long espresso.... sigh....

the business of coffee houses

Postby onocoffee on Fri Mar 02, 2007 7:49 am

While I can agree that coffee can speak for itself, it seems that the 3W tide is pushing the coffee to the background and the rockstar pretense to the foreground.

To my mind, there can be no excuse for pretense. It is simply not a component of hospitality - regardless of the pursuit of excellence. My experience at Alinea was dramatically different than that of Schulman's at Trio. The service was courteous, respectful and refined, without any level of pretense or snobbery. After the dining room had cleared and it was just the captain, the sommelier and myself, I had the opportunity to really ask questions and learn more about why these people do what they do. I found it interesting and encouraging to meet people who are passionate about what they do and deliver that service at the nation's highest levels.

Proper selection is extremely important in the enjoyment of the patrons. Schulman found this out the hard way by bringing his family with multiple ailments to Trio. A similar result would occur by bringing someone looking forward to 7-11 coffee to my shop. I see this from time to time with the customer who is looking for that 7-11 experience with it's requisite 24z and $1 coffee. They come to our shop and we're a completely different animal, then end up disappointed despite our best efforts.

On a hospitality level, there's little difference between Richards' "three creams and two sugars" in a cup of CoE and adding salt to a baked potato. If it enhances the customers' enjoyment of the experience, how can that be a bad thing? Why provide it if you'll only gnash your teeth over its' usage?

Each of the ingredients we use at our shop has been thoughtfully added - from the handmade sugar syrups to the coffee to chocolate and everything in-between. Because of this, we should have little compunction about adding it to the product. Of course, in practice the lines blur considerably when our egos come into play.

On another note, have we even bothered to understand why we get "funny looks" when you hesitate fulfilling an order for a "dry soy cappuccino"?

Could it be because we're seen as being no different than every other crappy indie cafe and national chain out there? Could it be that we're doing nothing to change that perception? Could it be that we provide environs and "professionalism" that is sub-standard to Starbucks?

The Third Wave gives a lot of lip service to "coffee" and "sustainability" and "relationship" but fails miserably in communicating that we're something different and something for the consuming public to be excited about.

It's time we put ourselves in the places of our customers. It's time to face the fact that its' ludicrous and preposterous to the customer that we're touting some "grand experience" in coffee and offering five dollar cups of joe on top of remnant furniture, decrepit walls and "professional baristas" who look as though they barely rolled out of bed - much less taken a shower this morning.

Add to that the cacophony of busy-ness around the shop and the plethora of people surfing the web on their laptops and it becomes a confusing message that we're "so serious" about coffee...
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Postby Sandy on Fri Mar 02, 2007 10:26 am

onocoffee wrote:i recently had the opportunity to eat at both Charlie Trotter's and Alinea in Chicago. For those of you who may not be familiar, these are two of America's top restaurants in terms of food, passion, presentation and hospitality. They were equally amazing and challenging experiences of which I am still sorting out my experiences. At both restaurants, I chose the option of the kitchen "cooking for me." And at both restaurants I was asked whether I have any food restrictions or limitations so that the kitchen could custom-tailor my experience for me.




At $250 a plate, I can understand why.
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Postby onocoffee on Fri Mar 02, 2007 12:34 pm

Sandy wrote:At $250 a plate, I can understand why.



Let me clarify a little - Charlie Trotter's eight course tasting menu was $175. Alinea's twenty-three course Tour was $195. The wine pairing at Trotter's was $85 additional and the Tour wine pairing at Alinea was an additional $195.

Both menus were excellent, challenging and featured some of the most amazing wine pairings I've ever experienced. Wines I never knew existed or tasted. In short, both experiences were amazing and a wonderful education in top-flight service that does not currently exist at either the cafe level or the WBC/USBC level.

It is my position that if we are to continue a dialogue on what comprises "the best" in service and excellence, then we need to have an understanding of what that means and how it is executed at the institutions best recognized for such service. One of the things I found most notable at Alinea was the flexible understanding of the terms of service.

For example, I noted that the captain and the sommelier both served patrons from either side - a direct contradiction to the classic French-style service that dictates service only from the left. I asked them both about that later in the evening and their response was that they custom-tailored their approach to fit the needs of the patron at that moment. So when it would be intrusive to serve from the left, they served from the right.

