Pressure profiling essentially describes the abilityof the espresso machine to change the brewing pressure during the extraction of a shot and then save your changes in a program to be repeated on the bar. The hope, of course, is to improve espresso coffee.
I see no increase in espresso quality through pressure profiling. My opportunities to play on these new machines have been for just a few hours here and there. However, espresso requires extreme temperature stability for these fragrant molecules to be preserved into your cup. I hereby postulate that stable pressure is also extremely important in the preservation of these unstable molecular structures that constitute coffee flavor/aroma. It is purely an espresso geeks intuition…but I bet I am right.
Also, it seems like the machine companies just want a new bell or whistle on their equipment. This is not led by better results in the cup but by manufacturers wanting to market additional complexities in their equipment. Kind of like Illy’s blizzard of scientific analysis, and chemistry terminology, in an effort to obscure the simple truth that only fresh coffee is good coffee. Preparing espresso is complicated enough without pressure profiling. C’mon machine gods….give us a grinder.
After many efforts to assist in the manufacture of a new grinder with no Italian-style dosing hopper (read: air/coffee mixing device that contributes annoying clacking sounds to the espresso bar) I decided to just outfit my own DRM grinders with Mazzer cones. (I use the mixed-burr model with the rubber drive belt.) A few months into it I will cautiously announce success.
The trick is to manage the powder to avoid micro-particle migration as it tumbles into the chute. The powder coming from the DRM mixed burr does contain substantial micro-particles along with larger particles. These micro-particles give the espresso crema a heavier body and more intense flavor, but if the powder is allowed to “float” for even a fraction of a second after it exits the grinder port, static will draw the micro-particles to the edges of the “cloud” of ground coffee ruining the extraction. The trick is to provide just the right amount of back pressure on the stream of powder as it exits the grinder port so it tumbles into the chute in a manageble, cake-like consistency. Too much back pressure and it is too hard of a cake, not enough back pressure means it sprays into the chute and micro-particles stick on the sides. I had to try several different designs of gate systems on this port to achieve just the right powder. Even among my eighteen DRM grinders different gate designs are required due to the individual characteristics of each grinder. And, I suspect that throughout the year we may experience the need to change the gate configuratiuons to accomodate different weather. Complexities upon complexities…I love this.
The advantages are many:
1. We see better espresso due to a more homogenous powder. Forcing the powder through my gate system breaks up the natural lumping that occurs in fresh coffee as it is pushed out the port. Flow rate inconsistencies are also minimized in the pour.
2. We can go faster on the bar. Grinding is now hands-free for the barista. It takes some getting used to….installing the empty porta-filter into the mount before hitting the grinding switch changes the rythym of the barista but my staff is unanimous that it is a much faster system once you get used to it.
3. No gawd-damn clacking sound in my shops.
Once again thank you for your patience waiting for my infrequent posts.
Back when I was reading everything, the early 70s, the book that I was the most influenced by was a philosophical tome by Robert Pirsig. With a pink cover and the pop title of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, I had assumed that the book was mere hippy-pablum, this is not so. (It wasn’t until years later I learned that Pirsig is highly respected in philosophical circles.)
Anyway, he wrestles with defining the word “quality”…and admits defeat. Then he postulates that the pursuit of very high quality in all aspects of life, from economic through social, will lead to a fulfilling existence and general happiness. I embraced this as the song of my ancestors….
Now at age 54 I see that Pirsig’s philosophy, when applied to a business, leads not only to individual fulfillment and happpiness, but it is amplified and creates beauty, meaning, and happiness that radiates out from the business. The effect is mostly on our local communities. Staff and owners making up one community, and the customers comprising a larger community, all united by the beauty of the idea -making espresso that tastes just as good as the ground coffee smells. (Although we are small, the pursuit of perfection also does good on a larger scale when you consider sustainabliity.)
