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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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Genuine Italian Quality?

(NB: This is a follow up for uni – I started a discussion on here a while ago asking why coffee is perceived to be Italian at least in the UK. These are just some thoughts and experiences on that topic)

Walking round Darlington town centre gives you a relatively large selection of places to get cups of coffee. There are numerous ‘traditional tea rooms’ where coffee is an afterthought, and greasy-spoon cafes who will do instant Nescafe in a polystyrene cup. And then there is two Costas, a Caffe Nero and the brand new Starbucks. So far, so uninteresting. Darlington does boast a few independent cafes, however: The Voodoo Cafe which I am still too biased to express an opinion about, Coffee Bamber – an expensive-looking place which, commendably, only sells FairTrade coffee, and “Coffee @ Elliotts.” This company actually has two branches now on either side of town, and I decided to try it out.
Coffee @ Elliotts is done out quite attractively, all art deco with huge chandeliers, ornate mirrors, heavy wooden furniture and the odd bust dotted around on shelves. There are also lots of sepia pictures of old style continental pavement cafes with titles in… French?
This is surprising. I had honestly expected the elusive Elliott to pretend to be Italian. Costa claims to serve Italian-style coffee, Caffe Nero are so Italian they’ve even added the extra ‘f’, Starbucks was apparently inspired by Italian espresso bars… Admittedly, I don’t know enough about Coffee Bamber to know if it claims Italianess or not, and I tried to make the Voodoo Cafe as Latino as possible, but otherwise it is a safe presumption that most coffee shops have some Italian connection. Elliotts does serve espresso, cappuccinos, lattes, and all the rest, but also apparently sell ‘coffee’ as well, without giving it an Italian identity. All drinks come in ‘regular’ or ‘large’ as opposed to ‘grande’ or even ‘venti’. Although the emphasis is on coffees, they also serve panninis and biscottis, but also plain sandwiches, cakes and jacket potatoes. None of which sound particularly continental.

The coffee at Elliott’s wasn’t bad at all, and was actually cheaper than the bigger chains. And then I found out why – they were using a Bean-to-Cup machine, which is about the same size as a Gaggia espresso maker and works on the same principle, but doesn’t require the same human input. This machine will make espresso-based coffee, but only requires that you fill it up with beans, water and fresh milk in different compartments, and press the right button depending on what you want. It presses the coffee and steams the milk all by itself, and the ‘barista’ just has to put a cup underneath.

This makes the coffee cheaper – not because it is cheaper to run, or cheaper on staff costs; the baristas are still there to bring your coffees to you and cash up etc. It is cheaper, I think, because it requires less skill to produce. And also, less showmanship. Making coffee like this, looks easier to anyone watching. Therefore, value cannot be added to it by making it look more skilled. The process does not look sufficiently complex to warrant charging more to compensate for the skilled labour involved. This sort of coffee is less of a luxury.

This does not mean, however, that anyone could do it. It is still highly unlikely for many people to have a bean-to-cup machine at home, and so the luxury of having someone make it for you is still there. Even with a machine like that, there still has to be some product knowledge involved. An example is that the coffee from Interval bar at Sheffield university also comes from a bean-to-cup machine, just like at Elliotts. Elliotts coffee is infinitely better tasting however. Baristas still need to know how to maintain the machine, set it to the right temperatures and pressure, and what coffee to put in it. Elliotts coffee tasted as good, if not better, than Caffe Nero’s equivalent, whereas the coffee at Interval is somewhere between burnt and stale and possibly flavoured with ground up car tyres. This, to me, implies that there is more to making coffee than just which machine you choose.

As shown by the Barista Championships, there is a lot of skill, art and showmanship that goes in to making espresso based coffees, and the fact that these competitions, and this style of coffee-making are still so popular implies that it is still what consumers want – there must be a specific selling point to make the coffee shops invest in Gaggia machines and in training their staff. If the bean-to-cup machines were as good – and they are quicker, more efficient and dare I say it, convenient, then Starbucks and Nero would use them and the art of the barista wouldn’t be so called for. Something has to make the ‘real’ espresso coffees of higher quality.

I would argue that it is the Italianess that is that selling point. Italianess is part of the ‘experience’ which the big brands are so keen to promote. Caffe Nero, for instance, want to offer the experience of a old fashioned Italian espresso bar and continental cafe. It gives the coffee, and this ‘experience’ an identity, which is very important to the brand, Being ‘Italian’ not only makes the place sound sophisticated and if not exotic, then certainly different to the quaint English tea rooms, it also adds an element of performance. Espresso was invented and perfected in Italy, the first espresso machines were designed and patented by Italians. This style also happens to require more skilled human input, more visual techniques and as such, more labour. Increasing the labour involved increases the value of the end-product, the customer perceives it to be of better quality entirely because of the added labour-value, and so espresso coffees become more expensive. This could be the main reason why coffee shops, like Coffee @ Elliotts become Italian, when they are on Darlington high street, run by Americans and get their coffee beans from Brazil.

 
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Posted by on June 1, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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