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January 30, 2017 /
The Difference Between Australian & US Coffee Service

There are a million differences large and small between the Australian approach to coffee service and the standard fast-food style approach in the United States. But I think they all boil down to the physical positioning of one specific staff person.

In the United States, you generally wait in line approaching a bar where a single person is working a register station. There’s probably some form of overhead or printed menu you are supposed to peruse as you wait, and once you reach the front of the line, you order over the bar as soon as stepping up, finish the transaction quickly, and then have your drink shouted at you by a barista when it’s done and waiting.

In US coffee, the register person is behind the bar, and serves each party sequentially.

In Australia, this “register person” is actually responsible for far more than just register duties, and crucially, they are on the guest side of the bar for most of their time, serving multiple parties in parallel. (It’s worth mentioning that this is also default cafe service in parts of Europe and elsewhere, but Australia seems to have refined it the most in the coffee context.)

When you walk into an Australian cafe, you may have to wait in-line for a bit, but when you reach the front of the line, you are greeted by a friendly server who either seats you and hands you a menu, or stands and talks you through their offering, or takes your order (it’s much more standardized down there with only a few main drink orders). The exact order of operations from there depends on if the cafe is more of a to-go style or a sit-down style cafe, but in every single cafe I observed they provide a complete service experience, paced to a pleasing social rhythm. What I mean by this is that the service person takes you through every bit of the service interaction from ordering, to delivering your order to you, to asking you if you’d like more, to handling payment and wishing you on your way.

Wait, this bears repeating: Coffee servers in Australia come around to your table and ask you if you’d like anything more when you finish something.

I have admittedly only spent a couple weeks in Melbourne myself, but I observed a fascinating phenomenon that pretty much every traveller who has visited confirms is true: in Australia, you often find that you’ve spent $20+ at a cafe in a single sitting.

The truly sumptuous array of food and juice and tea and alcohol and pastry etc. that cafes serve in Australia certainly helps explain this. But I’m pretty convinced that just as important is the fact that coffee service in Australia operates like any other hospitality industry and asks their guests if there’s anything else they would like, in a relaxed setting and way, and then charges them for it.

(From what I could tell Australia seems to be conveniently free of the history of free coffee refills that is so strong in the States, but I don’t think that’s insurmountable. You just have to give the full service experience.)

When you don’t have to wait in line to order more, it’s amazing how often someone asking leads to you getting another flat white, or to try the other pourover on the menu, or to snack on a croissant or avocado toast.

Now we’re back to that line thing, and the differences between Australian and US service. Because the serving worker is stuck in one place behind the bar in the US, they are forced to handle each economic transaction in full before moving on to the next one. This US approach is wildly inefficient, because each order transaction must immediately followed by an economic transaction, wrapping things up before moving onto the next party sequentially.

In Australia, the serving worker is much more free to roam amongst their guests, handling individual parts of transactions in batches, which is much more efficient, and leaves the serving worker more time to talk guests through menus, answer questions, and present elegant settings—all while the production barista happily chews through a queue of tickets.

Now, I haven’t addressed bar-style service or even really full restaurant-style service here, but I think that both of those styles also have at their core the idea of service people amongst their guests, either on the restaurant floor, or seated intimately at the bar. This is how hospitality-focused industries interact with their guests, and if US coffee wants to move past fast-food service, I think it needs to do the same.  

It’s time to get service out from behind the bar. Unless there is bar-seating, let the baristas focus on heads-down coffee production (as seems to be their wont already…). It’s time to have  dedicated serving positions that provide complete care through the entire service experience.

I know some people might say that US consumers aren’t ready for this style of service with their coffee, but I think we should have more faith in our guests. Especially because every other high-service business in the US already operates with service workers on the guest side of the bar.

As the Australians say, it’s time to get amongst it.

Alex Bernson is the editor of Barista Hustle (and an American).

