We founded The Roasterie in 1993 with a hyper-focus on all things local; Kansas City, in our case. And I’d be less than honest if I said that the whole ‘local’ focus resonated back then in any way like it does today.
After 22 years one can see how patterns have changed, whether we are talking about coffee, spirits, clothing, food, etc. The Specialty Coffee industry got a later start than fine wine, by perhaps 15-20 years, depending on whom you ask. So we were much less mature as an industry and during the 90’s we were figuring it out. Keep in mind when we started, there was no Internet. The Specialty Coffee industry was full of mostly young, passionate, energetic coffee enthusiasts hell-bent on acquiring coffee knowledge, getting focused as an organization on coffee quality and helping farmers. “Proper remuneration at the farm gate” was the mantra we all held dearly. There were some that held back information; but, for the most part it was wide open sharing with everyone helping everyone.
In the mid 90’s there was an intense focus on all things espresso and a barista movement was beginning to get traction. It seemed that much of the attention was on coffee, then the espresso, then the baristas and lastly to alternate methods of brewing coffee (pour-overs, etc.) However, the customer, and what the customer wanted, was not always the focus during the time that our industry was maturing and finding our feet. I often think of the fine wine industry in the early days and there are a lot of parallels to the specialty coffee industry across the board. I think both industries became much more attractive as they matured, as the focus shifted from a “look at me” kind of an attitude to a focus on the customer. I recently visited a few wineries in Napa Valley and I was struck by genuineness, authenticity and focus on how much they still did not know.
Our group discussed these experiences and some of them had been visiting Napa since the 70’s and noted the lack of pretense, smugness, arrogance, etc. I think this comes with maturity and confidence; being confident enough to not have all the answers and not have to rush to jump onto the next fad. It was enlightening, as all of our trips to Napa have been, but even more so because of the healthy attitudes and customer focus we experienced this last trip.
I feel strongly that we are going to be much, much more focused on serving the customer, being of service to the customer, and being there for the customer. There is going to be less tolerance in the marketplace for anything less. In the past a lot of cafes and restaurants could get by with having awesome quality food and beverage but poor or fair customer service. I do not think anyone is going to have that option going forward. I’m a huge proponent of having both, obviously, but what we are seeing is that the customers want a healthy experience. They want to be appreciated, they want authenticity and are more and more unwilling to put up with anything less. And I’d be outspoken and say if you don’t think you can deliver an exceptional quality product and exceptional customer service, then don’t get in the business! If you’re in a city of 10 million or more people, then you can probably find enough customers no matter what. But moving forward, these are going to be the exceptions; customers are going to demand authentic, nice, friendly, customer service.
The economic meltdown accelerated another trend and that is lifestyle businesses. While they’ve always been around, we’ve seen a hundred-fold increase in small…often tiny, cafes, roasters, restaurants, etc; accompanied by a “tiny” or minimal, small footprint lifestyle. Folks are making a living doing much less revenue than what would traditionally be required in years past. Therefore, they can be much more creative and serve the customers with much more care, and more time than in a traditional “eat it and beat” kind of an atmosphere. Our economy isn’t producing the number of $60-$80k a year jobs that it was pre-recession so the opportunity costs aren’t as high. I’ve heard several of our customers say “I wasn’t making much money in my old job and I hated it. Now, I’m still not making much money but I love what I’m doing.”
There is a much more deliberate, intentional focus on ‘staying small.’ Before it was local, then hyper-local and now it’s neighborhood. As a child growing up in a small town in Iowa, we had several small grocery stores in people’s houses; the store was on the main floor and the family lived upstairs. There were lots of stores and shops like this all over the country that nearly all became extinct; now, they are coming back. Furthermore, the bigger chains in all areas of the hospitality industry are responding with smaller stores, a smaller market radius, lower revenue per store with lower overhead. They are focusing on the neighborhoods that they serve.
The trend toward a smaller footprint in terms of material possessions, autos, housing, etc. opens up all kinds of possibilities for owning small, local, and neighborhood shops. The owner can have a hyper-focus on what the customer wants as well as serving the customer the way the customer wants to be served. Yes, it should always be this way. But if you are swimming in overhead, then the focus all too often is just “paying the rent.” And yuck, who wants to live for that?