Brewed coffee and the UK

This is something of a summary of the short talk I gave at the Allegra Strategies UK Coffee Leader Summit a week or so ago.  Please also bear in mind that this talk was directed at the UK market specifically so won’t necessarily hold true for other national coffee cultures.

For me this talk was a moment of crystalisation about how I feel about coffee right now, and what I want to focus a lot of my energy on.  I had initially planned to talk about how quality focused businesses were doing well right now, but in the process of writing the talk that seemed to shift.  I should add a final caveat to this by saying that I do love making and drinking espresso.

My talk was titled “How the coffee industry lost the public’s trust, and how good coffee can win it back again.”

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Morning coffee

I have a confession to make:  I used to, in a very snobbish way, hate the idea of a coffee being an “after dinner coffee” or a “morning cup”.  I thought it was one of those really stupid ways of selling coffee – like how supermarkets use the word “strength” to communicate how dark a roast is.  1

In recent conversations someone has said to me that they love a certain coffee, but not first thing in the morning.  Maybe mid-afternoon instead.  Initially I didn’t get it.  My very narrow mind assumed that good coffee was good coffee and that the rotation of the earth in relation to the sun shouldn’t have too much impact on how that coffee, my tongue and my brain all got along.
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  1. That still does make me angry, and a bit frustrated.  It is probably the most common misconception – that the coffee itself has something to do with the strength of the cup.  ↩︎

Diversity Vs Identity

I’ve tried to avoid writing about the current economic climate, and the outlook for coffee in 2009, and using the two “c” words that lost any meaning months ago.

Nonetheless it has been interesting to see what they industry press are writing about, what advice is being offered, what strategies are being deemed wise.  A word I am seeing more and more is ‘diversifying’.

Starbucks are in a mess right now, and they have been for some time.  To me the problems are linked to a gradual loss of identity over the last few years.  Right now they are putting out mixed messages – on one hand promoting better coffee, on the other hand discounting it. Worrying about breakfast sandwiches, selling CDs, whilst still trying to claim that they are all about the coffee.

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The wine model doesn’t work

I think everyone in coffee knows deep down this is true. The wine model only works for wine, we can’t transplant it to coffee and expect some immediate understanding and increased sales of quality coffees.

First and foremost – we don’t drink coffee like we drink wine. Broadly speaking we buy wine in two different circumstances: to enjoy ourselves and to enjoy with others. Generally we spend more, buy better, buy more interesting when we are enjoying it with others. We want to know more, want a little story, want something worth discussing. Wine’s great success was making it culturally acceptable/desirable to discuss what you drank at some length. Coffee isn’t quite there yet. We drink coffee in different circumstances – mostly it is a solitary affair, though sometimes shared but rarely the focal point the way a stellar bottle of wine can be. We experience it in different environments, with different goals and different focus on the sensory experience.
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Who is to blame for bad coffee?

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.

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  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!  ↩︎

Becoming a customer again

If there is one thing that people behind bars and counters are guilty of it is forgetting what it is like to be a customer. They develop and “us vs. them” mentality with their own customer base.

To give an example of this in effect I want to talk about how many businesses react to having a fairly large queue. As they try and produce more drinks quickly things tend to go downhill – shot times start to drop, drink quality slides and overall service isn’t what it needs to be. To them the most important part of your experience is that you don’t queue for too long.

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Educating the customer

Like most people I hate it when I go somewhere and they feel the need to educate me.  I hate being talked down to by whomever is serving me, I hate patronising and irrelevant information and I don’t really ever want to go back to that business again.  However – I love learning, I love being educated – not just about coffee but about anything really.

Does this contradict the goal we have in the coffee industry of trying to educate our consumers?  Whilst contradictory does the above make sense and ring true with any of you reading?

I think one of the gravest mistakes the speciality coffee industry makes is to try and forcefully educate its consumers, putting those of us behind the bar in the position of educator or teacher.  That mental balance of power is why “educating the consumer” often goes so wrong, with strong angry and adverse reactions to our efforts.

I think we need to change the goal, change the mindset around this interaction.  The goal isn’t just to create a consumer with a better understanding, it is to create a loyal consumer.  If you do a great job education is a lot about getting them to appreciate that.

