Le Coffeeing – Some thoughts

August 11th, 2010

This post is a result of the rather excellent post on Chemically Imbalanced. I’m grateful to Ben at CI for consistently writing such good stuff, even if it takes three goes to understand every sentence.

His latest post is great.

It raises, to me, a few rather uncomfortable thoughts and ideas so I thought I’d share them in order to make them less terrifying.

What we should take, first and foremost, from the food world is the accessibility of quality. This is where coffee falls down a little.

You could argue that first we have to make the consumer aware of quality within coffee, we have to change their idea about how good, how exciting, how surprisingly delicious it can be. You could argue that, quite rightly, people don’t have much in the way of expectations for coffee the way they might do for steak. 1

You’d be wrong to argue, I think, that this is the consumers fault. They don’t lack the palate, they don’t lack the interest. They suffer a lack of availability, no doubt. Even if you like good coffee it is staggeringly hard to get. Do the maths – take the population of your local metro area and divide it by the number of great coffee places. In some cities great coffee places become one in a million.

But there are great coffee places. More and more open, every month, every year. The question is: are we making this coffee sufficiently accessible? I don’t just mean available, but more approachable.

99% of people you meet have probably had a less than ideal experience and past history with coffee. Marketing has always been ahead of what was produced, promising more than it delivered. People have been very disappointed, routinely, for years by the coffee they’ve bought. It makes them feel duped and angry (and more likely to leave comments on coffee articles online…)

There are places you can go to enjoy a meal that serve great food. Delicious food. They do it as if it is the most natural thing in the world, not special, not unusual, not fashionable. They charge appropriately and trust that you – the diner – will notice and appreciate the quality of what they do. No one thinks you’re a little strange because you spend a little more, travel a little further, or queue a little longer for a great meal.

Very few places serve great coffee in a matter of fact, friendly, casual way. We like to talk it up. We like to shout about it.

Are we shouting, posturing, proclaiming and promising because we worry that otherwise the customers wouldn’t notice that it’s better? Do we not trust them? Surely if it isn’t sufficiently different, better and more enjoyable that anyone tasting it would easily notice the difference – then are we doing a good enough job?

It is these last thoughts that are the most uncomfortable, the most worrying. With Penny University (there is a whole other blog post on this coming) we tried to aim high, hoping that people would be up for trying something new, something different. We still underestimated our customers, which is both incredibly exciting and a bit embarrassing.

If you opened a little cafe but made no promises, did no marketing, and served great coffee (truly great coffee) and gave no clue about its specialness other than the fact that you charged an appropriate price – would people notice? Would it be a success? If you left it to just the taste of the coffee to do the convincing – would people be convinced?

I think so. I certainly hope so. Do we, as an industry, genuinely believe so?

  1. Don’t ask me why I picked steak – except that steak something that a lot of people can get very excited about. For good reason….  ↩︎

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