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Setting the stage

September 16, 2012

Over the past few years we have spent half of our time theorizing about how to best serve speciality coffee, putting a spotlight on flavour and its origins.  The other half of the time we have been putting these concepts into action and developing the reality of concepts based on evidence drawn form the results.  It is very easy to believe in a concept intuitively, or even to appreciate the potential success of many different ideas by understanding different perspectives.  I highly value this kind of open mindedness, but ultimately a road has to be chosen and the valuable theories are those supported by tangible evidence.

This Article will focus on one main concept that I would say underpins many other service choices.  The concept is that of setting the stage upon which the customer’s speciality coffee experience takes place.  It is the concept of valuing story, narrative and understanding.  The concept in itself is quite straightforward but it is the execution that provides many challenges.  It requires a broader perspective, challenging those approaches that may on the face things seem effective and positive, but can hinder the bigger picture.

Solutions in other environments or other cities and so forth may differ, but I also believe that many of these observations are broad enough to be applied to speciality coffee or in fact any innovative product that occupies a small section of a larger market.

Below are four different possible reactions to a single experience revolving around a simple order for a black filter coffee.  They do not represent every possible reaction but some of the most useful ones to consider.  Each displays a viewpoint of not only the product purchased but also of the shop it was purchased in.  They are effectively in two pairs, the first pair lacks framing and dialogue (we have found this to be damaging on a larger scale).  The second pair are with targeted framing and dialogue (which has provided much more success overall).

A quick summary of our shop’s offering and set up will be useful to cover before we continue.

We offer three espresso coffees (single estate/co-op as well as the odd small blend) which we recommend either on their own or with steamed milk in a 6 ounce cup.  There are flavour notes to accompany each of these eventualities.

We also serve three different freshly brewed filter coffees. All filters are recommended black and will improve as they cool down in temperature.  Although there will be much difference between the different coffees, the filters will in essence all be lighter, more crisp and elegant than a traditional roasty coffee.

All of the coffees we have on will have unique individual flavour and are a move away from traditional continental style blends and darker roasts.

All coffees are recommended without sugar in order for each of their characters to be displayed.  This advice is also a cautionary note as many of the coffees we use actually develop negative flavours with the addition of sugar.

Lastly, the coffees we have on offer will all change weekly to showcase what is available.

Four possible viewpoints/reactions to one of our black filters:-

No1 “ I didn’t really like it in there, they only had a small selection of teas, the seats were hard and the filter coffee was not very hot and didn’t have that gutsy taste, I could see through it as well which means its not well made. You shouldn’t be able to see through a good black coffee.”

No2 “ I really liked the coffee in there it had a great taste, I will go back and grab the same one at some point as well as take some friends of mine who really like coffee”

No 3 “ hmmm, I don’t think it’s really for me in there, interesting what their doing but I think I prefer my heavier style black coffees, you know, a hot smokey rich coffee that I can sit in a comfy seat and have a chat over.  I think I will go to my usual coffee shop”

No 4 “ I really enjoyed my filter coffee.  It was lighter like they said but full of different kinds of flavour.  I really enjoyed the crisp elegant flavours and I was genuinely surprised at how much the flavour changed as it cooled down, I will try another one next time”

How we feel in our business about these four results is based on the importance of understanding and communication, more importantly it is our intention to avoid a negative ripple effect that starts with no clear message.  The two reactions we would be happy with are No 3 (negative but with understanding) and No 4 (positive and with understanding).

No4 represents the most positive outcome. It represents a liking of the product and an understanding of the product as part of the business as a whole. Understanding leads on to more possibility of success for the shop and speciality coffee. This will result in a positive ripple effect.

No 1 (negative and uniformed) and No 2 (positive but uniformed) are problematic for one reason - they both show a misunderstanding/misrepresentation.  The wrong stage has been set.  I find this particularly interesting because the immediate positive outcome of reaction No 2 (positive but uninformed) very easily masks the issues that may stem from here.  Reaction No 2 (positive but uniformed) shows no awareness that the coffees will change every week, this may easily result in a failure to meet their expectation on a second visit.  Neither does it show any concern that our set up may not suit the needs of their friends, whom may be looking for an Italian espresso that works well with sugar or a filter that takes milk.  Response No 2 (positive but uninformed) represents a simple serving approach – a coffee enjoyed with no context will naturally suggest that we will be able to deliver on all well-established ideas of coffee.  A negative ripple effect is likely.

Response No 1 ( negative and uninformed) is obviously not particularly great, firstly they may well have been more open to and possibly enjoyed the type of drink they received if it’s differences were made clear, setting an expectation relative to what we serve rather than competing with traditional norms.  Most problematic, though, is that anyone they chat to about their experience will also be less likely to have an expectation that matches the reality of our approach.  In effect it will be harder for not only the individual to get to No 4 (positive and informed) but also for many others to reach No 4 because of less accurate word of mouth and so forth.  For a more accurate representation, the business needs clear communication and a strong brand with an image that aligns with the expectation it intends to meet.  This is achieved through every transaction that takes place, not with one advert or a La Marzocco on the bar.  Brand image lies in the perceptions your customers have of you, perceptions they will then share.