Back to milk again – we fight the constant battle of customers wanting hotter drinks.  We often tell them that overheated milk doesn’t taste as good, and they often feel that they want their drink their way.  Once they understand that milk done this way is sweeter, tastier and feels nicer to drink they aren’t just educated – they are now extremely limited in their choices for where to go and get a good cappuccino.  That is the really great news.

I confess I take a little pride when people come back after an initial training course complaining that they can’t buy coffee anywhere anymore.  Everywhere they look they bad milk, bad technique, terrible and tasteless drinks.  They are now less price sensitive, educated and if I can put great milk drinks in front of them consistently I could well have a very happy customer for life, perhaps even the type of customer who becomes an ambassador for your business or in the term of Kevin Kelly – a true fan.

To turn it back to you being a customer again – think about the formal learning you’ve done, be it school or university or college.  Subject matter was important, but not as much as enjoying the process of education.  We all had teachers that changed our minds from hating a subject to loving it (and doing well in it too) and sadly vice versa.  What is it about those teachers that made their classes a pleasure?

Telling people that what they want is wrong is not education.

Telling people what you think is right and important is not education.

Showing a customer what is great about what you do, and how it matters to them is my kind of education.

Expectations

Never has a word or an idea so destroyed the good intentions of many cafes, and wrecked an owner’s confidence in their own product.

Over the last few years I’ve done a lot of very varied barista training.  The vast majority of people I met were having their first introduction to brewing coffee carefully and well.  I hope this isn’t an arrogant statement – most of us grew up, myself included, with a “coffee’s just coffee” mentality that had to be shattered at some point when we realised it was a fresh food of variable quality that we could influence through preparation.

Milk texture is the “a-ha” moment for a lot people.  The first time they sip a cappuccino with thick, tight-knit bubbles, with that velvety texture and surprising sweetness a penny drops and they get a little bit excited at how good coffee can be.

Then something terrible happens.  They start worry about their customers expectations.

“This doesn’t look like my normal cappuccino, my customers expect something a bit frothier.”

And that person is right – their customers do.

Let’s re-assess expectations for a moment:  If I chose to eat out in a restaurant in a touristy location in London, let’s say Leicester Square, I expect an average meal, with poor service and an extortionate bill.  Meeting my expectations is not a good thing.  As a consumer I want you to exceed them.

If I walk into a cafe chosen at random then I will likely expect to be served that sea-foam, dry and overheated cappuccino that we see in marketing every day, on tv, on billboards and in lots of other cafes.  Lots of cafes meet my expectations – and those of their customers – but it is worth remembering that those expectations have been set pretty low after years and years of pretty poor coffee being normal.

I think meeting customers expectations has been reinforced by the idea that the customer is always right.

The customer is not always right.

The customer should always be treated with respect, intelligence and made to feel welcome and looked after within your business.  This does not mean that we should bend to their every whim.  I’ve been wrong as a customer countless times, and I will be in the future.

Going to the Fat Duck and expecting roast chicken is wrong.  Asking for your Big Mac medium rare is wrong.  Asking for espresso to go is wrong.

There is a way to say no to me as a customer and to exceed my expectations of you and your business.  I can walk out satisfied and (more importantly) likely a new, loyal 1 for your business.

The benefits of exceeding someone’s expectations are huge, and in an economic climate where business are looking for a competitive edge then offering something different and desirable has rewards that more than compensate the risk.

  1. Customer loyalty, and education, are another topic I want to look at in a future post  ↩︎

Pricing

This is the second post in a series that I started with Trust.  I want to examine a bit more closely what we communicate and can accomplish with pricing.

I hope you don’t mind if I use two theoretical espresso establishments.  One sells a shot of espresso for 60p, they carry no obvious branding as to which coffee they are brewing.  The second place sells its espresso for £1.80, three times the price.

What is interesting about this is that the 60p shot is probably less appealing than the £1.80, but you wouldn’t necessarily expect the £1.80 shot to be amazing or three times better.  In a world where most espresso is no good, the chance of finding a great one at that price (60p) seem absurd.  1We still make judgments on coffee’s quality based on its price but we’ve learned to limit our expectations when the price goes up.  There is, however, a threshold limit to that expectation.