 

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Alex
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Alex

I actually think the Australian style service is both more optimized for volume and more specialized. One of the highest-volume cafes I’ve ever seen is Patricia Coffee Brewers in Melbourne, and they had 3 people all filling the same hosting/transaction/service duties, floating and doing all those tasks, which freed up the two baristas on the machine to be going heads down hard enough to bottom out the boiler of a three group synesso. Easily 2-4 drinks a minute going out. So I really don’t think it’s incompatible with volume at all. As to ethnocentric bias, absolutely, it’s going to be… Read more »

Swag Valance
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Swag Valance

There’s a bit of ethnocentric bias inherent here. The two systems are more optimized to do what each do well. In Australia, it’s emphasizing quality and consistency of service. In the U.S., it’s about trying to maximize service volume (and minimize customer wait) through specialization of labor. So I beg to differ on your concept of “efficiency” — it is biased on perspective and what you are trying to optimize. The specialization of labor has its own efficiencies, for example. Some go back to the lean management theories of Toyota manufacturing plants where many studies have show that humans lose… Read more »

Jai Lott
Guest
Jai Lott

Loved this read Alex! I’m Coffee Director for an Australian owned group of Cafes in NYC (Bluestone) and it’s been a blast watching people learn to adapt to sitting down and enjoying their coffee experience. It’s certainly a cultural thing but NY guests love being told to sit first. It’ll surely catch on!

Adam M
Guest
Adam M

Alex Bernson is the editor of Barista Hustle (and an American).

Swag Valance
Guest
Swag Valance

In lean service delivery research, “floating” is just another word for “transference costs”. According to most psychology and behavioral science research, I was actually being generous with the 20% cost. A lot say it is closer to 40%, e.g., “Each task switch might waste only 1/10th of a second, but if you do a lot of switching in a day it can add up to a loss of 40% of your productivity.” (source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-wise/201209/the-true-cost-multi-tasking) You’re certainly entitled to the belief that “our system is best on all measures”, but it sounds like you may be guilty of what cognitive scientists… Read more »

Daryl Grunau
Guest
Daryl Grunau

I would love to see this level of service in North America, would help to set true Specialty Coffee apart from the rest and might help to elevate the Barista behind the machine to more inline with a chef…. wonder if a concept cafe like this is anywhere in the USA already…

Swag Valance
Guest
Swag Valance

Check on Alex being American, but it’s it’s still not clear if that’s just his citizenship but he’s an expat getting all his coffee service experience in Straya or what. You’re on the right point that it’s difficult to leap to conclusions without comparative metrics to guide us. This is why baristas are always trained to measure everything they do … it seems odd to throw that ethos out the window and commit to a finger-in-the-air reading on this. Thus writing a post to make a statement about service like this is akin to stating the 1.55 brew ratio is… Read more »

Nathan DeRuvo
Guest
Nathan DeRuvo

1. Alex Bersnson is American 2. A good “floater” allows a number of people to keep themselves from having to switch tasks incurring the scourge that is “transference cost”. 3. It is clear to me that work involving customer service does not necessarily need to adhere to the Toyota method. For example it would be most efficient if all the customers called a cafe the night before and stated their order and time of pick up so the production people could focus on one task the entire day. That turns out to be inconvenient/ unrealistic for the patrons. 4. It… Read more »

Alex
Guest
Alex

Well the funny thing is there are thousands of “cafes” that are food focused but still serve plenty of coffee doing this style of service, we just don’t do think of them as coffee outlets. I’ve also run into a number of Australian-owned cafes in NYC that seem to do quite well with the model.

Alex
Guest
Alex

Thanks! Love what you all do—I definitely look to it as proof that it’s possible in the US, even if not every market is NYC.

Jackson Cate
Guest
Jackson Cate

Slate does this beautifully in Seattle. It was definitely inspirational to me.

Jess
Guest
Jess

I work at a cafe in Nashville, TN called CREMA Coffee Roasters. Most days, there is a line to the door and a constant line of drinks. We also have a lot of to go orders because we get a decent amount of business people. Do you have any tips or ideas for providing this type of service in a busy cafe environment? Thanks!

JohnR
Guest
JohnR

We hear a lot of talk in the US about Australian style coffee/espresso. Aside from the service model, is there a difference in the coffee itself? As far as I can tell, as long as you’re at any good 3rd wave shop the beverage styles are very similar. Is the perception of different coffee styles a remnant of US 2nd wave compared with AUS 3rd, and not longer really so applicable?

