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January 30, 2017 /
How To Serve Addicts

 

Coffee is a drug, and its service is determined by the habits and rituals of addicts. Some might say food is its own drug, and alcohol obviously has its own intoxicating and addicting properties, but coffee is a special case. It’s the most widely accepted drug on the planet, something which millions can barely function without; and it’s consumed starting in the early morning, well before all but the most serious of addicts start partaking of other things.

For truly stellar coffee hospitality, I think one must cultivate a particular empathy for the plight of the addict, and a sensitivity to the rhythms of their rituals.

The first thing to understand about the rhythm of addiction is that it is private. People feel intensely emotional, and often intensely guarded about their drug habits. Many of the hardcore coming into the cafe on a given morning have already made some form of coffee at home, engaging in a likely knowingly substandard first hit of the day, that hasty, lonely rush that compels them out into the world. Once they arrive, the cafe itself acts as a semi-private space, a liminal zone helping ease the transition between the private, desperate, druggy fight against fatigue and the public display of perkiness.

The private mania of a drug habit means that guests may be very self-conscious about their orders and interactions in a cafe. A little compassion towards this can go a long way. Know when someone just wants the juice from you, and leave off on the single-origin sermon for them. Get to know a budding regular’s order and make it the exact same way every time. Play music appropriate to the hour and mood of the day. Have some compassion for mumbled or jumbled orders. Create a sense of welcoming regularity and predictability for guests that helps ease the addict’s transition to regular.

This is an important point worth focusing on: addicts have habits, and habits make rituals, and rituals are almost always done the same way.

Regulars (addicts) usually order the same drink every time, or rotate through a very small selection. They usually put the same amount of condiments in every time, preparing their hit with as much care as a dedicated stoner rolls a joint. Consider that most addicts put milk and sugar in their coffee without tasting it first—with set condiments is how they know they like their drugs. Coffee addicts even go further than simply how many sugars they put in: they often come in at the same time, sit at the same table, talk to the same people or duck out quickly the same way each time they visit a cafe.

The regularity of addiction has interesting implications for service. First and foremost, it helps explain why convincing someone to try their coffee without condiments, or to branch out to a different preparation or origin, can be so challenging. Change is hard, especially when it concerns what can be the life or death matter of coffee addiction.

When it comes to serving addicts, it’s also important to be sensitive to how much talk they want around their ritual. I’m a big proponent of the idea that the best service is silently presenting a regular with their drink exactly how they like it, timed to the moment they hit the register—no talking whatsoever, unless the guest wants to talk about real topics. While it’s not always possible to completely eliminate the tedious back and forth of service, a focus on service efficiency and clear menu presentation can help hew away extraneous bits of service chatter, leaving space for more pleasant conversation, or silence, as desired.

Baristas deal drugs both literal and figurative. Obviously caffeine helps fight off the clinging cloak of fatigue, but in a larger sense, a barista is selling their services as caretaker of fatigue, as someone who will take in the dreariness and gray, inject a bit of life into you, and send you out to face your day renewed.

This is why exuding a calm, capable, attentive presence behind bar is so crucial. Ushering people from fatigue into wakefulness is a heavy responsibility. As a dealer, your addicts will be attracted to confidence in what you’re supplying.

Which brings us to another implication of the regularity of addiction: predictable product. One thing the budding legal marijuana markets in the US get right is their focus on consistently named strains with lab-measured and printed levels of various psychoactive substances: drug users want a predictable high. Giving accurate, useful information to differentiate options helps users zero in on their own preferred hit, delivered in the form they want it, every time.

In the coffee context, predictability is two fold: first, there is the actual production of the coffee itself, and second, how the various coffee options are presented to the customer day to day.

Making predictably delicious coffee drinks the same way each time is a challenge, but it should be self-explanatory as to why a consistent hit (both in terms of amount of caffeine and flavor) is crucial to making addicts feel comfortable frequenting your business. The question of presentation and different options is slightly more complex. First and foremost, I think it means that you should strive to have as consistent an array of offerings as possible.

Think about it: if you went to a beer bar craving a stout you had there a month ago, but the bartender told you they only have IPAs in right now, you’d probably be pretty pissed. And yet coffee bars all the time rotate through coffees without ensuring that they consistently have options for people who like heavier coffees, lighter coffees, brighter coffees, sweeter coffees etc. etc.

I’m not saying cafes have to offer five different coffees at all times. I’m merely saying that there needs to be consistency in styles of offerings. Nothing is going to make an addict more unhappy than hearing that their favorite hit is unavailable—if it is necessary to rotate out options for whatever reason, you better have a good answer figured out for alternatives to offer people.

Addicts can be a finicky lot, but a focus on predictability and a respect for their fragility can turn them into the most fiercely loyal guests you can have.

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Alex
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Alex

There is ample research showing that people who consume multiple cups of coffee a day regularly will suffer from memory and other performance impairments until they have enough caffeine in their system, which I feel counts as “needing” caffeine, and hence being addicted.

Swag Valance
Guest
Swag Valance

If you could tell me that coffee “addiction” requires an ever-increasing consumption of coffee for the addict to simply feel the same physiological effects, due to their building up of a tolerance, maybe I would find your characterization less objectionable.
But, sorry, Alex — I have to draw a line here. People have gotten too cute and flippant about what addiction really means, trivializing the challenges that individuals face from true forms of chemical addiction. There are people turning tricks for drugs, and people selling their children into slavery, to compensate for their addictions. And you’re talking about cappuccinos and pour-overs.

