Thursday, March 17, 2011

Pissing Off The "Gods" Of Coffee

I received a rather interesting phone call today.

It was an industry friend calling to tell me that the coffee company he works for no longer will sell my company coffee.

Turns out that the company he works for is unhappy with the way we have been representing their coffee at The Spro. The company? Counter Culture Coffee.

Evidently, there are three reasons why they no longer will sell to us:

1 - They are unhappy that we started serving the Aida's Grand Reserve in February.

2 - They say Aida Batlle (the producer) is unhappy that we are serving her coffee.

3 - I have made disparaging remarks about Peter Giuliano (SCAA President and CCC owner).

There were a couple of other minor issues that were also included in the discussion (I'll go into those later).

For sure, Numbers One and Three are all true. We started serving the AGR on Valentine's Day after freeze storing it since we received the coffee in late September/early October. And I have been very critical of Peter Giuliano (as the SCAA President) of late - especially with the recent discussion on Barista Exchange (sorry, I just put the link to the thread, you'll have to scroll through to see the action - it's quite entertaining, maybe).

As for Number Two, I can only guess. We released the AGR the day that I left for El Salvador to volunteer my time judging their national barista championship, and I even sent a message to Aida that I was going to be in San Salvador and if she might have time to meet up for a visit. She said she was busy at the farm and that it wouldn't be possible. I figured that if she had a problem she would have said so - or maybe not.

To be honest, I'm actually surprised it took this long for Peter Giuliano to pull this one. I expected this to come much earlier since I have been quite critical of his handling of SCAA affairs over the past year or so.

Quite seriously, I don't really have a problem with this. It's what I expected and seems to be par for the course (you know, agree with us, or else). To my mind, any and every company has a right to sell (or stop selling) to any outfit it desires. They want to sell to us - cool. They don't want to sell to us - that's cool too.

Some of the other tertiary issues that were presented as reasons why Counter Culture no longer will to sell to us are that: a) CCC is moving away from the multiple roaster model and only wants to pursue the roaster exclusivity model (which is something Spro does not do), and b) we don't buy enough coffee.

"A" is a curious reason since a year ago they said that they wanted to pursue the multiple (non exclusive) roaster model. Maybe they've really changed their minds. Afterall, when a client uses multiple roasters, they're not buying all their coffee from one roaster and it's less profitable to that roaster. So note to those of you planning on opening a multiple roaster coffeeshop: Counter Culture is not interested in that model.

Of course, with Spro they don't have all the extra expenses of the exclusivity model. We don't ask or expect barista training, machine service or all the extras that roasters usually have to provide on a somewhat complimentary level. They simply sell us coffee at the price specified and we pay. We don't ask for anything extra or anything else - just quality coffee, at any price. In fact, the only time we take of their customer service rep is when he comes in to hang out, have a coffee and chat. We're very "low maintenance" - partly because we prefer it that way and also because we respect that with exclusivity comes those service "perks".

As to "B", I guess we don't buy "enough" coffee. From the opening of Spro Hampden through this week, we've only purchased about 400 pounds of coffee from Counter Culture, at a total revenue of just under $3,300.00 (at least that's according to our QuickBooks report).

Honestly, I can admit that it's not much. We're not the 300 pound per week account that roasters dream of claiming. We're a small coffee shop with a heavy focus on delivering a variety of quality coffees to a burgeoning coffee clientele. We source coffees from multiple roasters and brew each cup of coffee one-at-a-time.

But since they said that they're basing their decision to not sell to us based on the AGR that we offered starting on Valentine's Day, I thought I would have a statistical look at the numbers.

For the AGR, we purchased one eight ounce tin for a landed price of $26.95 - that's $17.95 for the coffee and $9.00 for shipping. This translates into .008281% of the money we've spent or .000152% of the poundage we've purchased over the past year with Counter Culture. Surely, for even a small company purchasing a small amount (read: not "enough") of coffee these percentages are a microscopic reason to tell us to piss off.

