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My Life in Coffee

Time for some pretty pictures.
It occurs to me that I’ve been messing around in the coffee industry for six years now. I’ve had a lot of adventures and learned a huge amount. Coffee has taken me all over the place, from the Voodoo Cafe in Darlington in 2006 (where it all began in earnest), Durham for Caffe Nero in 2007, to Sheffield for the PhD for the next four and a half years, London for Caffe Culture and other research gigs on numerous occasions, then Ohio, and Guatemala City for conferences in 2010, six months in Nicaragua and Costa Rica for fieldwork in 2008-9, back to Darlington for my coffee van in 2009, Afternoon Tease in 2010, my first ever North East Coffee Festival and Doctor Coffee’s Cafe in 2011, and finally to Regina, Saskatchewan for 13th Ave Coffee House in 2012. Oh and my book is being published by a German publisher. It’s been quite a journey!

Here’s some highlights! These are in no particular order and there are a lot of them!

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Posted by on September 29, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Happy Baristas

Or,

What makes a coffee shop, part 2.

 

In the last ten years, I’ve worked in seven different cafe/bar/restaurant/coffee shop type places, both independent and at branches of the big chains – everything from Caffe Nero, to my own coffee shop and previously, my little coffee van in the UK, to the most recent move to this vegetarian restaurant/coffee house here in Saskatchewan. I’ve also spent a lot of time, and an eye-watering amount of money, hanging around in coffee shops all over the world. I think this has given me a fairly good idea of what makes a good one!

I posted previously asking my loyal follower(s) to say what makes a place worth visiting to them. After good coffee, most answers seemed to revolve around the idea of “comfort” – ie: “no metal chairs!!” “big squashy sofas” and “free wifi”. I agree. To me, what makes a good coffee shop is as much about atmosphere and environment, as it is about the coffee. I’ve worked in, and spent time in places where the coffee is not that great. but everyone in there were so friendly and fun that attendance was habit forming. Conversely, I’ve visited places (typically, in the posh parts of London but also significantly in Darlington and one here in Regina) where the coffee itself was exceptional and expertly crafted, but the places themselves felt at best sterile and at worst, pretentious and actively hostile.

Coffee can be sold by image. Some places are just Fashionable: if you can make the coffee look pretty, and if you are in the right location (for example, in the city centre where people with a lot of money reside or work) and build up a popular brand image, then people will pay for it regardless of whether or not the coffee itself is any good. The same is true of ethical branding – serve fair trade/organic/bird friendly/rainforest alliance/ 30% raw/gluten-free/anti-oxident-packed GRIT in recycled cups with 10% going to charity in a ‘social enterprise’ café and position yourself in the midst of the hipster part of town, and that burnt grit could make your fortune.

I am not trying to say that all coffee shop customers are gullible fools – they are not, and consumers are getting more and more demanding of higher quality coffee, hence the increasing preference for independent places over the chains in the UK. Happily, people are starting to appreciate what they are drinking more, and becoming more discerning. My point is really that it is not just the coffee that makes a good coffee shop. People visit for other reasons.

In my experience, creating the right atmosphere is heavily based on personality – that of the staff and of the business owners/designers. Friendly, chatty, informal people who don’t treat customers like they are just walking ATMs. The chain coffee shops attempt to artificially create this atmosphere by effectively scripting their staff, and designing the branches so that baristas can never actually sit down visibly, so that we constantly looked busy and active but never relaxed! Unsurprisingly, this approach usually failed, and gave rise to the chain store baristas being called “robots” “button monkeys” or “drones in green aprons”! (all real quotes from my customer focus groups).

Baristas have to enjoy what they are doing to be good at their job, and should be given the opportunity to showcase their creativity and individuality – coffee and creativity always go hand in hand! A huge amount of Coffee Shop Success is based on personality; particularly in small businesses, it is as much about selling your personality as it is selling coffee. Community is also important, as an article in our local paper showed the other day:

Fully 71 per cent like to support owners who live in their community, and 68 per cent like the personalized service from small businesses.

That’s no surprise to Craigen, who said people note her firm’s visibility in community events and tell her, “we’re going to support you because you support us.”

“People like businesses that participate in the community, their ‘nearness’ and the fact that they get to know the owners,” agrees RBC’s Mike Michell

Read more: http://www.leaderpost.com/business/Consumers+loyal+local+businesses/7041277/story.html#ixzz22v6Ya4kn”

So there you have it: good coffee shops need good coffee, great, personable, happy staff, a sense of community and big squashy sofas. You heard it here first!

