American Idol’s Randy Jackson Speaks to the Coffee Industry

American Idol’s Randy Jackson Speaks to the Coffee Industry


I love what Randy Jackson (yes, American Idol’s Randy Jackson) said to a season 13 competitor while giving advice on how to improve and better connect with the audience, “Music is a serious thing in here, for you (pointing to his heart), but to the public it’s pure enjoyment!

It took a second after I heard it to grasp what he said, but as soon as it did I paused my DVR. “That’s it!” I told my wife, “That is exactly how I feel about the coffee industry.” I then explained to her what that meant to me.

I’ve seen too many baristas who think the customer cares about how serious it is for them (the barista). The customer doesn’t care. All they want is to taste the great coffee and enjoy the final product; the pure enjoyment of what the barista passionately creates, along with the other important aspects of a coffeeshop.”

Should baristas take their job seriously? Of course. But, does the customer take it seriously? No. To them it is “just coffee”. I’ve never heard a customer ask a barista to explain his or her selection and grading process for the flour used in a muffin. Not one. The customer just wants a great muffin, enjoyed with a great coffee, in a great environment.

I think this mindset is true in many industries. I know my wife says it’s the same for her as an author, but it really hit home for me in the coffee industry. I loved what Randy said and it succinctly captured what has rattled around in my brain for years.

It also shows that the same issue hampers a musician as it might a barista. When I buy a CD or download an MP3, I don’t care which microphone was used, what new technology the recording studio has or the vocal techniques of the artist. I just want to hit ‘play’ and hear great music. It’s the same for my author wife. None of her readers care about how she wrote the book, the research that went into it or the editorial process. They just want to read and enjoy a great book.

What is important to my staff and me in running a great business is not what the customer cares about. They only care about the results of that passion. And I see that passion in today’s coffee industry and the crowd of young baristas…and it’s awesome. I haven’t always seen it. I’ve owned a shop for over 20 years and can tell you very little of it existed 20 years ago, if at all. But I now employ, and over the last number of years have employed, many young men and women who say, “I want to make coffee my career”. They care deeply about making great coffee and all the variables that affect the final cup. It’s really amazing and I think it’s quite new and unique in the coffee world.

But, and here is my balance, many of those same people are young, inexperienced and find their sense of self worth in knowing a lot about coffee, caring about the cause of coffee and having a passion for something they can excel at. That’s not bad. I love the passion, I love the hard work and the vision some of these baristas have, but I think it’s important to bring it back to this; it’s not all about the coffee, it’s all about the customer. Without a customer all we have is a hobby. That’s fine if you want to drink coffee with your friends or discuss the intricacies of your favorite brew method with peers, but for owners, for those who need to long term make a business and a profit from coffee, it’s all about the customer.

And to me, this is where the opportunity lies. Bringing together business savvy and coffee passion. I think it is important that those of us who are older, who have more life and business experience, who understand the importance of a solid P&L and balance sheet, embrace these young passionate baristas as much as we can. Not only is it important, I think it is our opportunity and responsibility to do so. First, because it is important to ‘give back': second, let’s face it, it’s good for business; and third, it’s good for the coffee industry as a whole. And if it’s good for the coffee industry, it will be good for us today, and even more so in the future!

And for the young passionate barista who wants to make coffee a career, remember that excellent customer relations is even more important than excellent coffee and your bosses ability to trust you in everything you do makes you the most valuable employee…and the most likely to have opportunities both from within and without your employer’s business.

Things such as:

  • Follow your passion for coffee…but remember your passion is meant to be a gift to others in the expression of a well-made coffee beverage. Your passion is for you to explore. The results are for your customer to enjoy.
  • Keep learning more about the industry…and remember that customers (and other employees) don’t care how much you know, but they do want to know that you care about them.
  • Share your knowledge with others in the industry…and raise the quality in the coffee industry in general.
  • Learn about more than just coffee; be eager to learn about all aspects of business success.
  • Continue to challenge yourself…and let the results show up in the smiles of your customers. As Dr. Illy said, (speaking of the perfect espresso or cappuccino) “everything must be perfect…look into the eyes of the consumer, look to their smile…if they smile they’ll come back“.

If you are a barista and you would let me speak directly to you I’d say – “Don’t give up on your passion. Keep pressing in to learn all you can about coffee, the industry, growing coffee, processing coffee, preparing coffee, equipment developments, customer service, and more. Make yourself more and more valuable to those you work for and more and more opportunities will come your way. But remember, when you are behind the bar all the customer wants is pure enjoyment.

If you are a business owner, a roaster, supplier or educator in the industry I say, “Lead well. Teach your baristas, your staff and those you have an opportunity to influence that we must work as a team, that excellence is our advantage, that we win or lose together and serving others is the best way to advance.”


As a final note I want to touch on something I am sure at least one barista is thinking…and ready to hit “post a comment” and yell at me about; “But Jack, I have customers who ask about how I…make an espresso, brew a coffee, where I get my beans, etc. You mean I can’t share my passion and knowledge with them?

