Customer Focused or Barista Focused?

the business of coffee houses

Customer Focused or Barista Focused?

Postby onocoffee on Fri Nov 17, 2006 7:01 am

Was out to dinner last night with a good friend who tours the country visiting coffee shops. As we were shooting the shit about life, coffee, business and the business of life in coffee he brought up an interesting subject. He noted that some shops he visits are "Barista Focused" in that the baristas do their thing and engage in conversation amongst themselves with the customer being secondary. For example, two baristas are discussing a topic between themselves when a customer comes to the counter. The customer is then forced to wait while the baristas finish their discussing before he/she is served.

On the other hand, the Customer Focused shop may have two baristas engaged in a discussion but once a customer comes to the counter, that discussion is suspended mid-sentence and the focus is directed to customer immediately.

Something to consider is that these are all quality-oriented shops and some of the shops he mentioned that were Barista Focused are notable shops in our community, so it's not a question of espresso quality but rather of company focus. He gave New York City's Ninth Street Espresso as an example of the Customer Focused shop because the baristas direct their focus and energies to the customer at all times - and even in the situation where Ninth Street's baristas were engaged in discussion, the focus remained with customer.

So, Third Wave Community - where does your company fit in? Customer Focused or Barista Focused?
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Postby )on on Fri Nov 17, 2006 9:16 am

Not sure if this fits here, but found this great article on MbPW, managing by pouring water... seems to have a lot to say for owners and managers about being customer focused while focusing necessary attention on staff.

From a customer's point of view, I sometimes like walking in on a conversation, I always like being included in the conversation, I never like feeling as though there's something going on that I'm not invited into.
Last edited by )on on Fri Nov 17, 2006 9:20 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Postby Deferio on Fri Nov 17, 2006 9:19 am

Customer focused...
this does not require you to compromise coffee quality. It only requires that you be a professional and remember who you are there for in the first place.
Without the customer who would you serve coffee too? So then is makes sense to be customer focused and remain "third wave".
-cd
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Postby Jason Haeger on Fri Nov 17, 2006 11:10 am

Deferio wrote:Customer focused...
this does not require you to compromise coffee quality. It only requires that you be a professional and remember who you are there for in the first place.
Without the customer who would you serve coffee too? So then is makes sense to be customer focused and remain "third wave".
-cd

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Postby onocoffee on Fri Nov 17, 2006 11:14 am

Deferio wrote:Customer focused...
this does not require you to compromise coffee quality. It only requires that you be a professional and remember who you are there for in the first place.
Without the customer who would you serve coffee too? So then is makes sense to be customer focused and remain "third wave".
-cd


I do not disagree, Defurious. However, as I noted in the original post, a number of the Barista Focused shops my friend mentioned are considered on the vanguard of Third Wave. Perhaps there's an argument to be made that Barista Focused is "Third Wave."
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Postby Jeff Givens on Fri Nov 17, 2006 11:35 am

onocoffee wrote:Perhaps there's an argument to be made that Barista Focused is "Third Wave."


If that's the case (not that I believe it is), then count me out.

This conversation reminds me of the time that I went into a "high-end" audio store and the owner and his underling spent their time debating esoteric details of some tube amplifier while I stood there cooling my heels. I was prepared to lay down some decent change on equipment but I got so disgusted that I left. I guess I didn't look the part. Needless to say, I never returned and they lost a sale.

Last time I checked, that shrine to audiophiledom had left and is now a massage parlor. I'll bet they make their rent!
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Postby Richard Hartnell on Fri Nov 17, 2006 11:51 am

Unless I perceive wrongly, the common theme I hear regarding the Third Wave is that we are "letting the coffee speak for itself." First and foremost, our job is to preserve the perfection in the bean (assuming that we are serving the best available coffees).

I am a card-carrying craftsperson, as are many other members here. This implies a level of training and focus that - let's face it - is still a shock to the majority of consumers. Very few people really believe that anyone *would* join a barista's guild. I mean, it's "just coffee," right?