Within the context of their service, I think it's the appropriate approach. However, one cannot make a conscious decision to serve from either the left or the right without first understanding the principles and disciplines of proper service. I liken it to the experienced barista who will consciously make adjustments to their technique to suit the moment. Perhaps that barista tamps harder to achieve a greater pack and additional restriction for the one shot based on his experience with the previous shot. Only an experienced barista can do this with success. A lesser experienced barista will be uneducated to make the same call and deliver the same result.
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Postby Richard Hartnell on Fri Mar 02, 2007 12:40 pm

onocoffee wrote: I see this from time to time with the customer who is looking for that 7-11 experience with it's requisite 24z and $1 coffee. They come to our shop and we're a completely different animal, then end up disappointed despite our best efforts.

On a hospitality level, there's little difference between Richards' "three creams and two sugars" in a cup of CoE and adding salt to a baked potato. If it enhances the customers' enjoyment of the experience, how can that be a bad thing? Why provide it if you'll only gnash your teeth over its' usage?


Ah! I feel like we are suddenly talking closer to the same point.

This is where we're getting to the discussion of places who are willing to throw away syrups, use only organic whole ingredients, and so on - because our understanding of coffees *beyond a certain level of quality* have a particularly delicate and perfect balance that is, frankly, important. I don't mind adding a little cream to my Denny's coffee because hey, it cost me a buck and I'm probably hung over if I'm drinking Denny's coffee anyway.

The Esmeralda Especial is sparkly, ephemeral, delicate, bright, playful, electric, fresh, exciting. On the other hand, last year's Fazenda Santa Inez was heady, musky, spicy, round, and seductive, with a longass finish. In both cases, we're talking about $5 cups of coffee. Why? It's not because they're served in a tie or because the guy next door spent more at Ikea; it's because the coffees are balanced, beautiful, classic, invulnerable.

But that quality is delicate. If I didn't use the right water at the right temperature, the right grinder, the right equipment in the right condition, and so on, the quality of that expensive coffee would be lost - and then our proverbial five-dollar cup of coffee is reduced to a two- or one-dollar cup of coffee.

To me, adding cream and sugar damages the balance of those coffees just as badly as using, say, a dirty press pot. I don't really object to doctoring a so-so cup of coffee; I do, however, object to serving so-so coffees in the first place (at least, as often as is plausible).

It's time we put ourselves in the places of our customers. It's time to face the fact that its' ludicrous and preposterous to the customer that we're touting some "grand experience" in coffee and offering five dollar cups of joe on top of remnant furniture, decrepit walls and "professional baristas" who look as though they barely rolled out of bed - much less taken a shower this morning.


I agree. But I don't think it's the remnant furniture and decrepit walls that are kicking a customer's perception of 3W coffee in the ass. My favorite wine place in Bellingham has this enchanting sort of worn-down Italian bistro flavor; when I walk in, I humble myself to the sommelier because I know that I don't know jack about wine. Then I sit down in an almost-broken chair and enjoy what is usually a fantastic glass. And I don't think that they should necessarily sell bottles of these wines to some rich guy who is going to take then away for some sangria.

So I suppose my opinion is that yes, the customer - in a shop that is presenting the perfect cup, and *only* the perfect cup - should humble his- or her-self to the barista (in terms of product knowledge). That's the crux of the barista profession - we're stewards of coffee. Our obligation is to never hire - or be - that barista who's going to get his jollies by feeling superior to anyone.

Of course, I simplify. People just don't perceive coffee as anything close to important as wine. My question to you, Jay, is this: how much control over the cup do you feel comfortable giving customers while still preserving the integrity of your beautiful coffees?
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Postby Jim Schulman on Fri Mar 02, 2007 3:14 pm

My point was that you need to understand your customers expectations:

A tasting menu with wine pairings is culinary theater; and the restaurant patrons go with it, just as theater patrons don't get up half way through a play and suggest a new ending. But most diners, even foodies, most of the time, would rather be Hollywood producers who determine their own happy ends, no matter how unfitting.

"Mussels are in season, do you have that fabulous mariniere and basil over soba noodles I had last time? A friend told me about the San Mateu goat cheese with a nip of Oloroso he had here; bring me a small plate before the next course! The only thing that really pairs with lamb is Pouillac, take this away and bring me a one glass of that."