 
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Posted by on August 8, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Making sense of the Roaster/Retailer relationships: Caffe Nero

My mission at the moment is to investigate all these ideas of quality and waste in the next stage of coffee production – I’ve seen the farms, now I’m supposed to be visiting the roasters. Easier said than done. I need to know: can roasters improve the quality of coffee? what do they actually do that adds value? what skills are required? What, if anything, is wasted during roasting, and how? what happens to this waste? Finally, and perhaps most specifically, I need to follow up with the retailers of this coffee – why do they choose this style of roast? What do coffee shop owners look for when they find roasters and coffee suppliers? What do they believe is a good quality roast? Is this even important to them?

I wanted to start with Caffe Nero, because in some respects I think it would be a simpler process, but also with perhaps clearer ideas of ‘quality’. Caffe Nero are alone amongst the big chain coffee shops in that they are the only chain which does not roast it’s own coffee; instead, Coburg coffee roasters do it for them. Starbucks has its own roasters, Costa has coffee roasted for them by another branch of the Whitbread group which is essentially the same company. Caffe Nero, however, pride themselves on selling ‘the best espresso this side of Milan’, have apparently designed their own secret blend and roast, but pay an independent company to actually supply the goods. I want to know why.

Coburg, (like many roasting companies in my experience so far), remain elusive. Consequently, the following train of thought is based almost entirely on guess work until I can actually get to see them in person.

Something like this.

Something like this.

I am very intrigued by the relationship between Coburg and Caffe Nero. There is a guy who works for Caffe Nero head office who I have spoken to briefly about all this. He is apparently a ‘buyer’ for the company, and has been for nearly ten years. In all other circumstances, coffee buyers are the people who travel out to coffee producing regions, engage in cupping sessions,  and suggest a price based on their judgement of the coffee’s quality. But if Coburg are roasting for Nero (and as far as I am aware, Coburg also import all this coffee, for Nero, their own label, and for other companies- most notably, Mokarabica, which Gusto Italiano use for their independent shop in Sheffield) – and the roast has been designed specifically for Nero which is what they claim, then why do Nero need a buyer themselves? And why do they need to employ one continously for ten years? What does that guy actually do?

Unless of course, Nero change not only the farms from which they buy their coffee from, but also the roast profile they/Coburg use for the Secret Nero Blend, on a regular basis. This then gives the buyer something to do, but it throws up more questions – do they change it because the coffee harvest varies so much? Can people tell if they have changed the coffee? I’ve never noticed, but then I do notice if it has been made well or badly, or just differently to usual. Am I tasting a difference in the skill of the barista in making the espresso, or a difference in the roast and origin of the coffee itself?  Essentially, I still need to ascertain how important the roasting is to the taste of the final product. Does roasting well or badly, enhance or decrease the quality? And how exactly do you roast badly anyway?

As I said, so far, I haven’t heard a squeak out of Coburg, despite repeated attempts to go visit them. So, I turned my attention to figuring out what Caffe Nero managers actually know of the roasted coffee they serve every day. When I worked at Durham’s Caffe Nero branch, I askedthe manager where the coffee came from. He told me a company called Rizzi roasted it, and he reckoned it came from the Isle of Wight. This worried me a great deal when I first started this project – how on earth was I going to research on the Isle of Wight? Could I commute from Darlington?? I also found virtually nothing during google searches for “Rizzi”, and especially not when looking for links between coffee, Rizzi and Isle of Wight. In fact, it is very nearly a googlewhack. The only reference is to a Mr Mike Rizzi, who is a member of the Isle of Wight fencing club. And even more bizarrely, judging by the dates, I may even have met the guy when I used to fence at competition level. Utterly surreal. But aaaanyway….

By the time I worked at Darlington’s branch of Caffe Nero, I’d been promoted to Shift Leader. I asked the Darlington manager if she knew where the coffee came from, and she told me to just have a look when I had to open up the shop and take deliveries the next morning. Coffee arrived: in unmarked silver sealed bags, in an unmarked box with only the Use By date stamped on it. Not helpful. Further digging eventually led me to discover that Rizzi IS actually a coffee roaster, but it hasn’t existed as a company for many years. It is now owned entirely by Coburg. And they are not in fact based on the Isle of Wight, but on the Isle of Dogs – ie: Woolwich. Much easier to get to. The manager of Durham’s Caffe Nero is a Geordie, and I guess anything that far south is indistinguishable and Foreign. But it does not suggest a particularly close relationship between Nero’s retail staff and the roasters.

