thinking about accessibility

Last week the founders of Sprudge, a coffee website* that would be a much better use of your time than reading my drivel, released a book called The New Rules of Coffee.

* they call it “Sprudge Media Network,” but to be honest it sure looks like a website to me

Subtitled A Modern Guide for Everyone, the book is a quick little read comprising 55 ‘rules’ for coffee today, from making it at home to buying it in a cafe to coffee’s place in today’s world. Much of what’s here can be summed up as “drink whatever you like without feeling guilty about it,** but maybe think about a little more,” a sentiment I can support wholeheartedly.

** they’re certainly not as pedantic as I am on the question of espresso vs drip coffee, which is probably a strong point in their favor

There’s some very useful information, though overall it suffers a bit from trying to be all things to all people while keeping things brief. Some of the pleas to really get to know where your coffee comes from and who grows it are very earnest but those ideas may be overwhelming to people who rightly or wrongly just want to enjoy a delicious beverage without feeling they have to help make the world a better place while doing so.

Two rules, nos. 35 and 36, deal with something that has been on my mind lately, what they call the snotty barista trope and which I think about in terms of being accessible.  One of the things I like about going to a great cafe is the interaction with a friendly barista, watching them do their work, and trying to figure out how the way they go about it helps determine whether you get a great drink or end up with bitter brown dishwater.  I also greatly appreciate a barista who will make sure that they’re making my drink the way I want it.  And I certainly don’t want to be reminded about the limits of my coffee knowledge.

I’m always a bit perturbed to see the snotty barista at work.  It’s no fun when they look down on you or other customers. Because my work over the past year or so involves improving guest experience (in a non-retail setting), I’ve become particularly attuned to people who treat their customers well and those who do not.  Given how much competition there is in what is assuredly not a high margin business, I would hope cafes would work very hard to ensure their staff are nice to the people who ensure the business’ survival.

I’ve had three experiences where I wanted to pull the barista aside and tell them they were really losing the plot.

  • a younger male barista at one of my favorite shops (I won’t say which, but not in the DC area) who mansplained for 10 minutes to the even younger female colleague who took my order that my usual quad shot macchiato order wouldn’t be a macchiato because it wouldn’t fit in a demitasse cup, which he picked up to show us as if we were a couple of rubes. The barista was perhaps technically correct that four shots renders the drink not a true macchiato, but frankly, so what, put it in a bigger cup and let’s get on living. Perhaps I could have taken a more convoluted way to describe the drink I wanted that would have been more correct, but I think he should have worked with me to better understand what I wanted. The worst sin in this case was lecturing a colleague in front of the customer; unfair to the colleague, and makes for shitty customer service
  • a well-regarded DC coffee shop refused to serve either an espresso or a macchiato to go, in any way, shape or form, because of the impact it would have on the drink; I gave up and walked out
  • another DC coffee shop where the barista/manager, instead of trying to work with me on figuring out my drink, refused to add extra shots to a macchiato, even after I told him he could call it whatever he wanted and charge me accordingly (within reason) so long as in exchange for my money he handed over a drinking vessel containing two double shots of espresso with a bit of milk but not too much; I don’t know if it was because his definition of a macchiato couldn’t accommodate what I was asking for, but I decided not to continue the argument and walked here as well

I dunno, maybe I need to start ordering a cortado with an extra shot instead. I fear I would end up with more milk than I want and buried in more semantics about how the extra shot moves us into a bigger glass and maybe what I want is a latte instead (which is not at all what I want).

So if I could add a 56th rule to the Sprudgeling’s little book, it would be this:

Rule 56:  A little barista self-awareness goes a long way
Lecturing the customer about the semantics of a particular drink is exactly the kind of thing that gives third wave coffee shops a bad reputation as being inaccessible and drives people to crap like Starbucks. There’s a good chance you’re in a very competitive market, and even if you aren’t, a quality customer experience should be just as much your focus as the quality of the coffee.

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