I started working in coffee at a little local 2.5 wave shop in 2009. Customer was king at our store. I didn’t (and still don’t) always agree with the primacy of this principle, but amiability and professionalism were cornerstones of our business. My manager was a master at the craft and being your buddy. Being snobby was out of the question. We were there to educate.
Personality is how many SMBs survive; consistency maintains a population of regulars who feed the energy and character of your store, thus attracting a steady stream of supplementary new business over time. Simply, be friendly or different and people remember you for more than your products.
Fast forward to 2011 and a new shop. Santa Cruz was a totally different realm of coffee. I knew about “barista snobs” before but the local scene was on a whole other level. Locals were indisputably good at making a cap and they made sure you knew it. I’ve seen enough frustrated customers and angry Yelp reviews to confirm the existence of a trend. This is a phenomenon across the industry.
It was clear that customers were still not used to this kind of attitude during the tail-end of Third-Wave’s golden age. Customers often expressed their angst about a rude barista down the street. Some thankfully called me out. I’ve heard some truly awful stories that would have resulted in immediate termination had I been their boss.
Baristas were synonymous with hipster-jerk. Despite a loyal fan-base who seem to thrive on snobriety, I believe it reflects poorly on a store. Rumor has it there is a store here in LA known for being as rude as possible. Seems counter intuitive but it apparently works. It’s almost seems like a badge of honor. Maybe in the age of entitlement we don’t find it necessary to be any different. But people pushed back.
“Barista rude” remains a familiar descriptor. We love them because they “know” everything. Many are masters of customer service and the product. They aren’t over the top, they understand when and how to cross the line. But like those I’ve met in the academic world, attitude tends to cover up for a lack of (or total disinterest in developing) social skills. Confidence blends with cockiness, anxiety manifests into distancing customers, sarcasm boarders being a straight-up-a-hole. I doubt it’s encouraged but it certainly doesn’t seem to be discouraged.
One counter argument is a store’s quality merits confidence. It’s sort of like “well we know and they don’t. Go to them if you want garbage. We need to let you know that ‘we know,’ because we know.” The notion that a store should only be evaluated on it’s product is ridiculous. I’ll save that for the subject of another article. Another angle is that “nice stores” are trying to make up for terrible coffee. There is some truth to this and it is certainly not limited to the coffee industry.
But come on, you’re gonna make some obscure comment (and a face) about how dumb it is to use meters instead of feet to measure coffee growing elevation on the bag of coffee I just bought? Because the stakes are a $4 cap? Your point? You’re a real connoisseur.
Be confident and educate, produce good products and good people. Now that artisan coffee is here to stay, it’s time to revisit customer service. Consumers certainly know more, a default macchiato is no longer a 16oz monstrosity. Thankfully, many shops have circled back to a model of educating rather than alienating customers. Stores like the now defunct Handsome Coffee Roasters made it a point to counter poor service. Other managers have expressed to me their disgust in the general level of unprofessionalism in the industry and work diligently to create an inclusive environment, right down to the intentionally non-industrial aesthetic of their stores. Maybe customer service is becoming “a thing” again.
Or has it?
Yesterday reminded me we have a long way to go. As I was doing my some work, I looked up to see the barista attempting to answer a customer’s questions. The customer was told flat out her choice in milk would ruin the special drink. Totally true from a technical point of view, but was it necessary to deliver it so bluntly? The barista’s frustration was no secret, so much so another was called over to confirm the unwise choice. The customer shrugged and acquiesced. A fluke perhaps. Then I witnessed it again. One store, one barista, one flaw? Probably. Or maybe we’ve all just gotten used to it. Thoughts?