I have been contacted by someone who works at Caffe Nero, and has managed the seemingly impossible – visited the Coburg roasters. Given her current position, I will keep her anonymous. But interestingly, she was not very impressed. I quote:

“The guy that showed us… round, really didn’t know his stuff about coffee, he knew about prices, and what they were doing, but not about taste,seasonality, blends etc. I thought as a roaster, who stocked and roasted … he would be more knowledgeable on it. … I do know that Nero make up at least 75% of their [Coburg’s] business though. … their own brand coffee is pretty poor, and I don’t think they sell that much as only a small part of the warehouse is dedicated to its storage.”

She went on to say that the Nero coffee is roasted very quickly at extremely high temperatures (“blast roasted”) and can then be stored for up to a year before arriving at the Nero stores. Neither of these two facts suggest excellent quality to my knowledge. Sure, Nero prides itself on its ‘Italianess’ which usually means roasting the coffee to espresso strength, which is very dark, but it shouldn’t mean burning it. I was also taught (during the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe’s roasting workshop) that master roasters identify flavours within different batches of coffee – based on the altitude and year and geographical location – which can then be brought out and highlighted by roasting in a specific way. Even if Nero’s coffee is not blast roasted exactly, surely it should not be all roasted in the same manner, given that each batch from each harvest would be subtly different?

I cannot verify any of this yet until I actually visit Coburg for myself. Until then, I can only learn through comparisons. I know for certain that the independent roasters, Pumphreys in Newcastle, consider coffee roasting to be a highly skilled art. I’d love to know what they think of large scale roasting for a large chain, as with Coburg and Caffe Nero. What do they do differently, and why? For further comparison, there is of course, Starbucks, who do have their own roasting company within their vast empire. If Coburg are being so elusive, I imagine I would have major problems trying to visit Starbucks; instead, I can quote from Joseph Michelli’s exceedingly unctious book “The Starbucks Experience – 5 Principles of turning Ordinary into Extrordinary”:

There is no hidden inferior material at Starbucks. On the contrary, Starbucks epitomizes a company that has acheived amazing success by not compromising on quality. … The mission statement asserts that Starbucks partners will “apply the highest stardards of excellence to the purchasing, roasting and fresh delivery of our coffee.” To that end, Starbucks do what is necessart to meet or exceed their quality standards… The leaders are constantly researching and developing technologies and systems to improve the consistency of the company’s roasting process and the freshness of their coffee.

But that is it. That is the only reference to roasting in the whole book (and yes, I did actually endure reading the entire, excrutiating lot of it.). Roasting at Starbucks is performed, somehow, to high quality standards. Apparantly. But what those standards are, and how you actually go about acheiving them is not mentioned. Maybe roasting is such a skilled art, that to preserve its magic, it has to remain mysterious? We shall see!

 
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Posted by on July 3, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in Central America

(And the prize for best title goes to…sadly not me.)

I bought a wonderful book in  Rare and Racy, my most favourite book shop of all time, last summer in a fit of Must-Spend-Money-On-Something-Other-Than-Giant-Boots consumption-frenzy. It is: 
The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America by Michael Taussig

Not only am I extremely keen on that title, but the content is pretty good too. Today I finally got round to reading it, while sitting in Caffe Nero, supping espressos to refuel after a gym session. Along comes Grem. “Buy us a coffee??” he says. “Fat chance!” I reply. Pretty much the same opening lines that we use every time we meet. Greetings (!) dealt with, he then picks up my book. I have to explain that commodity fetishism does not mean what he thinks it means. It is not, or at least, very rarely is it “kinky.”. Grem looks disappointed. Next question: “What the fook’s “Cosmogenesis”? I mentally calculate whether the length of time it would take me to explain that would be longer than his attention span. Very probably. Sigh… this was not going to be a productive afternoon.

***

Three weeks ago, I was sitting in another cafe, drinking espressos as well. Only that place was Cafe Central in San Jose, Costa Rica. It is still very strange to think of it like that. In some ways I feel like I’ve been back for ages, but then, I don’t feel I’ve been away from Central America long enough yet to miss it too much. It both amazes and scares me how easily I seem to have just slotted back in to life in the UK – university work, home life reunited with Long-Suffering Husband, the smell of Ferret, mad, over-ambitious plans and my usual impatience – no place for Tiempo Nica here. And the more mundane stuff: gym sessions, entertaining teenagers, coffee in Nero.

