Stirring a bit of the coffee world today is this piece from TIME magazine: Stumptown Coffee vs. Starbucks: Portland, Seattle Rivals – TIME. If Josh Ozersky’s headline of “Is Stumptown the New Starbucks — or Better?” seems oddly familiar, it’s because his article conceptually (and shamelessly) recycled Ethan Epstein’s piece for the New York Press from last June: “Totally Stumped” — an article that lead Eater to run with the headline “Stumped: Is Stumptown This Decade’s Starbucks?” Mr. Ozersky may have won a James Beard Award for food writing, but talk about a strange coincidence.
One major difference, however, is that the TIME article goes all third wave on us. Our years-long annoyance with third wave fiction aside, there’s something outright creepy about mainstream media stumbling cluelessly into social trends years after the fact in an attempt to explain them to us. It made us rethink their headline as, “Is TIME the new 60 Minutes — or Worse?” — given how reading the article made us feel like we were watching Mike Wallace introduce the World Wide Web to a 60 Minutes audience circa 1999. (We may be fans of 60 Minutes, but its track record of reporting on cultural phenomena years after the fact was exceptionally poor.)
In any case, Trish Rothgeb created a mutating monster that must be stopped.
The TIME article also alludes to, but does not deliver on, the Portland vs. Seattle coffee turf wars going on lately. This would have been a much more interesting angle, although it is only a regional (and not national) story, e.g.: A Tale Of Two Cities: Portland’s Coffee Culture Swipes Seattle’s Crown. Could you imagine an amusing piece invoking a comparison with the infamous East Coast-West Coast hip hop rivalry? With Duane Sorenson playing the role of 2Pac and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz as “Biggie,” The Notorious B.I.G.
This is one of the latest in a chain of hole-in-the-wall coffee kiosks from locals Kirk Harper and John Quintos. After Kirk and John got out of operating the defunct 330 Ritch Street nightclub after many years, they took their obsession with Lambretta motor scooters and opened Cafe Lambretta in Nob Hill a few years ago. Cafe Lambretta quickly shut down when they ran into snags licensing food sales, and they since opened a series of coffee kiosks across the city. Each is named after a Lambretta model: Cento, Vega, and the location reviewed here, Special Xtra.
The good news is that all of them serve top-notch espresso. The bad news is that all of them are openly hostile towards customer service in the name of prefabricated exclusivity and aesthetics, operating as glorified lemonade stands in dank city alleyways. While we thought Cento was about as rough as Russian toilet paper when it came to seating options, it’s even worse at Special Xtra: there isn’t even so much as a fire hydrant to sit on, and the only place we found to set down our espresso cup was the green plastic lid of a Sunset Scavenger compost bin from the neighboring loading docks behind 555 Mission St.
We honestly don’t ask for much. We don’t need a ridiculous “third place” adorned with feel-good slogans, racks of merchandising, and a Natalie Merchant soundtrack. All we ask is somewhere to sit other than the gutter — on a block that isn’t known for its heroin deals and condos made of cardboard refrigerator boxes. We’re not even asking for a toilet. But at this rate, we can only guess the next outlet in this chain will require descending a step ladder into the SF sewer system where a broken pipe sprays espresso made from untreated water into your face. Dee-lish. That will be $2. Now go tweet to all your hipster friends.
Seriously: who would have thought that a crime scene lacking any seating or bathrooms would ever become a chain concept? To think we used to make fun of Po’Folks — a “Southern homestyle cooking” restaurant chain located throughout the Southeast — because it had the novel idea of turning poverty into a restaurant concept. We honestly don’t know how Kirk and John get anything done, given that they must spend their waking hours doubled over in laughter at what they can make their customers put up with.
But back to the coffee…
With the decaying Transbay Terminal parking lot across Minna St., you’ll know you’ve found it when you see the Blue Bottle Coffee branding and a small line of people standing aimlessly in the middle of a sidewalk.