So, less than one percent of our purchases and less than one percent of our purchased weight in coffee and we're not representing their coffee properly? Curious.

Makes one kind of wonder if they hold such a hardline on their accounts that brew the coffee in airpots and let them sit around for who knows how long. Or the accounts with bagged coffee sitting around for a bit of time. I can only guess that those coffees account for more than one percent of those account purchases...

The interesting thing is that even during this period where I have been critical of Peter Giuliano, I had thought about discontinuing our purchasing from Counter Culture based on those criticisms. However to me, agreement is not a prerequisite for a relationship or doing business. Counter Culture offers some fine coffees that my staff was excited about and we continued purchasing their coffee because we felt that we could offer them to our clientele in a thoughtful and engaging manner. I would not allow my personal thoughts regarding their owner to cloud our way of doing business. It wouldn't be professional and would just be childish.

Besides, there's lots of great people working for the company and it would be just wrong to cast doubt on any of them merely based on my criticisms of their boss or his desire to get rid of me based on the reasons above. I like all of them and wish them the best - though I do suspect that I'm persona non grata at Counter Culture events now.

In the end, I'm more amused than anything else. Disagree and criticize the President of the SCAA and get told by his company to piss off?

I'm only surprised that it didn't happen sooner.

16 comments:

Poul said...

Hey Jay, interesting post. I can't comment on the Barista Exchange thing. But I can comment on the Aida Batlle issue. I am actually sitting across from Aida at the J.Hill mill in El Salvador. She was really concerned and frustrated by the fact that you were serving up the Aida's Grand Reserve which is now past crop and was roasted in the fall. Whether you froze this coffee, in my opinion is irrelevant. It is too old to serve. We all know how coffee stales, and keeping it in the freezer for seven months to serve is not OK. You are a voice in the industry which is listened to and you have an impact on customers. I think that you made an error in judgement with this one. Using a coffee, whether high profile or not, seven months after it was roasted does nothing to promote the specialty coffee industry.

caffe d'bolla said...

You're so good as making friends! I only wish I was that talented. :)

Seriously, be happy that the whims of a single roaster don't impact the nature of your business.

Maybe you should email a link to Peter. I'm sure his "sorry for the misunderstanding" apology will be on its way any day now.

Now stop whining and make some coffee.

Ari said...

Whatever. Counterculture has some really fine coffees but they ain't the only show in town by a long shot.

Spro has been serving up phenomenal coffees since the days of the Hawaiian BBQ in Timonium, and I know you'll find another roaster of equal or better quality. As a matter of fact, there are so many CCC outfits in the DC area that I absolutely welcome the variety.

Make sure you let us know which coffee is next on the menu. As for CCC, who gives a damn? They're good, but replaceable.

CAFEMAKERS said...

I do not have enough information to comment on this as a business decision, but can come to the defense of freezing roasted coffee. At the SCAA (Atlanta?) conference in 2004, I exhibited next to Mark Overly (Kaladi Bros) who at the time was selling a sort of one-off espresso lab machine (if you don't remember the thing, it was pretty cool). Over the course of the 3 day exhibition, I recall that an unusual number of our geek discussions that weekend involved coffee freezing -- Mark had done substantial research into the topic and subsequently instituted frozen storage and transportation (if I'm not mistaken) of roasted coffee at his locations in Alaska and later Denver. After hearing his arguments, I decided to try it myself and found that immediate freezing after roasting to be the single most effective method of delaying spoilage, hands-down. I now store coffees, mostly reference samples for purchases and experimental client blends in a dedicated coffee chest freezer for sometimes as long as a year after roasting without significant degradation, though frozen coffee will not have the same full useable shelf life of a fresh product once thawed. As with most coffee topics, scientific proof is practically nonexistent; however, I am entirely confident of the results and do not see how serving the AGR within a few months after freezing could negatively impact quality to the point of requiring action.

onocoffee said...