As such, the gap between the customer and the barista remains vast. Although coffee has the possibility of a more complex biography than wine, very few people will walk into a coffee shop and say, "Serve me the coffee you can't shut up about this week." The fact remains that many people still have yet to understand the nuances of drip-versus-espresso. And the horrified look given by any vintner who sells a $100 bottle of wine to a sangria manufacturer is a death's knell to a barista if it's ever fired the way of a large skim triple-flavor mocha with whip.

I mean, we are the bosses. We know, as artisan coffee makers, that the customer is not always right when it comes to banging out a shot that will knock your socks off. So I think I'd be on the side of suggesting that a Third Wave coffee house would be "barista-focused," but here's where I'd differ:

You can have a barista-focused shop and still avoid being a jerk. Think about it this way: if you went to a gourmet chef's personal restaurant, you'd be there for the chef. But if the server treated you as some uneducated hick just because you don't know as much about cooking, you'd likely not return. However, you would also be met with (polite) hesitation if you were to demand that your five-star chef tried the famous meal with Egg Beaters.

To me, this is about striking a balance between maintaining dignity as baristas while still realizing that our craft exists within the service industry - crafting ambiance is as important (sometimes moreso) than being able to pull the same knockout shot every time. However, while the customer affects the ambiance, at few (if any) points is the customer in charge of creating it.
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Re: Customer Focused or Barista Focused?

Postby Rich Westerfield on Fri Nov 17, 2006 12:07 pm

onocoffee wrote:He noted that some shops he visits are "Barista Focused" in that the baristas do their thing and engage in conversation amongst themselves with the customer being secondary. For example, two baristas are discussing a topic between themselves when a customer comes to the counter. The customer is then forced to wait while the baristas finish their discussing before he/she is served.


Jay,

I object to your use of "Barista Focused" to describe the second of the two conditions noted in the above quote. Ignoring the customer is simply poor customer service from poor employees and has nothing to do with whether the staff are baristi or not.

However, as co-owner, in the former case, where two baristi are "doing their thing" and having a conversation while filling the customer's order, I don't see anything wrong with that - provided they're not making fun of the customer's "halfcaf halfvanillahalfsugarfreehazelnut soy extrafoam 167 degrees" order while said customer is waiting two feet away. And that nobody else in line is being ignored.

When I go into a coffeehouse and place an order, I'm encouraged when I hear the staff talking about coffee amongst themselves. That makes me think they care.

Unfortunately, that never happens in this town.
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Re: Customer Focused or Barista Focused?

Postby Marshall on Fri Nov 17, 2006 1:01 pm

onocoffee wrote:Was out to dinner last night with a good friend who tours the country visiting coffee shops. As we were shooting the shit about life, coffee, business and the business of life in coffee he brought up an interesting subject. He noted that some shops he visits are "Barista Focused" in that the baristas do their thing and engage in conversation amongst themselves with the customer being secondary. For example, two baristas are discussing a topic between themselves when a customer comes to the counter. The customer is then forced to wait while the baristas finish their discussing before he/she is served.


Any barista, waiter, doctor or lawyer who thinks their skills are so rarified that they don't owe common courtesy to their customers, patients or clients should think about another line of work.

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Re: Customer Focused or Barista Focused?

Postby Richard Hartnell on Fri Nov 17, 2006 1:40 pm

Marshall wrote:
onocoffee wrote:Was out to dinner last night with a good friend who tours the country visiting coffee shops. As we were shooting the shit about life, coffee, business and the business of life in coffee he brought up an interesting subject. He noted that some shops he visits are "Barista Focused" in that the baristas do their thing and engage in conversation amongst themselves with the customer being secondary. For example, two baristas are discussing a topic between themselves when a customer comes to the counter. The customer is then forced to wait while the baristas finish their discussing before he/she is served.


Any barista, waiter, doctor or lawyer who thinks their skills are so rarified that they don't owe common courtesy to their customers, patients or clients should think about another line of work.

Marshall


Well played.

