Sarah Goes Brit ”with her spelling, that is…

I’ve been asked to write for The Guardian UK in the past, and my editor contacted me after this recent mess at murky coffee started last week. So here’s my take on it. (The best part of the article, in my opinion, is that they re-spelled everything British, Hoff-style, if you will, i.e. “realise” and “favourite.” Makes me chuckle.)

Guadian article: When Baristas Attack

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Sarah
About Sarah 887 Articles
Sarah Allen is co-founder and editor of Barista Magazine, the international trade magazine for coffee professionals. A passionate advocate for baristas, quality, and the coffee community, Sarah has traveled widely to research stories, interact with readers, and present on a variety of topics affecting specialty coffee. She also loves animals, swimming, ice cream, and living in Portland, Oregon.

9 Comments

  1. Overall, I liked the article for the Guardian UK. However, I take exception to your assertion:

    “Burger King says you can “have it your way”, but that’s not the way they do things at Michelin-rated restaurants, and no one expects them to.”

    Having eaten at a few Michelin starred restaurants (including Thomas Keller’s per se in New York City), you most certainly can modify your meal to suit your needs/desires. While the kitchen prefers that you take your meat au point, they will cook it well, if that is your desire. One of my dining companions at per se couldn’t take shellfish, no problem there. Don’t want the truffle with your course? Okay, they’ll make something else.

    It is this ability to go with the flow and adapt to serve the customer that makes the best “the best.” And it’s painfully embarrassing to see coffee’s “Third Wavers” pat themselves on the back as being the best when they’re doing little more than offering espresso, cappuccino, and latte on a daily basis.

    And let’s not talk about signature drink – especially when so many of them want to eliminate them altogether. I mean, chefs throughout the spectrum of quality restaurants work with fresh ingredients and develop new dishes and specials everyday. Ask the “cutting edge” “Third Wave” barista to do similar and you get blank stares and hollow looks on top of shaggy hair and shabby hipster clothing. God forbid the self-congratulating barista should do more than make a perfunctory rosetta that even Eleven Madison Park does with demonstrable skill.

    And now we have shabby-looking, attitude-filled baristas giving customers a hard time about espresso and ice while serving 16z and 20z lattes and commercial syrup – is this really “cutting edge”? Is this really “the best” our community has to offer???

    Perhaps I’m the only one, but I find this whole incident to be embarrassing and insulting to our community and a continuing erosion of the SCAA’s credibility.

  2. Out of all due respect, Jay, I understand your frustration, but I have to disagree with you on a coupla things. For one, I’m somewhat tired of hearing baristas constantly derided as pack of hipsters with attitude and ego problems. I know where a lot of these classifications come from, but making sweeping generalizations like that really undermines the work and skill that the true craftspeople in this industry are striving for (I’m ignoring the “third wave” classification because I think that’s a MacGuffin). You may have your own feelings about specific people or places or whatever within the specialty-coffee world, but I’d appreciate it if you didn’t throw us all under the same blanket.

    I also hope you don’t mind me respectfully challenging your assertion (which in turn counters Sarah’s—phew!) that at Michelin-starred restaurants “you most certainly can modify your meal to suit your needs/desires.” That may be the case in a situation where one ingredient might be substituted of excluded from a dish or a cut of meat is cooked to a specific level, but we were talking about a single-ingredient item here: espresso. Espresso that is, as per the shop’s stated policy, not served iced. I don’t really see how this is analogous to changing one aspect of a dish that has many ingredients or elements. Certainly if you ordered a single-ingredient item at a high-end restaurant—at which that was the self-proclaimed specialty—you would understand if they denied you the privilege of having it prepared in an alternate manner?

    Maybe I’m off-base, and you have had this experience; I always appreciate being proven wrong (don’t much get out to Michelin-starred restaurants, I’m afeered).

    Thanks much, and in any event I hope you’re having a great summer.
    Meister

  3. Meister – the problem is that all of us are under this “third wave” blanket whether we like it or not. To my mind, it would be helpful for our cause if people started approaching our profession with a little more professionalism, rather than the egotism, arrogance, condescension and dick punching.

    And while you’re drilling it down to one ingredient: espresso, let’s not forget that what we’re talking about is not the number of ingredients in a product but rather the approach towards service and accommodation. If we can agree that icing espresso brings out unpleasant tastes in an espresso but the customer insists that he must have it that way, the choices are clear: accommodate or stick to your guns and ask the customer to go elsewhere that will accommodate their request. This whole charade of attitude, condescension and egotism destroys the efforts of the entire community while giving free PR to the offending company.

    To correlate: while I was waiting for our table at per se, a couple of guys came in looking for dinner. They were dressed in jeans and button-down shirts. The rule of the house is: no jeans and jackets for men. This is one of the top and most highly sought after restaurants in the United States. The hostesses could easily have sent them away with attitude and condescension, but they didn’t. They politely and respectfully informed the gentlemen of the rule and asked them to change and come back for dinner. At a restaurant with a two month waitlist, I was convinced that had they run to their hotel rooms, changed and came back, they would have been seated and accommodated.

