BGA Webinars: The Future?

I had the great opportunity to lead a Webinar with Cuvee Coffee’s Lorenzo Perkins this last Friday evening. It was an official session of the BGA Level One classwork CP 103: Customer Service. I’ve been involved in a few web-based educational projects before, but this was the first time I’d actually lead a class in a full-online environment.

The BGA makes use of the GoToTraining software, which has many applications to different fields and types of education – for our purposes, it served us well, though if I were to make this a regular thing, I’d have to invest in a headset. Using my phone was a bit awkward and cumbersome, especially when simultaneously trying to interact with the class or utilize the UI.

Making use of online educational tools is key for the future of an organization like the BGA – at the moment, the BGA is reliant on highly skilled educators being present at industry events across the country (and sometimes globe). If the BGA Certification program is to grow and flourish as the membership grows, this system will become increasing unsustainable, requiring full-time traveling trainers, as well as straining the resources and patience of students, given the relative infrequency of classwork in their particular region.

Moving forward with the Webinar format is a feather in the BGA’s cap: while many of the class offerings are very hands-on, and would not lend themselves well to online education (any preparation classes, cupping, etc), recognizing that CP 103 is a great candidate for the Webinar format allows the BGA to reach out and engage with students who they may have otherwise lost in the spans of time between Expos and Barista Camps.

From the point of view of the educator, I really enjoyed the Webinar format: it allowed me to contribute to a community that I care about, to speak at length about a topic that is close to my heart, and I didn’t have to fly to Seattle. It was a low-cost way for me to make a meaningful impact.

The sooner we are able to move our appropriate educational formatting to the Webinar format, the sooner we will be able to handle membership growth and demand for education in a sustainable way. Introduction to Espresso will probably never be an online class – but Seed to Cup could be, as well as Efficiency & Workflow, and even Preventative Maintenance, with some creative use of videography.

Good on the BGA for choosing an educational path that will work to grow with the membership, as well as reward the educational volunteers.

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You Don’t Get Any Points For The Biscuit

During the panel discussion at MANE about barista competitors and competitions, one of the panelists recalled a moment when, as a judge, he watched a competitor slip over the 15 minute mark as she struggled to perfectly place tiny sweet biscuits on the saucers of her signature beverages – “You don’t get any points for the biscuit,” he sighed.

As we find ourselves in the midst of competition season, let’s remind ourselves: you win a contest by getting the most points. There are customs that we adhere to in an almost ritualistic, superstitious way (tablecloths!), and there are items that dominate the scoresheet – those x4 multipliers that every competition prep session focuses on. To become a barista champion, you must know the rules inside and out, and know what gets you points – and what doesn’t.

This sentiment can be writ large across not just our competition structure, but also in the way that we operate our businesses. When we are able to step back from working in our business and start to work on our business, it becomes time to figure out what points to pursue. In some sense, the competitors at the regional and national barista competitions are lucky: they have a book of rules explaining how and where points can be gained. For us, in the game of coffee shop management or wholesale coffee sales, we are in the enviable position of deciding our own point structure.

While it is certainly true that revenue can be used as a scoring system, I’m assuming that you, like me, consider it only one part of a larger vision. After all, if our primary way of finding satisfaction in life were through our P&L, progressive coffee would not be the best pursuit.

If money-in alone does not define success for you and your business, what then does? It is easy to reject cashflow alone as your definition of victory, but it is much less easy to define what exactly does constitute success. This is the rub: you can only win if you define how to win, and since this pursuit is yours, it is up to you to define victory. Once you decide what your victory conditions are – pursue them.

One thing we tend to do, especially those of us who are only just coming up in the progressive coffee movement, is to confuse the newest and the coolest with the best. If my generation of coffee professionals doesn’t set down anchor and determine its true goals – even as individuals – then we’ll be forever at the mercy of the winds of fashion. If your success is defined by staying at the crest of the fashion wave, then perhaps this won’t be so concerning to you, and indeed many businesses survive doing just that. What will put deposits in your success fund? Is it taste? Is it approval? Is it increased revenue?

The first step is deciding what is important, and what is just a biscuit.

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Innovating Context: Whole Bean Offerings

(This post is part of an ongoing series on the need to innovate the context in which we sell coffee. The first post is HERE)

Admittedly: I have never run a green coffee buying program, I have exactly zero Roasters Guild certifications, and I’ve never mastered the art of blending. This post, then, is more about ruminating, and hopefully, engaging a little conversation.


