Monday, June 27, 2011

Outsourcing Your Core Competencies

Testing and vetting brew methodologies, January 2010.

Lately, I've been thinking that it's time for me to start up a restaurant. A restaurant that can seat about 30-40 people and turn roughly 200 covers on a busy service. Without a doubt, it should be cutting edge, comfortable, casual but with serious ingredients and a serious approach to quality and service. I want this new restaurant to be the best restaurant in my city.

To achieve this, I'm going to find a local supplier of restaurant equipment and produce and ask for their help. I'm going to buy the best equipment available, like a Jade cooking suite and maybe even some equipment for sous vide and molecular gastronomy.

Problem is: I'm not a "chef." But it's all good because both the guy selling me my Jade suite and the local farmer selling me super quality heirloom tomatoes are going to teach me how to use the suite and cook the food properly. In just a few days time, these people are going to teach me and my employees how to make and run what will easily become the best restaurant in the city serving high-quality food product. It's going to be awesome!

If you're reading this and thinking "this guy must be smoking crack cocaine" then you'd be right. For anyone to invest the kind of money it takes to get a business going and then expect their equipment and produce people to teach them how to cook and run a restaurant is absolutely preposterous and foolhardy.

Yet, day in and day out, people get in the coffee business expecting their coffee roaster to teach them how to become a "barista" and be "the best" and make "quality" drinks.

At Spro, we do coffee. That is our core and our focus. We are Baristas. That is what we do. This is who we are. Why I would ever allow another company and another person from outside the company and our culture to come in and "teach" our team how to do what we do, is as preposterous as me starting a restaurant and asking my Sysco rep to teach me how to be a "chef."

We have a culture. We have an approach. We have a way of doing things that is uniquely different than others. While other baristas rely on their coffee roaster to tell them how to brew coffee, pull shots, make drinks and cup profile, our baristas do it themselves. They cup the coffee samples, they cup the new arrivals, they help create the descriptions and they know their coffees.

We teach our own on how to tamp, pull shots and prepare drinks. We teach our own on our culture and our approach to hospitality and service. Our team tests and vets brew methodology. We develop and train. We learn how to make everything by hand, as a craftsman should.

The road to becoming a Spro Barista is long and difficult. There is a lot to learn - much more than can be taught in a couple of days with some roaster "customer service representative" - who, chances are, either doesn't have real world barista experience or has been away from cafe service for so long that I question their suitability to teach modern coffee production techniques.

Truth be told, I don't encourage so-called "Third Wave" thinking. I don't encourage "rock star" worship I see in many other baristas. I don't even encourage competitions. I should note that I don't discourage those areas either (except the "third wave" thinking part - I truly abhor "third wave"). And while I don't encourage and don't discourage, I would be supportive of any Spro Barista that desired to engage in those areas of the industry.

What I do encourage and support is craftsmanship and hospitality. Our focus is not somewhere out there in the pretense and condescension of "third wave" or in the hype and fallacy of barista competitions, it is here on the home front and making great coffee day in and day out for our guests. We make coffee and provide a warm, nurturing environment - one that must come from within and one that cannot be outsourced to a third-party company.

It's time that those who desire to call themselves "baristas" and "coffee professionals" break away from this fallacy that your coffee roaster can make you and your people "baristas."

Friday, June 24, 2011

Why Didn't I Think Of That!

Cuppers pondering their future.

Regular readers of this blog know that despite the fact that I travel around the world training baristas, judges and judging barista competitions (in addition to having been a competitor myself), I find watching coffee competitions to be insanely droll and boring to watch.

At the SCAA Houston a couple of months ago, the coffee powers that be created a new competition called the Brewer's Cup (or something silly like that). I had the opportunity to watch one competitor (a friend of mine) in the first round and was gobsmacked that someone somewhere had (incredibly) found a way to design a coffee competition more mind numbing than the barista competition. Imagine watching someone brew coffee with all the narration and enthusiasm of grass growing and you've got a baseline idea of the misery purported upon those foolish enough to watch.

Of all the coffee competitions, one of the more interesting (from an audience perspective) is the World Cup Tasting Championship. Essentially, you have three competitors going head-to-head with eight sets of three coffee samples in front of them. The idea is that the competitor is supposed to taste the samples and determine the odd coffee amongst the three in each set. Do this with the most accuracy and quickest time and move on to the next round and perhaps become the champion.

Depending on the coffee and depending on how it's brewed (as well as other factors), different coffees can actually look different. But it's a cupping competition and everyone is focused on tasting the coffees and using their palate to discern the differences.

Somewhere far away from America, the little nation of Greece is in jeopardy of defaulting on its debt and causing the destabilization of the Euro and perhaps the worldwide economy. Maybe it's inspiration by his nation but the Greek competitor in the cupping championship has just destabilized the legitimacy and credibility of the World Cup Tasting Championship.

Instead of actually tasting the coffees, the Greek competitor simply looked at the three samples and quickly discerned the sample that looked different without tasting. Evidently, he identified all of them correctly. He did this in the First Round, which landed him in the Semi-Finals where he did it again which propelled him to the Finals and, finally, as World Champion.

All without ever tasting any of the coffees.

I think that would have been the most entertaining coffee competition ever.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Handmade Totalmente

Two bottles of Gahara Vanilla Syrup starting their journey.

So far, 2011 has been a busy year. I've been back and forth to Central and South America, as well as southern North America several times. My times at home have been short and it wasn't until last month when I actually had time to slow down and return to my roots, so to speak.

In May, I was home for 22 days. Time to slow down. Time to focus. Time to work. Time to re-connect with my baristas and get back to what we do best. People think I'm lucky because I am given the opportunity to travel. I think I'm lucky because I return to a great team focused on making fantastic products for our guests.

For the past couple of days, after recovering from the haze that was the World Barista Championship in Bogota, Colombia, I've been working in the bowels of Spro working with ingredients, tasting coffees and whipping up new batches of handmade this and that. I've been back on the farmers market circuit seeing what's new and available, and planning new menu items for the heat of summer.

It brings me back to the aspect of barista that I like the most: preparing everything handmade. I'm happy to say that nothing at Spro is commercially processed. We prepare everything in-house or work with purveyors who share our same passion for doing things "the hard way." From making the coffees individually to order to the handmade syrups to the traditionally made agua fresca to the quirky take on classic sorbets whipped up in the PacoJet. Everything is sourced thoughtfully and carefully. Everything is tasted and vetted before we present it to our guests.

I'm fortunate to have the opportunity to travel the world, work with baristas and judge barista competitions. I meet wonderful people and make incredible friends. But at the end of the day, I find myself inspired most by the very people I work day in and day out - the team at Spro.