At this point if you work in coffee and don’t believe in the seriousness of climate change, then I don’t think we can be friends. Yesterday an interesting paper was published that was picked up by the mainstream media. The paper itself can be read in its entirety here, and it predicts that arabica will be extinct by 2080. Which would be a bad thing. Read it, make up your own mind about how you feel about this stuff. Pick holes in it and publish your thoughts online. If I had a chance I’d publish something a bit more indepth on it, but that isn’t an option for me right now sadly. I hope this gets picked up and discussed by others in the industry.
Statistics vary, year by year and around the world, when it comes to the failure rate of new businesses. Typical statistics for London give you a 1 in 3 chance of failing in your first three years.
Despite why you may have gone into business, what it was that drove you to create something and pour yourself into making it thrive, the feeling of “needing to survive” inevitably creeps into your day to day thinking. It can become pretty consuming, and is also your daily yardstick for success.
However, around three years in there is a realisation: you’ve survived!
This is not to say that you’ve created something flawless and perfect, something that could be held up as a pinnacle of business achievement. Instead you’ve maybe made a thing that is profitable, and is ultimately an established thing.
This realisation is often extremely problematic. It may be accompanied by a feeling of depression and a feeling of confusion. This may sound counterintuitive, but it is easy to underestimate how big the need to survive has become. In conquering that you find out how big a hole you leave behind in the motivation for doing what you do.
No one really talks about this publicly, though privately I’ve had the same conversation with many different people. This isn’t a universal phenomenon but it is extremely common.
Finding something to replace this need to survive can take you down a dark, introspective and philosophical hole. What is the point, the purpose of this business? Is it driving towards a fixed goal, or is it trying to find a way to maintain what it does without staling and losing direction? Is this business just a giant machine that you input effort and ingredient into and it produces profit in return? What is this business trying to achieve?
The answer to this is often a reversion to the goal of “growth”. Our culture is one where forward movement in business is almost exclusively defined as an increase in size of the business. It might be a growth of revenue, or of profit, or of reach. The feeling that you must “get bigger” is equally omnipresent to the point that it doesn’t really feel like a choice.
Working out in a gym frequented exclusively by body builders would lead to a kind of loss of perspective about one’s physique and sometimes I don’t think we really consider the businesses we choose to surround ourselves with and benchmark ourselves against when it comes to how they might impact on our perceptions of our own goals.
I’ve said before that being in business is a pretty lonely experience. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have people within a business to talk to, or to share ideas with. It means that when you look for some external validation of your fears or your struggles, it can be very hard to find. There isn’t much in the way of benchmarking available to provide you with an independent definite of success. How much profit is normal? How fast should be growing year on year? What should my staff costs be? What is a normal turnover rate for staff?
Sometimes it is healthy to share the things that scare you, if only so those of us in the same boat can feel a little less alone.
So, you work in the coffee industry? Think about when you went out for coffee the other day. You were watching the barista, and his technique was a little sloppy. He wasn’t really paying attention to his dosing and you noticed his shots were a little inconsistent. Then you noticed he was pulling them just a little short too. So you decided to get a drip brew of some sort.
You looked at the coffee they had, and the bag looked like it had been open for a couple of days. The coffee itself was nearly a year off the tree, so you were a little hesitant, and even more so when the barista didn’t know the variety and process right off the top of their head. Regardless, you ordered a brew and watched as they dispensed the brew water into their kettle, and then clearly let it cool down a degree or two too far.
Then you realised that you only noticed this stuff because you work in coffee, and you know about it all. It means that it is really hard not to nitpick what the baristas are doing. You set yourself up for disappointment before you had tasted the coffee…
We need to educate our customers…
We talk about “educated” consumers as if they’re the solution to all our problems. You definitely want your customers to think about coffee the way you do when you go out for coffee?
As long as you’re sure…
I don’t communicate well enough. This isn’t self deprecation or fishing for compliments, it is just something I’ve become increasingly aware of. I work hard to shape what I want to say when I’m writing or talking, and I always aim, to some extent, to entertain.
When I start out a talk, for example, it is usually with an idea that gets refined through the process of laying it out in written form (laborious as it is, all my talks start out with a long, typed out essay which goes through a painfully inefficient process before ending up as a presentation.)
In trying to get better at what I do, I often ask people for recommendations for reading material on speaking and presenting. One of them had a very simple piece of advice: Instead of asking people what they thought of the talk, because etiquette forces them into a politely positive response regardless, one might benefit from asking what the one main idea they took from it was.
