I remember when we first sat down to think about VXX’s manifesto, “quality” was a key theme that kept surfacing. From the start, we wanted to create a “quality-focused” coffee shop. The idea of “quality” isn’t new to any business, brand or industry that considers itself Special, or set apart from “the rest”. But the meaning of “quality” is more uncertain, and this was something that lurked in the background of all our discussions about the theme for my competition routine.
What does being “quality-focused” mean, and is “quality” sustainable? These questions are connected and are implicitly related to the nature of Specialty Coffee, an industry that we’d like to think we’re a part of. Specialty Coffee is supposed to be “special” but “special” to who? And how? What does “quality” mean for our customers? And how can we be sustainable as an industry where premium prices are paid – and rightfully so – for coffees that are well-produced at the farm level, but where our customers seem hesitant to pay a premium for a product at our shops where “quality” is a little more doubtful to them?
We’ve always felt that “quality” is an experience that is congruent. This is where a great product – sweet, clean coffees with great flavour and clarity – is delivered in a great setting and in a great way. This is a great experience, above all, that is consistent and repeatable.
But what else? We started thinking about how “quality” is also a commitment that has to be made at every link in the coffee chain – from farmer to roaster to barista to consumer. This is a commitment to make certain sacrifices and take some risks for what is hoped to be a good thing. At the farm, this might mean planting a less disease-resistant, less productive coffee that nonetheless offers an exceptional flavour. At the roastery, it might mean investing money in technology to help make roasting better, or spending more on good-quality green coffee. At the bar, I’m familiar with spending more money on buying great roasted coffees that I have absolute trust in, on equipment that will help make our coffees taste better, on improving myself as a barista by tasting and testing more, and spending huge amounts of time on creating processes and systems that help us simply be better at being service-professionals.
What about the consumer? This is probably the most important commitment that has to be made. As someone who works in coffee and drinks coffee from specialty coffee shops regularly, I have to commit to making a troublesome bus ride to a shop I know serves great coffee the way I like it; to paying more for a cup of coffee, even when I can make coffee at my own shop for free. This is important to me because I know this is the only way I can support businesses that share the ideals that drive Specialty Coffee forward. But this sense of commitment I have as a consumer wouldn’t be possible if quality-focused specialty coffee shops don’t prove to me that what I’m paying a premium for is, indeed, a premium product – made with passion and served well.
The sustainability of quality coffees surfaced many times in our discussions about my theme for the competition. And I think that quality coffee’s sustainability and the meaning of “quality” are intricately connected at the point where delicious coffee is delivered into the hands of a customer. Because in truth, all efforts at producing great-tasting coffee – at the farm, the roastery, the bar – mean nothing if there is no demand for it. If we want to be sustainable as an industry, we have to work at creating a continuous, increasing demand for delicious coffee.
Something we quickly discovered at VXX was that our guests were not uneducated about coffee. They were, if anything, uninterested at best, disillusioned at worst about the over-promising and under-delivering of specialty coffee shops (ours included). This is a strongly worded statement, and it’s a truth that’s uncomfortable to deal with and admit to. But I think it’s also a great opportunity for us to relook at how we’ve been doing things as an industry, and hopefully step forward with improvements. The three most important lessons I learnt through the competition:
- The extreme importance of good communication in making Specialty Coffee interesting again to our guests. This includes the design and content of our menus, the way we interact with our guests, and crucially, the words we choose when talking to our guests about our coffees. Have we gone out of our way to create a menu that’s engaging and inclusive? Or are our menus intimidating and exclusive? If we have non-coffee drinks on our menus, have we put in similar efforts at curating our coffee, as well as our non-coffee drinks? Are we as proud of our non-coffee drinks as we are of our coffees? Great communication is clear, concise, coherent, and accurate. And this is everything when it comes to managing and meeting – and hopefully, even exceeding – the expectations of our guests. One thing I struggled with during my training for competition was speaking up, out, and well. One thing I quickly and painfully realised was that miscommunication costs. In this case, it cost me on the score sheet, but in reality, this could easily mean a disgruntled, never-to-return-again customer with a bad taste in his/her mouth, literally and metaphorically speaking. Great communication is appropriate to the context, and addresses its audience well. It delivers its message and its meaning is never lost. Perhaps describing that lovely African coffee on our filter bar with words like “bergamot, jasmine buds, and citrus zest” works well when we’re communicating to our fellow baristas who come to the shop, but less so when we’re serving someone who’s unfamiliar with black coffee but who nonetheless wants to give it a go? It’s fantastic when a coffee is exactly like what’s been described and what’s expected, but the context and words of our communications are worth thinking about.
