What does the "Specialty Coffee Culture" mean to me?

Monday November 27, 2017

Many people have a very different definition of "specialty coffee."  Some interpret specialty coffee strictly as: lightly roasted coffee, or brilliantly designed cafés with brand new equipment, or places that follow the latest trends with merchandise, branding, and all the above.  The specialty coffee community is growing which means it is going to become  harder to differentiate which cafés are considered to be "specialty" because more of these companies will be following these trends with the coffee, merchandise, and buildouts.  The idea that the coffee alone is what makes a café to be a specialty shop is also where the confusion comes into play.  If a company is using top quality coffee, does that mean that they are automatically considered to be a "specialty coffee" shop? Not necessarily.

Coffee is definitely the main dividing factor in what separates a specialty shop from the previous larger companies in what many people call the "second wave" of coffee.  Most of the roasters in the specialty coffee industry are buying better green coffee and consciously roasting their coffee in smaller batches deliberately trying to increase overall quality in every cup.  Also, if the coffee wasn't a major determinant then it would mostly delegitimize what many specialty coffee companies are doing.  Roast profiles, sourcing amazing green coffee, dealing directly with farmers all over the world are largely important in our industry. However, these (behind the scenes) intricacies are something that take place in every roasting company.  The truth is that customers don't really need to know all of the intricate details that go on with coffee unless they want to be educated.  When the product speaks for itself and people come back, because they love what they are getting then something is being done right.  Most customers don't need all the fluff to go along with their drip coffee.    

A friendly aesthetic is another determinant in what I believe makes a specialty coffee shop different from an average shop.  When you encounter a friendly staff, a stylish set-up, in a café with a nice atmosphere this definitely adds to the customer experience being in a comfortable place where you have a sense of belonging.  The most important component to the aesthetic is how well you are treated when you walk up to the counter and order.  Having a positive interaction with the person behind the counter is far more important than what the café looks like and can change a shaky experience to a positive one.  Customer interactions are vital to whether people want to return to a café, and if their experiences are not good then the company doesn't deserve the business from those customers.  That's one area I think the industry can improve upon.  Cafés may have incredible coffee, but if people are getting a nicer experience at the Starbucks down the road then automatically the overall aesthetic of the café declines for the customer.  The coffee in specialty shops may be better, but people in my experience are much more drawn to a friendly face rather than a cup of coffee.  I worked for another coffee company for a few years and have actually seen old customers prefer to get coffee from me when I moved to Vertigo, because we established a relationship of trust and they relied on that more than just coffee.  

There are a lot of details within what the definition of specialty coffee is, and much of it is subjective.  Everyone has different visions, priorities, goals, but to me these are what are most important.  Higher quality coffee, a friendly atmosphere, and dependability are what usually keep me going back to a coffee shop.  When I go to a city that has numerous specialty cafés I am going to go to the one where I have the best experience, because I believe in paying for more than just coffee.  I would not go to a shop where I know people are probably going to be rude or dismissive, even if their coffee is good and the space is immaculate.  If I can depend on a café having a familiar/welcoming atmosphere, good coffee, and some nice merchandise I am more likely to return and want to support that café over others.

Specialty coffee shops should be a proud staple of whatever neighborhood they are in and customers should be able to recommend a shop based on its delicious coffee, amazing staff, and their confidence that their recommendation will be appreciated.  When you wrap all of that into one concept, then that's where a company should want to be.  Otherwise another company with just as good coffee and an equally impressive space is winning on an imperative part of the business.

Evan Morris