Coffee Slingers and Cheese Mongers

Learning from The Cheese Model

By Ric Rhinehart

Recently, I was listening to an interview with cheese monger Gordon Edgar in which he explained how critical it is to be able to educate his customers about cheese, while at the same time recognizing how difficult it is to impart the entire story of cheese to them. “When someone is paying twenty dollars a pound for cheese, you have to be able to tell them the story behind that cheese, but you can’t really tell them everything,” Edgar said. He then launched into a compelling story about the plight of small family dairy farmers and their struggles with the economics of milk and cheese.

As I listened, I was struck by the similarities in our products and the challenges of raising the level of the consumer experience while selling them a product with which they simultaneously have tremendous familiarity and very little real knowledge. In both cases, educating a customer is a delicate balancing act of engagement. In both cases, the product is being sold by someone who is not the producer. In both cases, we have to assess how important the product is in the customer’s hierarchy. So how do we prepare our very own cheese mongers—the working baristas—in order to engage our consumer?

Obviously our first task is to educate our baristas. This activity must extend well beyond the act of creating a coffee beverage (although this process in itself is critical) to address the whole story of coffee, from its origin to processing, from flavor characteristics to socio-economic impacts. Educating a barista is the joint responsibility of the roaster, the café owner, the SCAA and, in no small part, the barista herself. The most dedicated baristas will inevitably seek out that education; and the good news is that there are more resources available to them than ever before. The next task is to develop an interactive environment in the coffee house that allows the barista to share her knowledge appropriately. Customers are most willing to engage when they receive clues that engagement is possible and potentially profitable. To this end, the barista must demonstrate that she has both a solid knowledge of her craft and the training and good manners to interact effectively with the customer. In a nutshell, the barista must have not only been trained in coffee, but in the fine art of customer service.

Taking us back to our friends the cheese mongers, let’s give a moment of thought to the common struggles that are faced by the purveyors of artisan cheese and artisan coffee. In both cases, we are considering food products that virtually all consumers are familiar with to one degree or another; almost all of us have had a cup of coffee or a taste of cheese at one time or another. All of us probably feel qualified to identify a food item as cheese or a beverage as coffee. Most of us probably have a favorite cheese or coffee consumption venue or meal period. Finally, most of us probably know just enough about cheese and coffee to have strongly held opinions and even preferences. Many of those reading this little screed probably have something else in common with our cheese-monger friends: we have at one time or another wildly over-estimated how compelling the details of our products are to a certain segment of our customer base.

The well-educated cheese monger must be able to quickly discern when the customer in front of them wants to really learn more about the impacts of washing aging cheese with locally produced ale. She must be able to converse with equal alacrity with the net-surfing local cheese fanatic and the over-scheduled working mom looking for something nice to accompany that Viognier she picked up on her trip to wine country. Most of all, the cheese monger must understand the difference between being involved in the supply chain of artisan cheese and working behind the deli counter at the local market.

The barista must make all of the same connections and be prepared for the entire panoply of customers, from the fan boy “prosumer” of coffee to the guy who just wants a jolt of joe and doesn’t care where it came from or how it was processed. So, with a firmly held belief that an educated barista lacking in customer service skills is just a potentially pedantic person behind the counter, I offer the following essentials for understanding our coffee customers and how to meet their needs while making them in to raving fans of our product:

The task starts with a willingness to engage the customer and a demonstration of that. It is always important for us to make eye contact, offer a salutation and most importantly, crack a smile. These are the key non-verbal cues that tell customers that we are present in the moment and glad to be interacting with them. We know that people we smile at and make eye contact with are automatically prepped to have a positive experience.

Next, we must assess the customer’s level of interest. Just because our guest has chosen our coffee house as the place to satisfy his coffee craving does not mean that he knows us by reputation or even that he cares one whit about the exceptional quality of our coffee beverages. In many cases it may just mean that he realized he wanted a coffee and we happened to be conveniently located. Making this kind of customer assessment can be tricky. Here the skilled barista is able to put aside her preconceived notions about guys in sports coats with Bluetooth earpieces so she can really gauge the potential level of interest in her coffee offerings. She asks simple questions to help the assessment along and, if appropriate, offers suggestions or works toward upselling. Who knows? Maybe this is the perfect time to get a new customer hooked on an estate-grown, hand-drip Salvador.

It is very important that we don’t forget the transaction. Sometimes we get so excited about portraying the coolness of the whole coffee thing to our customers that we forget about the basics. We must be sure to get the order right, make the proper product, and finally, check for satisfaction. If we get far enough along to make a suggestive sale, then we absolutely want to remember to ask for some feedback.

Finally, don’t forget that in our environment you can’t teach effectively if you can’t serve well. Making people comfortable and receptive is the key to success. The well-trained barista will demonstrate competence and project confidence, but never slip into arrogance. Again, the simplest of cues can demonstrate this to the customer. Maintaining eye contact, a friendly smile and a genuine concern for the customer’s overall experience go a long way to creating and maintaining an atmosphere where the barista can communicate her knowledge and passion.

So, whether you find yourself wrapped up in explaining bandage-wrapped cheddar or quietly crafting cappuccino, remember how important it is to create an engaging customer experience where you can share both your knowledge and passion for the product. This experience generates real value for your product and creates a compelling case for the consumer to pay more money and attention to artisanal products.

Ric Rhinehart is the Executive Director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. He has more than twenty years of experience in the coffee industry, and has designed, developed and produced a wide range of coffee and tea products. He has considerable experience in developing manufacturing and packaging capabilities, and has traveled extensively as a green coffee buyer.

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