Wednesday, February 10, 2010

UPDATE-> PO'd: Starbucks Pourover Brewed Coffee

EDIT- @Starbucks reports that pourover will only be used for decaf and bold-pick-o-the-day/week/month. Strike 3 for this idea. Pourover equipment and training is being rolled out and all this work will result in no more choice for customers.
  • Forget my comments below about pourover being too much work to solve a simpler problem- the problem will remain unsolved.
  • Nevermind my observations that with a little more effort, a much higher quality drink could be delivered- the quality is being held down at its current level, or possibly reduced since the two coffee options will be held pre-ground in canisters until they're ordered.
Let's hope Starbucks can rally for the next inning, tweak and put the right equipment on the front counter near a grinder, offer up the whole menu to their customers who are clamoring for it, and sell it (whole bean, equipment, the experience) for a win.

The solution as currently proposed is the equivalent of Jack In The Box deciding to turn off half the flavors in their soda fountain in the afternoon. Come on Starbucks; give us what we want- your coffee.


Seeing @CoffeeCity's post about Starbucks upcoming enterprise-wide introduction of pourover brewed coffee, I felt compelled to run my mouth on twitter. I complained that Starbucks was once again half-right in a program rollout and @jessekahn rightfully called me on it. Here's where I hope to justify some of my jaw-jacking.

Starbucks appears to be using pourover to solve a self-inflicted problem: far-too-static brewed coffee choices and utter absence of customer-choice pressed coffee (and the deleterious effect that has on whole bean coffee sales).

Prior to the introduction of Pike Place Roast as the default coffee brewed in all stores, all day, three different coffees were offered in the morning- two regular, one decaf. These would rotate on a daily or weekly schedule depending on which Starbucks era you're considering. This rotation could be a blessing or a curse depending on which Starbucks coffees you prefer. One day you might walk in to find Verona and Sidamo while another day would present you with LightNote Blend and French. Related, when's the last time Starbucks has served their former signature House Blend?

With the standardization on PPR, suddenly variety was decimated. I would argue variety wasn't halved, but actually quartered or worse. Instead of any two days of the week presenting you with 4 potential different rotating coffees, suddenly only 1 could change and with the mantra drifting towards "consistency" I've witnessed the non-PPR coffee being the same blend for weeks on end... see my twitter stream for more whining. I'm not here to rail against PPR- Starbucks was getting reamed in "taste tests" and I think partly due to the reviewers comparing apples to oranges- Dunkin's daily bland blend was the same store to store, but a reviewer would enter a Starbucks and not have the sense to ask for a press of House Blend if French Roast and LightNote Blend were on tap for the day.

A parallel problem is the de-facto shelving of pressed coffee in the stores. Sure, it's on the menu, but as a customer, it feels like an act of congress would be required to crack a flavorlock and get a french press of a coffee that's not PPR or the bold pick of the day (er, week, er month).

These two issues taken together create an environment where customers aren't very informed about the 20+ coffees (yes, that many) available as whole bean. The packages are pretty, but if they're not cracked opened and offered to customers, those pretty packages are going to sit on the shelves and rot. Let's not forget the only brewing done when Starbucks opened in the 70's was sampling to customers in order to close whole bean sales. No sampling = no whole bean sales. How much labor must be thrown at an espresso-based drink? Most of the drink's cost is tied up in labor. Whole bean coffee labor required? None- ring it, bag it, next.

As a regular Starbucks brewed coffee customer, I'll be very glad to see pourover available on the bar because I'm dying for more choice. I'm just aware that it didn't have to come to this. Fixing the infrastructure and programs Starbucks already had would have delivered a similar result.

My other quibbles are technicalities and have more to do with how the rollout works out in stores. I'm hopeful the hiccups below will be resolved.
  • The equipment is Melitta-style, in spite of the fact that Hario v60 (and in some cases Abid Clever) is becoming the standard. If 15th Ave Coffee & Tea has proved the superiority of v60, why can't R&D see the light and roll out a modern pourover brewer?
  • The equipment is NOT customer facing. If you're going to tie up the labor to brew by-the-cup, why not put the baristas in a place where they can talk to the customer about the coffee and prod a bit to see if they want to take a bag of whole bean home. The customer choosing custom-pourover is not a pour-me-that-drip-in-a-hurry-ima-outta-here person- they want to engage the coffee a bit more and they want some barista interaction. Give it to them and reap the rewards.
  • The equipment likely will not be sold in stores-- Starbucks is presspot centric; Seattle's Best Coffee are the keepers of the Melitta flame. Having noted that, selling the pourover should have been a no-brainer. "If you enjoy this cup of coffee, I'd encourage you to visit the shelf over there and pick up this brewer and some filters." The kicker is that the brewing equipment is all of $3- retail. If you can't sell a $3 coffee brewer-- please don't make me finish this sentence. Sell a sexy kettle and maybe even a tasty hand-grinder to go with it. Foster that grand old class of customer- whole bean consumers. Remember them? The ones that will drop $12 at the cash register and walk away without using even 30 seconds of your labor budget.
  • The pourover presentation is not unique or inspiring- it is literally plastic. The re-purposed toolboxes at 15th Ave Coffee & Tea seemed ham fisted and designed by someone who didn't understand their use, but they were unique. The Hario 1" thick, 6 foot long 6 station pourover that I think visited Roy St was unique. The plexi smallwares shown on CoffeeCity are a snoozer. Combine that with the lack of customer action and you have a recipe for me impatiently staring laser beams into the back of a barista's head, then to my watch, and back again for 3 minutes until my coffee is ready and I can leave.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A tale of two Specialty's

