30 Days of Blog - Day 13 - Consumer and professional progress

Welcome to day 13 of 30. We have had a few heavy days lately so today I want to lighten up a bit. My topic is about a disconnect that I have been witnessing for quite some time now, and I think it is high time we address it. 

It can be difficult to sum up all of my thoughts here, but I want to call it "consumer progress". This has to do with consumer expectations, which I have touched on briefly in the past few days, consumer education, as well as how we in the specialty coffee industry progress in comparison to our customers. 

Let me start with the professional side of things here, since I think that is where most of you reading this blog are at. 

In the past I have compared the advancement and discovery in specialty coffee to that of the computer world. The comparison is meant to say that seemingly every day we are discovering new data, trends are forming, and our understandings of coffee push higher and higher. In reality I feel like comparing coffee to computer tech is not terribly accurate, because while new ideas and data are being pushed out constantly, we continually revert back to most of the same techniques and standards that have been in place for years. 

For example, batch brewers were eliminated from many cafes because the "new" pour-over trend took hold. Batch brewing was considered wasteful and of poor quality because the barista could not use a "perfect" pouring technique to make the magic coffee brew. Then of course businesses have realized recently they can serve far more guests in less time with less labor using batch brewers, and *gasp* most of the time the brew is actually better on that exact same batch brewer they got rid of 5 years ago. 

Now I'm not saying batch brewers have reached their peak potential, but they are far more consistent than a barista who can't multitask. This is one of many examples of trends and moves we have made in specialty circles that are creating mixed messages for our customers. Incredibly acidic espresso, tiny milk based drinks, condescendingly simplified menus, and barista arrogance are other examples of how we have moved away from our customers. 

When we work in coffee it is easy to get excited about all of the new ideas being thrown about. It's a reflection of the passion we hold for coffee, and I don't feel that it is a bad thing. This excitement gets pushed into the cafe environment and translates into some of the examples above. Many a barista has gotten into customer "education" mode behind the bar, eloquently causing customers to run as fast as they can to the nearest corporate cafe. 

Here is where we are creating problems for ourselves. It isn't so much that our customers are not interested in the details about coffee, or that the direct sourcing is helping farmers' lives, or that the true expression of the coffee is in the acid profile (I kind of just made that up, btw). The problem is in the speed at which these two groups, coffee professionals and everyday consumers of coffee, take in and adopt the new information. 

The professionals are constantly focused on coffee. They are re-evaluating their knowledge, adding to it, and growing because they feel it is how to advance in the industry. This makes sense in a lot of ways, and it does indeed help with advancement.

The non coffee professionals, or consumers, on the other hand are rarely if ever focused on coffee. They do not define their lives by their vast knowledge about a single food product, though it may happen to them in regard to their actual profession. This also makes sense because really, even the most excited hobbyists only have so much time in the day to dedicate toward learning about a product they will probably never make an income from. They get their coffee knowledge during their 0-5 minute interaction, 0-5 times a week. Remember, even regular customers skip days or weeks sometimes. And during those infrequent visits, they may never even absorb anything new about coffee. 

Because of the nature of time and focus, coffee people tend to grow immensely in a short period of time, while the consumer base tends to stay the same or grow very, very slowly. This is also reflected in the drinks people buy. Despite your best attempts to convince customers to buy a tiny drink that shows the perfect nuance of the coffee, most of them still want that 12-16oz latte don't they? Morning coffee for many people is about familiarity and comfort. They want their "thing" because it makes them feel good and it is familiar, so why should they do something different? This of course is when having a trust in their barista might lead them to a new, more pure, coffee experience. 

This all takes time though.

When you spring a wildly different menu on regular customers, or a wildly different coffee, a lot of people freak out. Their familiar comfort is now missing and they are going to be upset! This is why I like to transition menus slowly with a lot of communication. Many people can be happy when their old favorite is removed from the menu if they trust that they have a suitable replacement available. A good example is flavored syrups. Remember the line of 50 flavored syrups that was once the hallmark of a specialty cafe? Customers loved their specific flavor, but when we started cutting most or all of the flavors many people were upset. But when we had a recommended substitute most people adapted to it. 

So moral of the story today is that customers and baristas progress and want change at different paces. You must understand this if you are to keep your raving fan base. We are not talking about seasonal or rotating drink recipes, but big changes to your menu and service. Transition your customers over time to the new standard, and be open and communicative with them. Let them know you are going to adopt some new things (AFTER YOU HAVE TESTED THEM TO MAKE SURE THEY ARE TRULY BETTER), and let them know they are in good hands. 

Nothing makes a customer/guest feel better than to be thought of and taken care of. 

Your customer base will grow more and more loyal, and love your new standards. If they can see your vision as a business they will never see it as something else.

Thanks for reading today,

Pete

Posted on September 16, 2017 and filed under Blog.