Specialty Coffee Retail Standards

By Sarah Leslie

Attendees at Re:co Symposium in Atlanta last year had the opportunity to visit four different “cafes” over two days in one hotel ballroom. The coffee service organizers Stephen Morrissey and Laila Willbur intended to emphasize the diversity in specialty coffee retailing. For each coffee break, volunteers and staff created four distinct service experiences by changing everything from the menu, to the bar layout, to the atmosphere.

What we were able to achieve at Re:co was actually a great example of what we teach in CP103 Customer Service Essentials. The service experience is a culmination of decisions (either conscious or passive) about our products, atmosphere, and work environment. The course touches on what defines each aspect and its unique impact the service environment while also noting how each element relates to the others. For this issue exploring the meaning of “specialty coffee,” it seems most appropriate to focus on product and how creating drink standards in our cafes informs the service experience.

While product might be the most straight- forward aspect of the service experience, it can be easily taken for granted. Of course you’ll have the best coffee! But what kind of tile will you have in the bathroom? Style is such a big part of specialty coffee, it’s easy to overlook the substance. Certainly we need to focus on both. I would also argue that while product can be straightforward, setting drink standards and creating a specialty coffee menu requires critical thought and careful planning.

sarah leslie2In the sixth hour of CP101/CP102 Espresso and Milk Steaming Fundamentals, we finally discuss drink standards. At this point, instructors have covered the basics of espresso machines and grinders, the thirteen steps of espresso preparation, and how to steam milk. Well before this point in the class, at least one curious student has asked, “Is this a cappuccino or a latte? What’s the difference anyway? Which one is a flat white? What about macchiatos?” Good question.

While best practices do offer some specifics, they are also open to interpretation. After several visits to specialty coffee shops in your city or town, you’d likely discover how much our interpretations of these best practices vary. Some shops have even tried to avoid the issue all together, eschewing drink names and opting for a list of espresso and milk ratios instead.

Especially in the U.S., specialty coffee shops have enjoyed using their menu as a way to differentiate their business from others. For our customers, though, this can be quite confusing. What terms are they familiar with and what do they expect? Since the market is so diverse, it’s wise to prepare your staff to describe your offerings and recommend drinks based on the customer’s tastes. Ensuring the customer receives what they are looking for without alienating them can actually be very challenging. However standard or unique your menu, your customers will expect consistency every time they visit your cafe—both in how you approach the ordering process and the actual drink preparation.

After ten years behind the espresso machine, I’ve learned that if I want to prepare and serve consistent beverages, I really need to know when to remake a drink. When training, I try to emphasize this to new baristas. Translating new skills from the training lab to the cafe can be quite difficult. The percentage of perfect drinks a new barista is able to craft is likely low. But certainly they can make a fair amount of drinks that are good. So, in the lab, I stay positive while identifying the drinks that aren’t acceptable to serve.

We see this same concept in the scoring for barista competition. Competitors are scored on a scale from 0 to 6. Judges are taught to discuss scores using the correlating adjectives: unacceptable, acceptable, average, good, very good, excellent, and extraordinary. From my experience with judging, I know distinguishing between a good and very good drink is nuanced. There’s often debate among judges. However, the contrast between an unacceptable and acceptable drink is stark. Certainly we might all aspire to be extraordinary, but knowing what is or is not acceptable is a critical first step.

We can apply another concept from barista competition which began in the cupping lab to our training approach: calibration. Managers, baristas, and trainers must communicate so that everyone has the same understanding of the ideal drink and an unacceptable one. This should include how the drink is prepared including the order of operations. This is the time to nitpick a little. Some may find it tedious, but when you add the ice to an iced latte makes a huge taste difference. Stirring your airpot of batch brew after brewing makes a huge taste difference. If you don’t believe me, I encourage you to do some taste-testing.

Calibration is essential to creating standards that are understood and upheld. It’s also something we need to do regularly. The longer we work in coffee, and the more experienced our baristas become, it can be easy to assume we are all on the same page. While it might not be necessary to spend as much time covering milk steaming or latte art with an experienced hire, it’s important to go over the entire menu. Skipping calibration sets up your staff for failure and gives your customers an inconsistent experience.

When we love a drink—or, more generally, an experience—the ability to repeat that experience is very valuable. Our ability to offer our customers the same experience time after time builds trust. Great service allows the regular visit to transcend into a ritual. Consistency, even to the minutiae, drives this home. Does the drink have latte art? Is the drink placed on the counter so the latte art faces the customer? If the drink is served to stay, is it always served with a demitasse spoon? Is spoon placed on the right or the left? Is there a small glass of sparkling water to accompany certain drinks? How are all condiments and garnishes offered? While these details may not impact the flavor of the drink, they certainly impact the perceived quality of the service experience.

It’s not just our product—but also how we present our product—that matters. The more calibrated your team becomes, the more consistent their drinks and the overall service experience will become. Outlining specific drink standards makes this possible and is therefore an essential aspect of crafting an excellent specialty coffee experience for your customers. Those potential experiences are as diverse as our imaginations allow, as long as our teams are prepared to manage customer’s expectations.

Sarah-LeslieSarah R. Leslie has been working in the coffee industry for a decade as a barista and trainer. Sarah holds the SCA Specialized Instructor and Lead Examiner credential; and the Barista Level 1, Level 2, and Gold Cup Technician certificates. Sarah serves as the Chair of the Barista Pathway Committee and is on the BGA Executive Council. When she’s not teaching SCA Pathways Classes, you can find her enjoying coffee in Wichita, KS, where she lives with her husband and their dog.