Friday Morning Coffee Break: The Allure of the Competition

My Friend Josh Taves (Dogwood Coffee) competing with SCIENCE!

Coffee, like any other field, has an over explosion of devotion and fanatics that love to prove their merit in the industry. The thrill of being the center of attention and showing that they chose a career path not out of desperation, but out of a passion for the bean is something that is shared across many mediums. In coffee at least but I am sure in other fields, I think this is why there is so much focus and inherent passion to compete in regional, national, and international competitions! Aside from gaining huge recognition as the “Best Barista in the World” I think it goes back to that insecurity of choosing to make coffee for the rest of your life and needing the vindication to justify your pursuits. But something that makes the coffee industry unique (or pry not that unique if you think about it) is that when you allow yourself to be consumed by the need for attention and that viral need to compete to be the best, I sometimes feel like you lose some of the integral components of coffee. Love, community, and taste. Allow me to explain.

I think that in coffee there are three types of people. Each one represents their own niche in the coffee industry and each one is definitely needed, but approach the industry in a completely different way. You have the “Just in it for a paycheck”, the “I AM the center of attention,” and of course the “Coffee is like a symphony of harmony and love between people and I must help usher in that love!” Like Music, there are an infinite amount of deviations and subsets of these three categories so I am no way saying that this is the end all be all list, but for simple clarification for non-craft coffee peeps, it makes the most sense. Each one when approaching their respective views of the coffee industry all treat the three parts of coffee differently.

Just in it for the Paycheck 

Regardless of the Starbucks stereotype, these type of people can work at any coffee shop. In fact, some of the most passionate coffee nerds that I have ever known have had successful careers at Starbucks. These people aren’t bad in any sense of the word either. What they fill is that mass consumer, get you coffee quick fix need of America. These are the people who work at the local ma and pa coffee shop serving really frothy cappucinos and Mr. Coffee Maker coffee and think nothing of it. What I like about these type of people is that they truly understand the job beyond the central focus of coffee. You see for them, coffee is just a communicative tool to allow them to 1. Get a paycheck and 2. Have an interaction with customers. They don’t need to lavishly fawn over the coffee itself and purport the neccessity for a great cup of coffee. These type of people just want to create a common space for people to enjoy their time together.

RIP

One of my favorite spots in Greeley, CO, my hometown was a place called Margie’s Java Joint. In fact, Christopher Schooley, head of the Roasters Guild of America, started his coffee ventures at this shop. Before they were sold they served Allegro coffee and had a menu so large with so many syrups that I once thought they were an ice cream bar instead of a coffee shop. But you know what? That was okay. I loved going to the space and getting coke with chocolate sauce. I loved sitting with my friends eating bagels and pontificating life like they did on Friends. I wasn’t going there to drink amazing coffee. I was there for people. No pretension, no scoffing when ordering an Americano, the employees gave you what you want, no questions asked with a smile. What was lost here in coffee quality was more than made up for in wanting to have a shop that filled that social spot need.Similar to places like Common Grounds in Denver, Zoes in Greeley, and Everyday Joes in Fort Collins (8 years ago before REALLY GOOD NOVO COFFEE) the coffee was just a tool to allow people the openness for communication and friendship. Something that sometimes can get lost in the industry when focusing on craft coffee or the need to compete for social recognition and status within the industry. Please note here I am not saying that competition focused coffee shop and a good community space coffee shop are in fact mutually exclusive, but I am trying to point out to the reader some common trends and showing where you can get caught up and lose sight of the intrinsic value of coffee.

I AM the Center of Attention 

*I am going to get so much flack for this!

Okay, here goes. There is a small subset of coffee individuals who, like myself, become intrinsically involved in the production of good coffee. Their focus steps away from the coffee to create community into, coffee IS the community focal point. This means that there are days of intensive labor put into good coffee and ensuring that people KNOW I know more than you know, you know? Coffee is a gimmick to allow for me to shine, my knowledge of good bands and politics, my ability to trace the origins of coffee and expel my knowledge at you rather than with you. These are the type of people most commonly associated with coffee. Pretentious. And, sad to say that many of us have fallen into that world on more than one occasion. A great example of this is Crema Coffee in Denver, CO who have gained a massive pretentious reputation.  From the restaurant rating site Yelp I quote:

The staff was incredibly snobby about their “high quality coffee.” Yes, it was good, but it is just coffee. There is no need to be a dick about it when someone asks you about your menu.

