Monthly Archives: September 2017

A born identity

We are currently living in a postmodern society, where politics and ideology are intertwined with the idea of who and what “I” am. A lot of times discussions are no longer heated but actually ended abruptly by blocking out all ideas that aren’t in complete harmony with my own. Everyone is going “my way or the highway”.

The backside of this coin is conformity. We easily conform into our own group of likeminded individuals, and polarize ourselves from the others. The sense of individuality is only strong when we are with equally individualistic like minded people. Sounds like an oxymoron? It’s relativism at work. Everything is possible at the same time. Everything has equal value, but only if that’s how I feel about it.

I give this as a background to what I have been discussing with a friend recently. Working in service since 1995 has given me a decent idea about the customer and hospitality vs. service. The former is a two way street, the latter is a one way communication between a service offered, the expectation of that service and how it is executed at its best. Hospitality is when a person walks in your door, is greeted like an old friend into your domain. You set the rule, but you also want to make this person comfortable, like in your own home. Simple example: in a cafe with a mixed menu, a person wants to have some chicken with their halloumi salad. As a hospitality person, you accommodate the customers wishes, cause in the end it’s like opening up your own fridge at home. Service would be offering dishes that the establishment have a very strong opinion about what they are serving, and are curated by the chefs to be enjoyed exactly the way they are. No mixing, no adding. This happens more frequently in upper market restaurants, and thus the customer accept it, cause they are paying to get an experience by someone they trust or have high expectations of.

Since hospitality involves people, there are more than one outcome of what can go wrong in a cafe when they step into the door.

  1. The communication of what the establishment is, can be faulty. If you are a cafe but want to pose as a restaurant for instance, the expectation of what you offer is different from what you are actually offering. At Orion, we pushed the fact that we were a coffee bar, not a cafe, in order to lower peoples expectations of what we were serving for lunch. Once you talk about yourself as a lunch place, you get people thinking you are offering lunch specials, salad buffets, free bread and coffee (oh yes, that is a thing in Sweden). Important to show that coffee is your main expertise, food is additional. When people then taste great food, they are impressed that such a small coffee bar could offer such a great lunch meal.
  2. The customer has the wrong idea for various reasons. Either you have communicated your stance badly, or the customer simply have too little experience to distinguish the difference in segments. They just come with their own set of agendas (I want lunch + you serve food = you are a lunch place and thus should have everything I expect from such an establishment). Right now for instance, I am struggling with a customer who is one of those riche nouveau types. She comes for lunch, orders very specific meals and drinks (“I only drink Coca Cola Light, not Zero. In a wine glass. With ice. And lemon”) and expect to pay afterwards. This is a behavior that has been going on for years the staff tells me. And they have accommodated this silly little act for so long, it is now something you just have to accept. But breaking it down, you see where the cracks are: first of all, this person identifies as someone going to a restaurant. She can not differentiate in segments, don’t have the experience enough to do so and actually apply a common behavior in the proper fashion. Second of all, by actually trying to be something we are not (folded cutlery in napkins, bread buffet, lunch offering, the place used to serve alcohol), you are presenting something you are not. You are actually posing as a restaurant and not a cafe. Thirdly, the staff has accommodated this kind of behavior and fallen into a trap of the customer always expecting this, even at the expense of their own dignity (she treats everyone like shit). This customer is an extreme of what goes wrong when your communication is poor, and what she acts out, a lot of other customers invisibly also believes now (restaurant, with a lunch menu).
  3. The staff has the wrong idea of why they are there. This is important in any setting, maybe more so in a coffee bar than in a cafe or restaurant. If you are the owner of an establishment, you can do whatever you want, as long as you communicate this to your staff and make them follow your lead. Any outrageous idea is acceptable, if it is in fact your business idea. The problem occurs when you have hired someone for one task, and they perform another. As a manager of a cafe, I would hire hospitality staff with good customer service skills. You can train a monkey to make and sell coffee, but you can’t train people into being hospitality minded over night. Especially if you have an idea of your staff being extroverted outgoing friendly people that will attract business and raise revenue because they want to come back to your establishment because of your friendliness (don’t get me started on the obvious problem in communication with places that actually write “friendly” on their sign, and are fucking far from friendly). My experience is that the more coffee focused your business is, i e specialized, the more introvert coffee geeks you get that wants to work with you. They might not seem like geeks at first (geeks aren’t necessarily dressed as the cast from Harry Potter), but you recognize them when you ask them about food and dishes, and all the questions they have is about your coffee program. In Sweden probably 25% of your revenue is coffee at the most, the rest is food and other items. They are only interested in 25% of your revenue, but focus 100% on it. That’s great, if you have such a position available. In Sweden, you don’t. The problem here is identity. Just as the customer in example 2 above identifies as a 3 Star Guide Michelin customer in a cafe, you all of a sudden have a staff member that doesn’t identify as a customer related person, but as a coffee scientist. This is somewhat a growing problem in a lot of areas in society today, when human interaction is about to become obsolete. Driverless trains is one that I’ve encountered in my past career. But what about the craft of the barista? I’ve been in this industry long enough to have made pretty goddamned great coffee without the crutches of scales, tamper machines, timers etc. I started out on flippety flop grinders, where my boss was outraged if we didn’t have it in our backbone to hammer it out within a 1 gram faulty range. Same with time. But we actually judged espresso by its color (still do, the dinosaur that I am), and we remade shots that looked bad without any hesitation whatsoever. That was a craft. What if you weigh everything you do, with a grinder that has no more than 0,01 gram of difference each time, a tamper machine and use the preset on your machine (cause this coffee wizard said you should on a blogpost somewhere) to extract it? What’s the next level – baristaless cafes?

There is an idea in coffee, that comes from the competitions I’d say: if you win, you did so cause your coffee excelled. If you lost, you weren’t good enough. These people that identify as coffee scientists dedicate their time into mastering coffee as some sort of alchemy process, and expect customers to be equally interested in what they do. And about 2% of your customers are. Those are the guys that orders a single espresso once a month at your establishment and then rate you poorly on a social media platform, cause they too are narcissists with an agenda that no-one else can make coffee up to their standards. The time they rate you high, is when you actually had a human interaction with them, saw them as individuals and talked to them in a way that they found rewarding. That’s a lot of time and energy for a single espresso that might risk getting you bad yelp reviews if you don’t invest that time and energy. On knit picking twats. I’ve been a knit picking twat too, I know where they’re coming from. That’s why I know the problem with what we are doing.

Customers are people. Extrovert hospitality people can be narcissistic assholes too (“shouldn’t you be out on a ledge somewhere?” I think David Schomer famously wrote about that kind of barista), but as long as they can make your customer feel good by entering your domain, and the lowest average quality is very high, very very few people will actually know the difference between a 24 second extraction and a 26 second extraction. If your “good enough” shot is a lot better than your neighbors, they’ll still chose you, especially if the coffee scientists next door give them slow service and snotty attitude.

NP: Robert Tepper No Easy Way Out