Coffee & business: Is death by good taste a noble death?

Last week I posted about the dilemma of anonymity for businesses, citing the example of Julian Assange at WikiLeaks. And this week, I’ve been thinking about another business dilemma, albeit on a more micro scale. And, lordy, it’s a frightfully middle class one. Anyway, darlings…

Whenever I cycle or drive home from my girlfriend’s flat in the morning, I pass a very nice little coffee shop. The staff always seem lovely, and they open earlier than anyone else in the area. The coffee is very tasty, too. However, on a few occasions I’ve asked them to make my coffee slightly hotter than they usually make it, as I like my throat to be scorched first thing in the morning. In a fairly polite way, they refused.

You see, if the milk is too hot when added to the coffee, it burns it. For a coffee purist, this is sacrilege – equivalent to cooking a £20 fillet mignon well done. And they would rather not give you anything than give you a ruined product. At this coffee shop, the same applies for decaf and iced coffee: they simply don’t do it.

One one hand, I understand them.  They believe passionately in what they do, and in doing it right. But their principles imply that the customer is not always right, and this is a bold furrow to plough. It’s also potential business suicide – if you don’t give customers what they want, you can certainly expect them to go elsewhere, especially when there are a number of other great coffee shops in the area.

Again, I’m eager to know what you think. Should a business only supply products it fully believes in, and risk a slow death by good taste? Or should they give their customers what they want?

28 responses to “Coffee & business: Is death by good taste a noble death?

  1. That is a pet hate of mine actually. The local coffee place round near me sneered at me when I asked for it to be hotter recently, so I won’t be going there again. My own personal taste has nothing to do with them. I go to a shop to buy a product I want, not to be made to feel like a philistine by some callow reverse-snob tool. If I want to have Coke with my Talisker, who cares as long as I’m paying for it?

  2. As one of the aforementioned coffee purists I whole heartedly support any shop that dares to be different, because in difference innovation flourishes.

    Wether not pandering to the crowd would be business suicide is another matter, Iced drinks and Decaf make up such a small percentage of any coffee shops sales (with the big brands omitted) that not stocking it merely provides them with less stock to go beyond its Best Before date and less eqiptment to maintain.

    On the matter of extra hot drinks, would you not prefer to taste the drink you’re paying for? When your mouth is bombarded with intense heat all it can taste is heat and bitter note, sweetness is completely lost. And would their dedication to serving a product they beleive in make you more or less inclined to visit there?

  3. The customer isn’t always right. You only have to look at the comments beneath stories on the Daily Mail website to realise that. In fact, the customer is a complete ignoramus the majority of the time – which is why they’re paying somebody to do something for them in the first place.

    As you say, there are plenty of other shops you can go to in the area if you want your milk burned. The key thing is that there are plenty of other shops in the area – this one is trying to stand out by sticking to its guns and trying to educate. It might work, it might not, but deep down, it’s another marketing ploy. And one that, I’d hazard a guess, allows them to get away with charging more for their coffee.

    To use some parallels, this coffee shop is the resort that doesn’t allow kids in; it’s the specialist food store that only serves Fairtrade or organic products; it’s the pub that won’t serve Carling alongside the real ale; it’s the tour guide who will leave the stragglers who can’t stick to a designated time behind.

    Sometimes pissing some potential customers off to make other potential customers feel special is an excellent business ploy. And if the numbers stack up, fair play to them.

  4. Wow Great blog! Only just stumbled across it.

    It’s a double edged sword. As a shop they should be offering you a product or service. If you asked for a steak at a classy establishment and asked for it to be well done, the waiter/chef might sneer, yet you would receive what you asked for a nice, char-grilled, cardboard steak.

    I can understand their concern for their high quality coffee/methodology but they should simply advise you against it not tell you what to do.

  5. I honestly don’t know where I stand on this one. However, instinctively, I’m probably slightly more in the ‘customer is always right’ camp.

    In the specific case of coffee, I actually don’t think I notice the slight degradation in taste that a hotter coffee entails. I’m not sure my palette is sophisticated enough. That said, it is sophisticated enough to know that the coffee at the shop in question is better than a chain brand.

    However, Alex and David make very strong points – especially David’s point about “pissing some potential customers off to make other potential customers feel special”. This opens another, related question: is it better to have lots of OK customers or a small amount of brilliant ones.

    Anyway, thanks for the comments. A heated (sorry) debate indeed!

  6. My thoughts on the matter are clearly outlined here: http://www.tropicalsaloon.com/?p=39 , and probably most acutely evident in the most recent venture I’ve partaken in, as outlined here: http://youngandfoodish.com/coffee/penny-u-a-london-shrine-to-filter-coffee/ .

