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:
- Answer when asked, but don’t think of your job as the ‘educator of the customer’.
- Less is more. Answer briefly and then ‘get back to work’. Let your answer speak the loudest through the beverage you serve the customer.
- 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.