Roasters: I would like to suggest that many (not all!) progressive coffee roasters today are holding in their operating model two beliefs that cannot simultaneously be true, and are unnecessarily spending time and money trying to reconcile this impossible tension. These two beliefs are:

A: I have to carry coffee x ( where coffee x = dark roast, Sumatra, Hazelnut, any coffee you sell but wouldn’t drink. Many roasters have multiple examples of coffee x.) 
B: We have to help our customers learn about good coffee

On the face of it, these ideas don’t seem like they are at odds with one another, and I think many operations will readily admit that they subscribe to them both. We can pick them apart a little more, however. Presumably, roasters want to carry coffee x not because they are necessarily proud of coffee x, but because they can sell coffee x. After all, if you are carrying a coffee you aren’t proud of, and that coffee isn’t selling, you shouldn’t be reading this blog, you should be finding a new green broker. So let’s change idea A to:

A: I am carrying coffee x because my customers buy it

There’s nothing wrong with idea A – in fact, hopefully your customers buy all of your coffee – but I’d imagine there are coffees in your portfolio where sales alone are not the only factor – perhaps there is a compelling narrative, or a great direct trade relationship, or simply an astonishingly good cup. Idea A describes a coffee which you sell simply and solely because you know it will be purchased.


We can similarly break down idea B: it’s a complicated idea, after all – why do we want our customers to learn about good coffee? Well, probably because it tastes better, but also because it is a revenue source that is more meaningful – when you sell something you think is good, it feels good, rather than selling something because you think it will sell. So we can adjust idea B to something like:

B: I want my customers to buy good coffee, from me.

So our setup is now:

A: I am carrying coffee x because my customers buy it
B: I want my customers to buy good coffee, from me.

Remember: the definition of coffee x is a coffee you are not super excited about, but carry for its cash flow properties. I would suggest that the more examples of coffee x you have in your catalog, the farther away from achieving idea B you are. But I’m genuinely curious if this is a real tension that roasters experience: can you sell coffee you love and coffee you don’t love? How do you maintain a quality-centric brand while including your coffee x?

My suggestion would be to reject the Starbucks model of 18 blends and a few single origins, all of which are merely OK, and rather embrace a much smaller selection of SO’s and blends, all of which you’re excited about. I believe that this is possible and profitable when done well, even in small-market settings.

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What We Can Learn From Ten Bullets

Tom Sachs is an artist living in NYC – he does some really interesting stuff, and he and I share a perhaps unhealthy obsession with outer space. ‘Ten Bullets’ is a trip through the rules that employees and visitors to his work space have to follow. Take a look:

Here’s what we in hospitality can learn from Tom and his Ten Bullets; whether or not you would ever want to work for Tom, it is totally transparent as to how you would work. His expectations are laid out clearly and without ambiguity – not just expectations but also how to make amends when expectations are not met – you pay the box!

I think as leaders, we can do a much better job setting expectations with our employees. When something goes wrong at your place of work, your first reflection should be back on your own expectations. If we do not clearly communicate what we want done and how we want it done, then we can’t reasonably be irritated when those expectations aren’t met.

Tom communicates his basic expectations in twenty minutes. I have worked places for months without anything like as clear a picture as he provides here. There is a certain duality to his phrase ‘working to code’ – while his code is a code of conduct, clearly stated and ready to be followed, many managers in hospitality really do encode their expectations: their real desires are hidden behind a complicated network of miscues and secret rules. This is bad for the manager, bad for the employee, and bad for the customer.

The Ten Bullets show you how to work, and how to make it right when you work incorrectly. Every business should have a video like this.

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MANE Conference: Bite-sized Take-aways

I’ve been working on a few different posts coming out of the MANE Coffee Conference, and there are a few bite-sized take-aways that don’t really warrant a post of their own, but still have left me thinking. Here they are.

- “Hire for attitude, train for skill.” – I have this written in a corner of my notes, and I can’t remember who said it or in what context – but it is something I’ve come back to repeatedly. It rings true – remember Danny Meyer’s 51%ers? We can (and have!) trained folks to become excellent coffee people, but we cannot train people to be nice, to be genuinely interested in other humans. Rosettas and tulips I can teach, but temperament and attitude are not something I can adjust. Given that I’m interviewing this week, it’s something I’m keeping in mind.
– During the Meet the Producers panel, Adolfo spoke at length about Cup of Excellence, which is an organization I need to learn more about. He mentioned the cost of submitting to CoE, as well as the risk that a producer takes in pursuing that competition. It seemed to me that the most sustainable utility of CoE (again, I need to learn more about the competition and organization) was to help create relationships between progressive growers and progressive buyers. In a huge marketplace, the CoE can be seen as a matchmaking service. Is this totally off-base?
– La Colombe in NYC: A number of folks spoke highly of one of the La Colombe locations in Manhattan – apparently they have a great use of space, with a focus on flow and customers service – using space to enhance a service environment is something I’ve been wrestling with, so for the first time, La Colombe is on my to-visit list the next time I’m in NYC.

