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State of Coffee by Mark Prince
So what the heck is wrong...
Posted: February 6, 2005
Article rating: 8.9
feedback: (186) comments | read | write
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So I'm flipping through the February issue of Food and Wine magazine and....

Wait. There's the first thing that's wrong. I'm flipping through a magazine about wine that is geared primarily to consumers. It hits me - there's really no dedicated medium like this for the coffee world. Now let it be known that Food and Wine is not the only wine magazine targeted at consumers... no, there's plenty. For coffee lovers, this is almost an embarrassment because we have nothing to compare.

And as I flip through the issue, I come across the South Beach Wine and Food Festival (a trade and consumer show) that heralds the super heavyweights of the culinary world, including Emeril Lagasse, Todd English, Charlie Trotter and others you may know from the Food Channel. My depression really starts to sets in.

Coffee is the most popular beverage on the planet (tea's been catching up!). The range of quality coffees: simply staggering. The skill level that exists in the world of coffee and espresso: amazing. And the lengths some people go to getting a perfect cuppa or shot: immense.

All this appreciation, and not a regular coffee show to be found on television. Nor will you find a single consumer magazine dedicated to coffee connoisseurs (there are several magazines decidated solely to coffee professionals however). Chances are you'll never catch a segment about coffee appearing on any popular food television show or radio. In fact, this here website is probably the epitome of a "consumer focused" coffee media source, in the world today.

And as proud as I am of this website, that's just plain sad.

So what's wrong with coffee

I don't think there's anything wrong with coffee, per se. In fact, I think as a mass media picking, it's ripe for exposure. Interest in specialty coffee is at a historic high. The birth of Fair Trade Coffee, of the explosion in availability of (true) artisan coffee (in contrast with a vendor like your typical 7-11 calling their coffee "artisan" or "gourmet"), the growing success of Barista competitions, and the massive increase in machines available for making coffee and espresso all point to upswings in both consumer interest and demand.

And there's the money spent on coffee.  Fifteen years ago, if you would have told someone they'd be paying $4 for their cuppa joe, they would have laughed and called you insane.  Today, we have increasing numbers of Americans, Canadians, Australians, and others around the world dropping $4 or more on lattes and cappuccinos - their "coffee" beverage for the new millennium. And this is a trend that is showing no signs of cooling down.

That's a lot of dough - a lot of discretionary income being spent on coffee - or to be more truthful, milk - coffee flavoured milk.

Magazines, newspapers, and specialty television channels love people blowing a lot of their discretionary income on a specific thing. So what's wrong? Why is coffee not even at the table?

Here's my thinking on the subject. I should note, this is purely my opinion - I have to state this right up front. So here goes: what's wrong is the mentality that exists in the coffee world - or more specifically - the coffee professionals' world.

I'd love to say that the mentality and perception of magazine publishers (like Conde Nast and others) and of specialty television channels is also what's wrong. But the more I think of it, the more it's a by-product of what mainstream media's been fed by the coffee professionals for decades: a big ole cuppa nothing. A big spoonful of nothing of interest to make mass media sit up and take notice that there's a bunch of dead presidents to be had.

Where mentality goes wrong

In 2002, I attended my first SCAA Convention in Anaheim, California. I'd been to a few other coffee trade shows prior, but this was the biggest one I've ever attended. It was serious coolness - in both a good and bad way. The good was eye candy and lots of things a coffee lover would drool and lust over - coffee and espresso nirvana with machines and beans from around the world.

The bad "cool" was the reception someone who's a consumer would get at the show by many participants -  an icy reception. This was an industry trade show, and that was that. Consumer? Geddaoutahere before I call the cops.

I said things online back then about the slight "anti-consumerism" at the show, and also showed that consumers were very interested in a major coffee-related trade show - our daily reports from the floor (preshow and day one report, day two report, day three report) were wildly popular to the point where our server crashed a few times during the updates (in one month, our daily reports were garnering about 65,000 page reads per report).

This and other factors led the SCAA to contact me about attending their fall meetings a few months later to discuss the formation of a branch of the SCAA dedicated to consumers. I can tell you, this got me excited! As there was no consumer-oriented organization for coffee lovers, I was happy to get involved.

And I discovered many roadblocks.