Alex
Guest
Alex

Hi Dustin, Yes, that’s what I mean by thousands of cafes, and yes there should definitely be more quality coffee served alongside quality food, but I think that this service model of server on guest side of bar can work just fine when there is no food being served. Thank you for the feedback. I decided to keep this article very tightly focused for maximum digestibility, but I can see how you could want more concrete facts, and I can see that some other people want more analysis too. I may write a follow-up piece doing a case study examination… Read more »

Dustin Cole Mattson
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Dustin Cole Mattson

I read thousands of “cafes” as: diner, breakfast nook, brunch spot, bakery, etc etc regarding this comment. I feel like the point you might be getting at is that America needs more of and better places serving both top notch food and coffee in a full-service setting. If that’s the case, then this article would’ve read very differently. I’m all for that notion because it sounds like Australia has the concept licked. However, I can’t help but at least slightly share Swag Valence’s sentiment, that at first read the article was heavy-handed on the Australia: GOOD America: BAD in tone.… Read more »

Eric Squires
Guest
Eric Squires

At my shop, Three Crowns Coffee (Warsaw, IN, USA), we do a mixture of both types of service. Both work and both are great for all involved. It depends a lot of the type of customers you have and how your shop is set up. If you’re doing mostly to go orders of just coffee, then I’d probably argue for the American fast food style. Although we’ve adopted a bit of a hybrid where customers order at the counter and then we deliver their drinks. None of this Sbux shouting a mispronounced name across a busy cafe. When we do… Read more »

Alex
Guest
Alex

Well that’s a big question! On the one hand, there’s this whole massive cultural difference and different drink styles/names, but on the other hand, there really are only so many ways to make tasty coffee, so as I’ve argued elsewhere, a flat white is largely a gibraltar/cortado/small latte/etc elsewhere.

Cayman
Guest
Cayman

Totally agree. BSL in the village has great warm service down perfect.

Kelly Sanchez
Guest
Kelly Sanchez

I absolutely agree with the feeling that US coffee shops should attempt this hospitality-centric approach. But I also feel as though Alex’s article portrays all US coffee shops in their worst forms. Let’s discuss why US cafes still serve coffee in the “fast-food service” (and not assume that they all give bad service because of it) and create a type of hybrid that embraces the virtues of both. In my opinion the “fast-food service” style allows for a unique cafe experience that perhaps hospitality-centric table-service styles do not allow for. Think of the book club who regularly meets at the… Read more »

KJUU
Guest
KJUU

How does this integrate into the somewhat prominent American business model of having a drive-thru? Not a factor in big cities, but out in the hinterlands and suburbia, offering drive through service is considered a huge plus for increasing sales. And what level of sales supports this service model? I’d say the vast majority of small independent cafes (in the US?) struggle to meet bills once in a while, especially in years 0-4, and labor costs are pounded into managers’ and shift supervisors’ heads, so scheduling one person as a “wait staff” with baristas exclusive to the drinks wouldn’t make… Read more »

Jesse
Guest
Jesse

I totally believe in every cafe needing to have that ‘stay as long as you please’ feel to it. For instance, just finished the usual mid-day uni break at my preferred cafe. Before even ordering, I’ve caught up with the barista and I already feel at home. After enjoying my coffee I was offered to sit in on some sample filter roasting, which for anyone with a passion, is quite interesting. In the end I’ve only paid 4 odd dollars, but also gained priceless experience in roasting… And not once did I feel as though I should move on to… Read more »

Alex
Guest
Alex

I hear you on portraying US cafes in their worst light. I definitely wrote about what I see as the worst aspects of US service, but the sad reality is that those things are extremely prevalent. I could have focused on the places that manage to make guests feel welcome despite any obstacles of service, but that’s a different article. You’re definitely right about there being upsides to the fast-food style of service, and how it fits well with that particularly American form of strangers in public together that we seem to prefer. However I don’t think that other forms… Read more »

Alex
Guest
Alex

“Regardless of which style of service you choose for your cafe if you make your customers feel welcome and comfortable they will keep coming back and will likely tell their friends.”

Exactly this, and as I think you show, it’s not actually that hard to do either style of service well, as long as you focus on making your guests feel welcome. They can figure it out, they’re smart people.

