Connecting with the Consumer

By Peter Giuliano

In coffee, everything that we do leads up to one single, important moment: when someone drinks a cup of coffee. This is the moment that we all work towards—it’s when the flavors we seek to reveal are appreciated, savored and celebrated. The economic activity that occurs in anticipation of this moment is what drives every aspect of our industry, and allows us to build a thriving, sustainable specialty coffee trade.

This is also one of the great things about coffee. We don’t think of the drinkers of specialty coffee as apathetic, anonymous consumers. We think of them as integral parts of the coffee chain, as collaborators in the task of creating and appreciating great coffee, as individuals with individual desires and tastes. As a community, we’ve developed a culture of engagement with the consumer, inviting every coffee drinker into the story that is specialty coffee.

I discovered this when, at 18, I got my first job as a barista. I quickly learned that not only were people eager to receive their coffee, they were eager to learn about it and understand the experience of drinking it. My job wasn’t just to take their money and hand them their beverage. My job was also to tell stories about the Italian coffee menu—where the cappuccino came from or the meaning of macchiato—and to remind people that their cup of “java” might be from the island of Java itself, or nearby Sumatra, or far-away Ethiopia. I learned to guide consumers through the flavor experiences that they might expect from Specialty Coffee—the sweetness of a well-crafted Bourbon from El Salvador, the jasmine and lemon of a magnificent Yirgacheffe. This moment of interaction between barista and consumer was the key to giving specialty coffee meaning to these consumers. This meaning, when joined with quality, is a huge part of what makes specialty coffee so valuable, and what drives consumers to use their dollars to fuel our industry.

Three years ago, when the volunteers and board were crafting the SCAA’s strategy for connecting with the consumer, we realized the vital role our coffee professionals play, especially baristas, the sommeliers of our craft. Every day, thousands of baristas prepare coffee beverages, sell coffee beans, and educate and illuminate coffee consumers about the specialness of the coffee they consume. In recognition of this, we adopted a strategy of “focusing on the barista as the point of contact” with the consumer.

It’s important to remember that a barista’s job is not only behind the counter. Baristas are coffee educators, coffee retailers, and coffee evangelists. I still consider myself a barista first and always; it’s the skill I have that allows me to reveal a coffee’s quality, and communicate its story to whoever will consume it.

Through this recognition of the coffee drinker’s various and important roles as consumer, student, supporter and aficionado, the SCAA is engaged in an all-out effort to enhance and support the consumption of specialty coffee through education, deploying skilled professionals to reveal and celebrate specialty coffee to consumers all over the world.

You hold in your hands one tool in this campaign—a set of articles designed to avail our members of some of the tools we use to relate to our consumers, differentiate specialty coffee, and promote it to coffee drinkers everywhere. And it’s working—specialty coffee has never been more relevant, available and valuable than it is today.

Peter Giuliano is director of coffee and co-owner of Counter Culture Coffee, a specialty coffee roasting company based in Durham, N.C. Giuliano has worked with fine coffees since 1988. He is the president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA).