deep thoughts on coffee

20 Oct

I love coffee, but my palate isn’t refined enough to call me a connoisseur.  I loathe Maxwell House and instant coffee.  I have one of those all-you-can-drink coffee cards from Brueggers, so that’s where I usually get my morning coffee.  At home I usually make Dunkin Donuts coffee. Brueggers coffee (Green Mountain) and Dunkin coffee are nothing special, so I really don’t think I qualify as a coffee snob.

I do however have proper appreciation of a really good cup of coffee.  Every once in a while, I treat myself to fancy coffee at 21st street coffee. They are a few blocks from my office (I am lazy and do not want to walk), and I usually plunk down about $5 on a cup, so it’s not an every day kind of thing.

21st Street is indisputably staffed by coffee snobs.  This usually doesn’t bother me, and they’ve always been willing to give me suggestions and explain to me the various qualities of the coffees they are offering.  I ran into a friend in Motions Court recently, who shares this coffee enthusiasm, and he told me that he was done with 21st street. The snobbery of the baristas finally was too annoying for him, and he was going to find someplace new for his caffeine.  He said when he ordered an Americano, the barista said “It’s not on the menu anymore,” and refused to make one.  On the menu or not, this would be ridiculous. They’ve got espresso, they’ve got water, why not make an Americano?

I chalked it up to an inexperienced barista being on staff that day, and wasn’t going to let his story impact my love for 21st street.  Then last week I met a friend there for late afternoon coffee. I ordered a cafe au lait, which I have ordered (and been served) there at least 3 other times.  The barista informed me that they don’t serve cafe au lait.  I told her that I had ordered and been served cafe au lait there before, and she didn’t believe me.  Her reason that she couldn’t serve cafe au lait was because they don’t brew pots of drip coffee, they make coffee using the filter method in individual cups.  This is fine and well, and I actually prefer coffee made by the individual cup because you know that it’s fresh.  Her reasoning, however made no sense, because she could make me a cup of coffee, then steam milk, and put the steamed milk in the cup of coffee, and voila! Cafe au lait! She, however, insisted that the closest thing she could serve me was a latte. It being 3pm and all I wanted was a coffee, and not wanting to deal with explaining all of this to her, I said “Fine, give me a latte.”

I’m sure I’ll return to 21st street now and then, because their coffee is really good, but this kind of silliness tarnishes my devotion to them.  I have bought excellent coffee beans from (very nonpretentious) Nicholas Coffee & Tea, and will probably venture there for my next fancy cup of coffee.

I visited Commonplace Coffeehouse for the first time very recently, and was so very very impressed.  It’s close to my house, but not to my work, so I’ll have to save my visits there for the rare occasion that I can visit a coffeehouse on the weekend and read a newspaper.  Another favorite of mine is Big Dog Coffee, or the Beehive for when I’m nostalgic for my college years.  More about all of them another time.

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5 Responses to “deep thoughts on coffee”

  1. Jill October 20, 2011 at 2:22 pm #

    I swore off 21st Street about a year ago. Having an appreciation for a fine cup of coffee or a particular grade of bean is one thing, but you’re right they are snobby and at times downright mean. I will take Nicholas any day over them. Unless I’m in the south side, in which case I head straight for Big Dog… I like your taste!

    • beezuskiddo October 21, 2011 at 8:40 am #

      It just boggles my mind that they say “no” to a request for something they can CLEARLY make…how does turning down business possibly help them? Bizarre.

  2. Luke October 27, 2011 at 2:38 pm #

    Hello- just noticed this blog post and since it mentioned some unsatisfactory visits you’ve had to our business, I thought I’d take a moment to respond. Hopefully after reading this you’ll have a better understanding of where we’re coming from. Regardless, we never want anyone to leave upset. We aren’t in business to make people unhappy. It is usually in trying to give our customers something we think is great and they’ll love that sometimes we’re perceived incorrectly.

    It is true that Americano hasn’t been on the menu for probably over a year, so what the barista said is correct. We do make a couple every day, however. We train folks to offer one of our brewed coffees because in our opinion (we do taste our coffee a lot) it is more flavorful than the americano. If a customer hears that and still would like an americano, we instruct the staff to happily make one, even if it isn’t on the menu and give the customer what they’d like. The cafe au lait is something we haven’t had on the menu for probably 4 years, back to when we were serving coffee from large airpots. For a time we made the au lait via an americano with steamed milk as it was a better priced option for customers. Customers still occasionally order the cafe au lait, but what we instruct our staff to do is encourage the customer to try the coffee black, then provide steamed milk if requested. The way our menu pricing works out it’s more cost effective for the customer and tastier to get a small latte which has a strong coffee flavor and not too much steamed milk. Our customers have told us that this is a better coffee/milk drink than pourover coffee with steamed milk on top, so that or a cappuccino is usually what we recommend.

    So perhaps it wasn’t explained well at the time, but there are many drinks that aren’t on the menu that were several years ago. We used to carry flavored syrups and skim milk, and decided that those items weren’t consistent with the message we were trying to convey about the quality of our drinks. Sometimes customers get upset that we don’t offer certain things. We get requests for iced green tea. Our green tea over ice tastes like asparagus water, so we don’t offer it iced, but sometimes folks get angry because they’re expecting an iced green tea like they would get at Panera Bread. We honestly don’t want to take someone’s money and make them something that we feel they probably won’t like. That customer won’t come back even though they got what they ordere.. Look to the restaurant industry for example. Burger King will not make you a Big Mac, but they’ll make you the best Whopper they can, and vice versa with McDonalds. There are many instances of businesses trying to stick to menu, and for what it’s worth we’re pretty flexible with ours. Our business has changed over time, and we think the coffee quality has reached the point where anyone can enjoy it black if they have an openness to trying it. Overall customers are much happier with our approach than when we basically didn’t have a menu and made anything anyone wanted.

    Oh and Jill- I’m sorry that you felt someone was mean to you. Believe it or not, hospitality is the biggest thing we work on with all our staff (owners included). We focus even more on that than the coffee itself. If you would like to elaborate on your experience please do so, but it seems as though you have already made up your mind to not return which is certainly your right. If you do decide to be a customer again, I hope you find your experience more enjoyable. We really do try.

    Best regards,

    Luke / 21st Street Coffee and Tea

    • beezuskiddo October 27, 2011 at 2:51 pm #

      Hi Luke– I do appreciate you taking the time to write such a comprehensive reply. I see the logic behind your approach, and I don’t disagree with it. In my incident, at least, the barista wasn’t following along with your training…the previous times I have gotten cafe au lait from the location at PNC, the barista did recommend I try something different, and I said “no thanks, I’d like cafe au lait,” and the barista made it and everything was fine. I believe I paid extra for that (and the barista did inform me ahead of time that it would be an extra cost), but that was fine with me. I was surprised this last time, because the barista said “no” to making my request, even though I had ordered it before, and she had the capability of making it.
      Thanks for your attention and your reply!

      • Luke October 27, 2011 at 9:56 pm #

        It doesn’t come up much at our stores so sometimes folks don’t know the best way to handle these requests. Thanks for letting me know what happened, we’ll try to do better!

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