On my way to work yesterday, I stopped in and got the impression as I stepped to the counter and I greeted the “barista” that she was being greatly inconvenienced by my asking her to hand me a cup for my coffee, and she conducted the entire twenty second transaction with that singular brand of condescension that only hipsters can seem to muster.

Now for as many negative reviews of the shop there are a hundred positive ones, but I am focusing on this because I think that in some coffee houses, you gain some super insecure people who feel that they are privileged and are allowed to feel superior to non-informed customers. This is they type of person who either hates their job or thinks that because they are in coffee they are in some sort of super awesome secret club. Your not, you make coffee like the rest of us. Coffee is bigger than you.

Coffee is like a symphony of harmony and love between people and I must help usher in that love!

Much like the in it for the paycheck catergory, these are my absolute favorite people in the Coffee industry! I love them so much and have had the good fortune of being surrounded by these amazing people. John Jarrow, Christopher Schooley, Christopher Hess, and Erich Rosenberg are just a few that come to mind. These type of people love what they do and do what they love. Which is communicate with people. Tricked you there, you thought I was going to say make coffee. No, in fact, coffee is just the paintbrush these people use to communicate their passion to the world. Coffee is the central tool they use to create conversation, much like you in your office communicate around the water cooler. How many people actually know the man hours that go into creating a cup of joe? How many hands touched your beans before you tasted the amazing flavors of dark chocolate and citrus? Who really cares?

John Jarrow of Harbinger Coffee Courtesy of Sprudge.Com and yes, he does wear clothes I promise.

These are the questions that these people tackle all the time. Instead of trying to look down on people and highlight the exclusivity of their career choice, they encourage growth and involvement to everyone’s comfortability level. Do you want to just get your coffee and go? Great. Do you want to sit down and talk about the region this coffee came from? Amazing. Do you want to have a science lesson in Solubles and extraction pressures? Let me geek out! Will I treat any of these three customers differently? No. That is the beauty of coffee. There are varying levels of nerdiness and interaction but that doesn’t get in the way of treating people like people and creating a relationship of appreciation and adoration.

Sarah Leslie, a Barista from Gimme Coffee! a great people focused coffee company based out of New York City, stated the Barista’s role very eloquently:

There’s been a spat of negativity floating around the internet from Baristas who seem to really dislike their jobs. I think most Baristas have been there at some point in their career — that place where you feel tired, unappreciated, disrespected, and beyond bummed out about your job (we Baristas sometimes forget these feelings are universal to all work). The fact that every Barista (myself included) is probably qualified for any number of more glamorous and better-paying jobs is probably one of the main sources of these frustrations. So why don’t we just do something else? Good question. And maybe some folks should do something else. But for me, I love being a Barista, or working next to one, and plan to for as long as I can.

The reason? Customers. Period. We focus a lot in Speciality Coffee on Relationship Coffee while too often we forget about the relationship right in front of us — the relationship with our customers. And I’m not just talking about the regulars who come in a chat us up for hours about how much they love our coffee and tip us $5 bills. I’m talking about everyone.

When we start focusing on the competition and the allure of the fame and recognition that we can receive competing in the Southwest Regionals or Coffeefest, we start to lose the importance of the relationship with the customer. By focusing on the flavors we can extract, the relationship that a coffee roaster creates with a farm, you sometimes tend to forget the relationship right in front of you on a daily basis. Coffee is about the people, for the people, and by the people. I think that competition is great because it creates community, a sense of camaraderie and forces each and one of us to really push ourselves and push the industry. But we have to remember to not let our industry growth outweigh our personal growth with customers, lest we all become “I AM the center of attention” coffee snobs. I can’t tell you how many times I have been inspired and motivated to really look at competing to start to gain notoriety and credibility for myself, the Northern Colorado Coffee scene, and my comrades in arms but I won’t. I can’t start competing until I truly feel like I am going to compete to highlight the importance of the three intrinsic coffee rules, love, community, and taste. And what that means is that I have to be less involved and more ‘In it for a paycheck” to take the attention less on the coffee and more on the people. I know there are many who compete that are like this, but not me, not yet. I hope that by reading this we can start moving competition less from a tool to justify our insecurities and more of a resource to really push coffee to mean “PEOPLE.”

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