    And for the record, it’s my opinion that the cafe you’re referring to is probably the friendliest, cheeriest, most helpful and pleasant cafe in London, all the while maintaining an incredible level of quality and consistency.

  7. Well they sound like a bunch of fools to me. If you want hot coffee they should give it to you.
    In simple commodities like this the customer is always right.
    Indeed they are behaving like a big firm – our way or the highway – get a kettle in the office is my advise

    • Coffee at the shop I suspect in question is not treated as a commodity product, it’s treated in the same way (As Benji puts it) a fine peice of meat at a restaurant would be treated, with the goal of extolling the best flavours of the coffee into the cup and the best experiance possible for the customer.

      The customer that sees coffee as just coffee is no not the customer this kind of shop caters toward, more the customer who enjoys the nuance of the blend/bean.

  8. A thought provoking article indeed.

    I suspect that if you went to any of the “…number of other great coffee shops in the area.” then you would be met with the same suggestion.

    Businesses should only promote and supply products they believe in.

    Sometimes what a client asks for and what they actually want are two very different things.

    I know of a number of people who used to like piping hot coffee (as that is the standard at some establishments), and once introduced to the cooler temperatures (in the 60-65c range) they enjoyed their coffee more

  9. I wholeheartedly agree with them. I became a bit of a (espresso-based) coffee snob living in Melbourne, and one of the first things I learned about was the temperature of the milk. I can tell straight away when a coffee is too hot, just by touching the mug, and I know it will taste burnt.

    Sometimes the customer needs to trust that the experts know what they’re talking about. Why should they compromise their quality? I imagine it would go over about as well at a vineyard if you told them you like ice cubes in your wine.

  10. A few points here, and I may as well get the nerdiest stuff out of the way first:

    It isn’t that the hot milk burns the coffee – it is that above 68C milk undergoes a permanent change (much in the same way an egg undergoes a permanent change above that temperature). The proteins in the milk start to fall apart and new and unpleasant flavours are created. There is an eggy unpleasantness that is reminiscent of baby sick. This is made worse by the fact that the higher temperature makes the natural sweetness of the milk all but imperceptible.

    The customer isn’t always right – and I say this thinking of myself as a customer. Our inflated sense of entitlement has reduced much of what is retailed to the lowest common denominator.

    There are a growing number of businesses who are trying to do a limited number of things extremely well, rather than trying to do absolutely everything to please absolutely everyone.

    In this case this shop is focusing on a small range of drinks, and some delicious food. They put a lot of work into the coffee because – and this is an important point: not all coffee is created equal.

    It can, and often is a commodity product, but it can be so much more. It can be remarkably tasty – but this requires work, interest and skill. It works – as you remarked the drinks were tasty.

    We understand that we can’t go into any restaurant and ask for anything we want, and that there are some restaurants that won’t compromise what they do. We understand this because we accept a stratification of quality in food.

    Many are skeptical about the same stratification, the same possibilities in coffee – and for good reason: good coffee is incredibly hard to find. You know it when you find it though.

    What is intolerable is poor service. If a business doesn’t provide something you’re looking for then fair enough, but they shouldn’t ever make you feel stupid or awkward as a result. They should offer you what they have that you might like, or they should help you find somewhere that will provide you with what you need. That way everyone is happy.

  11. Thanks for the clarification on the milk James! You learn something new everyday…

    Furthermore…I think it’s refreshing to know that there are still businesses out there that don’t bow down to the mighty dollar (pound) and that principles and ideals still matter. One could argue that they’d be “selling out” if they sold you a hotter coffee.

  12. James’ last point, about service, is the most crucial of the lot, methinks… but also suggests a paradox…

    I’m not sure it is possible for a barista – or, indeed, anyone who is serving a product- to question a customer’s taste or judgement without making them feel at least a tiny bit stupid and/or awkward.

    Unfortunately, this is the slightly unpleasant and inevitable consequence of guarding standards at all costs, regardless of whether any offence is intended (which, at the shop in question, I’m certain it isn’t).

    • I think the key differentiation in the “no” is whether it is coming from the business or from the person.

      “I won’t heat your milk hotter” is different to “Our shop’s policy is not to overheat milk.” Less personal, less unpleasant. Again – this needs to be coupled with what you can do, what the shop can offer.

  13. I guess I don’t understand why it has to be either/or. I mean, what are they selling? Coffee? Or an education in the ‘best’ way to drink coffee?
    Presumably most people on here would reply ‘both’.
    If it’s both, why not let the coffee purists enjoy their lukewarm brew, and let the small minority of those that like a more scalding coffee enjoy it their way? Wouldn’t that mean the place enjoyed a rep as a place that catered for both coffee aficionados and the hopelessly caffeine uncouth? Or would the coffee purists start boycotting the place for reneging on their coffee principles and (loved this point) selling out?
    I mean, I’m an adult. I’m very able to take on board all this (albeit very interesting) information about milk temperatures on board, and still reach the decision independently that I prefer my coffee hotter.

