Fear of Missing Out (F.O.M.O.) can be a powerful motivator…no one wants to be left behind; everyone wants to have the newest and best. In a rapidly changing, constantly evolving industry like specialty coffee if you can’t keep up with the Joneses you’re screwed right? Lets hope not.

Like any other industry specialty coffee is not immune to trends and fads. In reality because of our industry’s relative youth we’re probably more prone to rapid swings in trends than other more established industries. While rapidly changing tides are not necessarily bad in and of themselves, they seem to lead to a bit of unhealthy behavior for quite a few coffee roasters and retailers.

Everyone is way too concerned about what everyone else is doing, and for all the wrong reasons…in a nutshell: everyone has F.O.M.O. Although I’m sure there are numerous negative side effects of this keeping up with the Joneses mentality,

F.O.M.O. is most damaging to the specialty coffee industry  because it prevents pure and true stylistic exploration and development.

F.O.M.O. kind of sneaks up on us…no one sets out to be just like the next guy. We don’t put our whole financial future at stake to be a carbon copy of someone else. That’s kind of like putting it all on the line to be the world karaoke champion…no matter how well you sing Dark Horse you’re still not Katy Perry. F.O.M.O. starts to rear its ugly head when we’ve had a few successes…when we know people are starting to see us as industry leaders  so we better make sure we’re doing what the other (bigger, more established, more popular, etc.) industry leaders are doing . This is the beginning of the end. It’s the point at which you start focusing on other people and what they’re doing more than you’re focusing on yourself.

We all want to have successful businesses and careers. We all need to make a living. But that’s not why we do what we do. We do what we do because it’s an expression and an extension of who we are. We do it because we have to, and we love it. Every time I make someone an espresso or send out a bag of coffee I’ve roasted in the mail, I’m leaving my stylistic calling card. Whoever receives that is getting a small little piece of me…they get to have a taste of what I think the most amazing coffee experience can be.

Is my interpretation of the perfect coffee experience the be-all and end-all of specialty coffee? Absolutely not. Do I have incredibly strong opinions about coffee; why I like what I like, and why I do what I do? Yes. Does this mean I can’t enjoy coffee from people who completely disagree with me, or have an entirely different stance on what the best expression of specialty coffee is? Hell no!

We should embrace these stylistic differences. Be happy that we can choose to be more than just a bunch of lemmings following each other off the nearest cliff. Be happy that we have a variety of options to enjoy that are all a little bit different. Be happy that we are different than whoever the biggest, coolest kids on the block may be at any given moment. Popularity and trends will come and go, but pure expression of craft is timeless. The most pure expression of your craft is going to emerge when you stop giving a shit about what other people are doing, stop caring about what other people think is cool, and start being yourself.

So if you’re going to spend all of your time and energy keeping your finger on the pulse, just make sure the pulse you’re feeling is your own.


The Land Before Time

With the WBC coming up this weekend my mind is racing with all kinds of thoughts on barista competitions both past and present.

I first became exposed to barista competitions sometime around 2005 and at that time (with the exception of a few standouts) the routines were pretty bad, the coffees being used were suspect by todays standards, and the signature drinks were so harsh I’m surprised the judges were able to take them down straight faced.

Barista competitions have come a long way over the past decade; the routines are more polished than ever with a higher percentage of entrants executing at a high level, competitors are bringing serious heat into the ring when it comes to coffee quality, and signature drinks are (for the most part) actually palatable.

Why then, do I find myself slightly nostalgic for the good old days?

At that time I started training (if you could call it that) for my first competition, it was damn near impossible to find videos or any other documentation of barista competitions on the web at all…you had your rules and regulations print out and that was about it. If you were lucky you knew someone who had actually done one of these things before (I didn’t) and could steer you in the right direction. But for the most part you just kind of had to wing it. So everyone was screwed right? Well, not really.

What I loved the most about barista competitions of this era is the sense of true stylistic authenticity that each competitor brought to the table. You really got the sense that what you saw in their performance was a genuine reflection of how they worked bar on the day to day, and what it was like to visit their cafe. Everyone had their own swag and a totally unique perspective on what specialty coffee was and what it could be, and I loved it! For the most part the higher caliber competitors really were the better baristas and worked for the places you could get higher quality, more well prepared coffee. Sure there have always been the show pony competitors, but as a whole the competitions gave you a nice snapshot of what real life looked like for the baristas of this era.