A few weeks ago, I was at the cooperative that supplies some of Caffe Nero’s coffee, specifically, CooproNaranjo, who sell Nero the Costa Rican Peaberry coffee that they sell in bags in the stores, rather than the stuff that goes into their cappuccinos.See the bottom of the Caffè Nero Buy Online page. I’ve bought bags of those beans from Nero before, and it was pretty good. But on the farm, it was EXCEPTIONAL. Completely different tasting, and soooo much better. It could be due to the fact that the coffee hadn’t been transported halfway round the globe, and was very fresh indeed; but then, Nero buys it in green, and it is all roasted in the UK. Green coffee shouldn’t go stale during transportation – that is the point of shipping it green. So, it should be at least partly due to the roasting. In which case, I hope to be able to grill people (pun fully intended – sorry) at Coburg (the roasters) about it when I visit them this summer.

But the same applies to Starbucks too. I tried the coffee on a few of the farms that supply Starbucks, and it was Infinitely Better. Caffe Nero’s coffee isn’t great, but it’s not that bad either. Starbucks, in my opinion, is truly terrible. But it is not that they are buying in low quality coffee. Some of that stuff is world class. So, it all begs the question, What The Hell Do They Do To It To Make It Taste That Bad???

Methinks, they just burn the hell out of it. I have heard several coffee professionals refer to the place as “Charbucks” for that reason. My knowledge of coffee roasting is limited, but I do know that to mask the flavour of low quality coffee, you can just bake it – roast it at a lower temperature but for a longer time, which effectively flattens it all out. It gets rid of the bitter flavours of bad coffee, but it also kills off all the complex variations of good flavour in high quality arabicas. This is also why Costa Coffee’s ad campaign promoting their “slow roasted coffee” amuses my cynical little mind….

The people I met in both Nicaragua and Costa Rica moved me by their obvious passion for their coffee, and the pride they took in their work. But this was not the same thing as my own passion for coffee – they were talking about growing the absolute best coffee plants they could; about organic practices that protected and nurtured the plant and the soil, about harvesting techniques that boosted their crop yield, about working with cooperatives to provide for their families, or about branding their coffee so people would associate their name with high quality. Essentially, it is fetishised. But it was never about a passion for drinking the stuff. Coffee consumption was another world away. And that is exactly what I feel like right now. I am having real difficulty bringing my experiences in Central America together with sitting in Caffe Nero judging Stacey’s barista skills. “Coffee” means something so different depending on where you are, that it is hard to believe I am talking about the same little brown beans.

I do wonder if some of the farmers I met have any idea where their precious crop ends up, or any concept of barista championships or chain coffee shops or a decaf-one-shot-grande-white-choc-mocha-with-cream-and-no-syrup. In his book, Michael Taussig tells of Colombian sugar plantation workers who make a pact with the Devil so they can produce more sugar cane to make more money. This arises because sugar cane is a cash crop – the workers do not own the land they work, instead they are making money for someone else. They cannot subsist off their labour, because you cannot survive off sugar alone, and you cannot eat money. These farmers would prefer to grow food crops for themselves rather than farm sugar to make money to buy food from other people. It is far more logical, if you think about it. Capitalism is Satan’s banking!! Ahem. But having found themselves in this difficult situation, they makes deals with the Devil to try and improve their lot. Taussig’s accounts of this are literal – they visit sourcerers to help make these pacts and summon up demons and so on. Fascinating stuff.

Of course I am going to argue that some of the coffee farmers do the same. I never found any diabolical dealings in Nicaragua (sadly), but metaphorically, coffee farmers share the same plight. Coffee is still a cash crop, you can’t eat it. When coffee growing is fetishised to such an extent, when the farmers are so proud of what they do, do they worry that their precious crop ends up in Nescafe Instant or in an over-roasted blend in Charbucks? Or do they just want to sell it to the people who pay the most? (Probably not Starbucks either…) Is selling wonderful coffee to people who will burn it, like making a pact with Lucifer himself?

Incidently, when I started working at Caffe Nero, someone – probably Grem – pointed out that if working at Starbucks was akin to selling your soul to the Devil, then what does that make working for Nero?;

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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Caffeinated Musings from the Teenage Fanclub

I have spent a significant amount of time in the last year trying to avoid Customers. For me, coffee shop customers are not really relevant. One of the main concerns and trains of thought within the Waste of the World programme is waste as part of the production process – often integral to production, and not just the end result of consumption. Therefore, I am interested in what, if anything, gets wasted as coffee beans are processed into the branded caffeinated-beverage-of-choice in UK coffee shops. Customers consume; they are not part of the production process, although, admittedly, they are the reason for the production process.