My experiences has been that often that one thing is not the idea you most wished to communicate, instead it is an ancillary idea that was used to bolster the main point. This happens all the time with blog posts. One of the very few aspects of comments was that I could quickly see whether people had understood the most important point of the post. If you ever speak to a mainstream journalist you’ll know a similar frustration when they get a little offhand comment between their teeth and tear off in a random and undesired direction.
We try and communicate a lot about coffee when we sell it. What one idea do we most want to communicate to our customers, and if we asked them to tell us the one thing they know to be important about the coffee they just bought – would we like the answer we’d receive? What if we asked why the coffee you serve was supposed to be good? Would they talk about Fair Trade, when your coffee is Direct Trade? Would they talk about its bold, rich strength when you’re serving some on the lighter side of roasting?
There’s only one way for this not to be another rhetorical question on a blog (because the Internet is hardly starving for those…). Please try this. Please ask your customers this kind of question, phrase it any way you like that gets you to an answer and see if this fits into what you’re trying to achieve.1 Of course, the more open you phrase the question, the less you may like the answer but the more useful it will ultimately be.
- Though please only ask customers who would be receptive to the question and try not to bother nice people who just wish to pay you for nice cups of coffee. [↩]
We often talk about coffee roasting as being a combination of art and science. This phrase annoys me immensely, as it feels like we’re using the term “art” as our excuse for not really having a very good understanding of what is happening. I feel we’re explaining away our lack of precision but I want to talk about coffee in the context of art.
I’ve always struggled with definitions of art – almost as much as I have struggled with blog posts that use dictionary/encyclopaedic definitions – so I won’t leave one here. Instead I’ll think about a company having a defined aesthetic, a guiding principle in matters of artistic beauty and taste, within coffee which it seeks to execute upon. I think very few businesses, roasting companies for example, achieve this. An acid test: Consider a roast from another company that you didn’t enjoy. Was it bad because it failed in execution because of poor technique, or were they simply seeking to create something that falls outside of your definition of beauty? If this company has a strong aesthetic then this question is much easier to answer. You could argue that Starbucks has a stronger idea of how it wants to express coffee than many independent, quality focused businesses.
With roasting I’m often frustrated to receive samples, solicited or not, where I’m left confused as to why these have been sent. I am sure many other companies have an experience where the coffees may be so far away from what a roastery is aiming for, or looking to present, as to be potentially offensive. At an extreme I could imagine Tim Wendelboe being somewhat confused, though likely amused, if someone were to offer him an Old Brown Java sample…
This may be a function of laziness on the part of the person presenting the sample, but it also speaks to the likely lack of clarity of a roasting company’s aesthetic. This is surely something that could be focused on and talked about when presenting coffees for retail or wholesale. I don’t yet have a solution for this, but it is definitely something that is the subject of more of my time and attention in the coming weeks.
I think the same absence/opportunity applies to coffee bars too. I’m surprised that with the rise of multi-roaster cafes in the last few years, that we haven’t seen these cafes using their purchasing as a way to express a coherent idea about coffee. Maybe this is happening but I haven’t seen a lot of business going through a strict selection process when shopping for coffees, using a clearly defined set of benchmarks.
I would accept the criticism I sometimes receive that I post things like this without offering any sort of concrete explanation of how or a solution to the question I am asking. I think it is easier to write about how one would define and execute upon an aesthetic in a coffee bar, rather than in a roastery. If I were trying to do something like this then the process would be something along the lines of:
Decide how long I want each coffee to run for. Based on this talk to potential suppliers to get samples for cupping. I would hope to have sufficient coffee knowledge that I can select suitable samples, coupled with input from the roaster. Price would not yet enter into things.
Samples would be cupped blind. Before the reveal (this is important) the coffees would be discussed, and this would be a good opportunity to make sure all staff are clear on the style of coffee which we wish to present. We would select a number of coffees for the menu that all fall within the boundaries of excellence but provide a diverse tasting experience.
Once selected then we would look at the price. The price of the coffee would dictate the cup’s appropriate retail price, and the whole bean price would have to be pretty crazy for it to be a problem – especially when you look at the costings for a cup of coffee. (This is perhaps a separate blog post). This would mean that prices change often – and I don’t think anything is wrong with this as long as you’ve been clear from the start that this is how things will work.
I think it would be easy to build trust with customers if you can communicate what it is you love about coffee and are trying to share with them. Once they understand that they probably like everything you like then I think they’d be willing to explore a menu with a feeling of trust and safety. I accept that some people will understand more clearly that they simply don’t want what one is selling, but that is no bad thing.
