Against all reason and better judgment the SCAE has asked me to speak on espresso bar design at the world barista contest this June in London.
It is true that Geneva and I have designed our bars ourselves, employing the architect to bring our vision into reality. In general, Geneva specializes in back-bar design (the detailed part) and I do aesthetics and customer flow.
To organize my thoughts for my talk I will blog about it. Our Gran Bar design flows from Vivace’s mission: to research, develop, and promote caffe espresso as a culinary art. And of course to promote it we serve it. Espresso preparation is unique in that it combines performance art, the fluid dance of a talented barista pouring latte art, with the joy of sweet coffee and silky milk textures. The closest thing is the sushi chef who creates intricate sashimi in full view of the customer at the sushi bar.
The reason for the art however is the customer. Without someone in front of us to please, what is the point of preparing espresso that actually tastes as good as ground coffee smells? In this way we are not too different from the ancient Japanese tea school, “Yabunouchi-ryu” , an art practiced by my friend , Chiaki. I have attended a few Japanese tea ceremonies over the years, and several performed by Chiaki, a master. To be truthful I always felt like the stupid gaijin (foreigner) being scrutinized for minor gaffes as I bumbled my way through as “the guest”. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Because in the Yabunouchi school the entire reason for the ceremony is the pleasure of the guest. And of course, nuance of movement and placement of utensils, choice of flowers, and cups are all stylized and refined to a very high degree. So, I was happily shocked that I mattered, and that my pleasure and happiness enjoying the tea are paramount.
So it is inside the Vivace “school” of espresso. At it’s best, the coffee, the ambience, and the performance combine to transport the busy urbanite into a moment of reflection upon being human. For myself that is the promise of any art form, be it performance, culinary , or visual, I want to be taken out of the ordinary, even for a moment, to enter a plane of existence where beauty infuses my existence. Where I can peek, just for a moment, behind the curtain of bills past due, roofs that need repair, or clogged toilets, and glimpse the impossible beauty of the universe around me.. A Vivace espresso bar is a sanctuary . Every aspect of the design, and performance by the baristi, is for the pleasure of our guest.
In our designs I also need to facilitate the historical mission of the coffee house as an intellectual petri-dish for the exchange and fermentation of ideas among very different people without academic constraint. (We differ from the pub in this regard because after a coffee fueled debate everyone can still remember what they said the following day…)
So the design of a Vivace Gran Bar has a twin purposes, to enhance the beauty of the coffee and to bring people together.
A customer’s journey…
Let’s follow along as our customer enters the door. First contact is the signage. The text within the Vivace logo “ESPRESSO VIVACE una bella tazza di caffe” translates as “excitement about a beautiful cup of coffee“. The shape is round because I perused many logos when designing the Vivace mandala and round seemed to have the most integrity. It is rendered in heavy copper to suggest longevity and tradition. Well made espresso is a culinary classic because it enhances flavor and offers more gentle caffeine. It is also healthy and loaded with anti-oxidants. In this way it will become a new tradition and our logo tries to convey that.
Then we follow our customer in. The entrance area is designed to be spacious, provide a sweeping view of the bar, and have some kind of intellectual stimulation to pass the time while waiting. Waiting is a very psychological activity because time passes much slower if the mind is stagnant.
At our new Brix bar we use a poster service to cover the entire wall next to the line with posters announcing community performances. In Seattle, this is the best way to find intimate chamber music concerts and fringe theater. It changes every three weeks and is quite dense with information. And guess what? It stimulates conversation among our customers, a double win…community connection and mind food while waiting.
As they shuffle forward they are also paraded past our retail display case. Again, the wait is “shorter” if you have something to do or look at. And while waiting they might decide that a set of Vivace porcelain cups is just the thing for their Mamas birthday.
Next they proceed past the pastry case to the grinder area where the barista working shots takes their order. The Vivace machines are set low enough so that the customer gets full eye contact with the barista making the coffee to enhance communication.
As they order the barista repeats the order and hits the grinder switch. Let’s peek behind the bar now.
