I love restaurants. I love sitting in them, especially at the bar, and watching. I love a very, very long lunch. I also love food, which is one of the reasons I go to restaurants.
It isn’t the only reason, though from time to time it seems like the world thinks it is. The rise of the philosophical, expressive, and thoughtful chef using food as a medium in which to craft a message has led to some astonishing experiences and important plates of food. The downside is that the seriousness with which we culturally criticise and dissect food has turned some restaurants into shrines to culinary composition. This isn’t always fun for the diner and, while I know that art isn’t always fun, it has begun to feel a little confining.
I see that reflected in coffee, but not in coffee alone. It is common in a variety of areas of food and drink, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
While some restaurant reviewing has gone the way of terrible artistic review (the review is written to celebrate the reviewer’s intellect and taste, and the subject of the review is merely the vehicle for the self-congratulation), there are still reviews about what it is like to sit in a restaurant, what it is like to take your seat and be part of that temporary community, dining together.
I like, from time to time, to eat alone. I’m fortunate to have this trait, considering that travel makes this a semi-regular occurrence. In those moments, as someone who loves flavour and who would be comfortable describing a dish as both elegant and clever, it would seem prudent to take the time to hunt for gustatory indulgence. With no dining companion I would be free to indulge myself, and the chef’s edible communication, completely. However, that is rarely what I crave. Instead, I want to sit in a beautiful room or an interesting one. I want to see movement, creation, and food’s artistic pinnacle reached in the moment of its destruction. I want to read a review that tells me about all of this. I love reviews that describe the experience, not merely the food. Great restaurants sell memories, and they’re very good at that. We’d be wise to remember, before our arrival at such an occasion, that we all have terrible taste memories and recall. It would be far wiser to pay attention to everything else, all at once. The gestalt, combined experience is what makes for the greatest, most treasured memories.
I love to sit in a cafe, to linger over a coffee. Perhaps to read, perhaps not. I don’t want to be head down, hunting like a truffle-pig for the aromas prophesied on a small chalk menu board. I don’t want to tune out the noise around me, to focus on the coffee. I want that cup to be entwined in what I see, and hear, and feel.
As such, these are the kinds of reviews I want to read. I want to read about cafes that make you feel something, let you be comfortable and a part of their otherworldliness for a moment. I will always find time to visit those places. I also want to read about the places that don’t welcome you in, that treat you like an outsider, that have a secret code you instantly feel like you don’t know but should. There are certain memories that I’d rather not have.
The second episode of the podcast is now up, and I think it is well worth a listen. Doing these has been challenging and interesting, and I’m grateful for the positive feedback so far.
You can listen here or check Coffee Jobs Podcast, for this and other episodes. You should also subscribe at iTunes.
Today is the start of a new podcast I’ve been working on. It’s called the Coffee Jobs Podcast and is a weekly show that will run for the next three months or so. Each episode is an interview with a leader in the coffee industry. The podcast is there to serve two different audiences: those working in coffee, and those running businesses, hiring and building teams.
If you’re working in coffee, and looking to progress, then we cover things like:
- Mistakes to avoid
- How to approach applying and being interviewed
- What they’re looking for in a CV or application
- How to get the job you want
- How to keep the job you love, and move forward in your career
If you’re hiring or building a team then you’ll be interested in:
- Where they look for staff
- How they approach trial shifts and interviews
- Their favourite interview questions and techniques
- Mistakes they’ve made in their careers and their businesses
- How they approach development and retention of their teams.
While the second half may not seem obviously appealing to those wanting to progress – I think it is hugely useful to understand the way employers are thinking about this stuff.
Honestly, the work I’ve done on Coffee Jobs Board is what started this – but the time I’ve already put in has been hugely rewarding for me. There are themes that come through the interviews that I didn’t expect to see. It has changed how I view a lot about a career in coffee, what is means, what is possible and what is valuable. To me personally, this project is already a success.
The first episode with Colin Harmon is now live, and I’d recommend checking it out. There are some great interviews recorded and more lined up, with guests from around the world. If there’s someone you’d love to hear on the show then drop an email to email@example.com and we’ll do our best.
To keep up to date:
Subscribe in iTunes
Coffee Jobs Podcast
If you’re on iOS then I’d strongly recommend the Overcast app.
We’ve done a pretty good job of communicating the importance of freshness with coffee. No one reading this would disagree with the idea that, generally, the fresher the better.
Listening to Cat & Cloud , the discussion about freshness made me want to write about a more difficult and frustrating idea.
The idea that we hold to be true is this: “Fresh roasted coffee is always better than stale coffee.”
This is true, except when it isn’t.
For the sake of clarity, I’m going to discuss this by using coffee to mean a single lot of coffee a roaster might have. It could be a single farm, it could be from a cooperative. Essentially this is a product they will carry for a period of time. Also, I’m only going to talk about whole bean coffee here. Ground coffee is pretty much dead after 24 hours no matter which way you look at it.
What isn’t really discussed in the freshness stakes is the freshness of green coffee. Green coffees deteriorate at various rates. Sometimes they taste good for getting close to a year, sometimes they last less than a month.
Here’s an experience that I don’t like because the implications are complicated. I’ve cupped a bag of coffee that was four months off-roast, against the same coffee roasted a week ago. Despite the fact that we consider the staling of roasted coffee to be quicker than green coffee, the staler coffee was sweeter and more interesting than the fresh roasted version where the greens had begun to fade. I know I’m not alone in this experience, but we tend to brush them under the rug. Bags of whole bean coffee, at the very least sealed in a valved bag, can taste almost depressing good after a year IF the green coffee was very fresh when it was roasted.