- Quality service is difficult to quantify and pin-point in execution, but the results are super tangible; its effects multiplying. Most, if not all, of us can identify what bad service is: no smiles, little eye-contact, cold, unfriendly, inattentive, etc. But what is good service? One of my favourite writers, James Hoffman, once described – and I agree – quality service as empathetic. It’s friendly, considered, and genuine. It makes you feel like you actually matter. And most importantly, it keeps customers coming back. Truthfully, I never fully understood the importance of building relationships with my guests until I started running my own shop. Every single customer that walks in represents an opportunity for us to sustain the demand for great coffee. I remember sitting down before the competition and thinking hard about what a barista is. We are coffee and service professionals, but so often, our focus is on the coffee, rather than the service; we forget that both the coffee and service are our products. During my trainings for the competition, I was forced to re-examine my demeanour at work. Changing everything about the way I carried myself was one of the hardest things I had to do. But the process made things a lot clearer for me and why it was important that I, amongst other things: made sure my hair was neat; that I don’t look frenzied at the bar; that I smiled at my judges at all times; made eye-contact; spoke clearly and at a good pace; chose the right music for my routine; wore well-ironed shirts; looked clean and tidy; stopped being jittery; and be genuine. The competition made me remember how emotionally tiring service can be, but also why I chose to build a career out of making coffee for people in the first place. I started genuinely enjoying myself on the bar during the competition itself, at a point when I least expected to “be okay”, nerves and all. But when the music turned on, I found myself actually feeling happy and thankful to be there, and it showed in everything I did. After the competition, the work we did on service and professional demeanour during our trainings and its effects became evident when my guests and friends started telling me I “look and feel different” – in a good way. These are probably my harshest critics but they felt that improvement in service; I felt it too, and it was a lot of good for everyone.
- Diversity and variety are important because they help us to move forward and grow. I learnt this lesson from the coffee I chose for my competition. This year, I competed with a coffee called Las Golondrinas, from the Apalta region of Honduras, and produced by an electrician-turned-farmer called Alex Ponce. This coffee is washed and, most shockingly, is a cultivar called Lempira. This is a local variant of the more well-known Catimor, which isn’t usually high in quality. To be honest, at the beginning, I was skeptical of how far I could go with this coffee. I remember thinking to myself, “Come on, I’ll be competing with Geishas and Ethiopian Heirloom Varieties which are going to be super fruity and floral and possibly mind-blowing. Seriously – a Catimor?” Well, I was wrong. Aslam, my coach, reminded me that it was only last year that a Panama Geisha won the World Barista Championships for the first time. I remember tasting the coffee for the first time at the shop. It was really eye-opening because I was forced to be open-minded about what was in front of me. And I think that is what diversity and variety in coffee can do. They can push you to be objective in your assessments about quality, or what you think is “good” / “delicious”. They can help you to recognise your own biases and preferences when it comes to coffee and, hopefully, address them for the better. They can show you that quality can come from the most unexpected of sources if excellence is pursued at those sources. They can lead us to be more inclusive, rather than exclusive. And this is so key to growing the demand for delicious coffees.
These 3 lessons are hard, and I’ll readily admit that I’m going to be a “Work In Progress” for a long time. If anything, the experience of competing has shown me how important it is to keep moving forward, to keep improving. And I suppose therein lies the silver lining. There’s a lot of hard work to be done in the meantime.
So, in the name of better coffee and memorable coffee experiences, I’m signing off.