Probably the most frustrating to me was the lack of real funds to get the ball rolling: to target consumers, get them involved, and get a grassroots support for enthusiasm in coffee excellence, you need money. But that's not the focus of what I'm writing here, so I'll talk about the other most frustrating thing to me: it was the lack of foresight in many SCAA members - the industry trade members who voiced opposition to getting consumers involved and into the fold. Talk about your brick walls.

Now don't read me wrong - there were many industry members and various committee and executive members who were all for consumer participation and involvement. Doug Zell stands out for me (of Intelligentsia Coffee). His enthusiasm for a consumer wing was genuine, bordering on fanatical. Many others within the SCAA and its membership were equally enthused. But even more within the membership (and even some on the committees) were at best, indifferent, and at worst, actually belligerent about it.

I ended up quitting the consumer committee within the SCAA because of these things and other roadblocks. Maybe I shouldn't have quit because in a way it's giving up, but I can only hit my head against that proverbial brick wall so much.

This isn't an SCAA bashing though. It's a reprimand of coffee professionals who don't see the light. Let's step back a bit and look at the wine analogy.

Whining about wine

Wine and Coffee

Fifteen, twenty years ago, there was no real British Columbia wine industry to speak of. California wines were almost universally snickered at. Australia and NZ wine? Unless you lived in those countries, you didn't know it even existed. (remember that fifteen year thing? I'll keep coming back to it).

So what happened? Well, quality shot through the roof in BC, California, Australia and NZ (not to mention South Africa and other regions). In fact, Aussie wines are considered some of the world's best these days, and California wines share that mantle.  Wines from Down Under shot through the quality roof via smart growing, harvesting and wine making techniques (it's said that Australia's wine industry sets the standard for high tech wine making). As for BC and California, they just stopped trying to imitate France and go their own style, which caught on in a big way.

With me so far? Coffee has seen the same progression.

Here's where the wine industry took a different tact though: as the various industries up and down the Pacific Northwest (down through California) and Australia and NZ got their quality improving, they never lost sight of one plain fact: they make a consumable, consumer product.

Ah ha. Therein lies the direct problem with the world of coffee professionals. I'll get back to that though - more wine first.

Wine makers are some of the most savvy marketers I've ever met. Throwing open their wineries, vineyards, you name it to consumers. Sponsoring major consumer events. They were some of the first companies online with kick ass websites promoting their companies and wares. These die-hards bought prime time ad space in mainstream magazines. Their industry has a wide variety of trade shows geared towards consumers as well as professionals.

And their industry has seen a staggering growth level that, as far as I can tell, is unsurpassed in the culinary world. British Columbia VQA wines are winning awards around the world, and demand for these wines are so high, I have friends in the US asking me to ship them bottles. California wines have gone from being the laughing stock of the wine world to some of the most-in-demand wines, making the French quake in their grapes. The wine world, along with the foodie world has a growing number of "names" (as in superstars) that even the average middle income consumer recognizes. Heck, they even have their own TV shows now (my fave: Simply Wine, with Andrea Immer).

I know a few pros in the wine world. And when you talk to them about business, the focus is always on the consumer: "What does the consumer expect? What does the demand? What can the consumer afford? What should the consumer be taught? What has the consumer learned?"

When I talk to some (not all) professionals in the coffee world, the focus is not on consumers. It's on what they can sell, and what they pay. They focus on what they can sell to hotels and restaurants. What they can profit from by doing this blend tweak or that. How they can save money by reducing this, or removing that.

I had one long, and yes very interesting (in an oddly morbid way) conversation in Atlanta with a representative from a cafe chain about the merits of moving to a super automatic system within their chain. The key words I heard: Save money on training. Consumers shouldn't notice any change in quality (while acknowledging to me that the quality would go down).  

And let me tell you something. As someone involved in the coffee world, I'm ashamed.

I'm ashamed by this mentality, this direction that seems so prevalent in the industry. Because Starbucks moves to super autos, with a continued decline in the quality of that shot of espresso (my opinion) there's a mentality that consumers will always accept less. There seems to be a mentality that consumers are easily fooled - or simply don't know anything and can be fed mediocrity with a smile.

This isn't an industry concerned about quality or reaching out to consumers more. It's an industry that features many big players who make assumptions about what the consumer will tolerate and accept. It's an industry that harbours many who don't have a consumer-first mentality, except in terms of dollar signs. Dollar signs going one way.

