March 2007

Monthly Archive

2007 Western Regional Barista Competition

Posted by on 19 Mar 2007 | Filed under: Barista

Congratulations again to Heather Perry of Coffee Klatch in San Dimas, CA. Over the weekend, she successfully defended her 2006 title at the 2007 WRBC: Western Regional Barista Competition March 16-18, 2007. Also placing were Kyle Glanville of Intelligentsia in Los Angeles (yes, you read that city correctly) and Chris Baca of SF’s own Ritual Coffee Roasters.

Congratulations are in order for all three baristas, who will be competing in May at the U.S. Barista Championship. Photos of the competition have been posted online.

Trip Report: Myth Cafe

Posted by on 15 Mar 2007 | Filed under: Local Brew

While much of the world was gearing up for a free Starbucks coffee giveaway, I got in a little practice yesterday and found espresso just as sketchy — but without the lines. (With California’s minimum wage at over six bucks an hour, it takes only 20 minutes of waiting to make “free” coffee not so free anymore.)

This café/lounge replaced the (rather superior) Zero Degrees in the same Jackson Square spot — though they added a restaurant in the back. The place has kept the somewhat modern interior left over from (abandoned by?) its previous tenants, but now it looks like a rented furnished apartment that’s past its prime: a flat panel TV showing CNN in false colors and a beat-up, old two-group Rio machine are just two examples of a needed facelift.

Of course, how can they afford it? The café seems to have almost no customers — which doesn’t bode well for its survival, but it means you don’t have to wait in line. They have plenty of metal tables and stools outdoors on the corner sidewalk and a view of the Transamerica Pyramid out the front window. All nice amenities with the weather in town these days.

Myth at least has some curb appeal That poor, poor Rio

Using and abusing their Rio machine to do unspeakable things to coffee, they serve their espresso in a large mug with a bare ring of pale crema. It has a decent body and a tobacco smokiness that isn’t burnt, and there’s a lot of coffee grit at the bottom of the cup. A prime example of the typical SF espresso (and all its glaring flaws) that should be put under glass at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sèvres, France.

Read the review of Myth Cafe.

'Say, do you have anything in, uh, well, do you have anything?' The Comité International des Poids et Mesures calls it 'San Francisco espresso'

Coffee vendors teaching wholesale customers to brew’em right

Posted by on 10 Mar 2007 | Filed under: Barista, Quality Issues

This AP story ran across the wire yesterday: KOMO-TV – Seattle, Washington – Local & Regional – Coffee vendors teaching wholesale customers to brew’em right. It is about espresso training for the competitive professional market. Roasters such as Zoka Coffee Roaster & Tea Co. and Caffe D’Arte of Seattle have been successfully offering weekend training courses.

One of the training attendees mentioned in the article is a manager at Satura Cakes in Palo Alto and Los Altos. The location in Palo Alto is just across the street from Caffé del Doge — and may be something I’ll need to check out.

UPDATE: March 27, 2007
Today the Sydney Morning Herald published a related article on the barista training offerings in Australia: Lessons in lattes – Good Living – Entertainment – smh.com.au.

Great Lakes regional barista competition: No regular Joes

Posted by on 09 Mar 2007 | Filed under: Barista

At last month’s 2007 Great Lakes regional barista competition, reigning U.S. Barista Champion, Matthew Riddle of Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea in Chicago, defended his title for the right to compete at May’s U.S. Barista Championship: No regular Joes | Chicago Tribune.

All the King’s Horses, and All the King’s Marketing Consultants…

Posted by on 06 Mar 2007 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Machine, Quality Issues, Starbucks

The news of Starbucks‘ death has been greatly exaggerated.

