By Erin Meister
Day Two, Part 1
The second morning of Symposium started with a little bit of that volatility we’d spent so much time talking about yesterday, when a group of protestors burst into shouts opposing the participation of Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa. Their chants about Honduras’s continued struggles with oppression and suppression, drugs, kidnapping, and violence appeared to stun, confuse, and even irritate some attendees who were, up until the emotional display, simply milling about in quietly hungry desperation, waiting to get their hands on more stuffed biscuits.
The activists were quickly and calmly dispersed, and the doors were opened to attendees, who ruminated with each other about the incident.
“If we didn’t include speakers from origins where there was political unrest, that’d eliminate about 70% of coffee origins from being here,” I overheard one industry insider say. “We’re trying to do our jobs, and to buy better coffee, and to improve things in places like Honduras. We’re not the enemy. They’re yelling at the wrong people.”
(Note: There were no stuffed biscuits after all, but there was heightened security once the activists were dispersed.)
Coffee’s tumultuous political history has always been an undercurrent of the serious discussions bandied about at events like this, though some would rather downplay the inherent social and socioeconomic complexities in favor of loosey-goosey feel-good Specialty Coffee Can Save The World optimism, but getting bogged down in either soundbite cycle is dangerous and naive.
(This might be the lack of biscuits talking. Sorry; I took that pretty hard.)
Once the atmosphere cooled down a little, President Lobo spoke about the importance coffee has on the social and economic health of his country and countrymen: More than 300,000 of the national population of 7.5 million produce coffee, he said, which has helped established Honduras as the world’s second largest producer of washed Arabicas.
“We realize the social benefit that [coffee growers] are receiving is really extraordinary,” President Lobo said through a translator. “I am really grateful for you in the name of Honduras. Not just as the president, but in the name of the people.”
People were precisely the focus of Day 2′s presentations: How to relate to them, how to attract them, what they want from their morning cup and their roaster relationships, and how we can learn from them and interact with them better – from the producer to the coffee drinker to the tastemakers in the media.
Of the producer, Intelligentsia Coffee CEO Doug Zell offered what he feared might be an “impolite” perspective: “I think the issue with the producer at this point,” he said, “is that they perceive themselves as sustenance dirt farmers. We have to change the way they perceive themselves.” Intelli’s retail manager Stephen Morrissey chimed in to ask, “Why is it so fanciful to think that a person who plants a coffee tree would be able to think of that coffee as a Chemex brew?”
Finishing each others’ sentences, Zell and Morrissey drove home an idea so true and logical as to almost be novel: “Employ specialty practices and specialty systems if you are creating and expecting specialty coffee. We challenge you to go out there and…disrupt everything.”
But what happens when our perspectives get disrupted? When we actually look at the people who are at the other end of these “specialty” cups, what do they expect from our work? SCAA deputy executive director Tracy Ging served up a slice of honest humble pie with a presentation about the motivations, behaviors, and perceptions of the specialty-coffee customer base, reminding us that for the average consumer, coffee is all about heart. Sparkly hearts, to be exact – just like the ones found on myriad collages depicting “What Specialty Coffee Means to Me” created by focus-group participants in the coffee-driven markets of Los Angeles and Portland, OR.
“The people who drink [specialty coffee] have the capacity to love it deeply,” Ging said in response to the groups’ collected results. “Something happens over a great cup of coffee that’s different than when you’re just grabbing a cup of caffeine.”
Ging reminded the attendees that while our customers do have a healthy curiosity about what they’re drinking and how we make that magic happen, they don’t want to be beaten over the head with it: In fact, many of them sound like they kind of need a big ol’ barista bear hug.
“They want a love affair, and we’re giving them altitude and rainfall statistics,” she said. Not every detail, and not at every moment. And hey, flash a smile every once in a while, okay?
The morning’s final collection of panelists brought an even more varied set of perspectives to the table, speaking to the things that our coffee community can learn from focused – and arguably more successful – market approaches in the specialty booze, cheese, and beer world.
While Imbibe Magazine publisher Kate Foley implored us to learn the lessons of specialty booze by telling our story better (Be original! Inspire curiosity! Be iconic!), New Seasons Market food services division direct (and curd-lover) Jamie Powell spoke to the paths being blazed by cutting-edge cheese mongers, including… cheese-carving contests?
“‘Really, Jamie? You want me to think seriously about cheese art?’ No, I don’t want you to think seriously about it… But it gets customers who don’t know anything about cheese…interested, and then we know what to do with them.”