  14. For some coffee is an art form, just as music is. I wouldn’t email LCD Soundsystem and ask them to make track 2 on their latest album faster. The Fat duck isn’t going to rustle up a KFC because you ask.

    The ‘any way you want it brigade’ is Starbucks and Costa. I think individual gourmet coffee places have a right to produce it how they want it and customers are customers or non-customers. Choice is on both sides of the equation.

    Elitism is the same in everything, it can be deeply annoying when they won’t move 1 cm to accommodate a personal preference.

  15. Excellent article.
    I know exactly what you mean, but the other option is e.g. ‘train-station’ coffee which is hotter than the sun, and takes like nothing.
    But yeah: not warm coffee in annoyingly shaped cups really annoys me.
    Next time you go in: ask them to warm your cup up.

  16. Personally I would have asked you to leave as soon as you asked for milk in your coffee ;)

    This reminds me of the Spotted Dog in the East End. The publican there would always give a 5 minute lecture on why you should drink real ale whenever you ordered a lager.

    I like real ale but occasionally I like to drink lager. His lectures on my poor taste always annoyed me. BTW The Spotted Dog went out of business.

    Having said that perhaps the best approach for the cafe would be to serve you your coffee as you like it – whilst politely explaining that it would actually taste better at a cooler temp.

    • This exemplifies what James said earlier about the manner in which the refusal is garnered. Saying it’s against the company policy to do so is polite, lecturing someone as to why their choice is inferior is not.

      Though his execution was tactless and blunt, the fact that someone has a passion they are willing to stick to is admirable.

  17. Taste, customer service and product aside for one moment. Benji and I were talking about this the other day… say you ordered 3 coffees a week from your local coffee shop, that’s roughly £300 a year spent in one shop on coffee. You decide to take your business elsewhere for whatever reason. Can small businesses take economic dents like this?

    Only some. Only the really fuckin great ones, TOBL is one of these fuckin great ones.

  18. Every business needs its point of difference and its position in its market place. Brave businesses stick by their principles and turn business away rather than compromise those principles. However they have to be sure they have a big enough demand from people who share, and are willing to pay, for those principles or they will soon be out of business.

    I admire this business for knowing what they are good at and sticking to it. Too often I’ve come across businesses that say yes to every customer request/demand and end up not knowing who or what they are. If they don’t know how can the rest of us?

    I agree that it’s the way that the refusal is phrased that is paramount but I hate the hiding behind company policy, it smacks of the ‘jobs worth’ brigade. I think it’s a question of personal responsibility, ‘I’m sorry I can’t do that because… the coffee won’t taste good.’ I believe that with training and practice it is possible to refuse a customer request without belittling the customer. Of course there’ll always be the odd one….

  19. At this stage, it’s probably worth noting that my penchant for hot coffee almost certainly isn’t going to stop me visiting this shop, which says something, somehow, I think.

  20. I think that at the heart of this discussion, amongst others, is the horrible phrase “The customer is always right”.

    Who coined this term? It must’ve been a customer, because in 12 years of customer service, I’ve almost never heard a restaurant/cafe/kitchen manager (that I have a measure of professional respect for- and Pizza Hut) actually use that phrase in a serious context.
    It’s more a misinterpretation of the axiom, phrased in various ways by various people, but the spirit is always the same: that a customer must always be made to feel that their concerns/request has been carefully considered and that any refusal to comply is done sympathetically, politely and with good reason. Perhaps a little wordy, so some customer simply condensed it, missing-out on what it is supposed to mean.

  21. OK, scratch the “and Pizza Hut” bit from my last comment. Forgot to delete that.
    I once worked in a Pizza Hut, and I heard that phrase used there.

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  23. Interesting point from Seth Godin here – arguably it underlines this discussion Choosing your customers

  24. I’m intrigued – what coffee shop is this? I’m no coffee connoisseur but would love to check out places others recommend so highly.

  25. I would love visiting a place like this because it would push me to expand my knowledge and taste. I have a tendency to be hard-headed about what I like, but when it comes to trying something new and taking suggestions I am always open to it. A business like this could survive if they have a base clientele that agrees with their business practices. For the customers that do not return it is a win-win situation– they can find a cafe that will serve them what they want and this coffee shop can continue to practice what it believes. Speaking of coffee, I am going to get a cup right now.

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