That’s all I could think of when reading the media and blogosphere response over the past week to an executive memo written by Starbucks’ founder and corporate chairman, Howard Schultz (as reported here on Feb. 24). In the memo, the founder lamented the loss of Starbucks’ “romance” for the sake of rampant, metastasis-like growth — citing the infiltration of superautomatic Verismo machines, bagged coffee, and cookie-cutter store designs. The memo was leaked as a sort of PR stunt; Starbucks first floated it out, leaving it up to public interpretation to see if it had the desired effect, and only afterwards did the corporation verify the memo’s authenticity.

But why was this suddenly breaking news to everyone?! Are people so mindless before their morning cup of caffeine that they’ve walked into Starbucks like automatons for the past dozen years — not noticing Starbucks’ relentless execution on their massive growth plan at the expense of quality?

“Yo! This is Mars Blackmon and I’m chilling with my main man, Howard Schultz!
Yo, Howard, what makes Starbucks the biggest coffeehouse in the universe?”

While some see this as reason to start sifting through the Starbucks ashes (kind of like drinking their coffee, in fact), I am not about to feel sorry for Starbucks making money hand-over-fist. It’s not like this “news” has halted any of their plans to double their growth plans to over 40,000 cafés. But for the marketing wonks who try to justify every business success as a deliberate brand strategy, the memo did not sit well with them — there are things to be fixed and professions to justify. (Meanwhile, shareholders keep counting the money.)

Sure, there are those who lament the watering down of the Mercedes-Benz brand when their automotive offerings started going downmarket to entice new customers. But that has hardly hurt their pocketbooks. An elitist brand is worthless without a profitable base of mass consumer appeal. As in The Big Night, while Primo lamented the rape of cuisine going on at a rival Italian restaurant, consumers were passing on the risotto and opening their wallets for spaghetti & meatballs.

“Is it the machines?!” “No, Mars.”

Among these lamenting marketing wonks is a pair of former Starbucks marketing guys who surprisingly knew very little about what made Starbucks successful. They’ve gone so far as to ridiculously suggest that Starbucks replace their Verismo machines with the return of their old La Marzocco lines (“Starbucks should put the Verisimo automated espresso machines in higher-volume stores and put the La Marzocco manual machines in lower-volume stores”).

The genie is already out of the bottle, folks. Starbucks “going back” is akin to asking Gorbachev to roll back Perestroika (Gorbachev being my favorite Starbucks analogy) because too many of Putin’s critics are ending up dead and glowing. Today Starbucks has some 140,000 employees. Can you imagine the complete chaos, and expense, if even just 20,000 of their low-wage, push-button employees were suddenly asked to operate sophisticated machinery? May as well give every bicycle commuter in Ho Chi Minh City a Volvo and tell them to drive to work tomorrow.

“Is it the baristas?! It’s gotta be the baristas!” ” “No, Mars…it’s not the baristas.”

Some of the branding recommendations even include showcasing some of Starbucks’ best baristas (“Starbucks must give permission to store partners to showcase their flair and personality while on the bar”). Really — only a few of us coffee geeks, an unprofitable minority, even care about these things. To the rest of the world, a “barista” is hardly an elevated profession. Due to the likes of Starbucks, the barista has become a modern symbol of downscale jobs, skills, and wages; coffee’s version of the minimum wage McDonald’s fry cook.

More to the point, there just aren’t enough quality baristas to go around — particularly for the volume that a massive chain like Starbucks would need. The best ones wouldn’t be caught dead in a behemoth such as Starbucks … and would work elsewhere for better tips and appreciation.

The other marketing wonk proposal is that Starbucks differentiate between their retail stores. But that would just create a bizarre Starbucks caste system — defeating many of the business goals of their ubiquity. Launch “Starbucks Select” (gag, cough, spew), and the Starbucks brand becomes a liability at the high end of the market. Take a page from The Gap and differentiate between your Banana Republic’s and Old Navy’s (e.g., call it “Howard’s Grand Café”), and these quality efforts become completely dissociated with their flagship brand and add nothing to its eroding value.

“Money, it’s gotta be differentiation!” “No, Mars.”

