August 31, 2012

My Education Platform

A lot of bandwidth is spent discussing how we should "educate" customers - or for that matter, whether we should at all. There are multiple schools of thought here, with valid arguments to each. Basically, my thoughts come down to this: Tell them what they want to know, no more, and try not to seem like a condescending jerk.

The trick to that, of course, is to bait them in to wanting to know more. Assuming that bribery is out of the question, how do we foster this?

First of all, let's return to that thing about not being a condescending jerk. When a customer asks how you drew that leafy thing on their latte, or why a regular macchiato is nothing like Starbucks' famous caramel drizzled version, answer directly, simply, and politely. Don't take it as an opportunity to mock them, or as the set-up to your punchline. Trust me, I know it can be tempting, but no one wants to be the victim of a barista's bad stand up routine.

This also means that we shouldn't answer questions that aren't asked, or volunteer too much information. Lecturing someone for ordering a vanilla cappuccino when they really wanted a vanilla latte is not a good look, and only serves to perpetuate the "barista as asshole" archetype.

In both of these cases, whether it be "stupid" questions or incorrect ordering, we should first look to our menus. Is their enough information for customers to know what they're ordering? Is it clean, clear, and legible? If not, we're only widening the communication gap, and forcing these awkward exchanges to take place.

Menu boards can also be used to foster conversation, and thus more comfortable questioning, by including what I affectionally call random crap. It's something I've adopted recently, and the results have been fun. What's more, it's incredibly easy to do: Take a chalkboard, and write some sort of trivia (either as a statement or question) on it, either coffee related or not. At best, you can use this to seamlessly insert bits of coffee knowledge in to the customer's experience and strike up a conversation; at worst, it's merely ignored.

Finally, as always, we have to have good product. No one will - or should - treat you as a valid resource on coffee if you can't make good coffee.

August 27, 2012

No Such Thing as a Free Coffee

He walked up 15 minutes before close, wearing khaki shorts and a dinosaur t-shirt, a bit wrinkled, a bit sloppy. He twitched a bit and avoided eye contact, then declared that he had "a weird question." You can't expect everything, so it's better to expect nothing, which is what I did. Empty mind, nothing would surprise me, because I probably had heard it before. And even if I hadn't, whatever. Having the authority to make decisions without checking in with a headset first has its perks.

"Since you guys close soon, can I have the coffee you're going to throw away?"

I didn't say anything, because he had managed to surprise me. Weird, he had said, but gone with downright awkward instead. My face must have betrayed something, however, because his facial tremors increased, and he mumbled something I couldn't understand.

Though I may have appeared offended (probably, I appeared offended), my mood sat somewhere between confused and contemplative. He had put me in a difficult position, where I had to choose between being a pushover, and potentially going down the slippery slope that always comes with free shit, or being an overly-stern prick.

"Well?" He asked. "Can I?"

Wanting it over with, and for him to stop quivering, I said yes, whatever. Have a cup.

And he did, saying nothing.

It's later now, but my hindsight hasn't yet focused to 20/20. In fact, I'm still very unsure about how that sort of thing should be handled.

I will give things away, after close, to regular customers. But to someone I had never seen before? And who asked? No one asks for free coffee. Not one person I've ever served anyway, and that includes a few regular homeless customers who always insisted on paying. Just on principle, you don't ask.

But what is principle worth, really? And who was hurt by it? The coffee was simply going down the sink; better someone drink it, whether they pay or not. Perhaps the request lacked a certain tact, but there was no harm in it.

I'm at a loss. Perhaps you can help, however. When, if ever, is it okay to request free coffee? Was this such a time? How would you have handled this, or a similar situation? If you'd be so kind, I'd appreciate your thoughts.

August 24, 2012

Tall Tale

Change never happens with an iota of the circumstance you imagine. There is no music, no fireworks, and very often, no feelings. You notice only how much you're not noticing, the collective sound of the world keeping on keeping on, not caring, silent like a big cosmic Buddha.

I erased the chalkboard today. Not all of it, mind you, not even most. But some. And I even made changes, rather than simply giving a fresh coat to the old words. 

I changed "dopio" to "doppio" fixing the misspelling that had been a running joke for years. Similarly, "con panne" was corrected to "con panna". The manager that had written the menu originally did not speak Italian, clearly, and had not bothered to check the spellings. The result was occasionally a stern correction, but more often it was simple jest. But it's fixed now, if for no other reason than I hate looking quite that dumb. 

