The Last Mile

Last time, we looked at creating the ideal behind-the-bar environment, taking into account floor height and milk fridge placement among numerous considerations. The idea being, a thoughtfully-designed workspace leads to happy baristas, which, in turn, elevates customer service and satisfaction.

My recent experiences at four cafes reminded me of just how much service matters. That it matters goes without saying, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s take beverage quality out of the equation. These four places, two in San Francisco, two in Brooklyn, all produced very good, if not superior, results in the cup. Controlling for the quality variable provides invaluable clarity into the rest of the experience. (The cafes will remain unnamed, to the benefit of the guilty, and as sad as it makes me, the detriment of the virtuous.)

After a long few days lecturing on coffee’s history, agronomy, chemistry and preparation at illy’s University of Coffee program at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, as much I love coffee, I was feeling very off-duty the following morning, taking a walking tour of San Francisco with a colleague. As luck would have it, our meanderings took us past a spectacular looking coffee place, fantastic aromas wafting out onto the sidewalk. So really, what choice did we have?

We stepped inside to find a top-notch bean selection. Taste buds springing to life, we sauntered over to the bar, expecting the best yet to come. While there were no other customers on line, we waited. And waited. And waited, the barista tapping away on her phone, making not even the slightest attempt at eye contact.

Having invested so much time, we stuck around until her attention turned to us, grudgingly. We ordered two double ristretto shots. While pretty well done, nothing could overcome the sour tastes already lining our mouths. What a shame: two potentially excellent cups, gone mostly to waste.

While our second San Francisco coffee tour stop was a mere six blocks away, it might as well have been a world apart. This place had us at hello, with on-site roasting and a dedicated slow bar for pour over: already a sign that the customer matters here. On-the-go folks can get their brewed fix pronto, while aficionados with time to wait and linger are served separately.

And here is where I had one of the best discussions with a fellow barista in recent memory. What an entertaining, engaging guy — equally knowledgeable and inquisitive, and a terrific storyteller. Nearly half an hour had passed, the phenomenal Columbian pour over long gone, before I checked my watch. I can’t tell you if the coffee was objectively better than at bar one, but I can tell you it tasted better — no exaggeration.

Back in New York, it was another tale of two bars mere blocks apart, this time in Brooklyn’s hipster-chic Williamsburg neighborhood. Brooklyn bar one was the first US outpost of a noted artisanal foreign chain. And here I had one of my best-ever US cafe experiences. Like San Francisco bar two, this place had it all, adding a cupping room for tastings and classes to its on-site roasting operation. The decor was a warm mix of old-world industrial and contemporary.

The entrance had to be 30 feet away from the bar. That didn’t stop the barista from warmly greeting me the moment the door swung open. And this in a borough where low key is the modus operandi. I sidled up to the bar and ordered a double espresso — great on its own, and made even better enjoyed through the smile that didn’t leave my face.

My treatment at nearby Brooklyn bar two made my experience at San Francisco bar one feel like a big hug. Instead of being ignored, I was treated like I was causing some kind of trouble. Could it have been my skinny red tie? The accent? I’m still scratching my head. With no apparent desire to move a muscle, muttering in a voice impossible to understand, I had to ask four times “how much do I owe you” before getting an answer that didn’t sound like mud. The coffee was pretty good. I couldn’t have enjoyed it less.

So what does it all mean? I’m hoping that the days of the stoic, imperial barista will soon be a thing of the past. People who love coffee know more about it now, and independent bars and smaller chains have raised their preparation game. That makes walking just a few steps, or even a few blocks away for better treatment less of a thought. And proof that nice baristas can finish first.

Giorgio Milos is illy’s award-winning Master Barista and illy’s North American Barista in Residence who regularly ventures beyond the cup to study the biology and chemistry of the coffee bean, continually striving to master the beverage that is his passion and profession.

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