Yesterday’s Chicago Tribune reported on a curious coffee bar concept planned for Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea‘s latest location, currently under construction in Los Angeles’ Venice Beach. The concept includes featuring five different stations where five separate baristas personally attend to each customer, individually catering to their unique coffee whims: Intelligentsia plans a groundbreaking coffee bar in Venice Beach | The Stew – A taste of Chicago’s food, wine and dining scene.

Although this proposed system will supposedly accommodate the customer that’s merely interested in a quick cup of coffee, Intelligentsia CEO Doug Zell claims, “We want the role of the barista here to be like a sommelier or a great server at a restaurant.” Hence the main emphasis of this process will be to individually educate customers about coffee varieties and brewing options, to direct customers to the kind of coffee experience they are seeking, and potentially suggesting possible pairings for the coffee along with home equipment options.

Now coffee’s wine analogy is already a beaten dead horse — particularly as many coffee bars continue their march towards becoming surrogate wine bars. But Zell’s proposed concept seems to take the barista role well beyond sommelier and into the new territory of a Nordstrom personal shopper. Will sophisticated coffee consumers welcome this as a lower barrier to delve deeper into coffee, or will they see this as more of a bloated and heavy-handed sales pitch?

The gate at Intelligentsia Venice Beach, under construction - photo courtesy of Food GPS

Is “the Ignorant Customer” a viable restaurant concept?

Sometimes we feel that the premium coffee industry is a bit over-earnest in their consumer marketing efforts. While we applaud some of Zell’s eyebrow-raising moves, such as eliminating the venti-sized drink, this latest idea smacks of trying to mold consumer behavior — rather than relaxing a little and letting consumers organically help define it a little more.

Part of the fun is figuring out things for yourself. And nobody likes the experience of dining at a restaurant with a sommelier always hovering over them. So while some hand-holding is good, too much and you risk Starbucks‘ insistence on customers speaking in their specialized drink-size language.

Which isn’t to say that we wouldn’t want to be a coffee tourist at Intelligentsia Venice Beach. And Zell and company should be commended for their out-of-the-box thinking and original approach. But this time, we wonder how long before the novelty wears off.

Intelligentsia’s concept seems founded on expectations that most coffee consumers are uneducated, that they will wax poetic about $5-a-cup Cup of Excellence beans from El Salvador if only an expert explained it to them, and that they will come to appreciate cuppings as the ultimate enjoyment of coffee.

That may be true for some of their customers — and certainly more true for Intelligentsia than for most coffee chains. But as with the current fad of experimenting with only single-origin coffees, consumer interest and the business model generated through this educational process is neither long-term nor sustainable. Consumers cannot remain ignorant forever. And in this era of simplifying our lives, enjoying coffee shouldn’t always have to be an educational chore.



UPDATE: April 28, 2009
The L.A. Times published an article on this coming café: It’s just you and your barista at Intelligentsia Venice – Los Angeles Times.