While I had noticed a while back that Specialty's first Seatown location had renovated, it took a nudge by @CoffeeCity to realize that the location had dumped Intelligentsia Coffee in favor of Peet's. There are rumors of more Specialty's coffee upheaval in Seatown soon, so I took this opportunity to compare the two offerings, side by side.

To be clear, the coffee equipment at each location is the same- Scharer superautos, Fetco drip brewers, and Bunn tea brewers. It's just the coffee and roaster branding that's different at each. The one exception is a bit of additional branding at the Peet's location- the wooden menu/signage wall behind the counter is familiar to me from other Peet's standalone cafes. No such element is visible at the Intelly-supplied location, though I don't think Intelly strives for consistency between locations.

I started at the 3rd & Spring location that features Peet's and ordered a small latte, 12oz. The coffee flavor was present, but mild, mostly a sweet nutty flavor. You can see the result below.

I continued to the 4th & Columbia location that features Intelligentsia and ordered a small latte there. The coffee flavor was present, but very muted, sweetness came through, but milk flavor really dominated. I'm a regular (eater) at this location, so there was some comment about making this one right "since it was me". While the flavor was unoffensive (really the program's fault, not the staff), you can see the hint of a rosetta in the cup- not a small feat when combining 1oz of espresso and 11oz of milk.

It's clear that Specialty's is taking a different direction from other retailer/restaurants with their coffee program, but less clear which direction they're going exactly. The typical model would have them choosing a national coffee supplier (which they had in Intelligentsia) OR choosing a local supplier in each significant market they enter (for example, choosing Peet's in the bay area and then Intelly in Chicago, and maybe somebody lower-middle like Vita here in Seatown).Specialty's re-tooling their coffee approach simultaneously with two separate roasters in the same (not hometown) market, strikes me as either an entirely new approach, a "quiet" market test, or some type of last-roaster-standing competition for their wholesale coffee business.

I'm curious to see how this turns out...

Friday, July 24, 2009

15th Ave Coffee and Tea

I had a chance to attend one of the events at
15th Ave Coffee and Tea on Thursday and the short story is... I'm impressed. 

There will be inevitable comparisons with other shops in Seatown and across the nation where the authors will point to 15th Ave missing a component that intelliVenice has or using a classic Marzocco instead of Slayer/Synesso Hydra/GB5/etc -- I would argue those discussions are entertaining, but miss the point entirely. I would also argue that allegations of copying are either legitimate cases of amnesia (did cafes and espresso really spring from one person's head in 2003? or did these same cafes borrow ideas from their predecessors?) or these claims are clever me-too marketing attempts masquerading as righteous indignation.

What is notable? A store conceived and constructed by Starbucks can now be uttered in the same breath as the nation's other premier coffee purveyors. 

And the store isn't noteworthy becuase the de-branding was so hyped, but instead because time and energy were used to create a store that can truly compete in 2009. Sure, there's the Pikes Market store that's similar-ish, but that's just an old whole bean/merch store that's had successive programs (espresso, blended, etc) shoe-horned into it, not the bottom-up new approach that 15th Ave represents.  

15th Ave Coffee and Tea is a truly fresh look at the coffee, tea, and cafe scene that exists today and an attempt to deliver what today's boutique coffee drinker wants. Does the coffee program look more like a Stumptown than a Lighthouse? Of course it does- as a consumer in this century (and this coffee town), that's what I want. If I wanted a no-origin-listed so-so-blend, I could go most anywhere, but if I want higher quality coffee and more transparency, the field gets noticably smaller- Stumptown, some parts of Zoka's inventory, Vita if they're feeling like it. 15th Ave, whatever your notions of it are, give me the consumer, what I want, albeit not at the end of my block.

