Service in Coffee

19 Feb

An anonymous barista (I assume) recently posted a listing on London Coffee Jobs calling out London’s speciality coffee shop owners to pay a better wage to their baristas (It had since been removed).

Of that particular argument I will distance myself from as I don’t work in the city. But I do feel the sentiment.

The argument was put forth against that London’s baristas are, in some cases, lacking the skill of good customer service and that if wages are to rise then so too does the quality of service that is provided.

And so rises the question of what constitutes top service in a coffee shop?

I’ve spent some time mulling this as it’s something I do but have never properly analysed.

I think the problem stems, in part from the perception that a barista is a short term job or a school leavers job, which it is, at least some what. Outside of a very tight circle, a lot of baristas are indifferent about every aspect of their job and so the public expectation is lowered and people will, as a general rule do the minimum they can to get by. So enter the rock star/ hipster baristas. I really dislike using the term, so I want to clarify my meaning by saying the barista whom is driven entirely by ego and is in coffee because it’s ‘uncool’. Not all hipsters and hipster baristas and not all hipster barista are hipsters. These are the group that seem to fuel the negative stereotype and cast the industry in a poor light.

Service expectations change from location to location, in a diner type restaurant I expect friendly service perhaps a brief bit of shooting the breeze if the server isn’t busy and being made to feel very much at ease.  In a more typical restaurant the expectation is different, it’s more formal, the focus is on the food and your company.  So I think the question you have to ask is where do you place your coffee shop on that spectrum, if at all.  Again we need to remind ourselves we are our own industry and shouldn’t follow other areas of the industry blindly.

Service should never be pretentious nor rude. If a customer were to ask for vanilla syrup then the correct response is to apologise for not having what they request and politely explain the reasoning for not doing so. Scoffing should never happen, not only is it outrageously rude and arrogant, you also rob the chance of converting someone to enjoying their coffee as it’s own delicacy and most likely of a future customer, not to mention the people they may discourage from visiting you.

For people wanting to become ‘career baristas’ then they need to not only match the service expectations of do their utmost to supersede them and deliver outstanding service to stand out and make a reputation for themselves not only as being passionate about coffee but being passionate about their customers as well.  Any shop that does this earns many repeat visits from me and I recommend them to anyone who I know will be in the area.  This is how word of mouth works and it is still the most important promotional recommendation that anywhere can receive.

Coffee shops are unique in several aspects.  Baristas are often compared to sommeliers in that we are expected to have a keen palette and be able to describe the coffee in it’s flavours and also know it’s origin.  I think for the most part we do this well, but we’re also expected to create the beverage, which beyond pouring from a bottle into a glass, is not the role of a sommelier, but again I think for the most part we know what we’re doing here, but we’re also expected to perform the rest of the service transaction, serve (and perhaps cook) food, cakes etc. and process payment.

This is an almost unique situation, a chef is not judged on their service skills, and a waiter isn’t judged on their ability to cook. Baristas must take both roles and fulfil them admirably.

When trying to juggle all these elements it’s easier to drop the element you’re least passionate about when you’re in the middle of your rush but this is when it’s most important to keep all your balls in the air.  Taking the moment to break concentration just to smile and say ‘have a nice day’ can really stand you out and make it feel like you care, which at the end of the day, is the goal of the service role.

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2 Responses to “Service in Coffee”

  1. Howard 19 February, 2011 at 11:07 am #

    Great post Alex. Something I’ve talked about on forums before, and a problem/issue/opportunity to be discussed. Youri (my boss!) has posted on this topic on our blog previously and we and many other both think it is a massive issue – so thank-you for again bringing it into the public forum. Raising the points you do, I have no doubts that you are a tremendous host!

  2. Stephen Nixon 4 March, 2011 at 12:56 am #

    Great post and something I have also spent much time considering. Bad service will leave as bad a taste in my mouth as the baby-sick that some cafes try to pass as coffee. Good service isn’t rocket science, in fact it should be common sense. There was a run of hipster Baristas at a popular cafe in Wellington, NZ, who you’d swear charged extra for a sneer and long look down their nose. Unsurprisingly the coffee turned a little bitter.

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