The grinder station is designed to have three grinders side-by-side for Vita, Dolce, and D-caf. The “dump box” for spent coffee is just a steel reinforced rectangular hole with a rubber bumper that empties into a 33 gal. trash can beneath the counter.
Under counter Vivace has no cabinets, only MetroRack shelves that can be re-arranged and are mildew resistant. The design is easier to keep clean, can grow with the business and is considerable cheaper than built-in cabinets.
The back bar counter is New Imperial Brown granite. We use granite because of it’s durability and it absorbs the noise of preparation. Tamping, thumping the milk pitchers, and general high frequency noises like dish clatter are muted by the stone. The counter top is 33” high for best ergonomic packing posture for the average employee. And, this height allows us to just slip in an under-counter refrigerator.
Stocking priorities behind the bar are determined by frequency of usage. The most used items, porcelain cups are on top of the machine with back-ups right behind the barista on, you guessed it, MetroRack. To-go cups are in spring-loaded tubes right behind the barista, a turn and reach maneuver. Back-up coffee beans are one step away, as are rags, syrups. So the theme of the entire back-bar design is to prioritize items that are used the most so that they are closer to the barista. You must not ever waste the customers time with extra movements necessitated by haphazard storage. Also poor placement of high use items makes a difficult work environment for my staff. (Let’s face it no matter how good your coffee, or beautiful your shop is, there is nothing more tedious for the customer than dealing with unhappy employees. For more dig up my “Culture of Excellence’ articles in my archives.)
Now we arrive at the milk presentation area. At Brix they are presenting on the brown granite but the main bar is cut away to reveal the area as a stage. The raised Italian stand up bar is higher and made from Caffe Forest brown marble. The effect is to frame the lower granite counter and create a stunning visual presentation of caffe latte art being poured and offered to the guest. The lower bar also accommodates wheel chair guests and satisfies the American Disabilities Act for a counter at their height. Our wheel chair customers are right at home in the big show, not relegated to the end of the bar.
At the presentation counter we also have our cash register. Here the design of Vivace sacrifices a tiny bit of speed for the benefit of my talented baristi. It is true you can go faster if the cashier is a separate station and the baristi do not handle the transaction. This is the standard in Italy for high volume bars. But I learned from big time illusionist Lance Burton in Vegas, that when people are amazed they are very generous. They pour out of his show and pack his shop eager to spend $10 for a little coin slide trick that costs 25 cents to make. I applied the lesson to Vivace. When the barista pours the drink and tops it with beautiful latte art, tips increase. It is a win-win situation. To have talented people taking this art seriously, they must earn as much as possible, and tips are very important to them.
Here we separate into two groups, customers taking their coffee to go, and customers using the seating area. To go folks have a free standing condiment bar in the middle of the entrance area so they can keep the flow going and are out the door. It is located just off the main bar area so they do not have to shuffle through the seating.
Customers enjoying coffee at the bar have room to stand a moment, read the paper or chat. The horseshoe-shaped Italian stand-up bar is a design that has it’s genesis in the coffee itself. Espresso and cappuccino are delicate foams. They should be enjoyed immediately or they lose that silky mouth-feel.
Customers here to relax awhile venture into the seating area.
The seating is designed to facilitate solo customers with long window bars up front that look out on Broadway. Groups have a choice of two-person or six-person tables. The entire shop is about 2000 square feet with about 950 going to preparation, storage and a tiny office. The rest is seating and holds about 85 people in total, with room for 15 more on our street tables.. For tables and chairs, we use dinette style to encourage people to be comfortable and break up the “marble palace” effect of our bars. (Window bars are all stone as well as the main bar.) Lighting is intimate but always just enough to read by. We have one long (6’x18”) free standing marble bar for group discussions. Also we have a glassed in meeting room that seats about 24 people. Our seating area has no flat screen monitors or even a public telephone. I want a Vivace to be an escape from all the information that bombards us daily.
Art is brought in by a professional gallery owner and rotated seasonally. Wireless is free.
Finally, the seating area also has a children’s corner with drawing supplies and toys. The corner is designed to be a small corral so harried parents can keep them in control and grab a moments peace. For adults Vivace has chess sets and go-boards available.