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Innovating Context: Wireless Internet

(This post is part of an ongoing series of posts regarding how we retail progressive coffee. The first post is HERE)
Wireless Internet: an ongoing debate within our industry. The cause of countless lost Yelp stars, many a facebook argument, and certainly a broken heart or two.

For a line barista, my thinking about free wireless is parallel to my thinking about large soy caramel mocha lattes: if your shop has it, your shop has it. If you are not a decision maker in your company, the best move is to align your thinking along optimization: how can I make this experience the best one it can be? I’d say, generally, an eye-roll never positively contributes to that goal.

For folks in leadership/ownership positions: I don’t think the approach is all that different. As in many things, I think the first step is to consider your vision: what kind of experience do you want your customers to have? Once that experience is defined, you must advance toward it ruthlessly. If you strive to have a community space where people feel comfortable sitting for hours, sipping on free refills and running into their neighbors, then free wireless is probably a good fit for your vision. If you want to focus on the culinary side of things, engage your customers more like a cocktail bar or restaurant than the classic American coffee shop, then free wireless is probably not for you.

It is tempting to give in to public demand (aka “whinging”) and offer free wifi, but attempt to keep folks from camping out all day by reducing the signal strength, or periodically creating outages to roust these folks from their collective perches. This is certainly bad hospitality; offering something, then not actually following through on your offer with authentic effort and pride, is not the way to deal with the wireless problem.

I can imagine a space where free wireless could fit into the vision of excellent, progressive coffee. This is not to say that the two are incompatible; rather, wifi should not be an afterthought, or included because it is something one must do. It will certainly impact the customer base and nature of interactions in your shop, which is something you should approach intentionally, with an eye to your final vision.

Like many of these posts, we get to a point where there is a great deal of tension between our vision for our own spaces and the prevailing patterns of our communities. Much like menu construction or ordering style, if the context of your space fits the bill of a space that ought to have wireless internet, people will expect you to offer wireless internet. Whether this expectation is fair or not is, frankly, not up for debate. The fact is, if your customers arrive certain of what sort of place they are in – and you tell them they are wrong, by not having free wireless internet, or by only serving one sort of cappuccino, or by offering no blended beverages – that is not their fault. It is your fault.

I would posit that if your customers enter your space and are confused as to what sort of place they are in, this is a superior situation to them arriving, being certain of the place, and then being told that their certainty is misplaced – because it is not misplaced. We all live in the same world, and we all recognize the same patterns.

Free Wireless really gets to the heart of the Context Problem, as we have heaps of signifiers which would tell our customers “This is the kind of place with free wifi,” but no signifiers that would indicate otherwise. How can we change our contexts to remedy this?

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Innovating Context: Ordering

(This post is a part of a series on innovating retail spaces for progressive coffee shops. The original post can be found HERE)

One of the most common features we find in coffee shops, from local meeting spots to high-end uber-progressive places, is the ordering style. One waits in line, one orders at the counter, pays, then waits for their beverage to be called out.

This feature is common in a much larger context than just coffee shops; this is how Chipotle works, this is how White Castle works, this is how virtually an entire segment of the food industry operates its ordering system – and for good reason! It’s efficient, it allows for a low labor cost, and it is so familiar to American consumers that they require no signage or instruction – we see the counter, we see the style of place, we know the drill. Let’s call this order style Counter Service.

I think that as progressive coffee people, we need to break this kind of context. If we keep presenting excellent coffee in the same style and context as folks serving less-stellar coffee, we can’t expect our customers to identify the difference between these places. Selling our coffee using the Counter Service model is perhaps not presenting ourselves as well as we could. This isn’t because we have poor customer service (though we sometimes do), but rather that humans identify patterns, and the Counter Service style is so familiar, and so associated with a certain kind of product, that it is a little crazy to do battle with those expectations.

What are the alternatives?

Well, what contexts do we associate with high quality food? To me, Table Service seems to be the highest broad ordering context that I associate with quality food – a party enters, is seated, and orders from someone who comes to them, and the food is then brought to them, and cleared, and so forth.

This kind of service could behoove what I think of as a classic continental cafe; ample food offerings, beer and wine, as well as an espresso menu. The more progressive American cafe seems less interested in food offerings – at least prepared foods, as we all know scones and muffins aren’t going anywhere. Without a broad food menu, I doubt the average ticket could support that kind of labor investment.

If we want to stick to high-end coffee, and avoid extensive prepared food menus (which may or may not be the best way to go – I think good food and good coffee can coexist), what is our best move? How can we combine the low-cost of Counter Service with the more desirable context of Table Service?