Poul-
Thanks for taking the time to write.

I should be clear. I don't have any problem that you disagree with me, or that Aida disagrees with me. As I've said in the past, agreement is not a prerequisite for a discussion or a relationship. In fact, I'm open to disagreement. Disappointingly enough (though not surprising), as the above post demonstrates -some individuals in our industry prefer to dictate how we think.

I understand the concerns you have presented, however the only response I can tell you is that I wouldn't be serving the coffee unless I felt confident in its character to the customer.

While we will probably remain in disagreement over the AGR issue - just for the sake of argument: as a coffee roaster yourself - what's your stance on getting rid of a wholesale customer because you supposedly disagreed with the way that customer handled less than one percent of the coffee he's bought from you?

Or is this really about something else entirely?

Enjoy El Salvador - and beware the salad at Pollo Campero!

DCT said...

I think the following statement really is what bothers me about the whole thing;

"While we will probably remain in disagreement over the AGR issue - just for the sake of argument: as a coffee roaster yourself - what's your stance on getting rid of a wholesale customer because you supposedly disagreed with the way that customer handled less than one percent of the coffee he's bought from you?"

I view Spro as the most progressive coffee shop for sure on the east coast and maybe in the US, but with that being said, this AGR isn't just any coffee. Why wouldn't they get rid of an account that is supposed to be setting the bar for multiple roaster and brew-your-way shops but is selling AGR so far off roast?

Maybe CCC jumped the gun a little and you are probably right, I bet it's about something else too. But come on, really? Seven months off roast @ $14 a cup? And to add insult to injury, now offering it like a used car salesman for $1?

Because this Saturday, we will be offering our Aida's Grand Reserve, from either Counter Culture or Stumptown, at our celebratory anniversary price of just One Dollar per cup.
That's right. You read it correctly. Our Aida's Grand Reserve will be available to our Mail List Members for just ONE DOLLAR!
Amazing??? We know!

onocoffee said...

DCT-
As I said in my comments to Poul, I wouldn't allow a coffee to be served unless I felt confident of its character.

Which I guess brings us to the other part of your comment - why offer the AGR for a dollar when it's been on the menu for $14?

Mainly because we want to. It's our one year anniversary and our customers have been tremendously supportive of what we are doing. Today we offered a menu full of one dollar coffees from friends around the industry.

As would be expected, the AGR flew out of Spro this morning. By 10am, it was gone. The AGR for one dollar a cup? That IS craziness! It's also a demonstration of how passionate we are about our customers. It's a special day, so let's give our customers the opportunity to try special coffees at a price that doesn't give them pause.

And let's face it, when the cost of a cup of coffee is $14, that's a barrier to most people - no matter how incredible the coffee.

The only thing I can offer about the AGR is that the customers who drank it this morning for a dollar only had raving things to say about it. One regular, who drank not only the AGR but the Colombian Andino still rated the AGR as superior, with greater flavor, nuance and complexity. He enjoyed it tremendously.

And isn't that really what all this is all about?

If our customers visit us, are treated well and enjoy their coffee and their experience, then that's truly the goals we have set for ourselves.

Anonymous said...

I refuse to work with Counter Culture because of this sort of thing and they are within spitting distance of my operation. Don't like their "best of the best attitude" and don't particularly love any of the coffees I've sampled from them. Nearly as shitty as what I've sampled from other nationally recognized "artisan" roasters. They also keep sissy company and for that I say fuck 'em.

RandyR. said...

Just yesterday, I was unable to make my normal 8:00 am stop at Spro Hampden. A bakery/cafe close to my house sells CCC, so I stopped in on my way to work for a shot of Toscano and a cup of Valle del Santuario. Well, the espresso, served to me in the bottom of a 10oz cup, was way under extracted and tasted more like the paper cup than the quality stuff I know CCC roasts. The brewed coffee was only a bit better. Its primary problem was the air-pot smell hit me as I lifted the cup for my first sip. Sadly, I could tell a good coffe was in there somewhere, but the reality is that I could not even finish it.

