Questions and Answers | Being a Good Mentor for Coffee Lovers

By Sarah Leslie, Regional Manager and Trainer, Gimme! Coffee

“The Specialty Coffee Experience” is a topic that I find very exciting—but also overwhelming. With each new barista I train or coffee that I taste, I am always thinking: How can I ensure that specialty coffee is attainable and approachable? How can I provide opportunities for engagement, and expose consumers to new ways of thinking and talking about coffee? What makes these questions so challenging is that there are many right answers. There are at least enough right answers for each cafe or coffee shop serving specialty coffee, and many more for all the cafes and coffee shops that will serve it in the future.

Engaging our customers requires us (coffee ambassadors, from baristas to beyond) to walk a fine line. We must be extremely knowledgeable, but we should avoid “educating” or lecturing to our customers. We should be passionate, without coming off as egotistical or elitist. And we must preserve the rituals that our customers love, while at the same time offering them something revelatory—an experience that is familiar and forward-thinking at the same time.

As Regional Manager and Trainer for Gimme! Coffee in New York City, I have had the opportunity, with the help of my co-workers, to shape the customer experience we provide. I have also worked on a few projects to engage our customers outside of their day-to-day routine, through special events. What follows are a few examples of how I approach the specialty coffee experience and strive to create it for others in my work.

When I first started at Gimme!, we were hosting a free coffee cupping for our customers with the goal of (1) engaging the community, (2) becoming a trusted source of coffee knowledge, and (3) promoting our coffee, especially whole beans. Many coffee businesses host cuppings for their customers on a weekly basis, and I am not trying to say they are doing something wrong. Again, there are many “right” ways to engage our customers. However, in my observation, it was just not helping us achieve our goals.

Marketing these events was the first challenge. Advertising a “free coffee cupping” to customers can be downright difficult. Customers would ask with a smirk, “What’s a cupping? You, like, put the coffee in a cup?” Describing the event didn’t always make it sound more exciting: “Learn to taste coffee like a pro with one of our expert trainers.”

The events themselves also proved unproductive. The people who came to these events were coming because they loved coffee and wanted to learn more about what tthey already liked. They were also interested to know more about how to evaluate the flavor of coffee, about where coffee comes from and how to brew better coffee at home. Instead of focusing on their questions and allowing them to explore their own interests in coffee, I was walking them through the intimidating steps of smelling, breaking, slurping, and spitting. Cupping is a process that requires specialized knowledge and a particular set of skills and abilities developed over time, with practice. Instead of affirming customers’ love of coffee, and building on the rituals they enjoyed to draw them a step further down the rabbit hole of specialty coffee, I felt like I was overwhelming them.

Instead, I started hosting a series of events on topics that my baristas and customers consistently expressed an interest in exploring: how to brew coffee at home, the difference between a single-origin coffee and a blend, and if grinding your coffee fresh really affects flavor. I was interested to ask customers for their opinions on topics like “relationship coffee” and “bold” coffee, so I created events for those topics as well. I would brew some coffee, introduce the topic for the day, and lead a group discussion with the attendees.

I did find the discussion-style events to be an improvement over the cupping-style events. While attendance was never incredibly high, a core group of regular attendees did come almost every week.

We got to know more about each other and explore topics together, resulting in two big changes to how I viewed coffee-professional-to-coffee-consumer relations.

Firstly, I found that through these events, I was able to take on the role of mentor for fellow coffee lovers. Or at least, that is my grand illusion. Instead of a trainer or a service provider, I was someone who was fostering their love of coffee, and helping them find their place in the specialty coffee world. Sure, they might not all become baristas, but I did hire a few people who attended. Secondly, I had a group of people who began to function like a “customer advisory council.” I got to test the assumptions we make about our customers by asking them questions straight out, like, “What is ‘bold’ coffee to you?”

Sometimes I miss my time behind the counter during the morning rush as a barista. But in my new role, I have had the fulfilling opportunity to host events that engage people both with coffee, and also on a personal level, as a guide to the ins-and-outs of the enriching pursuit of specialty coffee.

Sarah Leslie has been working in specialty coffee in New York City for seven years. As regional manager and trainer at Gimme! Coffee in New York City, Sarah splits her time between the lab and the cafe, sharing her passion for cof- fee with her co-workers and customers.