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Innovating Context: Sizing

(This post is a part of a series on creating new contexts to retail coffee. See the first post here.)

Let’s think about offering different sizes of a product. Sizing is integral to some products; clothing springs to mind, as well as things like flat screen TVs. More specifically, let’s think about food and drink that comes in different sizes, and what kind of pattern sized offerings are most likely to fit within.

All food and drink that we consume come in a particular size; namely, the size that they actually are. When you order steamed asparagus, they come in a size – you just didn’t choose the size. What I’m mostly concerned with here is taking apart that choosing – what it means to the consumer and her psychology to offer a choice beyond simply “coffee” or “burger” or whatever.

It’s easy to think of things that we commonly order in different sizes; fountain sodas, french fries, ice cream, and so forth. The real question is this: in what context do you generally order a food item that you also choose the size of? We can and do buy soda without choosing a size, mostly in bottles or in sit-down restaurants. When we choose the size of a soda, we’re usually in a fast food joint or highway rest area. We can buy french fries without a size choice, but when we buy french fries WITH a size, where are we? Again, QSRs, rest areas, etc.

Our customers do not exclusively visit our establishments – we as humans like to roam around, and try different things, different places, etc. What that means is that we as humans recognize patterns and then associate outcomes with those patterns. One pattern that exists is eateries offering multiple consistent sizes of different beverages. This is incredibly common, and is a part of the larger world that we are trying to sell coffee in.

I would suggest that if we want to innovate the context in which we serve progressive coffee, we need to consider the effect that offering multiple sizes of beverages can have on our customers. When we see multiple sizes of an offering, especially multiple sizes of every offering, that reminds us, worldly though we may be, of places that are not like our progressive shops. If we want to catch our customers off-guard, to build space for them to be pleasantly surprised by our products, we need to present those products in a context that is not highly reminiscent of places serving a product with the same name (coffee) in the same way (multiple sizes, paper cup). If we sell a cup with the same name, at similar prices, in the same way as folks serving low-grade coffee, then it is irresponsible to expect our customers to spot the excellence in the cup – it’s hidden by the larger patterns at play, like small, medium and large.

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Innovating Context


“Men don’t like to step abruptly out of the security of familiar experience; they need a bridge to cross from their own experience to a new way. A revolutionary organizer must shake up the prevailing patterns of their lives.”  –  Saul Alinsky

 

At Camp Pull-a-Shot East, during one of the group discussions, a point was made that has resonated with me. That point was this; we have gotten very, very good at innovating our products. From superior sourcing and buying methods, to Grainpro, to data-logging roasts, to ever-new espresso machines and protocols to use them. Coffee today is better than it has ever been. What we are not good at is innovating the context in which we sell our new, improved products. To start thinking about innovating context, I’m going to dedicate some posts to just that topic – I don’t know how many, but hopefully more than one!

As humans, we have developed a remarkable ability to recognize patterns. We are able to intake data, interpret it, create correlations, and project those correlations onto the future, letting us create predictions from our past experience. It is easy to see how this kind of mental processing is evolutionarily advantageous. The more we experience a pattern, the stronger our association of that pattern and its correlations become. Every time you see lightning, you expect thunder to follow – it would be strange if it didn’t! By and large, these patterns are useful and informative and don’t really present many problems.

What the problem is, is that we as coffee retailers, are working against human psychology in the way that we sell our products. We are, most of us, trying to sell a unique, lovely, different product within the same context as folks selling lower-quality, less passionate, brew. It is totally reasonable for our customers to be surprised when their cup takes four minutes for a Chemex – their experience up to that moment with that pattern of experience is simple; wait in line, look at overhead menu, order coffee, immediately receive coffee. It is easy to see how this same pattern of experience extends across the spectrum; when a customer is in a grocery store, perusing the coffee offerings, what do they have to justify the higher price point of your whole bean? Their grocery store pattern (as mine, as yours) involves mostly low-cost-hunting, and a hope that you can get home before 7.

I think that the most important thing we can do is to start finding ways to break these patterns. Watch this space!

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Subway Violinists and Context

This happened in DC in 2007. The long story is here: http://goo.gl/bEQvk

The short story: a violin virtuoso (not the grinder) who had played a sold-out concert not long before, played a 45 minute set in a DC metro stop. Only one person recognized him, most folks simply carried on through their day. The folks putting this on were mostly concerned about our ability to appreciate art in our lives, etc etc.

It strikes me as a relevant metaphor for much of our progressive coffee industry; we’re trying to make something lovely within an existing context, where expectations are already set up. The music is excellent and superbly performed, but it needs to be presented in a context in which people are prepared to appreciate it.

We make good coffee. What we need to do now is make good contexts..

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