Who is to blame for bad coffee?

January 5th, 2009

I’ve written a lot recently with an industry readership in mind.  This post I write with the consumer firmly in mind.  This isn’t about exonerating lazy cafe owners and baristas, or excusing the chains or making allowances for restaurant coffee.  Anyone who loves or even likes coffee will often complain about how bad a lot of it is, how hard it is to get a good cup.

You, the consumers, are to blame. 1

Now you certainly can’t take all the blame but consumers have an enormous power over the people making the coffee.  After all – you’re paying for it.  You are staggeringly tolerant of incredibly poor product.  You can do something very simple that would have a huge effect on the quality of coffee served:  when it is bad – take it back.

I’ve spoken to a rich mixture of cafe owners in my few years in the coffee industry, and if we look just at those who serve terrible coffee they all had one thing in common:  they didn’t know.

Worse still they thought that they did a great job, not because they tasted it and found it delicious but because (and to quote them) “not one of my customers has ever complained.”

This is probably true, most people don’t complain.  But what would happen if they did?  Initially not that much.  I’ve sent coffee back, they’ve remade it and it was just as awful.  I sent it back again.  If just one person does it then a business can shrug it off.  Now imagine if a dozen people a day complained.  The business would have their coffee supplier out very quickly – they’d re-examine what their raw materials, their machinery, their production skills.  The might change supplier, they might get some more training.  They’d be worried and they’d turn their energies and their focus onto serving drinks that made their customers genuinely happy.

I am not suggesting that you begin to bully your local cafe into doing exactly what you want, but sending back a terrible coffee is never a waste of time.  Businesses are listening very carefully right now and it may turn out to be in both of your interests.

My final point in all this is that you only earn the right to criticism when you take the time and effort to compliment good work and great drinks.  Let those businesses know – it really does make one’s day!

  1. I ought to make it clear at this point that obviously consumers are not really to blame, but to start a discussion about the power of the consumer and also – heaven forbid – have a little fun with this topic!  ↩︎

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