In additon to the coffee itself, brewing methods are also revised and front-and-center. Gone are a couple paltry choices of coffees available via a big brewer, instead replaced by a goodly number of pourover drip stations that look to be repurposed wooden toolboxes and presspots. Espresso and SOE are available via a tasty 4-group Linea which has its own story, but while the Linea is significant, it is greatly outnumbered by other brewing methods-- a more subtle shift from last decade's singular focus on espresso.

The expressions of food and tea are also noteworthy, but I'll leave those for another post or for someone who's more into them. I need to get a bit of shut-eye before the opening...

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Starbucks new store(s)

As widely reported, Starbucks is opening a handful of new stores. One of these is the renovation of the older University Village location, which is one of the original handful of stores built, re-opening today.

When GoodTimes and I arrived on the scene, there were a few partners inside snapping press photos and a handful of late night workers that kept walking past this sign through the unlocked door only to discover no-one behind the bar taking drink orders...

View across the road...

View from the through-glass table...
This table starts outside underneath the awning and has the appearance that it marches right through the window into the store.

Aside from the aesthetics which I'll leave to the architects and interior designers, the store sports some swank looking merch units, pastry cases, 3 of the copper clad mastrena espresso machines, and a Clover station that floats out by itself with a nice complement of coffees.

While this store will doubtless continue to do good business for itself (it's primary traffic is the 24 hr UW study crowd, followed closely by thirsty upscale shoppers), it remains to be seen if this new design can wow fickle shareholders and get coffee drinkers nationwide to loosen the vise grip on their wallets.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Mokas Candlelight Cupping

I felt very fortunate to attend the inaugural candlelight cupping at Mokas in S Lake Union tonight. The event was orchestrated by Alex who's been rewriting the coffee program top to bottom in the store. It's held in conjunction with the monthly artwalk and in addition to meeting the cafe's new baker and current exhibit's artist, I also caught Sarah briefly. Visiting from Lincoln's Cultiva was Jon. Those were the coffee players (the event was lightly advertized), so on to the details.

Alex shut the lights and shared some of the inspiration for cupping in the near-dark before describing the mechanics.  It's a strange night here in Seatown- coming off a hot day, strong winds were blowing cool breezes through the space and flickering the candles. For a first out of the gate event, this was a pretty ambitious cupping. If I remember right, 15 coffees hailing at least 7 different roasters, covering all 3 major growing regions were on hand. Everything from a serviceable Sumatra from Vita to the ripe-tomato-y 49th Tanzania to the slap across the chops Vivaces to the Roasters Guild Coffee of the Year was on display. Other than listing the growing region, the coffees were cupped blind with the who's-who revealed at the end. Great job Alex and gang!

Here's looking forward to the next one in July...

Friday, April 24, 2009

Vivace's former location dozed today

It's true... you can't go home again. The Stranger, Seattle's Only Newspaper TM is reporting that the former location of Vivace's first non-cart store is being dozed at this hour to make room for light rail.

That's not to say that Vivace is even flinching. With their Alley 24 location blazing and the new N Broadway store's successful opening, Vivace seems to be doing dandy.

I'm still wistful for the former Broadway/Denny location with it's views of the park, but I'll just have to make do with the new Molly Moon ice cream opening at the S end of the park tomorrow.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Proper Spro- Thanks Herkimer!

When's the last time you've received proper espresso service? A saucer is nice, and a spoon is twice, but I'm talking about full service that includes a rocks glass with soda water while your shot is being prepared so that you can cleanse your palate. This is the very service that I've received each time I've ordered an espresso at Herkimer on the Ave. I received similar service at Vivace's Alley 24 when they first opened (they have a soda fountain for goodness sake), but when the line started to stretch to the door, soda service seems to have evaporated. Not so at Herkimer-- I've received the same full service from at least a couple of their baristas, regardless of the (short) line.

When I first saw Herkimer joining the U District's bevy of coffee shops and other businesses that serve espresso (the latter typically poorly), I wasn't sure how they were going to fit in or if there was enough biz north of 45th St to sustain them. The Herk on the ave is small, but packed tight with goods- synesso on the bar, a couple roburs, brewed service, and a pastry case that always has a couple locally produced pastries to tempt me. I tried the Herk a few times last year and enjoyed what they had, but when the weather turned, I couldn't part with Miss Silvia or Mr. Major at home. With the recent break in the clouds (most likely to be short lived), I've rediscovered the tight game at Herkimer. I don't expect to see siphons on the bar anytime soon, but they have all the moves I like to see and they're on the way from my house to the Cowen park playground, so even daddy's a winner when it's park time.

Thank you Herkimer, I hope to be toasting you with a glass of soda in-person soon!