Is Coffee a Product or a Service?

January 16, 2012


We often speak of the "service industry" as containing people selling and serving food, which has always been a bit misleading, to me. I don't disagree that an awful lot of food purveyors, like diners or fast food joints, provide more of a food service. Given a certain expected availability of ingredients and cooking know-how, just about anything can be made to be tailored to customer needs. Want that egg over easy, not scrambled? Sure thing. Your Big Mac needs another patty? You betcha. And while the examples of food service abound, the idea of a food product, while not often mentioned, is still quite prevalent in restaurants and cafes. The Big Mac, of course, is a product with a service attached. It starts as a blend of ingredients unique to McDonalds, but you can customize it from the given provisions that the Golden Arches keep in stock. This translates into the world of coffee as well.



The Starbucks Frappucino is a product, again, attached to a service. But what happens when a coffee product is kept under tighter reigns, like an Apple product, for instance. What happens when a chef says "No, this filet is served medium rare. That's how I will cook it."? As it happens, there are real world cases of just this sort of thing. Tim Wendelboe (the cafe, as well as the owner) stood firm on the decision not to serve soy products with their coffee. Lactose intolerants would have to order brewed coffee or nothing at all. The reason? Tim W. and Tim Varney, and possibly a few other sets of taste buds, reaffirmed that they did not find soy complemented their coffee in a satisfactory way. Just as a more "normal" yet discerning cafe owner may select the best-tasting milk to use in their cafe, even though more than a single handful of customers may like another dairy better, Tim(s) decided to go with Not Soy in their milk beverages. This is a more extreme case, and it was met wit some fuming and foot-stomping, but at the end of the day, so long as the owner assumes responsibility for the products offered, and the consequences of not meeting certain customer expectations, all is accounted for.



I am a dairy drinker, and I like soy in my cereal, but not my coffee. I don't have to drink soy for any reason other than my own preferences. I can understand that the world can be a tough place for those with food allergies, but there is a level of entitlement out there that should be addressed. I am a vegetarian, and I fully understand and accept that sometimes, it is very hard for me to have a meal out. My best bet for a veg-friendly meal? A vegetarian restaurant, that caters specifically to my diet. Those with peanut allergies understand, hopefully, that a Baby Ruth bar will always have peanuts, so they should choose another option. Those with milk allergies should, hopefully, understand that the cappuccino is traditionally made with milk, and not everybody in the world will cater to those who cannot consume dairy. Soy is not the de facto replacement for milk, and in fact, is really nothing like milk. Just as I, the vegetarian, cannot eat refried beans cooked with lard, and should not expect a mexican restaurant to keep a separate pot of vegetarian refried beans on the side, the non-milk drinkers should understand their limits, but not expect to be catered to specifically. It is nice, certainly, when those options are available, but no kindness, no trend is ubiquitous, and you have to reasonably accept that.



That tirade about entitlement may seem a bit of a diversion from the topic, but I promise, it still ties in. I think coffee producers at any stage of production have a right to sell a product, rather than a service. In fact, it's almost more refreshing to have diversity in products in the marketplace. Why does everybody have to have a winey Kenya via Chemex over ice in the summer? How does that make specialty coffee stand out more than the Starbucks clones of the world? I long for more unique brews, and more bold souls to provide them. To stand against the status quo of customer expectations, and to pave a new path as Ferran Adria did with El Bulli (if you've ever heard of molecular gastronomy, Ferran helped to pioneer the now-tired culinary trend, along with many other innovative chefs). There are, of course, people trying just this in the coffee world, and my hat is off to them. I think it could be more commonplace, as most menus in cafes look exactly the same, barring differences in price and offerings. I'd like to see some more signature drinks, some more experimental brew methods, some entrepreneuring makers providing unique experiences. I'd like to see more product, less service. Make me go to a cafe for what it can distinctly provide, not what it does just like Cafe X with a different coffee.



I should finish by mentioning that this is not a fully fleshed-out train of thought really. It's a frustration I've had in the coffee world, mainly with the customers, that sortof opened up a realization about cafes in general. I do not have the antidote to this perceived problem, though it may be for me to just relax and forget my druthers. Still, I can't help but feel like there's something here, something that should be addressed, that can actually be beneficial to the industry, if a little snobby. 



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