July 16, 2015

Should We Allow Customers to Dictate How Coffee Is Served?


“Which customer ordered the extra hot skinny Ethiopian Albino? Extra hot skinny Ethiopian Albino? Oh, here you go.”

“Thanks, mate.”

“You’re welcome.”

You’ve just read a word-for-word excerpt from a barista serving drinks in a café. But what does that drinks order even mean? Let’s break it down:

Extra hot: the milk has been steamed past its recommended temperature—a health and safety issue for baristas who risk being scalded, regardless of the effect on the coffee’s flavour.

Skinny: skim, skimmed, 2%, whatever you want to call it—it’s reduced fat milk.

Ethiopian: a Glena Abaya from Ethiopia happened to be the origin coffee on rotation that day.

Albino: a cappuccino without chocolate. There’s an argument that this is just a latte/flat white (which is exactly what I’ve always made any customer who ordered this). Yet some customers insist that there’s a difference so crucial that to offer them a latte holds the same weight as Brazil losing the world cup final on home turf. And since “cappuccino with no chocolate” is difficult to fit on a takeaway lid, someone came up with the wildly inappropriate shorthand, albino.

Spanish Version: ¿Debemos Permitir Que los Clientes Nos Dicten Cómo Servir el Café?

If this were an isolated incident, it might be funny. Yet this isn’t. Every day across Australia, baristas receive orders that read like a projection of a customer’s struggle to define themselves through their coffee. Some of the orders I’ve had thrown my way include: a skinny ¾ full piccolo with chocolate on top, a double ristretto extra hot cappuccino in a glass, and a ¼ strength extra hot flat white with no foam and chocolate on top. I’m not kidding.

extra hot milk in coffee

Extra hot – If you’re a barista, this photograph just made you a die a little inside

So why don’t customers simply order black coffee or white coffee? Is the difference between a flat white and a latte so stark that it warrants slamming someone’s business on Beanhunter? Well, I guess your opinion depends on whether you’re a consumer or a barista.

The customer’s point of view:

Some consumers might feel their desires aren’t being catered to, despite it seeming—to them—like a simple request. It might be their one daily reprieve from the stress of work, the one chance to have something just as they would like it.

The barista’s point of view:

Baristas can feel belittled by patrons demanding orders that are contrary to what will actually bring out the best possible flavours. On top of that, these overly complex orders often come during high volume, high stress periods. When you’ve got seventy orders up, trying to fit “extra hot half full cream half soy cappuccino with no froth and chocolate” on top of a take away lid just doesn’t help.

Why Have Coffee Orders Become a Battleground?

There are a number of hypotheses out there. One is that the third wave of coffee is a cross-generational minefield. For me, the third wave happened almost overnight. I’d worked in cafés before, but nobody talked about processing or cared where beans were from. Then suddenly filter gear was everywhere and there were new roasters every week.

Oceanside coffee

Filter coffee is the essence of the third wave. If only it were everyone’s cup
of joe. Barista – Nick Frost. Credit: Instagram @timjcoffee 

Anyone who’d come to rely on coffee as a way to get through the day suddenly experienced what a former colleague called: “an army of upstarts rabbiting on about first crack when all I want is my cappuccino”. Whereas once coffee was always piping hot, suddenly it’s served warm. A cappuccino no longer had a mountain of froth on top of it, but instead looked like a flat white with a swan made of chocolate dust. Old habits die hard, and so these overly complex orders could be seen as an attempt to recreate an old, beloved drink.

“Waiter, there’s a swan in my coffee!” Latte art has become a symbol of Third Wave coffee. Barista’s like Jai Lott (left, Bluestone Lane) and Lily Woi (right, Little Boat Espresso/Allpress) have both become internationally renowned for their latte art. Credit: Instagram @timjcoffee 

Baristas might recommend newer coffees to the older generation of customers, but the problem is that, in Australia, making coffee has never been a particularly respected occupation. Baristas were seen as slightly more skilled wait staff, there to take orders and make the customer happy for as long as it took the barista to graduate university. Now, with the high volume handled, the increasingly technical equipment (like refractometers, which shine laser beams through coffee), and the desire of many baristas to know as much about coffee as possible, this attitude is changing and baristas are beginning to be respected as experts. Yet, to some of the older generation of coffee drinkers, they’re still students who care more about tequila shots than espresso coffee. So why should they listen to their coffee recommendations?


A refractometer in action – I could explain this in detail or just tell you that a laser is involved. If you’re keen to know more, check out this blog. Shot at Dovetail on Overend. Credit: Instagram @timjcoffee 

SEE ALSO: What Should You Do if a Customer Wants Bad Coffee?

So What Can Baristas Do?

One approach is to calmly and respectfully (professionally, even) draw a line in the sand—no, we don’t serve coffee extra hot; no, we will not mix soy milk and skim milk together or half decaf and half today’s La Esmerelda Gesha. Why? Because this coffee was grown in a very special place and has a unique and delicious flavour we’d love for you to enjoy. There may be other cafés that will cater to your particular request, but it’d mean a lot to us if you gave this a try.

Every professional faces challenges, but the nature of professionalism demands that we find ways to resolve them. We need to ask, has the rise of third wave coffee outpaced the consumer’s ability (or willingness) to appreciate it? Are specialty coffee venues providing the kind of service needed to help consumers move away from old standards? Is the customer always right? Does a barista have the right to refuse customer modifications?

Have any hypotheses of your own or think this article’s deserving of a share? If you’re a customer or working in coffee, we’d like to invite you to share your views with us via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and Reddit (coming soon).

Edited by N. Bhatt

Feature Photo Credit: Wolfpack Coffee

Perfect Daily Grind.

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