-cup service leads to wait times longer than a few minutes, if your espresso tastes sour in milk, if you aren't giving someone an opportunity to even like what your serving: you are sending the message that you are more interested in your perception in the coffee industry than you are in the people coming through your doors. You are effectively doing a double dribble, killer crossover, through the legs pass, ball around the head move...it may look good to a few but how many real games do you actually think you'll win?
Check yourself before you wreck yourself.