However, with some not so subtle persuasion from my supervisors, I have been convinced to do a few focus groups with customers in the cafes I am studying. Customers can create waste in their own way. The most obvious way being, if for whatever reason they do not like the coffee they are served, they complain, and the coffee drink is wasted. There are also more indirect ways in which the customer is responsible for waste. I am trying to argue within this project that very high quality coffees are more wasteful to produce. Therefore, if the customers demand high quality coffee, then more has to be wasted in order to supply that demand. In some cases, I would also suggest that the level of skill involved – not just by the barista, but by the farmers and roasters as well, is wasted on the customers who just want the caffeine content for instance. Then there are other even more subjective things like wasting time in coffee shops, and wasting money on overpriced fashionable coffee brands. And so on and so forth. Eventually, they wore me down, and I agreed to interview some customers to find out, essentially, how fussy they are.

My first ‘focus group’ – and I use the term very loosely in this sense, was with the self-defined ‘Teenage Fanclub’ – that is, a bunch of teenagers who I knew from when they used to take up space and not spend anything in the Voodoo Cafe, but who very kindly followed me to Caffe Nero when I started working there instead. They all do still go out to coffee shops of varying sorts, they all knew each other even if they didn’t know me, and they will talk for hours and hours with little prompting. So I thought they would be a good group to start with.

Having co-ordinated with “the first official layabout of the cafe” and told him to meet me in Nero and “bring friends”, we took over the back of the cafe, ordered eight different drinks at once which annoyed the barista until she realised how much it all came to, and then proceeded to ramble on about anything that came in to their heads about coffee in the full knowledge that I was recording this for vaguely sensible purposes. The one thing I’d forgotten in all of this is how tiring controlling the conversation of a bunch of over-confident, raucous adolescents is. I used to do this on a daily basis, whilst simultaneously cooking and making coffee for them, six days a week. That part of my life seems an incredibly long time ago now. I can’t decide if I actually miss it.

Most of the "Focus group" being "rewarded" with Nero coffee

Most of the 'focus group' in Darlington's Caffe Nero

In amongst the idiocies (and there were plenty), this bunch did actually say some useful things -especially about why they went to specific places:

Grem:

Well you know I tend to go to In Arcadia but if you’re gonna go to one the old high street chains in Darlo then I tend to go to Coffee @ Elliots cos they don’t pretend to be Italian and you can go in there and say “I’ll have a large black coffee please and you’ll get a Large Black Coffee. No bloody Frenchy americano or whatever it is.

Although they did appreciate that customer service was important, they did not appreciate conspicuously being sold a brand:

Bel: Has anyone ever been to Starbucks in Darlington?
Grem: (very quickly) NO.
Timmus: Yeah…
Vince: Yeah, it’s terrible
Rose: Really overpriced
Sadie: I wouldn’t have but other people dragged me in.
Grem: That one (pointing at Meg) dragged me in to a Stabucks in Newcastle
Meg: I’ve not been to our Starbucks, not when the cappuccinos are nearly twice as much
Grem: Yeah but once when we were out in Newcastle –
Meg: Yeah but there were other people there telling us to come in…
Grem: Yeah I suppose
Bel: So would you see Neros are being better quality than Starbucks?
Grem: Yes.
Vince: And better value for money as well actually
Bel: Really?
Grem: Yeah, Starbucks in really expensive and you get a tiny little cup
Vince: I used to order Frappuccinos quite a lot and Starbucks give you like, ice cream! It’s just a milkshake, and you’re like, “I could’ve gone to McDonalds for that!””

They also admitted that often, it was not just the coffee they went in for:

Sadie: I think I’m just lazy. By the time I’ve walked all the way in to town, I just want to sit down somewhere. Coffee just comes with it!

Surprisingly, (for skint teenagers) they all said that they would pay more for high quality coffee, and good service:

Rose: Well you see them do more here.
Grem: Again, it’s all about selling the brand. If you see them do more here, you think, well, you tend to think you’re getting your money’s worth, it must be good! Maybe it is worth paying £2.90 for a big coffee!
Bel: So if you see them doing things you’re more likely to pay more?
Grem: If there’s more effort then you pay more money
Bel: Ok
Vince: You get a better quality too
Grem: yeah. If it looks classy and presentable then..
Vince: And if they look presentable as well…
Grem: Would you really go into a coffee shop where it’s being manned by a bunch of fat ugly sweaty slobs?

