Fostering an Authentic Experience: The True Value of Specialty

By Lily Kubota, Content & Communications Manager, Specialty Coffee Association of America

If there is one thing about coffee that you can count on, it is change. Coffee is an ever-evolving, amorphous concept. Coffee is the seed of a fruit, it is a roasted “bean”, it is a batch brewed cup, a shot of espresso. Coffee is difficult enough to pin down, but we’re not in the business of coffee anyhow. We’re selling specialty. By definition, specialty coffee is something special. Something delightfully unexpected or comfortingly familiar, prepared with great attention to detail, and presented in such a way to show how truly remarkable it is. With the care and dedication present in every cup of specialty coffee, the importance of communicating this message becomes a great responsibility. What does it mean when someone says, “Let’s go get coffee”? Are they simply planning to purchase a cup of black coffee or a coffee beverage, or are they seeking out an entirely unique coffee experience?

As coffee evolves, the way we sell and talk about coffee is evolving. Our coffee retail spaces are changing, the way we brew and serve coffee is adjusting as new trends emerge, oldies re-emerge, and others die off. Evolution, in coffee as well as biology, gives rise to diversity at every level. Where there is a niche to be filled, someone will evolve and adapt to the environment and fill this need. The beauty of the coffee culture is our ability to fill these niches and adapt to changing conditions, sometimes very rapidly. Those who are better adapted to their environment will thrive; those unable to adapt or find their niche may unfortunately face extinction.

In recent years, we’ve seen a re-emergence of traditional brewing methods used prior to the classic electric coffee maker, urns, and air pots that reigned king for so many decades in coffee retail settings. Does the recent rise in popularity of alternative brewing devices in the café setting indicate a return to craft, and a focus on delivering a truly special experience? With this shift towards a more handcrafted coffee service, cafés are building opportunities for dialogue. Whether a café is able to maximize this opportunity to expose their customer to new ways of thinking about and enjoying coffee is dependent on whether the establishment can deliver this experience in an authentic and approachable way.

In order to deliver this experience, cafés must be set up to welcome curiosity and embrace a new, perhaps hesitant, audience. The reality in the marketplace is that a whole lot of people drink coffee, but a still relatively small percentage of coffee drinkers are seeking out truly special coffee experiences. There is comfort and assurance in the same old thing; a sense of authenticity and familiarity. These consumers are intimidated by the lingo and sensitive to environments where they feel out of place.

Acknowledging the challenges we’re up against, wouldn’t it be reasonable to suggest that authenticity and familiarity are precisely the qualities that we must capture and convey through specialty coffee experiences? The key becomes delivering this familiarity in unexpected ways, and delivering value in this experience. When great attention is paid to the preparation or presentation of coffee, people are either curious or resistant, and often both. But…do we just give up on them? This could be the same consumer who goes to the market and picks out a craft beer off the shelf that is twice as much as a lesser quality beer, without blinking an eye at the price. With specialty coffee, we’re seeing a bit of hesitation and trepidation, but the curiosity is there and there are indications that there is a willingness to pay for the specialty coffee experience.

The value of coffee is dependent on countless variables, most often beyond our control. However, according to James Hoffmann of Square Mile Coffee Roasters in London, the environment in which the transaction occurs has a huge effect on the price that a customer is willing to pay. At the SCAA 2012 Symposium, James discussed the variables that affect the price of a hamburger in London, comparing a £1 burger to a £15 burger. He noted the main factors that motivate folks who are more willing to pay for the more expensive burger, listing better quality ingredients, preparation, better ambiance and environment, and better service as examples. He mused that most people wouldn’t be willing to pay £15 for a hamburger in a place where the chairs are bolted to the floor, no matter how good the burger.

Click here to watch James’ talk at Symposium 2012 on YouTube

James noted that although people are more willing, perhaps, to spend extra money on the expensive hamburger, there is also a place for the £1 burger. Some people may only experience the £15 burger a few times in their lives, but they’ll go to McDonald’s every week. These experiences can co-exist in the world of hamburgers. Likewise, there is room for diversity in coffee, even within specialty coffee. There is already a wide range of experiences available, but for the most part – and particularly in the US – there is still a gravitation to the traditional café model where you order at the counter, pick up your drink, and go sit down. There is nothing inherently wrong with this model, but James suggests that perhaps there is room for alternate café concepts to exist harmoniously.

How do we design new experiences that feel familiar and expose consumers to specialty coffee in a way that feels authentic? How do we convey our message in simple terms that still reflect the care, passion and dedication at every step of the way that were necessary to culminate into this one specialty coffee experience? Providing value through information and being available and willing to share are important for a positive consumer experience, but at the end of the day this has to translate into a tastable difference in what the customer is experiencing. The coffee has to be great.

Lily Kubota began her career in coffee at age 15 with her first job as a barista and became increasingly interested in coffee and café culture over the years. As Content & Communications Manager for the SCAA, she has been privileged to observe and reflect on the intricacies and nuances of the coffee industry on both the consuming and producing side of the supply chain and gain a deeper understanding of this exciting community.