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.