Over the past few days, a small coffee story in suburban D.C. has blown up to rather ridiculous proportions — virtually requiring restraining orders and U.N. troops to intervene. A brief synopsis of the affair can be found on The Consumerist: Murky Coffee: Coffee-Shop Threatens To “Punch” Customer In His “Dick”.

The story involves an iced espresso lover who religiously believes “the customer is always right”, Murky Coffee and their policies towards what they do and do not serve, the often-belligerent-yet-often-entertaining Nick Cho (owner of Murky Coffee, and an occasional comment flamer here), and some really uncivil behavior that followed on all sides.

Now as much as Nick can be such a thorny guy, he’s entirely in the right on this issue. Murky Coffee’s motivations for not selling iced espresso mirror those of Intelligentsia‘s Bonfire of the Venti’s, which we wrote about last week.

Fire your bad customers

Sure, there will always be customers who presume they are always right and businesses must cater to their every whim. A U.S. News & World Report poll on this very issue indicates most of their readers believe Murky Coffee should just shut up and serve. Some have even gone so far as to rant, “YOUR JOB IS TO PUT BROWN WATER IN A CUP AND TAKE MONEY FOR IT.” Many consumers believe in their own divine right to consume anything they wish (as long as it’s legal), seeing themselves as untouchable. So they naturally take offense to any suggestion that their desires are somehow not accepted in a given place. It makes them feel judged or looked down upon.

But businesses need to reserve the right to fire some of their customers, existing or potential. Some customers, like the one who buys a $20 product and feels entitled to ridicule customer support staff for countless hours, can wind up being very unprofitable and can put the company out of business. Others, as in this Iced-EspressoGate incident, will draw a business away from its core competencies and focus. A business needs to preserve the kind of market they are after and not just chase down every quarter that might appear in the creases of the sidewalk.

Starbucks dulled itself into near oblivion by setting no limits to the amount of accommodations and concessions they made to grow their customer base, and they have completely lost their way for it. As much as Nick, and Murky Coffee, gets under the skin of some people — and as much as Iced-EspressoGate has turned the conversation into a mockery — if a business cannot stand up for its own quality controls and standards for the brand and culture it is trying to create, it has failed to differentiate itself from the next business down the street that will do anything for a buck.

If your business can’t stand for something and draw some kind of a line, what good is it? It’s certainly the question Starbucks investors are asking today.

UPDATE: March 5, 2011
New York City’s Not Invented Here psychosis is on display again, 2 1/2 years after the above: New York’s Puritan Chefs Want It Their Way – NYTimes.com. This from the city that gave us Seinfeld‘s “Soup Nazi” in the 1990s.

To quote the article, “New York has spawned a breed of hard-line restaurants and cafes that are saying no. No to pouring takeout espressos, or grinding more than a pound of coffee at a time.” What next? A New York Times piece about the new trend of local baristas participating in barista competitions?