So, while I'm disappointed that Spro will no longer carry Counter Culture, I am still going to stop in every chance I get. I have never once had a poorly executed cup there.
I'll continue to consume CCC, but only if I mail order for it and prepare it myself.
And certainly I'll keep going to the local bakery/cafe ~ but only for the phenominal breads they bake in-house.
RandyR

James Hoffmann said...

So just to play devil's advocate - is it fair to read this post as saying:

Despite not buying much coffee from them, not being a large or loyal customer, you were surprised at how long they continued to supply you and work with after you were continuously negative about the people there? In fact the reason they stopped is that they weren't comfortable with how far from roast you wanted to serve the coffee, and neither of you wished to compromise on your values?

I'm not sure how this makes them the bad people in this situation...

Anonymous said...

I just saw you on TV preparing the AGR!!! Whoo-hoo yeah!

onocoffee said...

James-
Welcome to the Devil's Advocate role.

Certainly The Spro would not be considered (by most roasters) a "large" customer of Counter Culture. To my mind, a "large" customer would be a company buying in the 300 pound per week range. We are nowhere near that volume of buying from CCC.

Also, your rephrasing of "...after you were continuously negative about the people there" is inaccurate and a misrepresentation (or misunderstanding) of what I wrote.

What I did write was: "And I have been very critical of Peter Giuliano (as the SCAA President) of late..."

Which is quite different than being "continuously negative about the people" - which implies that I am "negative" about a collective of people at Counter Culture (or the whole company) rather than one person in his dealings as the elected President of the SCAA.

I also wrote: "Besides, there's lots of great people working for the company [Counter Culture] and it would be just wrong to cast doubt on any of them..."

My surprise did not arise from anything other than the fact that it took Peter Giuliano this long to attempt some sort of "revenge" against me for my criticisms during his tenure as SCAA President - as was evidenced by their representative's comments regarding my making "disparaging remarks about Peter Giuliano..."

Certainly one can make the argument that this one half pound of coffee (out of roughly 400 pounds purchased over the past year) wasn't represented in a manner they thought was ideal. Of course, I disagree.

However, does this also mean that companies propositioning themselves as this "hardcore" are going to eliminate those accounts who leave their coffee in airpots or urns beyond whatever time they think "compromises" their "values"?

Or, even further, are you proposing that roasters dictate to their customers how the coffees that their customers have paid for are served? If so, then how do you reconcile those bags of coffee sitting out for weeks or months on grocery store shelves?

I mean, if you're proposing that roasters dictate the time and method their customers utilize their coffees then I would expect that they would also take the route of the bakeries which send representatives to their accounts to restock and rotate customer inventories, replacing "old" coffee with "fresh" coffee.

In closing, there is no making "them the bad people" - that would imply that there is a group of "them" when there is not.

I leave the judgment up to the readership to decide who (if any) are the "bad people". As you can see, I've provided all the pertinent information I have at my disposal, including our volume of coffee purchased, how much we've spent with the company, as well as my own interpretation on the size of customer my company represents to Counter Culture.

Another thing I wanted to touch on regarding your Devil's Advocate comment is that of loyalty. What are we considering loyalty? Are we prescribing that "loyalty" is the blind following and non-questioning of self-appointed Coffee "Gods"? Or are we saying that our elected representatives are beyond reproach? If we are truly talking "transparency" then isn't open discussion and criticism part and parcel of the claimed transparency?


(cont'd)

onocoffee said...

(oops, my blog won't allow comments longer than 4,000 characters!)

(cont'd)

To my mind, "loyalty" is something that is at the forefront of what we do. We demonstrate loyalty to our customers by consistently offering warm hospitality and high quality product. We demonstrate loyalty to our vendors by continuously offering their product in a manner we believe is appropriate, as well as maintaining a positive relationship. If you were to look at the history of my company and its vendors, you would find that we maintain very long relationships with all of our vendors.