Using Blue Bottle’s Hayes Valley Espresso blend in a two-group La Marzocco Linea, they pull very short, potent shots with a textured, medium brown crema of good consistency and relative size. The flavor is mostly an earthy pungency, but there’s a good balance between sweetness, some brightness, and richer body earthiness: this is no overwhelming brightness bomb here, and it works quite well. On the other taste extreme, it doesn’t taste like dirt either. Served in classic brown Nuova Point cups.
To pull off getting your customers to willingly participate in their own ridicule, you need a very good product. This place impressively delivers on both counts, and therein lies its genius.
Read the review of Special Xtra.
Just when you think the profession of the coffee “middleman” was on its way out in this era of the Internet, in come a number of entrepreneurs trying to reintroduce them. What we’re talking about are consumer retailers that intermediate the sale of roasted coffee — with examples that include Citizen Bean, GoCoffeeGo (see Man Seeking Coffee’s recent review), and ROASTe.
These e-retailers provide online storefronts for consumers to review, order, and purchase roasted coffees from a variety of specialty coffee roasters. Virtually all of the participating roasters already have their own online storefronts with support for direct ordering. So the value of these e-retailers is supposedly in the discovery of new roasters and the convenience of buying your roasted coffee from one Web site. Or so the PR machines behind them have stated in our stuffed e-mail inboxes over the past few months.
In some ways, this reflects the ambitions of entrepreneurs who wish to shoehorn the specialty wine merchant business model on coffee’s ever-popular wine analogy. Other elements seem like attempts at coffee’s wine-of-the-month club. In either case, a major flaw in this model is that coffee, unlike wine, goes stale immediately after roasting. To address this, these e-retailers have established on-demand roasting relationships with their roasters.
Another major challenge with this business model concerns pricing. Adding a middleman always costs more money than a system without one, as they have to make expenses and payroll on top of all the other costs in the supply chain. It’s for this reason that coffee middlemen have been extremely unpopular in recent years. They’ve been demonized by the Fair Trade movement as unnecessary leeches, siphoning money from the coffee trade supply chain that should otherwise be going to coffee farmers.
In fact, the entire financial premise behind Fair Trade and Direct Trade coffee is to get rid of the middlemen. So who is paying for these e-retailers? Right now, it seems to be an arrangement akin to that of travel agents before the age of the Internet: the seller picks up the additional costs as a marketing and distribution expense, and no additional costs are passed on to the consumer. But how long will this last once the consumer novelty wears off?
It’s indirect trade: buying coffee through these roasted coffee brokers effectively cuts into the coffee roaster’s capacity to pay top dollar to their coffee farmers.
The travel agent analogy to these e-retailers is fitting, as there’s little you can do with them that you cannot already do directly, and more cheaply (total supply chain cost-wise), over the Internet. Like travel agents in their heyday, the value of a middleman comes when there is a lack of consumer information and/or a lack of direct public access to the suppliers. The Internet has rendered both as non-issues when buying roasted coffee. And we all know what happened to travel agents. So unless the individual roasters themselves completely screw up their business at sales and distribution, a middleman will have a very limited opportunity to improve upon these relationships.
For a comparison, over the years I have purchased green coffee beans (for home roasting) from distributors such as Sweet Maria’s and The Coffee Project. Why? For one, I simply cannot find supplies down the street. It also helps that a Web site like Sweet Maria’s provides a lot of flavor profile information and roasting recommendations. But if individual farms I knew and trusted started selling directly over the Web, that would change things.
Does this mean that these e-tailers don’t provide a valuable service customers want? Absolutely not. A number of them already have vocal, loyal customers. There may turn out to be a sustainable long-term market for one or two of these middlemen for a limited set of customers. But given the economic and disintermediation forces of the Internet, we foresee a pretty ugly commercial bloodbath on the horizon for a number of them. Travel agents did give way to travel-aggregating Web sites, but then we already had an established need for travel agents well before the Web came along.