If we are genuinely prizing consumer experience in the cup, above everything else, then I’d argue that with certain coffees that tend to fade quickly, the best practice would be to roast the entire lot on arrival, to package it as well as possible, and sell from that finished roasted stock. Sounds horrifying, right? Sounds like everything we’ve been working against.
The solution we currently have isn’t bad. Most coffee roasting companies in speciality treat coffee as a seasonal product. Coffees from Central America will not be on offer lists all year around. The goal is to sell out of a coffee as quickly as possible, to briefly delight in its novelty and scarcity, and then move on to something else. This is problematic for at least a couple of reasons:
- Some times of the year are significantly less fun than others. There are moments of full bounty and choice, and moments where there aren’t a lot of countries producing fresh coffee. This isn’t a huge problem, but it is frustrating for both roaster and consumer.
- Growth must be accurately predicted. If you’re buying a lot you want to sell through quickly, and by quickly we can say within two to three months of arrival, then unexpected growth is as much of a problem as an unexpected lack of growth. If your primary concern is green coffee freshness then you’ll look for lots that are on the smaller end of viable.
So, am I suggesting that every roaster starts roasting the entirety of their inventory on arrival? No. That would be ridiculous. Am I suggesting that we try to undo the work we’ve done highlighting roasted freshness as being incredibly important? No. That would also be ridiculous and counter productive.
What I am interested in talking about:
- Have you had the same experiences with “stale” roasted coffee, where the green coffee was vibrant at the time of roasting? I don’t believe I’m alone, but I also don’t think enough people have talked about this to the point that we are able to acknowledge or discuss the trend.
- Have you had contrary experiences? This post is mostly the result of personal experience, empirical evidence, and it may well be subject to confirmation bias. In fact, it probably is.
- Thinking about part of the world like Honduras, I’m not alone in being a little nervous around buying certain coffees because they can rapidly fade. If the message could be communicated that these coffees are delicious even months off roast, due to the raw freshness and vibrance, then this would make them more appealing.
- Whether anyone else is curious about trying it out, about being transparent. Maybe offering twin packs of the same coffee – one roasted fresh, one roasted on arrival. Each month you could see how it changes and discover whether the experiment holds true. Though I don’t know if anyone else is up for commercialising this, or spending the money on such a risky experiment…
As I said at the beginning: a difficult idea. One that I’m not quite done with yet.
- a podcast I’m enjoying very much ↩︎
- The speculation as to why probably belongs in a different post. ↩︎
Opportunity costs are, perhaps, the most ignored costs in a busy business. That may be a coffee shop, coffee roastery, or a restaurant. In fact, they apply to every business and I think deserve more discussion.
Opportunity costs sneak under the radar because they don’t show themselves obviously in the profit and loss statement. An opportunity cost is the cost of a decision you made, the cost of the opportunity you didn’t take.
To make sense of this I’m going to use a busy coffee shop as an example, specifically one item on the menu:
Pourover Coffee & Opportunity Cost
The industry has clearly started to pay attention to the costs involved in a pourover. The price of a cup of coffee, brewed by hand, have steadily risen. I’d say, in London, the price is close to averaging £4 a cup. That’s pretty expensive. It makes sense; because there’s a good amount of focused manual labour involved. This in addition to higher costs of coffee and of materials and equipment, when considered against the number of drinks served.
So, on paper, brewing a cup of coffee this way makes sense. The gross margin is reasonable, and in the P&L things look ok once the labour is factored in. Let’s look at the opportunity cost: what else could this person have been doing instead of pouring water, carefully, over coffee?
Depending on the flow of your business, and the throughput it manages, the answer may vary. Let’s take both the best, and worst, case scenario: you’re very busy. In this situation, instead of pouring a single cup for 3-4 minutes (which is a fair estimation of the time involved) a barista could have helped process a reasonable number of transactions. While the pourover is an expensive item, in that the busy business could have processed 2-3 times as much revenue.
Perhaps, reading this, you think this scenario feels overly simplistic. Not everyone’s business is busy all the time. I believe it is important to optimise for the busiest moments, to maximise throughput and revenue. As the saying goes, “make hay while the sun shines”.
Opportunity costs are everywhere, some of those costs are material and some are ideological. By choosing to stamp a loyalty card you’re deciding to spend both time and a little of your interaction budget on discounting future cups of coffee. Have you considered what else could be achieved in that moment? If your goal is loyalty, are you convinced that you’ve found the optimal route?
By deciding to spend money on a small lot of coffee, auctioned online, a coffee roasting company has decided to allocate a certain amount of their financial resources. Is this the best use of that money, to grow their business, to grow their reputation, to deepen the relationship they have with their customers?
In writing about pastries, to some of my audience, I failed to communicate that this was really about opportunity costs. Pastries sell well, they make ok money, people like them, people buy them. However, by choosing to sell them what opportunity have you given up? Perhaps none, though the response from others readers of the post suggests that there are plenty of opportunities worth exploring.
Coffee is often conformist, businesses are born that are defined by inherited choices, their practices preordained. I am as guilty as anyone of doing things because that is how others do them, though as I start to reconsider the missed opportunities I’m inspired to start to explore new ideas or dig deeper into what are essentially the habits of the coffee industry. I encourage others to do the same, as it will not only strengthen their business but also diversify our approaches and accelerate the way we all move forward.
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