However, if "loyalty" is about silence in disagreement or controversy, then I certainly cannot be categorized in that manner as I have been continuously open to discussion and disagreement (of course, since we've know each other for years - this should come as no surprise to you).

Another comment that was made to me that should be of concern to the community is the stated desire of CCC to return to a roaster exclusivity mode for their wholesale accounts. What are your thoughts on this?

As our community has evolved towards by-the-cup brewing, the multiple roaster model has also emerged. Today, a coffee drinker can visit the more progressive coffee shops in the world and sample coffees of different interpretation from a variety of roasters. This can only be a good and exciting thing for our craft and community. Afterall, if you went to a pub and they only offered beers from one brewery, I think it's safe to say that anyone would think that's simply absurd.

For us to continue to progress towards something thoughtful and perhaps culinary then the multiple roaster model is a necessity. A return to roaster exclusivity is a step backwards for our industry and craft.

Oh well, enough said for now. As always, i remain open to criticism and discussion. At the moment, I am patronizing my local tobacconist (who also offers a range of cigars from a variety of companies) and shall now return to my very delicious Padron 1964 Anniversario robusto!

jbviau said...

Hi, Jay. I'm a big fan of Spro, and that won't change going forward. I can always get my Counter Culture fix at Atwater's or somewhere similar if I really need to, but you all feature so many other great roasters. I *am* curious though about why you chose to freeze the AGR in the first place. Also, any sense of how long this coffee would have been acceptable to serve after thawing? It sounds like you had it available for about a month before it sold out. Cheers, --jv

onocoffee said...

jbviau-
First of all, thanks so much for your patronage and support. The team at Spro really appreciates it.

As to why I chose to freeze store the AGR, mainly it had to do with my desire to offer the AGR from both Stumptown and CCC at the same time, kind of like a "head to head" kind of thing.

To my mind, one of the most interesting possibilities of the Spro model is that we can cull the same coffee from different roasters - meaning that we have the opportunity to showcase how different roasters interpret the same coffee.

While that's an ideal, I've found that roasters don't sell coffee under the same identity. For example, we ran the CCC Michicha Ethiopia for quite some time but no one else we knew of was offering an Ethiopia called "Michicha". Turns out (after locating the actual importer and having a discussion) that the "Michicha" was mostly sold as "Ardi" by other roasters in the United States while being the exact same coffee.

Had we known this back in July, we could have brought in "Ardi" from other roasters for comparative brewing. As this demonstrates, companies are free to do as they wish with a product once it has been purchased. No doubt the use of "Michicha" instead of "Ardi" was to differentiate the product in the marketplace, even while it was the exact same coffee.

Our move to freeze store the coffees was so that we could offer both at the same time. However, as our menu maintained a wide range of coffees throughout the fall, we offered those coffees as they came in instead of offering the AGR.

One thing to note about the freeze storing is that a coffee such as the AGR is so expensive that the volume sold is miniscule. It's a boutique product designed for a very niche clientele - even at a place like Spro where every coffee is boutique. Meaning that if we were to open and leave a half pound bag out that coffee would stale way before we would be able to sell it, resulting in wasted product and an affront to the hard work of the people who produced it. Certainly not an admirable way of doing things.

In order to offer the coffee for a period of time, the actual stock is kept frozen with only the required amount being removed from freeze storage when needed.

And yes, that is how we were able to offer it for a month on the menu from Valentine's Day through our One Year Anniversary where we sold the coffee to our guests for One Dollar.

jbviau said...

Aha! Well that all sounds sensible to me. Some of the knee-jerk reactions against your way of showcasing the AGR would seem premature (though, to be fair, I was leaning that way at first). I agree with CAFEMAKERS (and you, apparently) in the sense that what's needed with respect to freeze-storing is more actual experimenting and less judging. Sounds like the anecdotal evidence from your customers was quite positive. Wish I could have been one of them on that particular day!