Imagine now a place with a £4 single espresso.  As you receive the drink you probably say out loud “This better be good.”  Quite rightly – it had better be good, because this business has made an implied promise of how good your experience will be.

Those of us in the industry are always frustrated when coffee news on blogs and news websites receive hundreds of surprisingly angry people deriding the very idea of quality coffee, angrily denouncing coffee “snobs” or mocking those businesses trying to do better.

No, what will happen is that these people will go to the training sessions and forget them very soon after. Why? They work in coffee shops and it really doesn’t matter. It’s just coffee.

I think the coffee industry has to accept that we created these people, their anger and bitterness a result of our actions.

These people have probably tried to buy a better cup in the past, and in trying to do so have probably bought a more expensive cup.  It might be that that experience was in a Starbucks, or perhaps in an independent.  Either way they were so disappointed that they still feel the need to vent that anger on message boards.

Coming back to setting prices, and what we communicate with them.  If you own a cafe then look at your prices – what do they say about your coffee?  What did you base those prices on?  Was it on the chains you compete against or was it based on the prices listed in a business whose quality you want to emulate?

At this point I want to clarify that I am not suggesting pricing coffee in such a way that it develops the tag of exclusivity any further than it already has.  I hate seeing coffee as something exclusive – I want coffee to be inclusive.  We need to drive consumption, as higher consumption of better coffee is pretty much a win/win for everyone in the chain – from consumer back to producer.

That said I do want to wrap this post up by saying that I think we often fail to communicate properly through our pricing.  One of the last things we think about is: “What is this cup of coffee worth?”

  1. It is worth noting that a few places in London that do great espresso do it very cheaply – I am not saying cheap and delicious espresso is impossible  ↩︎

Trust

This is the first in a series of posts on quite a broad topic within coffee, that covers not only elements of brewing but sales, consumption, successes and failures and the challenges that lie ahead for anyone in the industry.

I am going to start with trust.  This might seem an abstract word, but I hope at the end of this it will earn its place as a fitting title.  What I really want to talk about is the state of relations between the average consumer and the average cafe.  In my eyes we have, by and large, lost the trust of the consumer.

To start with I want to use the example of restaurants:  Let’s put you in the situation of being stranded in a strange town, full of independent restaurants and you are very hungry.  You scan the menus outside of three or four places and from this you will make some judgments on those businesses.  Two key factors here will influence your judgement – what dishes they serve and their price.

The first is really quite obvious – from the dishes you’ll know whether to expect home cooking or whether to expect Michelin level cuisine.  However this won’t really give you a very strong indicator of the quality compared to the prices.

Now let’s skip to the end of the meal.  You chose the place with the fancy cooking, and you’ve racked up quite a bill.  What’s more the food wasn’t very good.  In fact it was terrible.  How do you feel?  Angry?  Taken advantage of?  Disappointed?  Betrayed?

When restaurants do this they completely lose our trust – we’ll likely never spend any money with them again, and probably go out of our way to make sure family and friends don’t fall into that trap.

Hopefully you can see where I am going with this – think about the coffee you’ve bought in the past, and the prices you’ve paid.  How often has the price been correctly tied to the quality?  How often have you had your trust abused?  I am sure I am not alone in being extremely distrustful of most places selling coffee (globally I might add).

If you own a cafe then ask yourself if your customers trust you.  I mean really trust you.  If a regular came in and you had an unusual (but excellent) coffee in your grinder, or to drink as a french press brew, would they buy it on your recommendation?  If you found a coffee you thought was worth £5 a cup, could you sell it to them?

The advantages of trust are obvious – increased loyalty, increased customer spend, easier ethical/helpful upselling and a win/win for you and your customer.

I’ll aim to continue this next week…..

The failings of English Cafes

This isn’t meant to be a righteous diatribe, coupled with a smug detailing of how I think cafes ought to be. This is really just a rant that has been building for a little while now.

I have been extremely lucky in the last few years when it comes to travel. I’ve sat in many different cafes and coffee houses around the world and had a varied set of experiences therein.

By and large the cafe experience in England is disappointing. I am not talking about the small number of quality focused cafes in and out of London, and I am not picking on anyone in particular, but there is something a bit depressing about sitting down in the average independent cafe.

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