If the staff are doing a grand tasting menu, and the patrons are doing this (perfectly appropriate in an Enoteca or Tapas bar), the meal is going to be a catastrophe no matter how smooth everyone is.

I really don't think the theatre of the grand tasting at Charlie Trotter's is an appropriate model for cafes. I think meeting the expectations of diners at a tapas or small plate place could be a better model.
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Postby onocoffee on Fri Mar 02, 2007 6:20 pm

I'm not one who is interested in dictating what kinds of ingredients are "appropriate" on an industry wide basis if we're talking measures akin to "throwing away syrups for only organic whole ingredients." There are/may be necessary reasons to use particular ingredients to reach a certain goal and creating artificial limitations seems unreasonable to me.

We, as a 3W Community, spend quite a bit of time talking about respect. Respect for the coffee in terms of care, preparation and water quality but we don't seem concerned with respect in regards to presentation. Sure the water may be balanced and the extraction times correct, but are our environs conducive towards fully enjoying that five dollar cup of coffee?

Further, why couldn't that be a ten dollar cup?

I ate at another restaurant the other day where the price for a cappuccino was four dollars. Was it any sort of special restaurant? Did they have some sort of world-class barista preparing the cappuccino? No. They were just a restaurant. What makes it okay for them to serve a capp for four bucks and not the 3W world that, supposedly, does it better?

While I do believe that better environs promotes better coffee and higher prices, I also think it's "balls" or gumption, for the gentler readers. It takes some cajones to price a cappuccino at six dollars, that's why no one has done it. At some level, we're afraid. Afraid that no one will recognize the value in our product and skill level. Afraid that the price will chase everyone away. Afraid that no one will find value for the product at that price.

And why would they? Again, I look to the 3W Standard of remnant environs and shabby-looking "professional" baristas and see that we don't respect ourselves enough to command that kind of value for our product.

I don't know about you, but I find the notion of a shop presenting "the perfect cup" to be a bit odd. Perfection, to me, is unattainable. We can pursue perfection but I don't believe we can ever achieve perfection because it will always remain just out of reach and rightly so. Because of this, I don't think that anyone should ever "humble themselves" before the barista - that's just our collective egotism running amok and it's something we should be constantly monitoring and keeping in check.

I've been doing this barista/3W Thang for about three years now and many of the people in our scene have been doing this for maybe eight to ten years max. Are we saying that we're "experts" in the field that should be kow-towed to? Sadly, I find much of the 3W discussion to be so-called "experts" purporting all sorts of "knowledge" in order to feel superior to others.

When it comes to my operations and our customers, we give them as little control as possible over the processes. They can specify how many shots they want in a drink, or if they want the milk searingly hot, or if they want some flavoring, how much sweetener and/or cream in their press coffee and a few other variables that I'm not recalling at the moment. In short, we give them some options that allow for customization and the feeling that they've received a drink expressly made for them. But more importantly, it is our goal to deliver that drink in comfortable environs from friendly, warm and welcoming baristas.

I think that Schulman is missing the point of our discussion. This is not about a tit-for-tat comparison of a Trotter's tasting menu to the 3W cafe, it's about the exploration of the Trotter's level of hospitality, service and customer experience and how that can be applied to the modern 3W cafe.

We absolutely need to understand our customers' expectations. Further, we need to set their expectations accordingly. Like we discussed previously, a person looking for the simple pleasures of a 7-11 coffee will be wholly disappointed coming into my shop looking for the same. It is our job to recognize this and set the expectation accordingly.

Interestingly enough, this point came up in a podcast interview I listened to featuring Grant Achatz of Alinea. He specifically mentioned how some people, after hearing about the restaurant on a national morning television show, wanted to come in expecting the usual fare (like steaks) and how their reservation staff had learned to screen the customers and set their expectations accordingly.
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Postby Richard Hartnell on Fri Mar 02, 2007 7:49 pm

This thread continues to be the most rewarding quality/customer-accomodation conversation I've seen yet.

