This post was originally written by Alex Bernson, former editor of Barista Hustle.
Guests can only express what they want in the terms they know, and for many coffee consumers, the number one term they know is bold. It immediately conjures up ideas of morning cups of fuel, stoic black coffee drinkers, decisive preference, rich taste, and an ability to hold its own against milk and sugar. Bold is in fact a pretty great word—an excellent bit of coffee marketing so persuasive it has become permanently lodged in our coffee-drinking psyche.
So why do so many coffee professionals hate the term bold? And what can be done to bridge the gap between consumer and professional opinions of this snappy, potentially quite helpful descriptor?
In the interview I did with Hidenori Izaki about service, he stressed the importance of meeting consumers where they are and using the terms they are familiar with, and I think “bold” is a perfect place to start. I want to extend his idea of “service as a gateway” a little bit, and look at how a guest expressing a preference for “bold” coffee can actually be a gateway into a rewarding and useful conversation for everyone.
The biggest problem with the word bold is that it can be very broad—for example a guest looking for a delicious cup of medium to lighter-roasted black coffee exploding with flavor, and one looking for a darker-roasted cup that will work well with milk, may both say they want a “bold” coffee. But that’s fine! By saying bold, the guest has already let you know that they most likely want one of those two styles of coffee, and if you think about it, there is a lot of overlap in descriptions. We know that the guest wants a strong coffee, so we can already eliminate things like an aeropress or a delicate and bright Kenya as good potential options for this guest. See, we’re already narrowing things down!
Figuring out what a guest really wants begins with really paying attention to their circumstances. If a guest is coming in looking all bleary-eyed at 7:00AM asking for a bold coffee, chances are good that they mean “bold” in the fuel kind of way. They want a coffee with serious tactile feel and rich, comforting flavors, so something like a Guatemalan or Indonesian coffee brewed on batch brew or french press might be most appropriate. If a guest comes in at 1:00PM asking for a bold coffee, they may mean “bold” in terms of lots of flavor, not necessarily lots of fuel, and so they may be more open to things like a fruitier Ethiopia, or a lower-concentration pour-over.
Of course, the best way to narrow down what a guest means is to ask them! If you think the guest might want milk in their coffee, you can ask them if they mean “bold as in big, punchy flavors, or bold as in heavy-bodied and able to stand up to milk?”
For many guests, they may not know any more specific descriptive terms than “bold,” so this is a chance to widen their awareness of what the coffee flavor experience can be like. That doesn’t mean beating them over the head with information, or trying to “educate” them about roast degree and all sorts of other esoteric information. It means constructively building on the terms a guest is already using to help them understand their own preferences.
Asking good follow up questions also does the critical work of demonstrating to the guest that you’re trying to get them exactly what they want. Not only does this reduce errors, but that impression can actually make the guest feel more satisfied with their experience, regardless of the coffee you serve them.
People love finding the word for a sensation, and especially finding a word for a sensation they like. If you can help a “bold” coffee drinker to understand that what they really like is a full body, or intense fruitiness, or heavy chocolate and earthy flavors, you can win a devoted convert.
Of course the trick of it all is hitting that crucial balance between genuine education and zero superiority or shaming of the guest. You also have to be serving a range of different coffee preparations representing different concentration and flavor preferences (but that’s a whole nother article). But I think that by embracing words like “bold” that guests are already using, and using them as a starting point of an interested, engaged service interaction, you can both educate guests, and leave them happier than when they came in.
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