From time to time, I, like many others, default to the web when I want to find a new restaurant. Generally, I rely on word of mouth or the advice of friends. If I don’t know anyone or haven’t heard anything about shops in the area, I will differ from my routine and rely on the internet for a suggestion. Most of the time, I use Yelp. Overall, I am a big fan; although I do not always agree with the shop “rating” criteria as a whole, Yelp steers me towards good things. Usually.
Coffee is fickle, shops are fickle, and even more so, coffee reviews are beyond fickle. What one person finds appalling may be another’s reason for going to a shop, some people’s praise could be others disappointment, and what a few people find valuable and unique may go over the heads of most. That being said, you should always take sites like these with a grain of salt. I hope my readers take me with a few pounds of it. They are indispensable tools for knowing what’s out there, but my best advice is when you can, get that advice from those you trust.
I only want to meditate on a few examples so as not to become a broken record. This whole thing started when I visited a store here in LA. Though I had heard some mixed reviews, online sources indicated that it was solid. But, the shop fell extremely short of my expectations, both in it’s representation of itself as an “artisan” “local” establishment and the general quality of the product (which was exceedingly expensive for what I got). I thought about it; how would I rate this store if I were on Yelp? Was it fair to spitefully give it a one? No, I should be as fair as possible and give them an honest a review for what it is; a passe establishment trying to jump on the coffee trend offering decent products and doing a fine job. Some people are not so forgiving.
Let’s look at Lulu Carpenter’s at the Octagon in Santa Cruz, CA. All in all, it is a fine shop. No shop is without problems, though issues here may be more overtly pronounced than others. Their rating is a mere 3.5/5. Not so good.They have recieved a number of high marks, 5’s and 4’s, but they are plagued with a huge amount of 1’s to round out their score. After doing a little digging, I found that many of the low reviews focus on very specific grievances: no electric outlets and frustrating internet policies. Both of these problems have been rectified, despite the bad reviews. Yes, coffee shop reviews will and should not only reflect the product but the shop’s atmosphere and amenities. They are why many of us choose certain places rather than make coffee at home. But should these issues be weighted so heavily? To have the product overshadowed by lack of wi-fi? Digging deeper, I noticed that only a few of these low scores are concerned with the product quality. Most are fixated on whether or not the manager is an (explicit) or if one is able to sit down during a busy rush (in addition to the aforementioned issues). I can’t sit despite business, 1; I can’t get a foamy cap, 1; the wi-fi policy is confusing, 1. Does this justify the lowest score possible?
Handsome Roaster’s in Los Angeles is even more a susceptible to this volatile rating system. If you have ever visited the shop, it is easy to see the level of care that has gone into designing and maintaining the space, not to mention, the product speaks for itself. Their coffee is incredible, hands down. Handsome also only has a 3.5/5 star rating on Yelp. Why? Some commented on the “overly hipster” vibe (note: if you are interested in a debate over this point, please read the full Handsome Roasters article. They have a strict policy regarding customer service, it is outstanding). Most complain about the fact they do not provide sugar, syrups, or anything to accompany their coffee. Look, I will be very blunt, if you want a fou-fou coffee drink, don’t go here; they are purists and they excel at it. There are plenty of decent places you can get a coffee-esq beverage and load it with sugar, nothing wrong with that. Yet, people go to Handsome, have an expectation, are met with disappointment, and give them bad buzz because they don’t “do things normally.” People tell me they LOVE coffee, and I can see why having at least sugar and creamer would be a contentious point. But, is it the end of the world? Well Handsome LOVES coffee, reveres it, embodies it, and they are doing the very best. I can’t go shopping because everything is too far away, 1; I can’t get a frappe and everyone serves those, 1; I need sugar; 1. Because they aren’t “normal,” they should receive bad publicity?
Then, I come to the chains. Not to call anyone out specifically, but I have visited many “local” chains with mixed reviews and positive reviews with Yelp’s encouragement. They were mediocre at best. But, I do not blame stores for being something I am not a huge fan of; they are fine at what they do, but they aren’t for me. My issue is when people start to call places like this “the best coffee” despite their at times total disregard for quality, literacy, and options. And, I am not even talking about Starbux, I can always rely on them for coffee-ish drinks. Yet, many “average” or even “bad” stores do receive favorable reviews, overshadowing smaller stores and those that do not follow normative coffee trends. Not that all “artisan” shops are good. Why? Because they carry orange and chocolate syrup? Because they will let me complain about not having gluten free juice in their case? Because they are consistently average every time? Or maybe because artisan shops shoot themselves in the foot by being too trendy or elitist? I don’t know.
Regarding all this, I am only irked at good shops getting poor reviews and average shops getting good reviews over websites like Yelp because patrons think their words are the be all end all. The score is set in stone, evidence enough to stay away from certain shops, and the way people utilize this system can be detrimental. Is there a way to prevent this? No, other than trying everything out for yourself. But who has time?
In coffee, people are looking for this or expect that. That’s totally OK; I encourage everyone to find what works for them. My problem is with people rating shops poorly because it isn’t what they expect, out of spite, or because one small (or apparently huge to some) egregious issue black-marks an otherwise very good shop. That isn’t fair, but that is life. The fact is many people, including myself, use sites like Yelp to feel out good places. Seeing negative feedback, at a glance, deters us. Just like a bad resume; you see something unfavorable within about 6 seconds, you move on. I try my best to read reviews thoroughly and see why stores get certain marks. In reality, we are all more likely to just give up and visit a place that has favorable averages. Point is, scores do matter to some degree, even if we don’t actually follow the system.
Bottom line: please be responsible and conscious in your rating of shops. You’re review is always appreciated and helps many, so please be reasonable with how you evaluate any establishment. Readers, please give everyone a chance. Look a little deeper, try a little trial and error, and you might find your gem.
The mission of my site has always been to represent coffee shops as objectively as possible. I hope that people will, from time to time, take these recommendations seriously and visit the shop for themselves. I want this site to be a relatively reliable source for “good” coffee. If all I could do with this article (and site) is encourage people to approach coffee a little more openly and give good people a little business, I am content.
I am sure I have not told you anything you didn’t already know. Happy hunting.