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?
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.
When exploring the East Bay for espresso, it’s strangely easy to overlook Emeryville. The first city from San Francisco as you cross the Bay Bridge, home to America’s largest specialty coffee seaport, Emeryville boasts numerous coffee businesses, from distributors to roasters. But oddly Emeryville doesn’t boast many retail coffee shops that aren’t part of some monster chain. This location is a notable exception.
In nicer weather, they set out metal sidewalk tables under parasols. Otherwise, there’s a low wooden ceiling over several metal indoor café tables, old black & white science fiction TV/movie photographs on the walls, and all beneath two TV screens airing sports. They serve pastries (for which they have many fans), coffee, and brunch — and, soon we hear, dinner. The place has a quiet, low-key feel with very friendly staff.
If you seem halfway knowledgeable about your coffee, the barista will ask if you want your shot long or short. They preheat their Front of the House cups with hot water (and Vertex cups for larger, milk-based drinks) and use Sausalito roaster, Palio — and also private label the retail sales of their own beans.
Using a four-group Brasilia Portofino — which the owner claims to have won at auction from the closure of the original Torrefazione Italia chain (a machine from their old Union St. location) — they pull shots with a potent but slightly ashy aroma. It has a thin medium-brown crema that just barely coats the surface. Their espresso exhibits a light body, but it carries a robust toasted/roast flavor: with hints of wood and smokiness and some harsher spices.
My, have we become a jaded lot when it comes to barista competitions. After a few years of monitoring them quite closely, we find ourselves quite fatigued by their highly repetitive, narrowly focused preparation routines and judging operations; their insular crowds; and their disconnectedness from the actual experience of enjoying an espresso in a café (specialty drinks, anyone?).
But don’t take our word for it. Check out the USBC for yourself this weekend via their live video feed on the Internet (complete with inline chat). All due respect to the competitors and the industry — and the fun of meeting people at the event and enjoying shots from the 4th Machine. But if you ever wondered why cable TV has not picked up this event yet, just watch it for a few hours. No further explanation necessary; it can make grown men weep for the return of “Yes, Dear.”
We don’t reserve our Trip Reports for just the finer examples of retail espresso. As our database shows, we learn from forgettable and even wretched espresso shots. Falling somewhere between the two is Whole Foods Market. Their Potrero Hill location had to be a bit of a construction project, with a parking garage underneath the store and a Whole Foods Market Bistro off to the lower, southeast corner.
Like many Whole Foods Markets, the place is littered with green sloganeering covering a number of walls for that “Chairman Mao memorial” feel. In fact, the long hallway from the parking garage exhaults enough odes to sustainable, social, and environmental causes that — if viewed in another era — the wall could easily be mistaken for the hieroglyphical praise of a pharaoh’s immortal spirit inside an ancient Egyptian pyramid.
We adore Slow Food as much as the next eco-food Nazi. But can we merely obsess about what we eat without the grocer making us feel like we’re walking a Stations-of-the-Organic-Cross gauntlet to get at it? Maybe not quite as creepy and cult-like as the Organic Coffee Co., but still score it a solid 7/10 on the Creep-O-Meter.
At the corner entrance to their Bistro, there are several simple tables and counter seating at tall stools beneath large glass windows. At the counter of the coffee bar they sell pastries, cold drinks, gelato, and various coffee concoctions — with a full-service grill at the back. Drinking coffee here, let alone eating, is a cacophony of odd noises: encoded mumblings over the grocery store PA system, annoying store phone ringers, order buzzers, and a string of other jarring ambient sounds.
For espresso, they have two Franke superautomatic machines and bold eco-branding featuring their use of “Allegro Handcrafted Coffee”. Their unskilled baristas use them to push-button pull shots of a correctly moderate size. Yet they have a thin film of a pale, almost sickly crema and they arrive at a tepid serving temperature. The shortness of the shot saves it from being a complete disaster, as it has some measure of body and un-filter-coffee-like flavor: some cedar and baker’s chocolate without much distinct pepper, spice, nor herbal elements.
This is remarkably consistent with other Whole Foods locations for both good and bad reasons (mostly not-so-good). Though here they do offer the option of Rego (Oneida) porcelain cups and saucers. But come on Whole Foods: what good is all the green branding and feel-good sloganeering if the end product tastes like a (recycled) cardboard box?