Coffee People Who Need People

Navigating Relationships Within the World of Specialty Coffee Retail

By Erin Meister, Customer Support, Counter Culture Coffee

Of course we’re in the field of specialty coffee for the coffee, right? We breathe deeply over our mugs to capture that intoxicating aroma, and we relish the warming first sip from a cup of something that was grown, picked, processed, roasted, and brewed with loving care. But it’s more than just coffee that makes our industry and our work interesting. The relationships we cultivate as retailers are as integral a part of the specialty trade as the coffee varieties cultivated at origin.

Without people, there are no products. Or, to paraphrase the Japanese poet Ryunosuke Satoro, “Individually, we are one drop of coffee. Together, we are a whole pot.”

No business owner exists in a vacuum. There are myriad complex, delicate, and dynamic relationships that need nurturing in order for a retailer to find and maintain success. By understanding and valuing each of these connections, these relationships can be used to our collective advantage as we grow our businesses and develop a strong consumer base for fine specialty coffee. Let’s look at some of the bonds that café owners typically forge, and address the notion that it might take a village to raise a thriving coffee shop.

Getting the Most out of Your Roaster

Obviously one of the pivotal relationships a specialty coffeehouse owner must develop is with his or her coffee purveyor. Choosing a roaster-partner is no small—and certainly, no quick—decision. Months of research and countless tastings should go into this selection, and every café owner should feel that the collaboration with his roaster matches up to his vision, taste aesthetic, mission, and price point.

Roaster-retailer relationships come in as many shapes and sizes as romantic relationships, and they can be similarly difficult to navigate—especially for the inexperienced. This dynamic is one I can speak to specifically from experience. For the past four years and until recently, I was a customer-support representative for a wholesale coffee roaster. Most of my job in that role was to create, maintain, and to navigate relationships with myriad customers—from café owners to bar managers to restaurateurs. I tried to make myself available at all times, whether my accounts needed training, product information, technical assistance, or even just a friendly face every now and then. Some customers relied on and appreciated that personal connection, while others preferred to get in contact with me only when something went haywire and they needed problem-solving assistance.

Neither style of relationship reciprocation is “wrong,” strictly speaking. They both exist within the roaster-retailer paradigm, and they both drive healthy, successful business. Speaking from a café owner’s perspective, however, which connection seems the least stress inducing to you? If your only interactions with your roaster are when things go awry, will those interactions be mostly positive or mostly negative? More importantly, what sort of impact might this have on your business? (From this side of the phone calls, I have a pretty good idea…)

Every café owner should ask themselves these questions: Does my roaster give me all the relevant and up-to-date information I need about their offerings? Can I ask them about their sourcing practices? Do they offer training, technical support, design consultation—and do I need those things? Do I feel able to voice concerns about service, quality, and consistency, should those concerns arise? What do I want from my roasting partner?

As in any great marriage, neither party here acts as the “boss” of the relationship. By creating and maintaining a connection based on quality, honesty, cooperation, and commitment, the coffee roaster can become one of a coffee-shop owner’s greatest allies.

Your Business in Coffee Spoons (and Cups, and Napkins…)

Coffee isn’t the only thing necessary to stock a coffeehouse. Not only are there supplemental products to sell—pastries, non-coffee beverages, brewing equipment—there are also about a zillion other products that have to be kept on hand in order for the business to operate efficiently. Consider cups and lids, napkins, register tape, paper towels, utensils, sugar, and last but absolutely certainly not least, milk. Where do these things come from, and what value can be added by building a strong relationship with each vendor?

Many café owners make the mistake of expending so much energy finding a coffee roaster that the good work of tracking down other suppliers falls by the wayside, making it easy to fall into the trap of settling for the cheapest and “most convenient” vendors for everything else—often from clearing houses that offer attractive volume discounts or have relaxed minimum-order policies. Naturally there’s nothing wrong with scoring a great deal, but if the service and products provided by the bargain company are mediocre, unreliable, or incompatible with the rest of your vision, how good a deal are you really getting?

Many distributors carry cups, lids, napkins—even bulk nonperishable items like sweeteners and cocoa powder. One-stop shopping might be convenient for ordering purposes, but the café owner should shop around and compare to ensure she’s getting the stuff she really wants, at a price she’s comfortable with. Asking other store owners and managers for advice is one option. Folks are usually willing to help, and it establishes friendly contact with other local specialty-coffee professionals.

Milk is a significant part of the specialty-coffee business as well. Besides coffee, it’s the second most-common ingredient that goes into your beverages. Are generic grocery-store cartons good enough? Doing a taste test with several different types and suppliers before choosing a milk vendor is key, as is speaking with a representative of the distributor—or, better yet, the dairy itself—before signing a contract. Developing a relationship with someone at the dairy or distributor can be a lifesaver. Build a rapport that allows you to speak freely and openly with someone in charge of the supply chain. If your product arrives frozen, spoiled, late, or—ugh—not at all, it’s better to have a congenial relationship from the get-go than to forge a confrontational one in the event of an emergency. You’ll catch more flies with fresh whipped cream…

Remember: There’s a “Team” in “Steam”

Jonathan Rubinstein and his family own a very successful, high-volume group of coffee shops in Manhattan called Joe. What started as one café with fewer than ten employees has grown to an eight-location mini-chain staffed by more than 60 baristas, who provide their many customers with fantastic specialty coffee beverages in a hospitable, comfortable environment—even in the belly of Grand Central Station. Remarkably, while the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an annual turnover rate of 74.6% for the hospitality industry in 2011, Joe’s voluntary turnover rate was a scant 15% that year.