Yes you can, but think about it this way:

  1. Answer when asked, but don’t think of your job as the ‘educator of the customer’.
  2. Less is more. Answer briefly  and then ‘get back to work’. Let your answer speak the loudest through the beverage you serve the customer.
  3. If you look at percentages, my guess is less than 1% of coffeeshop customers ask questions about coffee preparations. Of that 1%, probably 80% of them are baristas from other shops who heard about your shop and mad skills and want to learn. The other 20% are home coffee geeks wanting to be able to execute better at home.

So, out of 1,000 customers, 8 off-shift baristas and 2 home coffee geeks ask a question. And 990 customers just want a great cup of coffee, espresso or cappuccino.


  1. Jack,
    I couldn’t agree with you more. I have been roasting and serving coffee for over 30 years. At first I was almost insulted when a customer didn’t want to know everthing coffee. After all, I worked hard to bring in great coffee, to care enough to roast it before most people even knew coffee was roasted, and to serve it with a smile. After all, coffee the second largest commodity in the world. It has depth, not just in flavor but it’s history. There is a hugh process to get that coffee in your cup. I figured the more people knew about it the more they would appreciate our efforts…..
    I couldn’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to learn more about coffee.
    Well flash forward 30 years and this is what I understand now. People who visit our cafes just want a good cup of coffee. Very few care how it got there. They just want to get in and out. If we were a block off the beaten path, a lot of our customers would just find another coffee shop. Maybe sad but true.
    But what I tell my employees is to learn all things coffee. They should understand the efforts we take to serve great coffee. They should know about the roasting procees, the nuances of coffee. Why some coffees are good and why some coffees are great.
    Lose your ego and learn, and when a customer comes in for a coffee just smile and give them what they want. That in itself is the reward. A little tip helps too!

  2. There are some great points here. I 100% agree that the customer is the ultimate focus of my business, and that people are more important than the coffee. But I also think people are desperate for meaning. It’s part of why baristas become invested so heavily in their sense of identity in coffee, and it’s also why people connect so intensely with their favorite cafés. I am currently at TED in British Columbia and these incredibly brilliant and powerful and BUSY people are all interested in why we’re here. “Why would you take a week off of work to come here and make us coffee?!” I actually firmly believe that people care about the details and want to be able to connect more intimately with the product their consuming and the people who serve it to them. Those people are the reasons I get up every day and go to work. Do they care to hear me give a lecture about coffee processing and sorting? No! But do they care about tasting delicious coffees side-by-side while they endure my rambling. Absolutely. I think you need to give people more credit than to say the ultimately aren’t interested and don’t care and only want the finished product. I haven’t been around 20 years, but I’ve owned a cafe for 2 and have been a barista for 7. The people are my favorite part. But the people I make coffee for get so excited to see me excited, and vice versa. We have one of the trendy EK43 grinders, and blah blah blah, and not only has is VASTLY changed the style (and increased the speed) of our bar flow, , but also the quality and consistency of our espresso. But it ultimately also makes a FANTASTIC conversation piece while someone waits for their cup of joe. Does that all make sense?

  3. lee:

    I don’t disagree that some people ( especially people at a TED conference) find all things coffee interesting… because it is interesting.
    Most of us stay in the coffee industry because the of people we meet and the community we can create. Coffee houses goes back hundreds of years. Very interesting people are drawn to cafes.
    I’m talking about the everyday person who is on their way to work and just wants a muffin and a cup of Joe.

  4. Sanford, I wrote and deleted a bunch of stuff…multiple times, but I still simply stand by my post – people don’t care. They don’t care how their car was fixed, just that it runs. They don’t care how the internet in their home was fixed, they just care that it works. They don’t care how the beer was made, just that it tastes good.

    And to answer the question, “Why would you take a week off of work to come here and make us coffee?!” Could it be good business?? (and a fun, adventurous, opportunity marketing to “powerful and brilliant” people, and oh and by the way “WHAT, you served Sting a cup of Guatemalan CODECH Coop and he loved it?? Holy Crap!!”). Do you think Bunn sent Rusty there because Bunn wants Rusty to “find meaning in coffee” or because it is good business? (BTW, I love Rusty, he’s great!!). What group of people from ANY meeting wouldn’t love great coffee at their event?? Don’t mistake the fact that TED people are happy cause they get great coffee with the fact they actually care about great coffee. 80% of Americans drink coffee…it’s kinda hard to miss the target. And even if they would never spend $5 on a cup of coffee, they’ll gladly take one from you and smile and ask questions and be interested…for 5 minutes.

    Lastly, you said “people are my favorite part” and that is exactly my point. And that is probably why you are still in business after 2 years in spite of the fact as you said, they “endure your ramblings and lectures” and your grinder is a “fantastic conversation piece”. You care and they can sense it, and if you get them their drink faster all the better!
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