Centrism Behind the Bar

Centrism Behind the Bar

Anyone who follows me on Twitter, or Facebook, or who actually knows me and dialogues with me in real life knows that politics—during election season, in particular—gets me really riled up. This election season, especially the past few months weeks days, has given me ample opportunity to get righteously angry.

Fear not, Dear Reader—I’m not using the Table as a soapbox nor a platform to voice my political opinions so there’s no need to exit out of the page before reading on, but there is one thing that has really irked me since President Obama took office in 2009: his slide from the left to the center and his apologeticism.

We see this a lot in politics—our nation’s leaders sacrificing their ideals and core beliefs to be more popular, to have more influential friends, to get more things done. It’s done by practicing bipartisanship, reaching across the aisle, by getting in bed with lobbyists, by flip-flopping on Important Issues, by reneging on campaign promises.

While I understand the importance of being level-headed and mindful of What’s Best for the Country as a Whole, the image of the leader of the free world trembling in cowardice while trying to push legislation, then being completely apologetic to his/her naysayers for ideologically disagreeing with them is one of the saddest and most infuriating things I can think of.

While refusing to clash with the Congressional GOP as a means of pacifism is noble, there are times that I wonder if Obama is just being passive?

It seems like he’s always playing too nice, that he’s not cracking the whip nearly enough—that even though this man is the President of the United States, the supposed most powerful person in the country, he has to practically beg Senate Republicans to “pull up a chair” to the table with him or to meet him halfway. This is the man—again, the leader of the free world, supposedly—who allowed the rightist knucklehead Bill O’Reilly to interrupt him while he was responding to questions 48 times in a matter of 15 minutes!

I mean, there’s diplomacy—then there’s Mr. Nice Guy.

What the Heck Does Any of This Have to Do with Coffee…?

I’m glad you asked. Centrism and apologeticism seem to be a problem within the specialty coffee industry as well.

Too often I have had interactions with baristas or have worked with baristas who just didn’t who have the brass to stand up to a negative customer. Too often I have witnessed baristas transmogrify before my very eyes from a completely competent coffee professional to a cowering, apologetic customer service employee who hates their job in a matter of a couple minutes.

Respect Yourself

If you are a barista reading this, I want you to ask yourself this question: “How many times do I apologize to the customers during a typical eight-hour shift?”

  • Oh, sorry, your drink is too hot—let me remake it for you.
  • Oh, sorry, your drink is too cold—let me remake it for you.
  • Sorry, my pour wasn’t very good—let me remake it for you.
  • Sorry, I’ve been having trouble dialing this Kenya in all day—let me remake it for you.
  • Sorry, the humidity in here has been making the shots pull really inconsistently all day—let me remake it for you.
  • Sorry, the espresso was tasting really great earlier today; I’m not sure what happened—let me remake it for you.

Put yourself in this scenario: a customer walks and isn’t sure what to get. You practice great customer service by asking “What would you typically get at your usual shop?” or “What do you drink at home?” or, my personal favorite, “How do you like drinks to taste?”. If you work in a specialty shop and if your customer is anything like most of the people who have never been to your type of cafe, it’s a pretty safe bet that they typically enjoy over-roasted, cheap-quality, overpriced shit coffee (that’s harsh, but it’s a harsh reality). Your shop, on the other hand, specializes in expertly roasted, high-quality, expensive but reasonably-priced coffee.

You take them to the pourover bar, craft a really great cup of coffee, apologize a couple of times because the Ditting is just a little off and needs to be recalibrated, and then wait, with nervous anticipation, for their response when they take their first sip.

And then there’s that look on your face. That terrified grimace, that look of horror, that look that stems from your lack of confidence in your product and in your self. That look of conviction that you know your customer isn’t going to like your expertly-crafted beverage just because it’s not what they’re used to.

Have a little respect for yourself, Coffee Professional!

Stand by your product, particularly when you’re serving a customer who isn’t accustomed to consuming this sort of product. Your apologeticism, your slide from one end of the coffee quality spectrum to the center, reflects poorly on your character as a professional barista and it reflects poorly on the specialty coffee message as a whole.

The one and only time you should allow yourself to be self-depriciative is when you’re discussing your craft with another coffee professional. When James Hoffmann or Pete Licata or Michael Phillips or Tim Wendelboe walks into your shop and tells you that your shots are pulling too fast, then you admit that you’re struggling with whatever.

Besides being apologetic and centric reflecting poorly on you, it’s completely unnecessary when it comes to an uneducated customer.

The uneducated customer doesn’t know what a “godshot” is and you can’t expect yourself to pull one every single time. As James Hoffmann writes in his article, “Why Aren’t We Excited?”:

A fair expectation would be a well made espresso, free from obvious brewing defects, whose price matches the value. That’s it. Not a godshot. Not “perfection”. Just a nice espresso from someone who is proud of what they made, served without an excuse.

Educate Your Customer

Why aren’t we excited, indeed. Why aren’t we excited about that distinct privilege of being the barista that makes that landmark cup of coffee for somebody? Why aren’t we excited about being that person takes the customer beyond the veil? Why aren’t we excited about the coffee itself and, instead, offer so many apologies for it?

We should be excited about what we do!

However, I don’t think our customer service should, nor can, stop at excitement. We need to be educating our customers, too!

When your customer takes that first sip of the coffee you made for them, and you ask, “Well? What do you think?”, and they reply, “Meh. I still prefer my French roasts,” what do you say to that? (What do you say to that after, of course, that initial pang of dejection.)

A lot of baristas I’ve known were (are) content to leave it at that. Others apologized profusely for their coffee selection and suggested that the customer try going to another shop. Some have even offered refunds!

Much to my former managers’ chagrin, I never was that type. My initial reaction to “I prefer French roast” is and will always be “No you don’t.”

A Matter of Taste

More often than not, a customer only says that because French roast is just what they’re used to. It’s what they’ve drank their entire coffee-drinking lives and they’re so accustomed to it that it’s wired into their DNA. The average uneducated customer doesn’t realize the irony in combining the phrase “I prefer dark roasts” and the act of dumping cream and sugar into their coffee. I truly and honestly believe that these people don’t enjoy dark roasts at all—they’ve just duped themselves into believing that they do!

The Soapbox

In this sort of scenario, it is our job as baristas—nay, it is our sacred duty as baristas—to inform the customer why companies French roast their beans (to mask the incredibly obvious imperfections and defects of cheaply priced, cheap-quality coffee). It is our duty to educate our customers about things like sustainability, growing conditions, transparency, roasting practices, etc., etc.

It is our duty to help the customer realize that, much like the band Franz Ferdinand preached, they could have it so much better. It is our duty to lift the veil, to move them past the stage of seeing through a glass darkly.

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