December 9, 2015

Teammates or Competitors?— The Way Specialty Coffee Shops Interact


Specialty Coffee can be described as a lot of things: a craft, a science, a war, life itself. Wait, what?

Ok, Ok, “life itself” may be overreaching just a bit (maybe not for some). Either way, I wasn’t joking about the war. Third Wave coffee is engaged in a battle that, if you have been in the industry for any extended period of time, you are very aware of—that being “Good Coffee vs. Bad Coffee.”

Lee este artículo en español ¿Compañeros de Trabajo o Competidores? La forma en que las Tiendas de Café Interactuan

There are so many mixed messages concerning what each term means. To some, the “stronger” a coffee it is, the better; to others, the region itself (E.g. Columbia, Kenya, Guatemala) dictates the quality. These beliefs exist, in no small part, because many coffee companies are advertising them as truth. You can’t really blame consumers for their confusion.

May your coffee be string and your Monday be short

This popular motivational quote implies/advertises that “strong” coffee somehow means “better” coffee. Credit: @Lovesocial

How then can we, in the third wave community,  help consumers wade through competing messages and  properly educate them? There is, of course, no one perfect method; nonetheless, I would argue that the most effective practices are community and teamwork.

The War

For the most part, convincing people to drink coffee, in general, is unnecessary. It is already an internationally consumed beverage of choice. The problem is that coffee has somehow become a passive ritual. Except in countries where it is actually grown, coffee is often seen as simply the end product; rarely does one consider how it came to be the delicious “liquid gold.”

Pouring coffee

People generally only think of this… Credit: Arcade Coffee Roasters

coffee farmer

…and forget it comes from this. (Danilo Pineda: A Honduran farmer who, with the help of Verve Coffee Roasters, went from producing “commercial” coffee to “specialty.”) Credit: Verve Coffee Roasters

BUT COFFEE IS SO MUCH MORE! (I shout desperately, hoping anyone and everyone will listen.)

SEE ALSO: Managing Expectations: How to Introduce Customers to Third Wave Coffee

It is a beautiful, arduous process. A process that, much like wine, is intended to produce a drinkable fruit filled with complex flavors. A process that begins way before a consumer ever enters a café. It begins with an (often struggling) farmer who dedicates their life to producing coffee cherries that must be plucked, processed, sold, and shipped around the world for roasting. The roaster then works meticulously, testing batch after batch until he finds the perfect flavor profile.  Have you noticed that the coffee has yet to even reach a cafe?

coffee roasting

Here we have a roaster using a “tryer” to check the development of their beans. Credit: Hub Coffee Roasters

Finally, after the bean has undergone all these procedures, it reaches the hands of it’s most recognized representative— the barista.  And regarding specialty coffee, it cannot be overstated that everyone along the way is a craftsman in every sense of the word. It’s not until one begins to understand these truths, that they can truly comprehend what is meant by the terms “good” and “bad” coffee.

Enter, teamwork and community.

Teamwork and Community: Consumer Education

“What got me into coffee was the flavour, but what kept me interested and passionate enough to quit my other job…was the PEOPLE.”

– Henry Wilson, Founder of Perfect Daily Grind

I believe that quote captures the essence of specialty coffee. Community is at the heart of Third Wave. Passion is its engine.  

It goes something like this:

Barista: “Hi, what can I get for you?”

Customer: “What do you recommend for a pour over?”

Barista: “Hmm. Depends on your preferences, but I really like the Kenya. We only have it once a year.”

Customer: “What a lucky chance. I’ll try that! I’m actually visiting from out of town.”

Barista: “Wonderful! Where are you from?”

Customer: “I’m  from California. You know how it goes—can’t visit a new city without checking out the coffee scene.”

Barista: “Oh, you must try *enter coffee shop here!* They have the best *enter innovative drink here!*

*instantaneous friendship*

coffee shop conversations

A version of this customer-barista interaction literally happening. Credit:@nicoleavila21

Notice the powers at play in the conversation above: passion, community, and growth.

Very early into my specialty coffee conversion, I distinctly remember baristas talking excitedly about other coffee shops. I also remember the desire to feel what they felt—to be in the know. So, I went and visited those shops. And with each shop, the passion grew.

Now, this practice of “competitor endorsement” (for lack of better terms) is something unique to specialty coffee. One would never enter a Starbucks and be referred to another company by the staff. Yet, within Third Wave, this is common practice. And I strongly believe it should remain so.

