Customer service in speciality coffee shops

Few topics are brooded over more in the speciality coffee industry than customer service. Faced with a potentially curious customer, the barista has to judge whether to dive into the story behind beans - does the customer care how it was processed? What altitude the trees grow? Will a tasting note like bergamot turn them away? Or is this a customer who has just flippantly asked a question and is unwilling to budge from the cappucino he has been ordering for the past fourteen years. A minefield in which the barista has to negotiate with a sensitivity that leaves the customer satisfied and the queue moving. Below, Alex Stewart reflects on some recent experiences that left him wanting more and calls for more appreciation of those who get it right.

Two anecdotes: I recently went into a coffee shop, ordered, and received my change. “There you go, son”, said the (young) woman serving. Forget for a moment that I am 32 and bearded; the epithet reminded me of the way policemen might talk to young tearaways in the 1970s. It was both kinds of inappropriate. I also remember going into a café and, making conversation having had a very good piccolo, asked the owner about the beans being served. Initially reluctant to tell me, he eventually stated they were from Small Batch, in Brighton. “Oh, Brighton”, I said, still mystified about why this information had to be prised from him. “Yes”, he said, fixing me with a withering look, “Brighton. In England.”

These two events have stuck in my mind, bemusement replacing an initial irritation. When customer service is so important, how is it that some places get it so wrong? I think the answer is found in the fact that these two examples lie at both ends of a spectrum of customer interaction for the coffee shop trade.

Cafés are often trendy, social places and coffee is a drink that attracts people who are interested in it beyond simply drinking it. The mistake made by the young woman in the first shop was taking the trendy, social aspect to its extreme, making it awkward for the customer. The flip side to that, the second example, arises from the almost arcane aspect of speciality coffee itself — this is the same attitude that says if you order a drink extra hot then you should not only be denied it, but you should be scolded (not scalded) for making such a crass error. This is coffee as snobbish and elite pastime.

Now, for what it’s worth, I would much rather the first example than the second. And, indeed, I have visited both places since and will again, because, really, a little over-familiarity or rudeness is not the end of the world. Customer service, tricky anyway, is maybe hardest in a café, a place of social intersection serving a specialist product, known at once as being kind of hip and ‘artisan’, but also incredibly and widely popular.

Perhaps the point of this is to celebrate the vast majority of places that do get it right, that maintain the integrity and skill of the coffee process while also catering for everyone, that carry off a cheery, chatty demeanour regardless of what’s thrown at them. Including grumpy coffee writers!

November 12, 2014 — Best Coffee