One notable aspect of this kind of process is that it requires the aesthetic come from a person or very small group of people. I don’t think genuine excellence is possible without it coming from personality, especially in something as broad as coffee, and I think this requires their engagement/involvement – at least at the beginning, until the aesthetic can be accurately and repeatedly communicated.
How people wish to factor in the value of other people’s brands – be it leveraging on someone else’s brand for sales or not – is a somewhat separate topic again. Ultimately I believe that a business should own its own quality and that it should be building relationships with its customers that are independent of its suppliers.
I get frustrated when I see a lot of internal criticism of our industry (on twitter and the like). We be can critical of each other, but it would be helpful to first understand from each other what we are trying to achieve else our criticisms may be wasted, or misdirected. Criticising someone for having a different aesthetic is somewhat pointless, criticising them for their failure to deliver on what they claim is fair.
I will accept that this post is perhaps too short, and not sufficient detailed on a subject like this. However, I’d rather publish it as is, than not at all.
This last weekend I had the pleasure of heading over to Rhode Island to be a part of the Mid-Atlantic North East Coffee Conference. Gwilym had spoken there last year, and he was so enthusiastic about it that I was pretty excited to be a part of it. I’m extremely glad he encouraged me to go!
The event is one that people get a little possessive about – in a good way. This isn’t just the people who attend, but also evident in the companies who sponsor which is pretty interesting. The feel of the event is friendly, positive and open. Gerra, who organises it, understands that many baristas wanting to attend may not get a lot of support so tickets are priced accordingly. A ticket to the event is $100! This is, without doubt, the best value for money of any coffee event I’ve ever seen. This ticket gets you a mixture of practical classes and workshops, talks, tastings and panels. The event has capacity for 150 and you can see why it sells out so quickly.
I was there mostly to give a keynote on the first night, but it was fun to be part of panel discussions that went on too. The internet makes it challenging to give talks because they’re often available online afterwards which means you have to start fresh each time. I was pretty happy with how this one turned out, and I hope to get to refine this one and present it again because I had some great feedback. I know a couple of people recorded it, and if you read this I’d be delighted if you didn’t post it! (It isn’t laziness – I just want to be able to do it again and better, something I rarely get the chance to do with my talks). You can check Sprudge for more information on the event. I’ve been travelling a lot lately, but I definitely could have hung around for longer on this one. Perhaps I might just have to go as a sponsor next year…
I hadn’t meant to write these little summaries of single ideas generated by complex coffee cultures. I don’t think they are a good habit, but I am going persist regardless…
This is by no means the sum of my experiences, but it was one particular aspect that stood out in contrast to London: cafe design.
It wasn’t that cafes in Seoul were spectacularly different to those in London – it was more the depth of detail that stood out. These were carefully considered and curated spaces. Even if some design had a clear path traced back to someone else’s cafe, it was interesting that it was clearly considered a vital part of creating a coffee shop. I can’t remember the last time I felt so touristy as I constantly photographed the little things that stood out. It felt like rich detail and design was important in a way I hadn’t encountered before.
For great photos and write ups of cafes in Korea (and the rest of the world) then I’d strongly recommend checking out Aaron Frey’s site frshgrnd.com
I’d love to see some feedback from consumers on this, on how important it is to them and how much it influences their decision to frequent one place over another…
There are so many other things I should probably write about my brief glimpse into the explosive growth in coffee in Seoul, but I’d rather wait til I’ve had the chance to go back there again because it is fascinating and difficult to simplify.
I’ve been wanting to go to Australia for a long time, for coffee drinking purposes that is. In the UK there has been an undeniable and positive impact on our coffee scene from those travelling over.
Inevitably I went into this with expectations – these we’re derived from talking to people who’ve visited, lived and worked there in the past and those who continue to do so. I honestly wasn’t there long enough to get any real insight – hence a short post on my experience there.
I was pleasantly surprised. Not because every cup of coffee was somehow flawless (it wasn’t, because no country, city or even cafe in the world is capable of that yet). When people pick on the Australian coffee scene it all tends to boil down to one idea/word for me: satisfaction. The feeling of having achieved great coffee and not really being interested in improving or evolving it. (One could argue that Italy has long suffered a similar plight.)
What pleased me, inspired me, on this trip was the number of people who were dissatisfied. Their frustration with everything from raw coffee, to roasting methods, to equipment, to service; this will drive things forward and potentially do so at quite a pace. This is awesome. While this dissatisfaction is necessarily hugely widespread, I have high expectations of seeing things being pushed forward by a small group of passionate people.