I do think, however, that the artisan coffee industry has some work to do on figuring out what "common courtesy" is for our customers. Obviously the above example is a no-brainer. But where do we fudge the rules of "the customer is always right?"
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Postby bz on Fri Nov 17, 2006 10:12 pm

Perhaps there's an argument to be made that Barista Focused is "Third Wave."


i've made such an argument. not to bash anybody or to tear down any system, but to note what seems to be the paramount irony of the movement -- promoting the coffee has veered toward promoting the person who promotes the coffee.

i see this in the way people act toward outsiders at coffee conventions and competitions, the way they respond to forum questions and pander for kudos, the way they write and blog and deliver podcasts, etc. incredibly valuable insights (and not so valuable insights) are, more than ever, shared in such a way that builds insider capital for the individual. this is especially true of a community that's largely internet driven.

i mean, seriously. how many of the monster egos here regularly rub you the wrong way? i see it as a collateral annoyance that i'm more than happy to put up with to share the community and the knowledge.

still, someone said recently: somewhere on the internet, there's a forum to make almost anyone seem wise.
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Postby Goatherd on Fri Nov 17, 2006 10:53 pm

Barista-focused or customer-focused...either/or? Sounds like a false dichotomy. Sometimes called a logical bifurcation.
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Postby bz on Fri Nov 17, 2006 11:46 pm

without coffee, you have no barista. and yet, the perversion of the third-wave gospel is that the cart increasingly gets put before the horse -- at least in my observation. the vessel is made more important than the cargo. many times, anyway. i can think of exceptions.

that's not a false dichotomy, though i think i understand what you're saying. i would agree that, yes, the barista and the coffee should both be important. they're not mutually exclusive -- indeed, they're most complementary. but to focus (your word) on both doesn't seem possible. you focus on what's most important.

and if you could focus on two things at once, it stands to reason that the barista focus would necessarily dilute the available focus for the coffee. there's only a finite amount of focus.

it's all about the coffee, is what i'm sayin'. the coffee needs a boat, it needs a farmer, it needs a barista -- all components that should be nurtured and lauded. but none of those things should share the same status as the coffee itself. yet our american-style barista worship threatens to do just that, i fear.

'twould doom us to irrelevance and inward-looking absorbtion. recognizing one's proper place in the schematic would actually seem to be a better path of self-preservation.
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Postby Richard Hartnell on Fri Nov 17, 2006 11:52 pm

And bz trumps us all.

A third-wave shop is obviously "coffee focused."
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Postby bz on Fri Nov 17, 2006 11:55 pm

hmmm, sorry. not trying to trump anybody. just thinking out loud in an admittedly verbose fashion.

if i read jay correctly, he's saying that some third-wave coffee shops DO appear, in fact, more barista focused. just because someone makes great coffee doesn't make him coffee focused ... right?
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Re: Customer Focused or Barista Focused?

Postby onocoffee on Sat Nov 18, 2006 4:08 am

PaniniGuy wrote:I object to your use of "Barista Focused" to describe the second of the two conditions noted in the above quote. Ignoring the customer is simply poor customer service from poor employees and has nothing to do with whether the staff are baristi or not.

...

When I go into a coffeehouse and place an order, I'm encouraged when I hear the staff talking about coffee amongst themselves. That makes me think they care.

Unfortunately, that never happens in this town.


If ignoring customers and placing your own (as an employee) conversation a priority over immediately attending to a customer is "poor customer service from poor employees" then can we presume that the management/owner encourages this behaviour because it continues unabated?

One of the interesting things about my conversation with this friend was that he was discussing truly Third Wave shops. The focus on either Customer or Barista was separate of coffee quality. All the shops he discussed were shops most, if not all, of us here on Coffeed know as Third Wave shops.

Even the shops whose baristas made customers wait while finishing their conversation served great espresso...
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Postby Shannon Hudgens on Sat Nov 18, 2006 7:12 am

... he was discussing truly Third Wave shops. The focus on either Customer or Barista was separate of coffee quality.


Then that would imply the Third Wave the "B" and "C" focused attitudes are unrelated. If neither makes you a better barista (from a technical standpoint) and neither furthers the cause of quality coffee then it becomes a matter of customer service.