What needs to happen

City Food and Wine and Food magazines

I'm flipping through the most recent issue of City Food, (a Vancouver broadsheet about the restaurant industry in town) and almost the entire issue is dedicated to wine. There's even stuff on making your own wine, as well as articles about tastings, anti-snob movements, you name it. And I'm wishing the entire time this kind of thing existed for the coffee world.

This "consumer as a non issue" mentality is a hard mentality to shift. There are many players in the professional coffee world who are like our wine cousins - they are concerned about consumers, do indeed put the consumer first, and are all about quality. My talk here isn't targeted at them.

But to those who have the mentality that this is somehow a business to business deal (with pesky consumers you try not to think about), something's gotta give. If your ideal of how to do business doesn't give, eventually consumers are going to walk. It's happened before folks. When things got bad enough (read: quality) eventually consumers in the US wake up. Percolator coffee is like torture to the coffee bean (no matter how bad that little bean has been), but perc was king in the 1960s... then Mr. Coffee came along. I'm sure the percolator companies never saw that coming and thought the gravy train was gonna last and last.

Instant coffee was massive - HUGE since the 1960s (probably because even then it tasted better than perc) - but has been on the decline since the mid 1990s. The big four took the bad route of just paying less and less for cheaper and more inferior coffee to stave off the loss of profits, but even that's failing them now.

Keep delving the consumer a mediocre product (ya hear me Starbucks) and the bubble will eventually burst: something better will come along. Look at McDonalds as an example. Who, fifteen years ago, would have predicted any dire financial straights for the Big Ronald? But today, they've closed hundreds (and probably thousands) of locations and are scrambling to find a new niche with their baked sandwiches and salads and lo-carb offerings. Hrm... McDonalds... and Starbucks...

And there's the coffee industry today. They've enjoyed fifteen years of this massive, explosive growth lead by Starbucks. In the same time, the wine industry is continuing its massive growth and consumer acceptance, and I bet in your town (if the population's over 500,000) there's at least one or two wine events this year. I bet there's wine shops that let you stop by for a free Saturday tasting. I'll bet that your Saturday paper has a "best wine picks" section. And I'm betting that you can name maybe a half dozen brands of wine, even if you're nothing of a wine connoisseur at all.

None of this exists for the coffee world. No local coffee shows. No free tastings at a variety of cafes, introducing this season's crop. No regular feature articles about which coffees are up this season, and which are down in your local paper. And given that you read this site, you can probably name a half dozen or more favourite coffee types (no flavourings, please), but I bet your coffee drinkin, but not coffee lovin' buddies can't.

To change this, several things have to happen. I think first and foremost the industry has to see the value of savvy marketing to consumers. Marketing comes in all shapes and forms. It could be the little five-cafe chain in your town hosting weekly cuppings of new offerings. It'd be free for the consumer, so there's a cost associated there - long term thinkers know this cost eventually pays for itself with more consumer loyalty through education and a sense of community with the business.

It could be finding things to sponsor, from the mundane and unusual (little league baseball teams) to the ostentatious - a major festival in your town. There's a saying - to make money, you have to spend money.

Here's an idea. This is something that's always confounded me to no ends: coffee houses are the very definition of "community" and have been for centuries. Yet there are so many people in the retail side of coffee that I've met who have absolutely no sense of community. No sense that they're part of something that makes us human. Instead, they see dollar signs coming in the door, and dollar signs going out with employees demanding an extra $0.50 an hour. A big change here would do wonders for the industry as a whole, and for shops in particular.

Most importantly, it requires resolve. As an example, I've seen so many people in the coffee industry get fed up because they've sent out a press release or two, and got no response. First, learn how to write a press release. Second, learn how to only issue press releases about things the press wants to write about. And third, never give it up.

Things have gotta change. And they gotta change from the top of the industry on down. I want my "The Coffee Connoisseur" magazine, damnit.

Article rating: 8.9
Posted: February 6, 2005
feedback: (186) comments | read | write
State of Coffee Column Archives email author
Mark PrinceColumn Description
This regular column will tackle the world of espresso and coffee, including all the theories, controversies, changes and structures that make up this world. A heavy emphasis is placed on the online coffee community, and one thing this column won't do is pull any punches. Every week we'll feature the up's and downs, a quick yet detailed rundown of things that are good and not so good in the coffee world.

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