However, having said that, they didn’t really seem to realise what skills the barista actually has to possess:

Timmus: erm, make coffee?
Vince: Blend the beans correctly, erm, make sure it’s the right temperature and all of that, quite a lot really.
Bel: So, you mean using the machine…?
Timmus: Know how to make milk froth!
Vince: Put all the extra bits on make sure it looks right
Nelson: Know how to make coffee stylish!
Vince: Yeah, know how to make coffee in style for the customer

They were also all perfectly prepared to complain when their coffee wasn’t made right:

Vince: Serg.
Nelson: Serg made terrible coffee
Bel: Oh Serg! oh I see
Grem: He managed to burn filter coffee.
(laughter)
Grem: I don’t get how! It’s impossible! That is fool-proof! Vince could do it!
Sadie: Aawww. Poor Vincey.

Most were very politically aware of Fairtrade issues, and agreed that they would probably pay more if they knew the farmers were getting a fair price for their crops. They were also convinced that FairTrade is fashionable, and that most brands could sell Fairtrade coffee if they wanted to:

Vince: Most places now say they do fairtrade
Grem: – but really they don’t
Vince: Yeah
Grem: (cough) Starbucks!
Sadie: They can’t justify not having fairtrade cos it’s not that much more expensive compared to the amount they add on to the price of the coffee in the first place!

When I explained that Caffe Nero claims to pay ‘better than fair trade prices’ for its coffee, but doesn’t have the official FairTrade mark, they were not impressed: “I feel scummy now!”
They also had some endearingly naiive views on Fairtrade coffee plantations:

Grem: I think so, cos fairtrade farmers are getting more money so they can put more back in to it, to improve the quality of the beans, improve the quality of the harvesting machines, prevent against losses and bad weather and floods and stuff.
Vince: The extra money’s like an investment, isn’t it? The more money you put in, the more you get out of your investment
Grem: Yeah, with that little, whatever it is, -when they sign up to Fairtrade that first little bit of money that you get, they can maybe get a new harvesting machine or hire a few more members of staff, then they get a larger crop next year, and then they can sell more, and get more, and it expands at an exponential rate!

– I didn’t have the heart to explain that it doesn’t quite work like that.

I came away from this group very grateful to them for being unusually helpful. It was only when I listened to the recording over, and over, and over, and over, and over again in order to transcribe it, that I noticed how utterly silly they can be at times:

Bel: Ok! Great! Well, again, is there anything else anyone wants to tell me at all?
Nelson: erm.. Noooo.

Bel: Alright then! Well in that case, thank you very much-

Grem: Oh yes!
Bel: Go on then
Grem: Scientists might be creating a Black Hole with some particle accelerator or something.
Bel: Thank you for sharing that.
Grem: Well you said anything else!!
Bel: Groan.
Grem: They probably all drink loads of coffee, it’s probably why, they’re all trying to find the Tiny Little Coffee Particle!
Bel: Do you think they could make espresso through a particle accelerator?
Grem: What happens if you fire a tangerine, and a Malteaser through a particle accelerator?
Vince: It’d just go whiizzut!!!
Grem: You end up with a Terry’s chocolate orange!
[General groaning]
Grem: You see these are the kind of things you think of when you’re fuelled up on caffeine!
I am not on ANY kind of drugs today, thank you very much!
Oh! And that’s being recorded!

In all honesty, I think this material is actually more valuable for market research for when I open my own cafe than it is for my PhD research. When I open Dr Coffees, I must remember to sell Big Black Coffees, not grande americanos, I must provide “big slouchy squashy sofas that you can sleep on!”, I mustn’t upsell cakes at the end of every order, coffee must be strong but not burnt, I mustn’t make teenagers feel uncomfy if they sit for four hours in the shop having only bought one coffee, hot chocolates and mochas must be topped with as much cream as can be physically fitted in to the cup, and the whole place must be staffed by “fit” waitresses. And dying the coffee pink always helps too.

I have several more of these focus groups left to do, and I have a feeling that other, older, less caffeine-sensitive customers may have very different views.

One more quote from the Fanclub:

Vince: You should put it up as a podcast, it’d be hilarious!