But that was minor, small errors on a small section of the menu most people never look at. The sizes were bigger - excuse me, grande. We, like so many others, aped Starbucks (which was aping some imagined Italian ideal) in our cup-size names: Tall, Grande, and Venti. People made the usual jokes, asked the usual questions, and wondered sometimes why we didn't give the usual corrections. We allowed orders to be small, even encouraged it. Now the chalkboard does too. Finally - and I only wonder why not sooner - we've lost that linguistic albatross, and taken the intuitive approach. 

A new era!

No one noticed; or at least, no one mentioned noticing. The same things happened, with the same people, and it all felt like a favorite sitcom episode, making drinks where everyone knows your name, and you're oh so glad they came. It was as cozy as some imaginary pie cooling on the family quilt in a window next to a crackling fire, only more so, because it was real, and espresso is better than pie. 

The imagined occasion felt a momentous millisecond, and it was all gone, totally and beautifully irrelevant forever. You can change the words, but a coffee by any other name still tastes as sweet.

August 19, 2012

Truvia Review

In my ideal world, there would be an endless supply of Japanese sweet potatoes, almond butter, and Broadway's Yirgacheffe. I would have a VO2 max of 90, David Rudisha's stride mechanics, and Killian Jornet's climbing legs. I would work in a shop where everyone tipped, appreciated espresso, and didn't demand sweeteners. 

But that is utopia, and utopia is not reality. In reality, I have to pay for groceries, my stride is awkwardly loopy, and people do want to sweeten their coffee. Those first two things are neither here nor there (I've devoted too many words to my legs flailing already), however - this is about sweetness. 

Or rather, it's about a certain sweetener: Truvia, which sent me some of its product to try. 

Although, to be honest, I'm not trying Truvia for the first time. It and I actually go back several years, to a time I cynically refer to as my "get ripped or die trying" period. I pounded weights, treadmills (how this whole running thing got started, actually), protein shakes, and all sorts of pills with dubious claims. 

I also sweetened a great deal of my food (never my coffee, however), to make up for the fact that much of what I was eating barely deserved the title. My sweetener of choice was Truvia, because unlike most other (Splenda, Sweet 'n Low, Purevia, etc.) packets, it contained no dextrose or maltodextrin, two starches processed to the point that they're metabolized like sugar. 

This is, to me, still a decided positive. Truvia's ingredient list reads as follows: Erythritol, Rebiana, Natural Flavors. Erythritol is a sugar alcohol, and passes through the body, unabsorbed. (This means that Truvia, despite what the box says, is basically non caloric.) Interestingly, there is also evidence that it might be good for dental health. Rebiana is stevia extract, which gives Truvia its name. There is a rather massive body of research on the health effects of stevia, and its safety, but I won't go in to it. Suffice it to say, unlike sucralose and aspartame - which are, at best, not actively dangerous - stevia might do some good things for you. Natural flavors are... something. 

On taste, it's important to note that, since both erythritol and stevia exist naturally, they've not been created to simulate the taste of sugar. Some find erythritol to have a slight mint taste to it, and stevia has been compared to licorice, and called slightly metallic by its detractors. Together (and along with "natural flavors"), the blend masks those stronger flavor notes, and the taste reads as rather directly sweet, with only a tiny hint of mintiness left over. 

In coffee, I'd been told that the resulting flavor is similar to sugar, and all other assorted artificial choices. Still, I had to investigate, and so I recruited some people I know, and a decent amount of customers. Some could tell a difference, but with the exception of one Splenda fanatic, no one found the difference substantial. That is, no one thought Truvia tasted significantly better or worse than the other options. It sweetened the coffee, and not much else. 

That, I think, is what people wanted, provided they wanted their coffee sweet at all. Since I don't, my tasting impressions were tempered somewhat. I found it similar in sweetness and flavor (not much besides sweet) to other packets, although not the sort of thing I'd use myself. 

To be axiomatic, this is the sort of thing that people who like this sort of thing will like. If they're looking to avoid calories, don't trust artificial sweeteners, and still want to sweeten their coffee, this is probably the best choice out there. 

August 15, 2012

Stay for the Goats

Boulder, CO, is something of a mecca for endurance enthusiasts. Trail runners in particular know of the Flatirons, and Green Mountain. This is trail with steady vertical, technical descents, and yet water fountains at the bottom. You get all the pleasure of immersing one's self in the mountains, without worrying about packing anything.

That was what I had hoped to find, in any case. The reality was the most difficult 15 mile run I can recall, my hips and calves protesting the climbs, my quads and knees complaining on the descents. But it felt good to have done it, and I suffered no ill effects. 

