Saturday, November 01, 2008

Setting A Standard

Whether it's online or in-person, I'm routinely asked questions about business. Should I do this? Should I do that? What do I do now? And while I understand that for the inexperienced operator these can be daunting questions, I find that the answer hovers around a very plain and simple concept.

In the coffee business, there are those operators who want to offer their town everything under the sun - just because they've heard that "everybody else" is doing it. Look around and you'll find a plethora of coffee shops offering coffee, espresso, latte, blended coffee drinks, eight hundred flavors of syrup, gelato, croissants, cookies, soups, salads, paninis, fax services, Internet wi-fi, coffee mugs, tea pots, t-shirts, hoodie sweatshirts, boxers, flavored coffees, milkshakes, ice cream, bottled sodas, fountain sodas, mints, computer repair services, CDs, DVDs, and God knows what else you'll find on display.

Then there are those who have been in business for just a few months to a year and now they want to add tertiary products, like fresh-roasted coffee. Just install a roaster and away you go!

Of course, then there's the very typical online discussion about where one can get their milk cheapest (with Wal*Mart usually leading the way). On other boards, they laud the Johnny-Come-Latelies, who have recently announced they're dropping the 20z cup - as though they're trend-setting when they're really behind the curve.

I've had the good fortune to do a bit of touring around the world visiting coffee places and sampling some of the best this planet has to offer. It's been good fun and I'm very thankful for the blessing but the one thing that stands out in my mind is: standards. Or perhaps the lack thereof.

Most of the questions that come across my desk (so to speak) can be answered with a question about standards. Does the person asking the question have them? Do they know what they are? Are they willing and committed to upholding them?

I find that knowing, understanding and holding firm to your standards answers many of the questions of business.

For example, we hold a standard for quality coffee and quality ingredients, sourced naturally, thoughtfully and as locally as possible. Within that standard, it dictates our path for milk (probably the most expensive and certainly not from Wal*Mart), tells us that multiples of flavors and blended drinks are out, that anything above 12z is just not for us, and that we're not interested in offering a varying range of gelato, panini and other sundry items - especially tea kettles imported from the United Kingdom.

When considering equipment, coffee or products, I don't have the crisis of conformity that many operators suffer. I know that our espresso is going to be made with care on a great espresso machine, that our "brewed" coffee is going to be made by hand and not some automated device and that we will provide an attention to service and detail uncommon in our industry. The knowledge of this is not hard because it's a natural derivation of the standards we pursue. It's also not easy because of those standards.

It's not easy because it requires more work and a greater attention to detail. We spend an inordinate amount of time bringing a new barista candidate up to speed - and then work still isn't done. It can easily take a month to prepare a new barista to work our bar and they'll burn through how many pounds of coffee and gallons of milk just learning to do what we do.

The equipment isn't cheap. In fact, it's some of the most expensive on the market. So while other operators are wondering which espresso machine is the cheapest and most bang for the buck, I already know which is giving the bang for the buck because we've got three of them.

While I had much of this in mind over the nine years I've been in business, it didn't come together as a cohesive concept until I started studying Keller. The man set a new standard and pursues it relentlessly. That standard guides and defines the path and our way. The standard provides the answers.

With that, I write this to encourage everyone to go forth and develop their standards. What are the standards you uphold and pursue? Know them. Understand them. Those standards will guide you as they have guided me. And this holds true for anyone at any level of the game. Whether you're out there trying to serve on the cutting edge of the industry or are just a neighborhood joint with a Franke SuperAuto.

So the next time you come asking me questions about what you should do in business, you know where I'm going to start.