Jay, I don't know whether I agree with your usage of the term "kowtow;" I think it carries too many connotations of some kind of pecking order. While I think those baristas exist who would have customers bowing to their expertise, I don't think we can define 3W by that type of barista. Within the 3W context, at least, those types of snooty, classist sorts of baristas are distinctly second wave - that is, in a situation to doctor up a coffee and present it as "gourmet" instead of going through the necessary steps of presenting a truly quality cup of *coffee* (as opposed to an expensive cup of ultrapasteurized milk with some vanilla syrup and oh yeah, some espresso too). That's not to say that many don't piggyback on the 3W moniker, but that my guess is that it's in an owner's better judgement to try to screen out those baristas in the first place.

I like how we're more often talking about higher-priced coffee in terms of its trappings; some of us are talking about raw milk and organic cane syrup, others are talking about moving the "espresso bar" into a more high profile sort of martini-bar-slash-DJ-lounge arena (at least in more metropolitan areas). IMO, I'd wonder whether a combination of the two wouldn't be the key to the next big advance in customers' perceptions of specialty coffee.
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Postby bz on Sat Mar 03, 2007 9:07 am

The Third Wave gives a lot of lip service to "coffee" and "sustainability" and "relationship" but fails miserably in communicating that we're something different and something for the consuming public to be excited about.


this has everything to do with everything. barista competitions being inscrutable for the masses. quality cafes failing to seem like anything unusual to the casual observer. forums like this having much of any impact on the end user.

dont get me wrong. i'm hopeless addicted to all the of the above. but it seems to me that the more myopic we get faster a rapidly changing marketplace will pass us by.
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Postby barry on Sat Mar 03, 2007 1:21 pm

PaniniGuy wrote: I'm knowledgeable and enthuastic about everything that went into that cup and the customer just dissed my efforts as well as everyone else's in the value chain.



how often do you, as a consumer, pause to consider the efforts and "value chain" for the items you buy and consume on a daily basis? when you put the newspaper down for the puppy to pee on, do you shed a tear for the efforts of the lumberjack, the press operator, the journalists, or even for the scientists who labored hard to develop the inks used? when you buy a car and hang fuzzy dice from the rearview mirror, do you stop for a moment and wonder what the engineers and designers and assemblers might think? when you move into a new house and decide to repaint the walls, do you even pause to consider the "value" inherent in the prior decorators' efforts?


every product we touch has been touched by others. in many cases, people have dedicated their lives to creating or improving the products we use every day, and few, if any, consumers even give a crap.
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Postby Rich Westerfield on Sat Mar 03, 2007 6:31 pm

Barry,
Not sure if you were implying that was a direct quote or not. If you re-read my post, it was me - a geezer, being empathetic to a 20-something's idealism.

As I said, I try to keep emotions out of it, myself. As long as the request is doable and I keep my margin.

You're probably right about the car and a lot of manufactured stuff... I can rationalize that by believing it's made by union people who really don't give a crap.

But when it comes to food, you bet I'm aware of the value chain for most of what goes in me these days. And I think a growing number of 20-somethings are extremely aware. I see it every day.

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Postby Richard Hartnell on Sat Mar 03, 2007 6:49 pm

PaniniGuy wrote:But when it comes to food, you bet I'm aware of the value chain for most of what goes in me these days. And I think a growing number of 20-somethings are extremely aware. I see it every day.


Cheers to that. I've had many conversations with members of many different professions about how service industry veterans make some of the most considerate, tolerant, patient, eager, and understanding customers.
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Postby barrett on Sat Mar 17, 2007 11:27 am

Next time I go to my favorite steak house, I'm going to order a steak that they don't offer on their menu, and see how they react.

"What do you mean I can't have Onglet?!"


My solutions:
1. Stealth Americano. (Maybe run it a little long for some overextracted tang)
2. Let it run for 5 minutes.
3. Adjust your grind, and ignore the other 20 people waiting, who already enjoy the way that you prepare things.
4. Pull an Alistair, and say, "no." :wink:


Perhaps this is the reason people drive across the city to Elysian.
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Postby Richard Hartnell on Sat Mar 17, 2007 1:11 pm

barrett wrote:Perhaps this is the reason people drive across the city to Elysian.


Are you kidding? I drive across the *border* to get to Elysian. ;)
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Postby Peter Van de Reep on Sat Mar 17, 2007 10:10 pm

Hell, I moved cities to drink at Elysian.

Well... not really.

Kind of...
pullingshots: a blog
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