When you’re born you are a blank canvas when it comes to flavour. Yes, you are predisposed to like sweetness, and a preference for salt manifests very early on too – but otherwise every preference you have is learned. People who like flavours or textures we might personally find disgusting aren’t genetically different from us – this is very much nurture over nature.
When learning what tastes “good” over “bad”, one influential aspect of the eating environment is the facial expression of the parent. This means a child can learn what should not be eaten before that can be properly communicated through words. This is no secret, we’ve all seen parents do the exaggerated “yummy!” face to encourage their child to try new foods. Just remember that looking for clues about what we eat and drink in people’s facial expressions is hardwired into us.
How is this relevant?
So, let’s imagine we’re in a coffee bar. You are behind the counter and a customer comes in. Unsure of what they want you (quite rightly) ask them what they usually enjoy. They say they usually enjoy strong brews of french roasted coffee from a place that you know buys poor quality green coffees. They like, what you might describe as, “bad” coffee. On bar you have carefully roasted, clean and interesting coffees. You are aware there is a wide gap between what you have and what they usually drink. Regardless, you persevere and make them a cup. You pass it across the bar and watch them take that first sip (despite it being way, way too hot to properly taste). As they swallow that first mouthful of a totally alien cup of coffee they look at you.
Right now – what facial expression do you have? (Be honest!)
Experience tells us that we’d be wearing a nervous grimace. This comes from the part of us that lacks the confidence and conviction that they’ll like it, a part of us that will be a little wounded if we hear that they prefer the french roast. Looking at our own reaction a little deeper it gets worse still: it is both arrogant and dismissive to presume they won’t like it. We don’t think they’re capable of enjoy “good” coffee and this is broadcast through our non verbal gestures. We become the snobs, the pretentious, the unlikeable coffee nazi. The customer doesn’t get it. He doesn’t come back. All too often we see customers like this treated as an inconvenience, a battle we decide we can’t win and abandon all efforts towards before we begin.
We all seem to be stuck in this way of thinking. Why aren’t we excited? Here is a customer who likes drinking coffee so much that they can cope with the bitterness and lack of sweetness or flavour found in very dark roasts. If they think coffee like that is ok, think of how much they could love great coffee!
They like coffee. You have great coffee. This is awesome news! You get to be the person that potentially blows their minds. Even if they don’t get it the first time, they’ll be more likely to try again if you are confident that they’ll enjoy it. You have an opportunity here, that you’d be foolish to miss. ”I like lattes from Starbucks” should be music to our ears! We can offer them a combination of milk and espresso that will be shockingly, wonderfully sweet and pleasing. This is exciting!
If you think of every customer who likes “bad” coffee as an easy win then everything is more fun. Are you really sure you want nothing but customers expecting complex, well structured brews exhibiting exceptional clarity and sweetness? Are they really the easier audience?
The reason I doubt the our desire for a passionate, knowledgeable customer is the typical experience of a coffee professional going out for an espresso. Rarely is an espresso presented with excitement. Usually it comes with a caveat:
“The shot was, er… a little quick.”
“Sorry, I’ve been struggling with the grinder today.”
“Yeah… It was tasting great earlier but now it just isn’t as good. Not sure why.”
A caveat doesn’t save anyone’s ego, but it does put a pretty low ceiling on how enjoyable the coffee can be. This makes drinking that espresso a lot less fun.
When buying an espresso, no one should realistically be expecting to have their mind blown every time. A fair expectation would be a well made espresso, free from obvious brewing defects, whose price matches the value. That’s it. Not a godshot. Not “perfection”. Just a nice espresso from someone who is proud of what they made, served without an excuse.
We’re passionate about what we do, and passion can be so compelling. It can draw people in, it can open then to exploration, it can change the way they see something. We just need to focus a little more on using it to its potential, unleashing it at the right time and in the right amount. N.B. This isn’t advocating for talking to everyone in giddy detail about every aspect of a coffee – whether they care or not.
Maybe I’ve built a straw man argument here (though experience tells me I haven’t) and this is just misdirected ranting. I’m ready to be vigorously disagreed with. Maybe some people really, really do prefer the taste of dark roasted coffee and can never be converted, but if we think we have something better, something more valuable, then we should be more excited about this than we currently are. The point of this post is not to attack our current practices, things I have done and probably still do, things we’ve all done. I just wanted to share something that had been on my mind for a while.