The struggles of a cafe in the Midwest are much different than those in cities. Read from the leaders of Barista’s Daily Grind in Nebraska about how they handle the unique set of challenges they face.
Urban specialty coffee shops create diverse communities with their own coffee cultures, inspire friendly competition, and ultimately elevate the standard of what is possible for the industry in urban centers. But what if you’ve opted for blazing the specialty coffee trail outside of these areas? How do you create a coffee culture that’s attractive to consumers in an area where specialty coffee is not recognized, let alone appreciated?
Take for example a majority of the Midwest. I’m not talking about Chicago, Denver, or Kansas City though; thousands of miles separate these metropolises. While the populations in between might be small, they still offer options ranging from your classic Central Perk from “Friends” to Luke’s Diner of “Gilmore Girls”, even if they lack the distinction of true specialty coffee. In rural areas, 32% of café owners have been in the business for less than four years. This trend feeds a cycle of under appreciation for industry standards and a consumer expectation of high turnover. In these areas, “specialty” refers more to the atmosphere and staff personality than quality in the cup. Additionally, being a member of the Global Specialty Coffee Association is not the guarantee of success that it should be, as many consumers are unaware of the existence or importance of industry standards.
We try to be the outlier in this trend at Barista’s Daily Grind, a coffeeshop in Kearney, NE, which has been operating for 15 years and pioneered the introduction of SCAA standards to the state. While these standards should serve as a distinguishing factor for shops searching for sustainability in these areas, how do we realistically support specialty coffee, expand its influence, and create value for the consumer in the Midwest?
The first challenge to a Midwest coffee shop centers on the perceived notion of what specialty coffee is. Breaking from Folgers in the office brewer and the saturation of gas station cappuccino machines is a crucial step away from the diminished appreciation for the craft. These negatively affect consumers’ perception of both taste and cost, so it is imperative to first instill appreciation for the craft.
One solution is to utilize a barista’s skills in changing perceptions about coffee taste and quality. Don’t supply the traditional coffee station equipped with cream, sugar, stir sticks, etc.…Prepare the coffee start to finish before handing it across the counter. Let your baristas be the experts you’ve (hopefully) trained them to be by allowing them to educate customers about origin, brew methods, taste profile, and sustainability. The customer in the Midwest who complains that the coffee is too strong will be invested in the process through education, and will gradually acclimate to a better product by understanding the components and learning how to adjust them to his or her tastes. Baristas will be engaged and validated for their knowledge of the craft, enhancing the experience overall and ensuring not only a repeat customer, but an educated one.
We must also address the power of language. Unfortunately, in the Midwest many customers’ introduction to a cappuccino takes the form of what is dispensed from a gas station machine. To address this discrepancy, one coffee shop introduced a simple and clever question designed to ascertain the customer’s knowledge of specialty coffee: “would you like that wet or dry?”. This question was never aimed to make a guest feel foolish or to create a culture of “smart” coffee language; it was simply a cue the baristas could use as a starting point in serving the customer. It presented the opportunity for a dialogue about what a cappuccino is and is not, and allowed the barista to make recommendations based on the customer’s actual preferences. Customers would ultimately leave with a drink that was both delicious and satisfying; they’d also be empowered with knowledge to influence future orders.
This emphasis on education should ultimately cultivate an appreciation for coffee, and this recognition can be transferred across the counter in our final recommendation: transparency. Add value to your craft by breaking down the mystery of what happens behind the bar. Barista’s Daily Grind made the craft accessible to its customers by creating an experience aptly titled “Raise the Bar”. Customers are encouraged to come behind the counter during slower service hours and spend 15-20 minutes learning the basic preparation techniques of espresso drinks from seasoned baristas eager to demonstrate both their artisanal finesse and teaching skills. Baristas would explain and demonstrate the techniques and the reasoning behind them, as well as offer insight into the specifics of product and equipment sourcing; customers would then be handed the tools to try their hand at pulling shots and steaming milk, and would be free to ask any and all questions about how the business runs and the craft is perfected.
Though the customer’s attempt at a drink would usually fall short of the high standards held by BDG, the customer would nonetheless come away with a profound respect for the skill that goes into the craft of specialty coffee, along with a properly made drink he or she was able to observe being made first-hand. This practice continues to serve both as an education piece for consumers about what it means to prepare and serve specialty coffee every day, and as a tool to take with them when visiting and evaluating the products and practices in other coffee shops.
By focusing on education, language, and transparency, coffee shops in the Midwest can reach for excellence and sustainability in a coffee culture outside of major urban areas. Empowering the barista to share knowledge and practices across and behind the counter lays a foundation of appreciation for the craft. This knowledge in turn creates value in the consumer for specialty coffee, as well as the desire to demand it in their area, thus expanding the availability of the specialty coffee movement into areas of the country beyond the metropolises. Ultimately, the pattern of high turnover and lack of adoption of industry standards with coffee shops will be replaced with sustainable practices that foster a healthy and vibrant specialty coffee scene.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Jasmin McGinnis (right) began her association with specialty coffee with Barista’s Daily Grind in 2001 while pursuing a Bachelor of Science, and served as a leader within the company for 10 years before becoming the owner in 2013. As a longstanding member of the Barista Guild of America, Jasmin and her company BDG have pioneered specialty coffee in the Midwest, earning numerous Barista Championship awards and recognition for their innovation in the industry. In addition to owning and operating BDG, Jasmin is also the owner of Cup of Coa, a wholesale gourmet cocoa company which launched nationally in late 2016.