    There are ways to maintain your standards without escalating the situation into a full-scale war. The inherent problem with this situation was the matter of choice. Both the barista and the owner made embarrassingly poor choices on how to handle the situation presented. And while it’s one thing to make those poor choices on the line and in the moment, it’s a completely different choice when sitting behind the computer, alone and with the ability to pause, reflect and consider your choices.

  4. Thanks for the response, Jay; some great things to think about here!

    I agree with you about treating a profession with professionalism, and acting in kind, but I think there are shining examples of that happening every day at every level in the chain of production (she says in a sing-songy Pollyanna voice, holding a puppy), and because of that the one-blanket approach doesn’t really cut it for me. There is arrogance and attitude in every profession (otherwise there would be no Top Chef), and while it’s fine to be disappointed in it, of course, I hope we don’t allow those letdowns to color our overall impression of this changing (and hopefully improving) industry.

    Also, I will say that in my original comment, I purposefully skirted the service issue for several reasons, not the least of which was that it is more complicated in this particular context than I am comfortable really getting into, especially in a blog comment. But to generalize, should service always be respectful and consistent? Yes. Should establishments and their representatives have the right to uphold their company policies—even if they seem egregious or nonsensical to the customer? Yes, and naturally all the better if the level of service is such that policies are enforced in a gentle if firm way. But the incident in question had added complications, i.e., an abusive customer. That doesn’t automatically change the policy, which is what I was focusing on—and what it seemed to me you were focusing on in your original comment, with the restaurant and substitutions analogy.

    Service quality can often be a matter of perspective. For instance, if those guys you saw at Per Se had instead lashed out (“I am prepared to drop hundreds of dollars in your restaurant; how dare you tell me what I can wear! [insert vulgar expressions or churlish behavior here]”), would you have felt the maître d’ should have obliged them since, when you come right down to it, there is no real physical reason not to allow them what they want? I’m not talking about murky here or the way that particular situation was handled (I am so tired of that conversation), but I am curious to know what you think the limits of service are, or do you not think there should be limits?

    Thanks again, Jay. I’m finding this conversation helpful!
    Meister

  5. Meister-

    Certainly the deportment of the customer needs to be taken into account in the handling of a particular situation. While it is my personal and professional goal to emulate the level of courtesy and respect of an establishment such as per se, I certainly have been guilty of escalating and kicking customers out (or at least denying them service) in the heat of the moment while working the line.

    At The Spro (my espresso bar), we strive to foster a high level of service and accommodation. While we try to persuade (and sometimes bully) our customers into taking their drinks the way we think is best, our overriding goal is to accommodate. Today, for example, a lady comes in and wants a macchiato. She’s been here before and knows the difference between our macchiato and that obscenity they’re serving at Starbucks. She knows that it’s our preference that she drink it here – in a ceramic cup. But her circumstance today is that she would like it to go, so she can take it with her to the farmers market up the street. Our “company policy” is to toe the hardline and insist that she drink it here – but does that accomplish our goals?

    No, it doesn’t. She knows the deal. She knows the drill. But today she’d like it a little different. I chose to accommodate her request and she left happy and with a drink that she will enjoy.

    But when I get the occasional customer who is difficult (at best) to deal with and whose pushed my buttons as far as I’m going to take it, I start out by telling that person in a calm, quiet and respectful manner that “perhaps we’re not the right fit for you.” And if they challenge me or ask more questions, I repeat: “perhaps we’re not the right fit for you.” Further discussion is typically met with silence. Further aggression gets security to bounce the person out.

    I’ve been in business now for nine years and each time I’ve faced a situation that escalated I’ve never reflected back on those moments and felt that confrontation and escalation were the right choices – and I’ve had some wild times kicking customers out the door.

    I agree that there’s arrogance and attitude in every profession. Yet what I’ve found in every industry I’ve worked in that people really don’t like those with attitude and arrogance. Those are indications of insecurity and weakness. The times I’ve lashed out were because of weakness, not strength. I hope I’ve learned from those times in my life when I was weak.

    As a profession, I want us to move forward with respect not only from our peers and colleagues, but also from the outside community. To do such requires us to pause, consider and think before making our choices. Think about how we can move forward instead of allowing our insecurities to come to the forefront and push us back.

    Unfortunately, we cannot separate our discussion here from the situation at hand. The choices these people made landed in the media spotlight. People I know from outside our industry ask me about it – not knowing that I know the actual players. To them, it’s stupid. To them, we look stupid, and by encouraging this kind of behavior (especially from a “leader”), we are stupid.

    On a side note, my friend Jill just left on Saturday for the new season of Top Chef. She’s a wonderfully humble and talented chef without attitude or pretense. I’m hoping she does well.

  6. Jay,

    Thanks very much for this latest response. I really appreciate your perspective and agree with many of the things you are saying about professionalism and comportment. It really helps me when I am forging opinions on complex issues to hear other arguments, and this conversation has been really enlightening and helpful.

    I’m going to take some time to think about it further, and perhaps we can continue at a later date (and yes, I am also feeling guilty about hijacking Sarah’s post! Sorry, Sarah).

    And finally, best of luck to your friend Jill! I bet I’ll be seeing her (courteously and professionally) mop the floor with the other contestants while I’m on the treadmill (which is the only place I really ever watch TV anymore, depressingly. ha!).

    Very best,
    EM

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