So are we better off now? Yes. In just about every way. But I still miss that sense of suspense, excitement, and sometimes sheer horror that came with the relative newness of barista competitions.

So if anyone is thinking about stepping up to the plate, throwing caution to the wind, maybe breaking a few rules, and just getting buck wild in front of everyone: I salute you, you’re my new favorite barista.


When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong

I grew up playing Hockey until Jr High/High School then transitioned to full time to basketball, making the varsity team my freshman year. I remember studying and being majorly influenced by pros like Allen Iverson, Mike Bibby, Jason Williams, Tim Hardaway, and Steve Nash; guys who could make big moves in spite of their height. I saw them do flashy moves like crossovers, no-look passes, pull up jumpers and alley-oops. All things that combine  misdirection with precision to do amazing things.

Then I saw the “And 1″ basketball crew start doing their street ball thing and got my mind blown. So I started trying to teach myself how to do “And 1″ moves in my basketball games…and they didn’t work at all. Why? Those moves don’t work 98% of the time in the reality of a fast paced, disciplined, fundamental basketball game. They only work in an “And 1″ style show game where there isn’t traveling, carrying, or many other rules that make basketball, well…basketball.

Turns out the best of the best took their inspiration and applied it to the fundamentals of the game, and that’s what helped them stand out.

I fear in coffee we can try to pull off “And 1″ style moves in our coffee service and ultimately hurt the message specialty coffee is trying to make.

-We have seen industry leaders open up shops with no cream and sugar.

-We have seen no decaf offered.

-We have seen by-the-cup coffee as the only option.

-We have seen espresso only.

-We have seen major variations of roast to the point where it might as well be un-roasted.

-We have seen people cup coffee and not do the R&D to see if that coffee will taste good with cream and sugar; ultimately letting down their guests.

My point is this. Coffee geeks and industry players make up less than 5%-10% of our clientele; an absurdly small percentage of the people who ultimately walk through our doors. But for some reason we seem mostly intent on impressing them before all others. Right now we have the opportunity to be either the Professionals or the “And 1″ rockstars.

*Note: I will be the first to admit that I once wanted to be more like an “And 1″ rockstar than a true professional, but now that I understand my goals in specialty coffee I have fully flipped the script.

My ultimate goal is to make specialty coffee attractive to everyone in order to change the way America perceives coffee. The best way to do that is to make sure we offer things that are approachable and similar to the Starbucks/Peet’s/Dunkin’ Donuts drinkers, but put our own spin on it. Our businesses are ultimately supported by the little communities where our shops are located…in most cases our clientele is mostly the blue collar American community, so we should probably pay attention to what they like.

So, what do I think we should do?

-Offer a gateway drug or two: Milkshakes, sweet drinks, and drinks that the average American and people who only like the smell of coffee (not necessarily the taste) will like.

-Make sure that our espresso tastes REALLY good in milk. It needs to taste unique and different while being more of an accent than an overpowering substance.

-Offer an espresso that is so tasty without milk that people couldn’t deny something special is happening without it being so unfamiliar that people don’t recognize it as espresso. (A more fringe option is great too, but maybe not for your mainstay).

-Serve coffee that will taste good with cream and sugar as your go-to option. Something that won’t taste like the cream has spoiled or gone sour if someone wants to put a little milk in it.

-Crush Service: Stand behind what you offer while doing your best to accommodate people who are completely unfamiliar with specialty coffee. No, I am not saying we all need to serve egg nog lattes, but if they want something sweet make it happen and don’t make them feel bad about it! Let them know you are trying your best to please them. Empathize with them in the understanding that you might not have exactly what their used to but you can make them something right up their alley and make sure they know how important they are to you.

-Be prompt. People value their time and they need to know you value it too. If you aren’t busting your ass to help someone you are inevitably saying that guests aren’t your number one focus…and they should be.

-Continue Learning: Take surveys of your guests; ask and listen. See what people want and modify your menu to win. I am not saying to listen to the one customer that wants “breakfast burritos” and change your whole approach but be mindful of what your market will support and what will ultimately make your business successful.

So if your attempt to do by-the-cup service leads to wait times longer than a few minutes, if your espresso tastes sour in milk, if you aren’t giving someone an opportunity to even like what your serving: you are sending the message that you are more interested in your perception in the coffee industry than you are in the people coming through your doors. You are effectively doing a double dribble, killer crossover, through the legs pass, ball around the head move…it may look good to a few but how many real games do you actually think you’ll win?

Check yourself before you wreck yourself.

-Jared Truby.