Now, will I or won't I serve espresso in a paper cup? Will I make a breveccino with blackberry & chocolate syrup? Those kinds of customer service questions I think are valid for a Third Wave shop because they impinge on the mandate we have been given (given ourselves). Will I or won't I greet my customers in a timely fashion when they walk up? That's just bad form.
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Postby Rich Westerfield on Sat Nov 18, 2006 7:25 am

Shannon wrote:Will I make a breveccino with blackberry & chocolate syrup?


Breveccino?

Shit. Haven't had that one called yet.

But you know what. 30 years ago back in college we used to do an instant coffee/instant cocoa/blackberry brandy combination to suck down at soccer and hockey games. It was life sustaining.
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Postby Jeff Givens on Sat Nov 18, 2006 12:53 pm

Some of my best memories and experiences associated with coffee weren't necessarily the best coffees I've had. Enjoying coffee is a full sensory experience, not just one of taste. To my mind, a place can be totally coffee-oriented and serve an exquisite cup, but if I'm left feeling like the staff could care less about me as a customer, I won't return. Not only that, but I'll let others know what kind of shop it is.

When you come into a shop, you want to feel welcome, not like an intruder into someone else's private party. A shop that has an elitist attitude only furthers the negative perception that some people already have about specialty coffee.
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Postby James Hoffmann on Sun Nov 19, 2006 6:38 am

What I love about truly great waiting staff in great restaurants is that most of the time they somehow manage to be extremely efficient and almost invisible at the same time. As the customer it is up to you how much you wish to involve them in the dining process. When they are required to they can talk at length about the dishes, some can suggest wine to compliment food, and yet when you are deep in conversation you barely notice them clearing plates, refilling glasses (appropriately) etc etc...

So when visiting a coffee shop I don't see why it should be any different. Often I really don't want much interaction, I just want my coffee and to go and sit and talk to a friend or to read the paper. However, I don't want to go somewhere that I can't interact with the baristas especially if I want to know more about the coffee. Its just a question of paying attention to your customers I guess. Most, if not all, will give some fairly tell tale signs of how they wish to interact with you (if at all), be it eye contact, responsiveness to a welcome and simple body language. I hate being harassed unnecessarily (something clothing stores seem particularly capable of), and certainly early in the morning pre-caffeine I have zero tolerance for small talk, but it is just about striking a balance. Not too hard to do, if we accept that the barista can't just be thinking about coffee all the time.
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Postby Robert Goble on Sun Nov 19, 2006 7:06 am

James Hoffmann wrote:What I love about truly great waiting staff in great restaurants is that most of the time they somehow manage to be extremely efficient and almost invisible at the same time....

So when visiting a coffee shop I don't see why it should be any different...

I guess that depends on what you want in a cafe experience. In what ways does or should the cafe experience be different than a restaurant?

In what ways does an English pub differ?

Complain about your barman finishing a conversation before serving you a pint or requiring him to drop everything and talk to you about the magical qualities of Fuller's ESB would get your sorry ass tossed out on the street.

In a continental cafe you will certainly have different expectations and levels of service as well. My experience on the continent has never been what I'd call "customer focused".

I think the dichotomy is false here as well. "Either or" just doesn't account for the multiplicity of experiences. If we threw down some ideas we'd probably build a dozen or more familiar yet quite different cafe models.
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Postby onocoffee on Sun Nov 19, 2006 7:25 am

The question here isn't about the experience of Fuller ESB at the local pub but rather about the focus of your own shops. Is one necessarily "bad"? That depends on your viewpoint. It's the viewpoint that I'm interested in understanding.

I've been to a number of shops my friend related and I can see his viewpoint - many of the shops offer top-quality coffee served by technicially proficient baristas, but it's the variences in focus (or customer service, as one participate put it) where the shops diverged.

Some shops did as they pleased, regardless of the customer. Others maintained a Holy-er Than Thou attitude where "the coffee" was everything. And others dropped everything to attend to the customer. Whether or not any of these are "bad" is one of your personal philosophy. Many we know on this board ascribe to the "coffee at all costs" theory.