In the relatively safe knowledge that no-one is going to bother downloading all 20MB of this file other than Grem himself, here is the podcast:

Teenage Fanclub Podacast 5th Sept 08

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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Baristas, Quality and Waste

Most of the following waffle is heavily influenced by Eric Laurier’s Cappuccino Community papers, available, here:

Monday 14th July saw the official new opening of the Darlington Caffe Nero. Our nearest branch of Nero closed down

The new Darlington store

The new Darlington store

in March when the bookshop that housed it, also closed. Now we have a brand new one that is a shop in its own right, not hiding within another business. It’s right on the market square, a great location allowing it to have a pavement cafe as well, and it looks all new and shiny and inviting. The Official Launch involved hundreds of Nero-blue balloons all over the tables, and anxious looking new staff in trainee t-shirts nervously getting everyone to fill in customer comments cards. I was feeling mean and awkward so I got the new baristas to make me double espressos: the simplest drink in terms of content, but the hardest to make successfully. One was a pretty good attempt. The other wasn’t.

Four new staff were obviously undergoing their “week of intensive training” that they have to complete before being allowed to serve customers unsupervised. For a new store, this is quite an epic task in that all the staff need training at the same time. Stacey, the original assistant manager, was back, frantically trying to help her new flock. They had also roped in John, the manager at the Durham branch to over see things. The area manager, Kirsten, also put in an appearance although she was less concerned with the staff training. These few were in charge of getting four new staff up to speed within the first few days of opening.

Laurier’s Cappuccino Community project talks about his experiences training as a Barista in Caffe Nero back in 2002. I am intrigued to see if anything has changed much in the last five years. I also did this Nero training in June 2007, and the Shift Leader training last September as well. Unlike Laurier, I stayed at Nero for six months so I probably have a different perspective; I’ve also done similar barista training at other companies, and know that there are considerable differences in how you are trained to make the perfect coffee, depending on the company.

Laurier rightly points out that ‘barista’ is usually a low-status job, or at least that is how it is perceived by the general public. Before getting coffee-obsessed and actually trying it, I regarded Nero/Starbucks/Costa employment as “McJobs” – that is, working for a huge corporation, in a relatively unskilled, minimum wage job, few careers prospects and very quick staff turnover. As it turns out, I was right. Nero pay their baristas minimum wage, get round legal break regulations by saying you can have as many ‘refreshments’ as you want during your shift (eg: you can make yourself coffee whenever) and therefore you can be left on a ten hour shift with only a 20 minute lunch break. It is possible to progress within the company quite quickly if you’re keen and work hard, but given that shift leaders get a mere 20p extra per hour above minimum wage, most employees do not see it as an incentive. It is not a job you an ever actually live off comfortably, even if you work 40 hours a week as I was doing at first. However, when faced with very little alternative, I was relieved to find that I actually really enjoyed it.

In contrast to the social perception, the company itself tries to give the job high status. Caffe Nero prides itself on the quality of its coffee, and therefore, also on the quality of the barista’s skills. All coffee shops need to compete with each other – especially the big chains, and so in the lack of many other differences, they all promote the quality of the coffee and of the staff. Staff training is crucial for this. But, as already pointed out, as the staff turnover is very high (the average job-span of a barista in Nero is around 6 months. Apparently I am typical!) and as a result, there is a constant need for staff training.

Well trained, skilled baristas supposedly make better quality coffee. This is a fairly obvious point, but somehow it gets lost in translation. If most of the public consider barista work as a ‘McJob’ or similar, they cannot fully appreciate the skills of the barista. I’d like to know whether this affects the consumer’s perception of the quality of the actual coffee.

Not too many customers to deal with yet...

Not too many customers to deal with yet...

In actual fact, being a barista is a very skilled job. The Gaggia machines in Caffe Nero stores are all hand operated: baristas have to set the grind of the coffee, pull out the right amount of it, tamp it correctly, and time the pour of the espresso. They have to have a good knowledge of the appearance of the espresso as well, in order to recognise bad ones. For most drinks they then have to froth milk to the correct consistency and present the drink attractively and perfectly. Add to this, basic, friendly customer service skills (including the six service steps which have to be repeated for every customer, and remembering regular customer’s names and favourite orders), food preparation and service, operating the (often infuriating) EPOS til systems, completing all the daily quality checks on coffee, health and safety checks on food prep areas, storage and fridges, and sort out the cleaning rota.If you are a shift leader, you also have to cash up, reorder stock and handle deliveries, and organise and motivate your team. Speed is also a skill which has to be learned and perfected. Caffe Nero need staff who can make high quality coffees quickly and consistently. Espresso is after all, supposed to be ‘express’. The job is both physically and mentally demanding, and I would argue that the main skill utilised is the ability to work quickly under pressure and remain cheerful!

