Inflation is making it necessary to increase coffee prices, both green and brewed—perhaps customer service can be the way to make that OK.
BY JOSH TAVES
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
The world is a little nuts right now. I’m not going to bore you with yet another tongue-in-cheek review of the happenings of the last two years, so let me just get to the point. Green coffee prices are growing faster than Bored Apes NFTs, inflation in the U.S. is swelling like a pubescent pimple ready to pop, folks don’t want to leave their houses so much anymore, and we sell $3 cups of brown water. If the specialty-coffee industry is going to survive, baristas have a big role to play.
A Quick Reminder About the Coffee Price Crisis
If you didn’t know, there are some big issues affecting the coffee world right now. For a long time, green coffee prices have been at spectacular lows, with quality-minded roasters paying around $2.75/lb for decent coffees. For the majority of the last five years, the C-market (think “green coffee stock market”) price has been less than $1.25/lb., which has caused what the Specialty Coffee Association has named “the Coffee Price Crisis.” According to many reports, these prices are not sustainable for coffee farmers, and stories of farmers selling their farms or uprooting their coffee plants have become common. This period of time encompasses much of the communal memory for us as an industry. Well, in 2021, that changed. Green coffee buyers watched (many in horror) as prices for raw coffee nearly doubled over the last 12 months, with no sign of prices leveling out.
Why Did Green Coffee Prices Suddenly Double?
Now, there are a lot of reasons for that that I’m not going to get into, but essentially we are dealing with basic supply and demand. Green coffee is becoming more and more scarce, with harvest projections being lower due to weather events and shipping containers being unavailable to export the coffee that does get harvested. Many things have come together to create a storm of forces that are pushing green coffee prices up quickly and showing signs of keeping them there, and maybe that’s a good thing …
Inflation Affects Everything
Green coffee prices aside, U.S. coffee shops have more to worry about than just the cost of raw goods. Inflation rose quite a bit in 2021, with the Consumer Price Index reporting a 7% increase in the last 12 months. Bloomberg reports that this is perhaps the fastest inflation growth in four decades. In a nutshell, what this means is that if you stuck a dollar bill in your sock drawer at the end of 2020, that dollar is now worth only $0.93. Or, if you didn’t raise your prices for a cup of coffee in the last year, you are probably losing money.
Keep Calm and Raise Coffee Prices
Mix these issues with the fact that lots of folks don’t feel comfortable going into public places (like coffee shops) too often anymore, and you’ve brewed a rough situation similar to that time your pal convinced you to take a swig from that French press you forgot to clean out and left sitting on the counter overnight. The solution? Well, I believe it was summed up best by Mike Ferguson in his recent blog post for Olam Specialty Coffee when he said “Keep Calm and Raise Prices.”
If Others Can Do It, Why Can’t We?
To anyone really paying attention to specialty-coffee economics right now, it has become clear that prices for a cup of coffee need to be higher in 2022 than they were in 2021. Of course, this is not a problem, as retail businesses are constantly raising pricing for goods. If they didn’t, your grandfather wouldn’t be telling you all those stories about what he used to buy for a nickel. The issue is that, seemingly more so than with other things, people get really bent out of shape when the price for their daily cup of coffee goes up (at least in this writer’s opinion).
Baristas Will Make a $6 Cup of Coffee Worth Paying For
Now here is where you come in.
In 2022, now more than ever, I believe that baristas have a huge role to play in the survival of the specialty-coffee industry. It will not be long before $5 and $6 cups of coffee are the norm, and that will make customers upset. We (as baristas) need to step up our game and be prepared for this. We need to educate ourselves, practice our customer service skills, and be ready to calm those who may be upset at price hikes. And not only that, we need to go beyond mere pacification and be able to take a negative situation (from the customer’s perspective) and re-engineer it into a positive experience that causes the customer to want to return and ultimately be happy to pay those higher prices. Make no mistake, this is difficult to do, and we all will need to do it not once, but regularly, if we want to see our workplaces thrive.
Customer Service Is the Next Step
Customer service will become an invaluable commodity in 2022 (even more than it already is) in that it will become the piece of the puzzle that will make the $6 cup of coffee worth coming back for. We need to educate ourselves on why these things are necessary and work to gently guide our customers through these turbulent times with grace and confidence. I predict that for many cafés, no longer will “good enough” be good enough. We need to learn how to talk about our industry as a whole and be able to find effective ways to create positive interactions with customers around those topics.
Baristas are poised to play a unique role in connecting with the greater coffee community. By providing genuinely positive customer service experiences, baristas can contribute in large part to the long-term sustainability of our industry. We need to help people understand these price hikes. We need to share our passion in new ways. Baristas are at the front lines of customer service and we need to be on our “A game.“
So, next time you encounter a customer who is upset about something for one reason or another, I triple-dog-dare you to try your darndest to turn that customer into a regular at your café. The practice will be good for you, and good for us. You’re gonna need those skills before too long.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Taves (he/him) is the head of business development for Stovetop Roasters in Michigan. He’s been working in the coffee industry since 2006; he invented the Rattleware Cupping Brewer and reached the finals of the 2017 United States Barista Championship. All of that is another way of saying he’s a seasoned professional at geeking out with all kinds of coffee gadgets. He also enjoys taking advantage of all the great adventures the outdoors have to offer.