Good thing, because after a day of relatively easy exercise, I attempted a somewhat aggressive ascent of Quandary Peak. Popularly considered one of Colorado's easiest 14,000 ft peaks, there was still plenty of scrambling, and 20% (and steeper) grade to slog up. I harbored an unspoken desire to summit in less than 2 hours, but the scenery distracted me too often, and there was simply too much to enjoy. It's hard to press onward when a family of mountain goats idles by, the kids glancing at you curiously, the parents not the slightest bit interested. And so, with a sweat nonetheless broken, I stood at the top in 2 hours and 5 minutes - as best I can tell, a respectable effort. 

This is the part were I would post pictures, if I had them, which I don't. No matter, because a two-dimensional image wouldn't give any real perspective on the experience. Ascending, gasping, and finally, summiting, is a collective sensation that cannot be had, and so it must be chased. That, of course, is why people do it. They go back, higher and faster, because they must. It's a high you earn with burning quads and parched lips.

(I know I said I wouldn't, but here is a picture of me with the goats. There were probably 10 more of them, and seriously, just look. They're beautiful.)

This being a coffee blog, I would be remiss if I omitted a mention of the coffee I've encountered. Although, truth be told, there hasn't been much worth noting. I've consumed too much Starbucks, simply because my hotel has it, and too little local brew. Still, I did manage to stumble upon The Laughing Goat in Boulder, a shop with a moody, almost macabre aesthetic, kombucha, quinoa bars, almond milk, and rich, cocoa laden espresso. It was dry, slightly sweet, and without that lemony acid tang that permeates so many shots. 

Still, this trip was not about the coffee. (Nor, for that matter, was it about the food. I've had a lot of vegetables, potatoes, and various takes on rice and beans. In all seriousness, I can't imagine a more pleasing menu.) I came to see some extended family, and spend more time with my parents and brother. And of course, I came for the mountains, for rocks, dirt, biting air and burning lungs. The goats, laughing and otherwise, were just a bonus. 

August 7, 2012

Inspiration and Work

I am not, and never have been, particularly fast. And yet I run, as fast as I can manage, quite often. Sometimes, but rarely, I win; but more often, I finish somewhere in the top ten, filling the gap between the lead and mid pack. And so it is that I watch these Olympics with something that might be called jealousy, but is really more like awe. From Usain Bolt uncoiling his sinew over 100 meters, to Mo Farah prancing on his forefoot over 10,000, I, like millions of others, marvel.

What they do is not fundamentally different than what I do. And yet the results are staggering, different by such a magnitude as to be incomprehensible. When I run, there is a lilt to my stride, my hips swaying and dipping, my legs spinning out at awkward angles. If they are poetry in motion, then I am chicken scratched prose. They are Beckett; I am, well, not.

This is not self deprecation. But it is not depressing either. Perhaps I, the 37 minute 10K runner, should look at Farah, and throw my shoes in the garbage. After all, no amount of aspiration or training could get me close to the B-standard for the women's qualifying race. So why bother? Why spend hours on a treadmill set to mountain-esque inclines, when you will never be Max King?

Why? Because I'm somewhat masochistic and in need of other hobbies? Probably. But also because greatness, while it intimidates, also inspires. I watch those races, to inhale the drama, and to see what is possible. I read blogs of runners faster than me, logging mileage and hammering workouts that would hobble me, and yet feel better about my efforts.

This is also why I have, since I started working in a coffee bar five years ago, searched out every latte art video I could find, read every treatise on customer service, roasting times, origin countries, and brewing methods. I've streamed competitions and read reports, subscribed to Barista Magazine and interviewed James Hoffmann.

Running is simple, and ultimately, fair. And that's what I like about it. It rewards effort, and the person who finishes first, wins. There is little room for bullshit, and you can't fake your way to success. 26.2 miles doesn't care who you are or what you think it owes you. It only demands that you put one foot in front of the other, keep working, keep moving forward.

Coffee, I've found, has a similarly egalitarian bent. (And better yet for me, it requires no athleticism.) You read about what people who are good do, watch them work, and study everything you can. But mostly, you put the work in yourself. There is no faking it. Good training helps immensely, but until you've been baptized by countless rushes, you just don't know. But, as with running, you keep working, and you keep moving forward. It doesn't always get easier; but you always get better.

August 5, 2012

A Truce

So this is a thing, and I'm entirely too late in responding to it. That I'm choosing to do so does not imply any illusions of grandeur on my part, nor does it attempt to refute or preempt the litany of other responses out there.