Why? Specialty coffee is a craft. And, it is inspiring to see the different ways in which this craft is expressed. Furthermore, inspiration leads to passion which begets more passion. Or, in concern to specialty coffee, passion begets “coffee disciples.” When one comes to appreciate Third Wave Coffee, a curious phenomenon occurs in that the appreciator is almost religiously inclined to share their discovery.  This occurrence is specialty coffee’s strongest device— to motivate the consumer to do the educating for you. Because of course, education is the key to victory.

coffee lover

My most successful disciple, my brother. Within less than two years, he has gone from hating coffee altogether, to being in the process of opening up his own pop-up shop.  Credit: @espressoycrema

Teamwork and Community: Barista Education

Consumer education is not the only form of enlightenment that is necessary for the continual growth of the industry. As I stated in a previous article, “A shop is only as good as its weakest barista.” I would argue that this truth carries over on a larger scale.

Because specialty coffee is still in its stages of infancy, any shop that claims the title “specialty,” is a direct reflection on the industry as a whole. So, if a shop is doing poorly at representing Third Wave, it will cause confusion among consumers and drive them away from further purchases. Therefore, baristas should not  seek to “be the best” by withholding knowledge from one another. That would be akin to a doctor finding a cure for hangovers and keeping it a secret from all other doctors because he wants to be the “best.” Instead, they should view each other as allies working toward a common goal.

2012 Brewers Cup Champion and two-time World Barista Championship medalist, Matt Perger, is an excellent example of this concept. Obviously, he is a gifted barista. Nonetheless, instead of hoarding information, he actually strives to share as much as possible through his: blog, youtube channel, and personal website. Ultimately, barista growth means industry growth.


Matt Perger taking the time to teach coffee refraction. Credit: Matt Perger, Youtube

But, It’s a Business

Yes, the idea of “helping competitors” does seem to contradict basic business principles.  But, though advancing rapidly, specialty coffee is still a very new concept. The bulk of coffee consumers remains befuddled as to why Third Wave is better than what they’ve been drinking for generations.

Moreover, as a business, the reality is that specialty coffee is still grossly underpriced. In terms of time and effort, the similarities between coffee and wine can be clearly seen. Yet, much of society accepts the notion of spending large sums of money on “good” wine and utterly rejects the idea of a cup of coffee costing more than a sandwich. Therefore, it is in the favor of a business owner to grow the community as a whole, so that in the future, specialty coffee can be truly appreciated for what it is and profits can reflect such.

Ultimately, there is no need to be “afraid of competition.” For the time being, the presence of specialty coffee shops within close proximity of one another actually promotes growth because it creates a larger market. Perhaps that will not always be the case. Nonetheless, it is for now.

Pretentiousness: Specialty Coffee’s Greatest Enemy

If specialty coffee is at war against “bad” coffee, then “bad” coffee must be its greatest opposition, right? Wrong.

Yes, educating consumers on the differences between good and bad coffee is the greatest goal. But, “bad” coffee isn’t ALL bad. It’s given us a platform to stand on. At the very least, we only have to convince people to drink our (good) coffee. (Imagine having to create an entire market from nothing!) No, it’s those who make other people feel inferior for putting creamer in their coffee or not knowing that a macchiato isn’t 16oz that are the biggest threat.

Black coffee with milk

Most people drink coffee this way. Excluding them for doing so is counterproductive to the progress of Third Wave. Credit: @elivera21

Not knowing the process behind what makes a coffee superb, doesn’t mean someone is of inferior intelligence. And to treat them as such makes them want nothing to do with Third Wave. Did you know the terms “Hipster Coffee” or “Pretentious Coffee” are often used to describe specialty coffee? Needless to say, they are not terms of endearment. Those within the community who exude pretentiousness, are severely sabotaging its growth.

No one was born knowing how to extract espresso.  At one point, you too were likely ignorant to the world of Third Wave Coffee. I know I was. Only three years ago, I was the proud owner of a Starbucks Gold Card and I confidently identified as a knowledgeable coffee drinker because of my usual order of “Grande Caramel Macchiato, extra extra caramel, upside down.”

Ultimately, it is absolutely necessary that we encourage people to learn, not discourage them for not knowing. The best way to do so is to work together, welcoming all into our community with open arms. As Aesop so eloquently wrote, “United we stand, divided we fall.”

Edited by T. Newton.

Feature Photo Credit: @elivera21 

Perfect Daily Grind.