In Caffe Nero, I found that the baristas require an intense knowledge of the Gaggia machine; there seems to be more emphasis on this than on the actual coffee going in to it. This is because Caffe Nero only serve its own blend of coffee, and only offer espresso-based coffee drinks. There is no variety of coffee beans to contend with and only one method of preparation. The machine has to be correctly calibrated; checked and tweaked twice a day. After a while, you begin to learn to intricacies of it, and the machine’s “personality”. The second group head on the right at the Durham branch always poured slightly faster than it should. The grinder at the original Darlington store wobbled its way out of line if it got busy and over-used and the grind had to be reset half way through the day as a result. One of the handles got loose and baristas had to avoid losing it into the bin when tapping out the used coffee. When you spend eight or nine hours a day, bashing out several hundred drinks from this thing, you do get finely attuned it its mood swings. The machine requires far more gentle encouragement and friendly treatment than the customers ever did.

That is not to say, however, that Nero baristas do not engage with the coffee at all. In fact, there is a constant need to check the espressos being made. Each one is checked visually – if it looks right, it can be served. It has to be about 30ml, with a thick ‘hazelnut’ coloured crema on top that shouldn’t disappear too quickly. After a while, (ie: with practice) you just know that it’s right. You acquire the skill and the knowledge of the required quality. Visual quality checks are the only pragmatic form of checks – baristas cannot obviously taste each one, and probably wouldn’t want to. Caffe Nero ask on employee application forms whether or not the applicant drinks coffee. In my experience, a lot of the employees there did not like the stuff at all and refused to drink it. However, Nero do encourage you to sample. I still believe that knowing what the coffee you are making actually tastes like goes a long way to improving the quality of the coffee in the long run.

Unfortunately, the only way to really learn barista skills is through practice. This is obviously problematic because you cannot ‘practice’ on paying customers. If you spoil a customers drink, they simply won’t pay, and it will get wasted. Alternatively, if you practice making coffees before the customers arrive, or during quiet periods, unless the barista drinks all her attempts herself, all her practice will inevitably lead to waste. The saving grace is often the trainee t-shirt. Trainee baristas are given maroon coloured t-shirts with “TRAINEE” in big letters. This acts as a warning to the customer, and can be used as a multi-purpose excuse for mistakes, a conspicuous sign meaning “Don’t blame me, I’ve only just started!”. I, like many others, tried to retain my red t-shirt for as long as possible as a sort of safety net. Caffe Nero have a policy of ‘No crema, no serva!’ – meaning, if the espresso is made badly, with no crema on top, you have to chuck it away and start again. As Laurier pointed out, this tends to worry trainees, who think that redoing the espresso will annoy the customer and slow things up. Caffe Nero maintain that it actually impresses the customer, and shows that the barista really cares about the quality of the coffee. Again, I intend to find out from customers if this actually works.

There is a little wiggle-room in espresso service, even within Caffe Nero with all its rigorous checks. Baristas are encouraged to judge the customer depending on what they order. It is a fair assumption that people who order single espressos or even ristrettos probably care more about the coffee than people coming in asking for flavoured, single-shot lattes. As such, the barista can put more care and effort into making the espresso, possibly more so than for the latte drinkers. A labour saving device which quality-controls never usually admit to.

John explains that Yes, it is dead hard!

John explains that Yes, it is dead hard!

All this is a lot to take in. Laurier admits to feeling overwhelmed by his own barista training. I heard one of the new recruits at the Darlington Nero wailing

“It’s dead hard! Especially when everyone is new. There’s so little time to get it right!”

It is a highly skilled, difficult job, and one which has to be learned very quickly in a high pressure environment. However, the emphasis on training and skills adds value to the end product – high quality coffee inevitably requires knowledge and skills and also, unavoidably produces waste.

 
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Posted by on July 21, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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“Reconceptualising” coffee?

I am not in a writing mood today, having just finished four pages of ‘Bureaucratese’ or “well-written bollocks” for this damn upgrade… so. A few pics for your entertainment:

A Cappucino from Nero - the liquid was found about 2 inches down!

A Cappucino from Nero - the liquid was found about 2 inches down!

Cappuccino from Gusto Italiano - shiny, pretty and perfect!

Cappuccino from Gusto Italiano - shiny, pretty and perfect!

A few differences there, non?

Visual fieldwork maybe… a lot simpler than trying to describe these differences! And then of course, there is the far darker side the the little brown beans:

Black Gold is a very powerful film, I recommend it to anyone who has even a passing interest in coffee and world well-being! If that doesn’t affect you, this might:

Work out not only how much of the price of your branded coffee goes to the farmer, but also how much you personally spend on coffee a year. Quite frightening in my case!

 
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Posted by on July 9, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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