(For Pete’s sake: No biscuits at breakfast, and now you’re talking about cheese – glorious cheese! – right around lunchtime?? #NotFair.)
Finally, Coffee Shrub’s Christopher Schooley swung for the fences with a great video presentation about the home-coffee experience, raising important contrasts from what booze and cheese present to their customer bases but that are more difficult for us with kitchen-coffee consumers.
“That cheesemonger or that brewer gets to present a fully actualized product to the consumer,” Schooley argued. “That’s not exactly the case with coffee. We’re sending people home with something that we’ve put a lot of effort and care behind, and what can happen there can go haywire.” How to prevent that berserk French press disaster or demystify the brewing process for a still-half-asleep coffee lover is a great hurdle, but not an impossibly high one.
“Being able to brew a great cup of coffee at home needs to be achievable,” he said.
Now let’s achieve it, people!
Day Two, Part 2
The tables were turned – and turned hard! – on a crowd of coffee people in a lunch coma the afternoon of Day 2, with a twofer of flipped philosophy on media and consumer perspectives of coffee, and a game-changing argument about improving and redefining the retail experience.
The first, a panel moderated by Wrecking Ball Roaster’s Nick Cho, comprised three prominent voices in the outside-coffee world: Seattle Times columnist Melissa Allison, Cool Hunting blogger Julie Woolfson, and the omni-contributive Oliver Strand. As writers at the mercy of cranky editors, rapid-fire deadlines, and superfickle consumer trends, what do these three media taste-makers think are the important stories to tell in coffee, from the angle of reader interest?
“The ‘artisinal food’ movement has taken hold of everybody,” Woolfson offered, speaking to Cool Hunting’s drive toward finding the hippest new spot, the most eye-catching new package, and the visual story behind the coffee and its place in a person’s individual design and lifestyle landscape. “More and more I hear people shifting their conversations from food and cocktails to ‘Where are you drinking coffee?’ and ‘Where is the best coffee?’”
Meanwhile, Allison spoke to the difficulties she faces as a business writer in a city that derives a significant amount of its economic health and growth from the coffee industry: “I’m used to writing for a business reader. When I write about Starbucks, I feel like the traditional business readers are getting what they want. But the independent coffeehouse customers and baristas… That’s a different story.”
“Coffee’s fun, but the coffee industry seems to be unhappy being told that coffee’s fun,” Strand said, laying a gentle smackdown on the sometimes blinding self-importance that specialty coffee industry insiders can exude when insisting that our “stories” be told in infinite, intimate detail.
“The [specialty coffee] industry has taken what is a very complicated product and made it more complicated. Most other industries take complicated products and make them simpler in terms of perception, in terms of understanding.”
Despite himself, Strand even drew comparisons between coffee and wine: “Wine is incredibly complicated, but it tastes great, and the story and narrative is very easy.” He would go on to say: “I think the wine analogy is a horrible idea and a terrible mistake [in coffee],” because of the imprecise use of a largely misappropriated vocabulary that it encourages. “The best wine is better than the best coffee, and you’re never going to match it. It’s never going to happen. So use your own words. Cheese isn’t trying to be like ‘cow wine,’ it has its own language.”
Meanwhile, chucking wine out the window, Square Mile Coffee Roasters co-owner and former World Barista Champion James Hoffmann compared espressos and hamburgers. We’ve all had the $1 hamburger, and the vast majority of us have also had a mind-blowing $15 hamburger: We understand the inherent differences between the two experiences because of the ingredients used, the environment each one is native to, and the way that it’s presented and priced.
But what about espresso? “What would you pay for a good espresso?” Hoffmann asked. “About 1.6UKD? That number doesn’t really matter. Compare that number to what you would pay for an average espresso, or a bad espresso.” Its all the same 1.6UKD, it’s all the same “queueing up to the register,” exchanging cash for a paper cup, and expecting to see the same faces day in and day out, one espresso shot after another.
“If you had a friend who had Burger King for lunch every single day, wouldn’t you stage an intervention? [In specialty cafes], we just want you to come back every day. But the better a restaurant gets,” Hoffmann argued, “the less often they see the same people. Yet they manage to be successful and sustainable.”
Diversity, he emphasized, is the only solution. “We desperately need to foster diversity in our industry, even if it feels contradictory to what we do. If we create a diverse marketplace, everybody benefits.”
Disrupt everything. Make it fun. Turn coffee into a love affair, and celebrate both the simple and complicated joys that come with it. Get out there and make it happen. But first, where are we getting $15 hamburgers in Portland?