In case you're unaware, the thing I'm referring to is the personal blog of Ben Leventhal, on which he penned his "Coffee Shop Rules of Engagement". As Ben is a fairly big deal in the online foody world, and his blog is duly trafficked, the whole thing blew up pretty quick. In short, a lot of people in coffee decided that he was being a bitchy rich guy, dismissed his gripes out of hand, and returned to their convictions, more steadfast than ever.

But I think we're missing the point here, if only by just a little, and that's why I want to write something.

Ben's title is instructive: "Coffee Shop Rules of Engagement". This is confrontational language, and though tongue in cheek, the tone pervades everything that follows. We, the coffee people, have a thing Ben wants. The task is to get it as easily as possible, with as little personal interaction as possible. We are, in short, the thing standing between him and his coffee.

Baristas, it needs to be said, are often as likely to view customers in an adversarial light. We like work, sure, but we don't always like to work. The customers are the thing foisting this load upon us, taxing and stressing us. We want it to end, and so we want them to go away, and to be done with the whole thing.

Now, looking past the title, Ben's post seeks to find how we might alleviate some of these obstacles. Maybe we don't always love each other, but we can work together to make it somewhat less painful. You get your coffee, I get to lean against this counter like so, and oh my god, did you hear how he pronounced Yirgacheffe?

Allow me insert my own opinion now: If this is really the best we can aim for, well, I need to find something else to do. An assembly line is not my ideal, and I don't think it is for my customers either. 

This isn't to say that I or any other barista should "be annoying", or that we shouldn't bust our asses during a rush. That is our job, after all, the job we choose to do. We're not doing this for the money, clearly, so if we are choosing a life in the service industry, we should strive for quality service. That means making good drinks, as quickly and efficiently as possible.

What I am saying is that, perhaps, we need to rethink the relationship here. Customers, on behalf of baristas everywhere, we like you. Because of you, we get genuine social interaction, and an occupation that we genuinely enjoy. We never have to hate going to work, so thanks for that.

And you, I think, like your baristas. We make the coffee for you, making your morning easier, tastier, and we hope, more pleasant. Maybe you even like us as people, but if not, that's cool too. We're happy to move you along efficiently, coffee in hand.

We are not the thing in between you and your coffee; we are the facilitators. We make it possible. And you are not the thing in between us and enjoying our day. We really do like making drinks, and getting to do so for a living. It's pretty awesome.

I hope this doesn't sound too much like a call for us all to hold hands around the campfire and sing. People have bad days, and I get that. Shit happens, and every once in a while, genuinely shitty people happen too, on both sides of the counter. But in the end, we're sharing an experience, and it's up to us whether it's a pleasant one or not. I think we can choose better.

August 2, 2012

Juggling, Best Left to Clowns

I was at the grocery store yesterday, holding two pears, looking at something called blk. It looked like a black bottle of water, but was, in fact, a clear bottle containing black water. (As an aside, I did in fact buy the water, because I'm prone to impulsive beverage purchases. It tasted like water, no better, no worse. Maybe the fulvic acid did something cool, but I don't feel superhuman yet.) I wondered if this was some sports supplement for paramilitary mercenary groups, and then if anyone would get that reference. I decided that a few people would, but maybe not, and ultimately, that it was getting written anyway.

Then I decided to attempt to juggle the pears. Yes, it was only two, and yes, I'm still calling it juggling. Or an attempt, at least. More accurately, I tossed them inches in the air, missed, and dropped both of them. I looked around, saw no one, grabbed the bottle, the pears, and sauntered off. I did not drop anything else that night.

But this morning? This morning, I managed to splash my crotch with espresso, soy milk, and chocolate syrup. And no, I didn't spill a soy mocha on myself, these were three separate incidents. I knocked over a cup that had only espresso on it, sloshed a newly open half gallon of soy milk (and very nearly dropping the whole thing), and somehow, missed the cup altogether while squirting chocolate syrup in that general direction.

All of this happened because, as demonstrated with the pears, I suck at juggling. Don't get my wrong, I trust myself on the machine during the busiest of rushes, and despite those mishaps, every drink got out on time, and on point. People complimented me, tipped me, and took pictures of the latte art with their smart phones. But I do make mistakes, and when I do, it's because I try and do too many things at once, rather than one at a time.

The lesson here is a simple one, but easily forgotten in the chaos of a morning rush: Do one thing. When that is done, do the next thing. Do this, and you make progress faster, and better. Your drink quality will improve, and you'll waste less product. Oh, and you'll save on laundry as well.