I’ve always tongue-in-cheek referred to my apartment as being a bit of an exclusive cafe experience – slinging the best EKspresso in town but it wasn’t until a few months ago when I got back from Japan and set up my Tinder profile to explicitly invite new customers that I started to get some real guests in off the street.
I’ve had a lot of fun with the project because nearly every single interaction with my guests has started with “I don’t really like coffee but...” and ended with “Wow, wow wow, this espresso is amazing can I have another one please?” so let’s talk about that.
The Expectation/Reality Gap
We have a situation in the coffee industry where we spend most of our time catering for people who already like coffee in whatever form it takes. They’re not averse to bitterness, not averse to dirty flavours in their cup and not averse to dark roasted wet hulled Sumatran mud-in-a-bucket. That their coffee sometimes tastes nice is probably a pleasant surprise but they probably don’t come to the shop because the coffee tastes nice – they come to the shop because they’re on the way to work or the barista is very handsome/pretty and they’ve got a crush on them or their fancy latte art.
That’s great – they pay the bills I guess but they pay the bills only to a certain price point because we’re competing with the Costa or Starbucks around the corner on their terms and racing to the bottom on price and there is only so much we can get away with before these people go there instead because really they’re happy with any old cuppa so long as it wakes them up enough that they can walk into that 9am meeting that somebody thought was a good idea and resist the urge to flip the table and set the place on fire the first time somebody offers to “take the discussion offline”.
These customers are pretty rubbish really and yet we constantly cater for them with the most middle-of-the-road coffees we can find at the prices we can afford to sell them at whilst telling ourselves that because we serve a higher quality product people will somehow notice this and come and buy the good stuff off us instead.
These customers are also rubbish because they ask for things like macchiatos out of habit and dump three sugars in their espresso even though it’s going to make it taste like soap and you’ve warned them it’s going to taste like soap but they’re the customer and they know best and they’re going to put three sugars in their espresso without tasting it because you’ve told them that it’s “coffee” and they know how they like to drink their coffee so shut up already because you’re the barista and you’ve got a warped view of the world.
Yes I have worked in Germany thanks for asking – I know all about the real world and have had to watch customers do things to their drinks that I know is going to give them a bad experience (and give me nightmares) and there is nothing I can do about it because those customers who have always liked coffee are the worst customers and catering for them is the worst thing for our collective sanity.
Gaining New Custom
The problem is that the middle of the road garbage we’re pumping out for the people who already have a preconceived notion of what coffee is at the price point we’re having to do that at isn’t ever going to change anybody’s minds if they don’t like coffee already. It’s not different enough to stand out as anything other than coffee and they’re unlikely to really enjoy it unless it has 8oz of whole milk dumped over it and at that point why bother anyway?
I don’t do middle of the road garbage at Cafe Ashton, I typically buy coffee that I want to drink and that people already familiar with coffee would drink and respond with “That doesn’t taste like coffee” – in a shop this is dangerous territory because if you’re offering coffee and then serving something that doesn’t taste like coffee you’re going to get some upset old men on your case (especially in Glasgow).
I get that, but what it does mean is that my guests who don’t like coffee (which is most of them) tend to be given neat EKspresso and instantly get floored by the sweet and sticky fruity goodness. “Why don’t coffee shops serve this?” they ask again and again and then I have to go into that tired old spiel about dishing out fruity Kenyan espresso is going to be upsetting a lot of people because it doesn’t taste like coffee and the good stuff is too expensive to be doing that with anyway at the price point that people expect and blah blah and so on.
Obviously at the conferences that we run with Tame Baristas we’re able to reset expectations because the coffee is free and we’re able to give an intro to every person as they swing by with their order (remember – we end up with 75% orders as neat espresso because of this).
We can’t do this in a shop because it’s arseholish (it is), those people who want their morning “coffee” aren’t looking for an “experience” and nor should we be trying to force it on them – but where are the coffee shops serving the mad gourmet shit and re-branding it to gain new custom from those who wouldn’t have ordinarily come in for coffee?
These people have no prior expectations about price and don’t want their coffee to in any way resemble the Nescafe or Nespresso that most people spoon into themselves at home by the gallon. These people are the wrong people to be marketing “coffee” at, perhaps in the same vein as the “Gary” Vegan Cheese Incident we should be calling it something different to get their attention – I suggest starting with “Heaps Mad Fruity Gourmet Shit” and working your way up from there.
There is a whole market out there that is entirely untouched and somebody needs to be the first to successfully pull these people in and start charging sensible prices for the experience and de-couple it from the negative connotations that the word “coffee” brings to the table. Cafe Ashton is only so big and can only do so much volume before the neighbours complain at the constant noise coming from the EK43.
Worth thinking about anyway, I haven’t seen a coffee shop trying to sell to this market yet and tricks are being missed.