How do the Rubinsteins do it? They follow the Golden Rule: Do unto your baristas as you would have done unto you.

Rubinstein and his family encourage staff to participate in coffee education programs, fostering professional growth. They also provide free weekly yoga lessons for all staff, and even surprise baristas with gifts like a bottle of wine or an iTunes gift card when one of their shops reaches a sales milestone. From the sound of it, wouldn’t you want to work at Joe?

Undoubtedly, one of the most important relationships a coffee-shop owner needs to develop and nurture is with employees. You hire a staff because you can’t do everything yourself. You need a team of people you can trust to prepare, handle, serve, and represent your product the way you would. Professional environments breed professionalism. Café owners who treat baristas like easily replaceable fast-food employees will find themselves with high turnover and a team that is uninterested in improvement or easy to distrust. Turnover is a huge problem, as training employees expends a lot of time, energy, and money. If new hires are constantly jumping ship after going through the training cycle, that can mean a lot of getting-nowhere-fast with a rotating staff of inexperienced and uncommitted baristas.

Encouraging staff to participate in educational opportunities, events, and competitions can build camaraderie and boost morale; creating arenas for baristas to advance within the company will also increase retention. A competitive wage and generous benefits can inspire dedication and longevity, and “benefits” doesn’t simply have to mean full healthcare or 401k plans. Little perks go a long way. Offering small subsidies to staff to purchase things that will keep them healthy—like bicycles and helmets, gym memberships, or even wholesome food—speaks volumes about how much the boss cares about the well-being of his staff, and unquestionably means more than just a few bucks to the baristas.

Hiring, too, should distinguish the specialty-coffee environment from the fast-food joint. Using generalized classified listings will result in a flood of unspecialized applicants and can be overwhelming for a harried café owner to wade through. Online barista communities, food-specific job-search sites like, and networking are more reliable ways to find dedicated industry professionals. The folks behind the counter should always represent the shop’s overall vision, quality standards, and hospitality mission. Those things can’t always be taught, so hiring based on personality is often the trick. If a candidate displays good judgment, habits, and manners, she can most likely be taught to make good coffee, too. The opposite, however, is very rarely the case.

Being able to trust the team is one of the greatest insurance policies a café owner can take out. Remember that the people who work for you are the face you put forward when you’re out of sight. Hire and nurture them in your image. (Who wouldn’t want to create an army of rosetta-pouring “Mini Me’s”, anyway?)

Where Everybody Knows Your Name (and Your Coffee Order)

Customers aren’t just every café’s bread and butter—they’re also the milk, sugar, and croissants.

All successful businesses survive on the loyalty of their patrons, and consumers want a neighborhood oasis where they can go for the atmosphere they crave and the quality they trust. No two customers are the same, and rarely will they want exactly the same things from a coffeehouse. While it’s impossible to please everyone, it’s the business owner’s responsibility to design and execute a model she can stand behind confidently, one that expresses her personality and passion, and that can attract a clientele that it will be able to satisfy in the long term.

Additionally, customers (and baristas, too) expect the café owner to be the resident coffee expert—and she should be. A café owner should read everything she can get her hands on and visit every nearby café before opening her shop’s doors. She should ask questions of coffee professionals, taste coffee comparatively and critically whenever possible, and generally set out to become an expert on the topic if she isn’t one already.

Think about the coffee shop that made you fall in love with cafés. Were the baristas more like friends than servers? Were you as familiar with the furniture as you were with your own home? Did every sip of coffee remind you that you belonged there? Customer experience should be the focus, and every decision should be made with that end result in mind. Create positive interactions, delicious products, and a comfortable environment. Curating a focused menu and an aesthetic from the get-go can help prevent the coffee shop from eventually looking like the messy community bulletin board in the hallway—overrun and disorganized. Having confidence in your decisions and vision will help you build a loyal, dedicated collection of regulars for whom your business is more than “just a café”.

We’re in This Together

The café isn’t just the dream-come-true of the business owner. It’s also a haven for its customers, and a second home for its baristas. Many feet tread its floorboards; many Americanos change hands across the counter; many lives are touched in small-but-mighty ways. The relationships that are built and strengthened between the coffee shop’s walls have tremendous impact on the success or failure of the caffeinated concert that takes place within.

Deciding to open a coffee shop based on a love of community, quality, and caffeine are great things, but the retailer has the responsibilities of protecting and nurturing the very things that drew him to hanging out his shingle in the first place. For a successful business—as with most of the other wonderful things in life—the proof is in the people. It might not take a village to raise a successful coffee shop, but it does take a whole lotta great folks. With the right amount of research and outreach, you’ll surely get by with a little help from your friends.

Erin Meister (just “Meister” to everyone in specialty coffee and beyond) is a member of the customer support team of Counter Culture Coffee, as a regional representative of the wholesale specialty coffee roaster’s education program: Counter Intelligence. She has been in the specialty coffee industry for twelve years, and is also a practicing journalist with a specialty in—you guessed it—specialty coffee. She’s also an avid home cook, a voracious reader, and a runner whether or not weather permits it. She lives and works in New York City.