Fraser Jamieson (Barista)
Guest
Fraser Jamieson (Barista)

Caffeine is chemically addictive. The research is in and it’s clear. Coffee is not simply psychologically addictive, though to some degree that is probably true too; instead, caffeine conditions the brain to require more. The mechanism is identical to the addiction caused by dangerous drugs. Thankfully, unless you consume coffee to stupid quantities it won’t really do you any harm. (yes, yes, I know all about bone loss etc.) True though, there are too many jokes made about addictions. In the case of coffee, however, it really truly is an addiction…just not one to worry about.

cody
Guest
cody

There are different forms of addiction with different side effects. You can not compare opiates to methamphetamines as an example.

Old Mate
Guest
Old Mate

There needs to be more discussion about the labels used and the massive grey areas between them.

Manageable DEPENDENCE on a chemical that can enhance and enrich as opposed to uncontrollable ADDICTION to a chemical that dominates every aspect of ones existence so that they will harm others and themselves trying to obtain more and more of it.

A Critic
Guest
A Critic

“There are people turning tricks for drugs, and people selling their children into slavery, to compensate for their addictions.”

You are confusing the consequences of prohibition with the consequences of addiction.

“If you could tell me that coffee “addiction” requires an ever-increasing
consumption of coffee for the addict to simply feel the same
physiological effects, due to their building up of a tolerance, maybe I
would find your characterization less objectionable.”

Until you’ve consistently drunk 2+ gallons of drip or at least 20 triple shots per day until you reach a bona fide manic state you haven’t really tried coffee. You are just dabbling. http://www.doctoryourself.com/caffeine_allergy.html.

J B
Guest
J B

So routine is all it takes for something to be an addiction? In that case there’s a lot of people addicted to brushing their teeth, putting on their shoes, driving to work… I’m surprised the world can even function with so much addiction

Marshall Hance
Guest
Marshall Hance

I can’t help but notice the discussion being nothing about the article, which was excellent and well considered. You’re right, folks are habitual when it comes to their coffee. I can’t help but think the espresso blend is an important component of the bar, keeping SO’s for more adventurous folks (those who’ve already had their 1st cup).

Swag Valance
Guest
Swag Valance

2-3 days and it’s completely out of your system chemically, other than a few headaches along the way. No methadone clinics required. No need to go to “the rooms”. No risk of fatality, let alone losing your job or marriage over it. None of the physiological dependencies of other real addictions. I’m not sure if middle class, mostly white America feels left out of personal drama and the badge of honor that society mistakenly seems to accredit to those needing to overcome. A form of Facebook FOMO. But on the spectrum of, say, heroin addiction to coffee addiction, the latter… Read more »

Gregory Levine
Guest
Gregory Levine

Well written article. Any tips on getting people to step out of their comfort zone and try something other than whatever is closest to what they order at Charbucks? … I think if people would be converted to a drink that tastes awful at the chain stores (like black coffee or 6-8 oz espresso drinks) then we would really have them hooked. There’s a popular craft micro-brewery that opened up in town a year and a half ago. The bartenders and brewers frequent the coffee shop I work at, and they use coffee from our roaster for their coffee stout.… Read more »

Benjamin Stonys
Guest
Benjamin Stonys

I’ve worked in a cafe very far from the modern definition of “good” or specialty or any other positive label you would like to use. But there is one thing we absolutely had down. And that was servicing our “addicts”. We got to the level that a good third to half of a major rush we’d be hit with would have their drink ready at the register. Now if only our espresso hadn’t been 10% robusto, 90% “Brazilian” and 100% charcoal-dark-roasted.

Matt Perger
Guest
Matt Perger

Hi Michael – I hear you, although remember the piece is titled “how to serve addicts” not “how to serve everyone who walks into your cafe” 🙂

Michael Butler
Guest
Michael Butler

Sorry I didn’t read all the comment before I posed this, but I feel like this article is written based more on personality. I admit to being an addict of caffeine, and have been since before I worked in coffee. That being said, the reason I love coffee is the variety and vast range of flavors (which I assume we all know what I’m talking about). Currently I have customers who want the same thing everyday (and forever) but I feel like tbis article is solely based around those folks and is not conveying the over-arching beauty of specialty coffee… Read more »

Alex
Guest
Alex

It can be fun when you get to that zone!

Almost enough fun to make up for the robusta 😉

Alex
Guest
Alex

Thank you!

I think the answer is largely accepting that those interested and excited people who always want something new can happily co-exist alongside the drugs-only please addicts, and that service models can accommodate both. Even the most hardcore addict might be swayed by a new drink special later in the day, and your brewery friends may really just want some batch coffee at 6am—the trick lies in learning how to read those preferences situationally with customers.

Édouard Fabi
Guest
Édouard Fabi

Coffee addicts do not simply drink coffee as a routine. It is a part of it, yes, but coffee addicts feel like they can’t be fully awake without their coffee. They can’t concentrate as well without it and feel down until they drink one. As for myself, if it takes too long after I wake up before I get a coffee I often have headaches. I can be fully awake if I don’t drive to work. I don’t feel down until I put on my shoes and I can still fall asleep if my teeth ain’t brushed. Some people do… Read more »

如何更好的服务消费者 - 转载Brista Hustle – 大乃容有
Guest
如何更好的服务消费者 - 转载Brista Hustle – 大乃容有

[…] How To Serve Addicts […]

Alex
Guest
Alex

wow I’m honored!

Patricia Christianson
Guest
Patricia Christianson

Thank you for what you write and how. I poemified part of this post, and am giving it to the baristas at my daughter’s coffee shop where I am the project manager.

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