With this in mind, reaction No 3 (negative but informed) is arguably more desirable than reaction No 2 (likes but uniformed).  A great example of this occurred today in the shop.  A lady whom had visited before returned with a group of friends and said“ could you please talk my friends through your offering as they haven’t been before”.  After an explanation, each member of the party chose a coffee and format.  When we asked the lady who had brought the party in what she would like, she continued“ No thank you, I prefer traditional style coffee but I thought my friends may be interested in your shop”.  I cannot tell you how happy this made me.  Not only was there a realisation of our goals and brand promises as a business, she was also very happy to come into a shop that doesn't suit her needs.  Why is she not offended or upset by this? (possibly because she is a very reasonable individual) but also because presentation and service are honest and transparent. There is no argument or inference about what constitutes the right approach to coffee but instead there is a realisation that different approaches are valuable when the narrative is unique, when the goals are different.

Ultimately one must be happy with the fact that not everyone will like their product, but through the use of communication the chances of reaction No 4 (positive and informed) can be maximised.  At the same time an attempt to achieve a result that a business is not trying to provide is less likely to happen.  I believe this is fair on everyone involved, resulting in less annoyance for those simply looking for something else.  Everybody knows where they stand.

This one example does not explain or display all of the aspects of serving a product like speciality coffee in the way we do.  It should however serve to show that from our experience attempting to simplify the process and ignore the complexities of this product causes more problems than it solves.

To achieve the results in reactions No 3(negative and informed) and 4(positive and informed) requires presentation that lays out how our shop works and why it may be different.  More specifically the communication from staff must show an understanding of many view points, as well as realising that what they say and do has a far greater ripple effect than often meets the eye. This is a big undertaking and requires everybody involved to be professional and committed. I understand why a lot of businesses don’t go down this road (for example, we only hire fulltime staff, individuals whom all value the intricacies of service and value their responsibility, with a far longer training period than most coffee shops).

Very possibly, those more au fait with the workings of speciality coffee may note that I have failed to represent them in any of my examples – I am talking about the individual who already realises the filters will be light and that the espressos will be fruity and odd with sugar, the kind of person who has had significant exposure to the ins and outs of speciality coffee.  However an individual with that experience in speciality coffee represents an incredibly small percentage of our custom.  Why is this?  It’s pretty damn simple really.  Speciality coffee is not widely represented across the UK and often where it is, it is not really explored.  Many speciality coffee shops are struggling to try and meet previous traditional expectations whilst serving a product they love because it breaks away from those very traditions.  It can be a bit of a sad paradox really.  There is also much despairing that the discussion of flavour and provenance in speciality coffee will not yield the best results.  However, a flavour base approach has not been presented very well or offered very often.  In effect we are just starting to explore presenting speciality coffee’s possibilities to the wider public.  Although, if we do indeed expect speciality coffee to take off in the established “café” model with a basic uninformative service then we can rightly be despairing.

An often touted counter argument to the emphasis on narrative and context is that speciality coffee is not that different anyway and people don’t need it explained. Customers can simply slip over to speciality coffee (interestingly this is an industry viewpoint, not one I see often from customer bases).  I have not included this type of experience in my four examples because firstly I don’t think its as often the case as people like to feel it is and secondly because this group won’t mind some context and explanation either.

Our aim with our business has never been to pander to a specialist coffee scene, but to employ as utilitarian an approach as possible that spreads speciality coffee to a large and varied audience.  There is a wide audience who really enjoy speciality coffee when it’s presented with them in mind.  It is quite fascinating to note that many industry people are wary of and question the interest that the wider public could have in flavour notes and origin/story.  With what we have done over the past four years with our business, I would posit that it’s the wider public whom are more easily excited and intrigued by flavour and narrative than anyone else.  Indeed I remember my first single origin Kenyan espresso served to me by a barista that told me it would have strawberry and vanilla notes.  At first I was surprised and doubtful, but when I tasted the cup I became very excited.  I was not resentful of the context she had provided when I ordered the coffee.  In fact its one of the key experiences that has led to me being so involved with coffee.  It must be noted that I was in some ways prepared as I had been told to visit the shop.  I had heard that they served single origin espresso with different exciting flavour.  Their brand ripple effect aided my experience, but I still found the information useful as my previous experiences hadn’t suggested coffee could taste like this – even though I felt I was in to coffee.

Today, like every other day, I noted the context of how each customer entered our shop.  Yes many were regulars whom either choose their coffee or let us do so for them, but it was the amount of new custom I was interested in assessing.  Only one person who walked through the door asked for just a cup of coffee, every other made enquiries such as how does it work?  What coffees do you have on?  Do you make a cappuccino?  What does it mean by washed?  And so forth.  Everybody had a stage set for them.  Not an annoying hurdle to overcome at the till, but something to embrace and be excited by.  This for me is evidence that our brand image is working well.  From a business point of view it sets us apart in a crowded market place and very interestingly as our brand becomes stronger, more of our trade is a kind of coffee tourism.  With people visiting to see what its all about, to taste and ask questions.  Today as I watched the shop in its daily ebb and flow I realised more than ever how valuable context and story are.

A part of me thinks that an eagerness to simplify speciality coffee as just good or tasty, as well as dumbing down narrative and context is an attempt to reach the largest possible audience; but a deeper part of me thinks that it could be a symptom of a “ fear of pretension” that is waiting at the doorstep of speciality coffee.  My next post will explore why this need be no obstacle but merely a doormat we recognise but in the end leave outside.





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Milk as a coffee collaborator

September 10, 2012


A fear of pretension

September 26, 2012