Sunday, November 18, 2007

Checking Out The Competition, Per Se

The Fifteen Dollar per cup Panama Esmeralda Auction Lot coffee at Caffe Artigiano, Kerrisdale, Vancouver, BC.

During my visit to Vancouver last week, I got into a bit of an argument with 2005 United States Barista Champion Phuong Tran and Mark Prince, owner of, regarding "the competition." Perhaps I'm just an arrogant bastard or a impressively moronic idiot, but I'm rarely concerned about the actions and/or service levels of most of our "competition" in the coffee business - including Starbucks.

For them, regular visits to Starbucks and other "indie" shops are a necessary part of business to see what our competition is doing. Without a doubt, Starbucks is the behemoth in our industry. They've got all sorts of resources I cannot begin to dream of understanding. They can launch and market a "pumpkin spice egg nog peppermint latte" that's going to sell millions of units worldwide and use .001% of those earnings to buy my company and smush us out of existence.

But somehow, I'm not too concerned about that.

What I'm concerned about is continually developing and refining what we do to deliver some of the best coffee beverages in America. Thoughtful, considerate and tasty is what concerns me as my approach develops. The rest of the industry does what they do very well: deliver coffee drinks to the mass market. I want to focus on the niche of coffee that actually gives a damn about what they consume.

Because of this, I see visiting Starbucks and indie shops on a regular basis "to see what they're doing" as a disconnect for me. Does Thomas Keller regularly visit Cheesecake Factory to see what they're up to lately? Somehow, I think not.

Meanwhile, I read the coffee industry forums that are filled with chatter and discussion about what Starbucks is doing lately. There are literally hordes of indie coffeeshop owners obsessed with checking out, hating and beating Starbucks - yet they offer the very same menu Starbucks offers. These people are my line onto what Starbucks is doing. I don't need to waste thirty minutes of my day visiting one to see for myself what these people are up in arms about this week. That's distraction to my goals.

Instead, I want to be inspired. I want to strive for something more than a mocha frappuccino in a sixteen ounce cup.

For me, I'm not interested in visiting Starbucks to see what they're doing, I'm interested in visiting places that are doing things at a much higher level. I want to see a higher standard to strive for. I want us to do things beyond expectation.

This is the main reason why visiting places such as Charlie Trotter's and Alinea are so important to me. These restaurants operate at the highest levels. They are amongst The Best. I want to see first-hand what they are doing to see if there is something we can emulate and import into our own approach. Food standards, service standards, decor - anything is possible. What is it that makes these places thoughtful and compelling? I want to know. And I want to import that.

That's why next month I've secured reservations for four at Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York City.


nicfortin said...

Totally agree with you Jay.
I'd rather check some "top" shop to make sure I'm track with what is consider "best" right now or even better to make sure I'm in the leading group for "experience and offer" in my area.

Being a "foodie" it's always good to read.
4M Café

true said...


Two quick comments on things you brought up in the podcast. You mention that chefs on the level of Keller don't bother with competitions because they are too busy proving themselves in the kitchen. Perhaps, but... one could argue that competition for an extra star in a Michelin rating or a NYTimes review is even more cut-throat than any head's up competition. Yes, the stakes are higher, but in the end both the star rating and the barista competition is as much about understanding what the judge is looking for and delivering exactly what is expected (from my point of view, both are much more so about delivering on expectations than about individual expression). It's two sides of the same coin.

As for your discussion about the Clover, have you ever seen Wim Wender's movie "The American Friend"? It's based on the novel Ripley's Game. Dennis Hopper plays forger Tom Ripley. Bruno Ganz is a Swiss art framer. When they meet at an auction, Ganz's character refuses to shake Ripley's hand. That's the action that sets the entire plot in motion. Brilliant movie. You won't believe what happens just because the one guy refuses to shake the hand of the other...

John P. said...


agree with your comments here and the podcast. It's tough enough to focus on what YOU'RE doing without thinking about the unwashed masses.

If you've set yourself as leader from the beginning, all you can do is move forward.

As for the Clover discussion. I think that much of the short dwell times have to do with the method of brew extraction. If you compare it to a siphon--total extraction time for the siphon competitions in Japan is limited to a total of sixty seconds. It's a function of grind and temperature as well as the constant turbulence during the brewing process. I've been running a Ethiopian Yirgacheffe - Kochere district, in the caffe this past week. For the same grind, three minutes press, or 55 seconds siphon. More body, deeper flavor on the press. Greater distinction of flavors, more complexity with the siphon. Problem with the Clover is that is that even with all the tweaking... does it produce a better cup?

onocoffee said...

Great comments and great thoughts.

true, you definitely have a point about those of Keller's level and Michelin. It's cut-throat and much more is riding on the line with Michelin than any competitition. While I realize that you're not equating Michelin to WBC, we should understand that achieving glory in the USBC/WBC only meets a standard for that competition and the judges and is typically separate than the shops and the customer experiences at those shops.

This is where I have the greatest disconnect with the competitions.

And I will seek out The American Friend.

John P - I would love to know more about sourcing those Japanese made syphons and their use in the retail environment. With regards to Clover, my trip to the PNW revealed a number of respected baristas who CHOOSE NOT to use the clover in their shops. Those were some very interesting discussions.