One thing I want to note is that this thread isn't about trying to get everyone to conform to some sort of "Third Wave Manifesto" or stupid "Third Wave Code of Conduct." To me, it's the diversity of the group that makes it infinitely interesting. So if you're the kind of shop that puts its' customers second to the barista - recognize and celebrate that fact!
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Postby bz on Sun Nov 19, 2006 11:09 am

So if you're the kind of shop that puts its customers second to the barista - recognize and celebrate that fact!


a legit approach. still, i stated earlier a belief that doing so would doom a business to irrelevance and inward-looking absorbtion. this is because most consumers i know -- no matter how discerning -- wouldn't be very loyal to such a place.

you might be able to turn a profit or celebrate your coolness. but to influence culture? spread the specialty gospel? have a lasting impact on consumers? you have to meet them where they are.

any missionary could tell you this.

obviously, some cafes want to be more like pubs -- serve the locals, offer a cozy niche to insiders. that's cool. but it seems like most people in this forum espouse values much grander than that.

edit: it's NOT an either-or proposition. a pubby place can be world-changing. i'm just offering the notion that to change the world, you have to go to it. not have it come to you.

i apologize if this seems too arrogant and self-assured. i mean to be confident about a philosophy -- but not about myself. (which is the approach i'm arguing for in this thread: be sure of the prize (coffee), not of yourself. this precludes barista worship!)
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Postby Brett Hanson on Sun Nov 19, 2006 8:51 pm

onocoffee wrote:The question here isn't about the experience of Fuller ESB at the local pub but rather about the focus of your own shops. Is one necessarily "bad"? That depends on your viewpoint. It's the viewpoint that I'm interested in understanding.

Some shops did as they pleased, regardless of the customer. Others maintained a Holy-er Than Thou attitude where "the coffee" was everything. And others dropped everything to attend to the customer. Whether or not any of these are "bad" is one of your personal philosophy. Many we know on this board ascribe to the "coffee at all costs" theory.


As a mildly-informed customer (prior to the firehose of information I've received upon entering a career in coffee), my sole focus was on the customer interaction. Maybe this only happens in Seatown where there is a stratification of cafe environments, but I tended to prefer "barista focused" shops. Nobody puts a detailed flyer on their counter describing the farms where their espresso is grown, the washing process(es), the bean ratios, the particular roast date/time/temp/curve, the shipping method and time, the freshness of the beans out of the 5lb bag etc, so the only cues I had to go on were the coffee passion of the folks behind the counter and what I found in the cup.

I preferred shops where the baristi didn't pay me much attention at all. I wanted someone who would take my money, maybe linger long enough to watch me fumble something into the tip jar and then let me move to the end of the bar where I could watch the grind dose tamp steam symphony in the hopes of learning something for my silvia. In fact, one of my favorite early coffee memories was of Perkengruven (RIP), where the baristi were barista-focused to the point of shutting down noob customers- there was a sign clearly reading "Line Forms Here" next to the fb70, yet noobs would line up next to the cash register to place their order; being a regular (and an avid rule-follower) I would stand under the sign, place my order, pick up my drink, and pay the cashier who would tell the people waiting to "get in line".

Is "barista focused" better? As a customer speaking for myself, I would say yes. But you have to keep in mind that there are only so many me's out there. I question if this choice of focus will work outside of towns where there is a type of cafe for literally every single personality type.

This might be a relevant counter question- what percentage of your customer bases are coffee geeks? I would think that the preference for "barista focused" would correlate strongly with the proportion of coffee geeks in your customer base.
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Postby Matthew P. Williams on Sun Nov 19, 2006 11:10 pm

James Hoffmann wrote:What I love about truly great waiting staff in great restaurants is that most of the time they somehow manage to be extremely efficient and almost invisible at the same time. As the customer it is up to you how much you wish to involve them in the dining process. When they are required to they can talk at length about the dishes, some can suggest wine to compliment food, and yet when you are deep in conversation you barely notice them clearing plates, refilling glasses (appropriately) etc etc...


This falls in line with David Schomer's customer service philosophy.

Somewhere, there is a more unified article written by Schomer on customer service, but this gives you an idea.

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