Alex
Guest
Alex

That sounds like a whole production! If you have enough volume, I’d say anything you can do to isolate the baristas from having to handle service interactions is best—really let them focus on banging out drinks. Beyond that, if you want to dive in the deep end, try putting a staff person on the customer side of the bar who can work as a sort of greeter and wrangler, taking orders from people as they wait in line, and then putting those tickets in at the espresso machine, with the register person being more about banging out the economic transactions… Read more »

Gabriel Sims
Guest
Gabriel Sims

To be honest, I personally dislike both of the service styles described. I want to see more of a bar style service with shops designed for maximum bar seating and drinks ordered directly from the baristas making the coffee. Whether I receive table service or till service I always find the server lacking in specialized knowledge and training. Who better to talk to customers about the menu than the baristas? And as a barista, the last thing I want is to be “heads down” churning out drinks like an automated machine – I value interacting with customers as much as… Read more »

Mike
Guest
Mike

IMHO this relates to the ‘cafe vs coffeeshop’ factor. At this stage in the UK’s speciality coffee growth cycle we tend to find ‘good’ speciality coffee mostly in dedicated coffeeshops where the emphasis is far less on food – perhaps some pre-made options seen and selected whilst queueing to order and pay up front. On the other hand cafes predominantly focus more on table-service food, with coffee as a part of the offering but generally of a lower quality than that offered by coffeeshops. Payment is made right at the end, as in restaurants. There are exceptions to this generalisation,… Read more »

Elizabeth Mair Banks
Guest
Elizabeth Mair Banks

I must of been blind when in NY a couple of years ago we could not find anything but Starbucks when there, I will have to open my eyes better next time. Although did find a great coffee in Little Italy San Fran at a little patisserie shop 🙂

Grant Reimer
Guest
Grant Reimer

Milage may vary. I find I that it has a lot to do with expectations.
Great service is great service.
If your small business can afford a full-time wait-person on staff, then there’s no reason to do otherwise.
However I can see how a new business may hesitate in taking that risk to start with and choose to blur the line between barista and register operator to keep the initial investment reasonable.
This is one reason why having a tab system, like at a bar, can work well. The barista can both make the drinks and converse freely theoretically without touching a register.

Doug Lycett
Guest
Doug Lycett

This article makes a lot of sense, but I have worked in a cafe in the states that follows the table-service model and it was a nightmare. Americans arnt used to being served this way in a cafe environment and for the entire year I worked there it was just utter confusion on both sides. Idk what it is but it just didn’t work well.

LOVE me says FOOD
Guest
LOVE me says FOOD

“When you don’t have to wait in line to order more, it’s amazing how often someone asking leads to you getting another flat white, or to try the other pourover on the menu, or to snack on a croissant or avocado toast.”
– not having to get back in line, is one factor that changes whether I get a something more.
1. Does anyone feel pushed to get out after you ask them if they would like more and they’re done?

2. After they order from the table, is there confusion from customers where to pay?

Thoughts on Speed of Service vs. Accuracy | Coffee & Junk
Guest
Thoughts on Speed of Service vs. Accuracy | Coffee & Junk

[…] of time to speed up by doing whatever they came in to do. Alex Bernson recently wrote about the North American vs. Australian service method. And it made me change the design for a future project I’m working […]

Elizabeth Mair Banks
Guest
Elizabeth Mair Banks

Coming from Australia I can tell you we have all of the above type of coffee shops, the cafe sit down style, little hole in the wall places that are more focused on takeaways with small food offerings, we even have a few Starbucks left but most of them have closed down. There’s something for everyone. The one difference I did notice most between actual coffee is that in NY the coffee was weaker so I found I was ordering extra shots. The strongest coffee I had was an Italian place in San Fran.

Ali Gori
Guest
Ali Gori

Massive eyerolling. Au has a population just larger than FL and smaller than TX and we actually have things to do like GO TO WORK.

byron
Guest
byron

hi matt anchance you going to write an article on your thoughts and opinions of pressure profiling?:)

Matt Perger
Guest
Matt Perger

Thanks mate. This was written by Alex but I feel you!

Jake
Guest
Jake

I see where you derive these observations from but I think they are a little parochial. Many, many shops in the states offer tabs to be opened, offer table service, or will gladly make a second or third drink and accept payment at the very end. Some of your points stand Matt, but a little more nuance would have been appreciated! Terms like “fast-food service” don’t really hold up once you move past the Starbucks model in the states. Having a server on the guest side is interesting but with so many U.S shops running food and drinks to seated… Read more »

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