So Starbucks is naturally under attack from the likes of McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts; that’s to be expected. You’re making a boatload of money, and others are following suit to ride your commercial coattails. You’re going to attract imitators, but that’s the price of success. “Romance” has nothing to do with it. I would argue that if Starbucks didn’t take the low road of mass production and commercialization, their company would have been run roughshod by today’s upstarts who run quality circles around them at the high end of the market.

So here’s my advice, Howard. Forget us coffee elitists. You clearly abandoned all hope of keeping us engaged many years ago, and it’s hardly hurt your bottom line. We fled your brand with no intention of ever turning back. (No hard feelings — we just agreed to part ways a long time ago.)

And the superautomatic machines? So what! — just keep the drinks coming fast and in a “clown-free” environment. Keep on cranking out the double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiatos and your broad array of coffee-flavored beverages. Note that I did not say “coffee” — as your profits are in coffee-flavored milkshakes, not in single shots of espresso. As I mentioned before, most people really don’t like coffee anyway. A key ingredient to your success has been convincing your customers that they do like coffee — just your version of it.

Stay true to these facts and you’ll be nicknamed “Money” for many years to come.

(Apologies to Mars Blackmon for the preceeding subheads — taken from recent conversations with Howard Schultz about what makes Starbucks what it is today.)

Mars Blackmon asks Howard Schultz about Starbucks

McDonald’s to expand espresso service across U.S.

Posted by on 02 Mar 2007 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Restaurant Coffee

Some say the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again, expecting a different outcome. By that standard, McDonald’s executives should be fitted for straight-jackets and kept away from the plastic knives and forks in their fast-food restaurants.

Despite repeated failures of McDonald’s McCafé in America since 2001, bull-headed McDonald’s execs are doing their best to outdo Sony’s Mini-Disc fiasco-that-wouldn’t-die: McDonald’s to expand espresso service across U.S. | Reuters. This time, McDonald’s excuse to try reanimating the corpse again is their financial and taste-test success of their premium drip coffee.

A Dow Jones Industrial Average blue chip stock must continue to find growth for their shareholders from somewhere, especially when same-store sales go dead in the water. This is what got GE into the unplugged businesses of trailer rentals and leasing contracts. Here McDonald’s Corporation seems bent on turning their fast-food restaurants into entire shopping mall food courts, even if consumers aren’t interested.

I'm lovin' it. Aren't you?

UPDATE: July 14, 2007
OK, so maybe McCafé has been a multi-time failure in the U.S.. But the Japanese don’t know any better and can perhaps save the egos of some of our McDonald’s execs!: McDonald’s to Convert Some Japan Locations Into Cafes (Update1) – Bloomberg.com: Worldwide.

Coffee Consumption in China: Is coffee the new black?

Posted by on 02 Mar 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

The bad business idea that suddenly becomes profitable because of volume, volume, volume is an old joke among many experienced entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. (“If we lose $1 a widget, just imagine the possibilities if we tripled our customers!”) But these days, when that “volume” comes from Chinese consumers, that conventional wisdom seems to have gone out the window.

Case and point with China’s burgeoning consumer market for coffee: Is coffee the new black?. Some see it as a massive business opportunity. Others cited in the article have a more guarded view — seeing the current consumption trends rooted in a momentary infatuation with Western culture. A sort of capitalist fashion statement, as it were.

Many of modern China’s aspiring capitalists love making a name-brand fashion statement as much as anyone in Southeast Asia. But I wouldn’t expect the coffee quality in China to become anything noteworthy until a number of fundamental cultural changes take hold. Chinese consumers not only have to prove their coffee interest is more than just a Western fad, but they still need to discriminate between good coffee and bad coffee. That is something that has only just begun in America after decades of cultural coffee-drinking.

And while overly excited financial wonks are treating China like it’s late 1990s dot-com Silicon Valley, the truth is that it is more like the false utopia of 1950s auto-union Detroit.

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