This month in london at Cafe Culture I will be presenting “ESPRESSO VIVACE: an Artisan Business Model” in two parts. The first, based on this small essay, will be the structure of the actual business after 22 years, and the effect on building customer community, standing the test of time, and sustainability. My assumption is that anyone reading this, or attending in London, is interested in creating a successful artisan business of their own.
The first aspect to consider if you want to build a business this way is to know thyself. Ultimately it is your own nature that determibnes if you stand the test of time doing art for a living. And, do you have the capabilities to be the one that makes the decisions and hires and fires people. Often artistry and leadership ability do not exist in the same person. For this to succeed the owner has to have (and maintain) the passion, and he or she must be the boss.
I have described owning a small business as being analagous to living in a rock tumbler. Small business is so tough it will soon strip away all your cherished illusions about who you really are and either polish you to become your perfect (and hopefully beautiful) self, or it will destroy you and you become the grit that polishes your competitors.
It is very easy in modern life to hang onto half-baked philosophies until life challenges you sufficiently to jettison the existential baggage and acknowledge your true nature. What this means in a practical sense is that it is difficult to know who you really are (at least for some) until you are truly tested. So if you have the idea of starting an artisan business because it is a very durable form of small business, or is trendy…you will be stripped down to your core values by the endeavor. If you are a marketer at heart you will spend your energy on marketing over time. If you motivated by money that will become your focus as your business develops and you face the challenges it throws your way. It does not work to wake up and decide you are an artist so the artisan business model is for you.
Conversely, success can often lead away from artistry. Most coffee companies (including the ‘Bucks) start out with a kernel of passion. But, success allows their true nature to assert itself…and in the case of the Starbucks they blindly follow money and power to become the biggest. Most of the micro-roasters in the US do the same thing, but not as well. They start out small and gather a reputation for beautiful coffee, then run out and start opening multiple stores, and soon they are making crappy coffee. (Universally they fail at management…but that is a different story. )
When I was studying music at Cornish I was impressed by the fact that the true musicians were compelled by their nature to do music. It was not an option. The true musicians either make it professionally or live as paupers doing the music they love…it is not a concious choice, it goes much deeper. Myself I wanted to become a professional flutist because I romanticized the life that might become and really wanted to bring beauty into this world full time. I gave it a good try but in my heart I am a coffee artist…something I would never ever have “figured out” without the experience of owning and running Vivace for 22 years. Now when I look back I see the thousand of decisions I have made as CEO have never been in conflict with our charter: “to research, develop, and prepare caffe espresso as a culinary art”. I am, happily, compelled to create beautiful coffee and become very unhappy if the coffee is not at it’s absolute best. It still really pisses me off to see a bad pour on one of my bars.
As an perveyor of culinary art I face the same problem as any long run professional artist-how to keep it fresh and interesting? An artistic nature can be fragile and the art becomes boring or routine if you are out of balance emotionally. In my case, I am prone to mild manic/depressive swings, require a lot of time to myself, I am self absorbed and easily bored.
Out of this nature the structure of Vivace has eveolved. My managers are akin to the front line generals, they protect me from chaos and overly mundane tasks that need doing. I am in the shops and roasting plant daily but the only structered routine I follow is my training schedule…weekdays at 9am. My art is expressed and satisfied in teaching, roasting and blending new coffees, and of course moving the coffee forward through technical innovations.
After training, I hit all the shops and check coffee quality, machine calibration, and service. I’m usually off by 2pm on a long day. And, I struggle to keep my meetings to a minimum.
How is this schedule accomplished?
First, the size of the business mast be considered. We have three stores and the roasting plant…all within walking distance because I do not drive a car, it pisses me off to be blocked all the time. Vivace is about 48 people, from managers to baristi.
Withthis structure I have developed a trainer to work with me, Don Jones. We had two stores forever and the move to three was necessitated by Sound Transit seizing my flagship- The Roasteria, in 2006 under eminent domain. To my great surprise three stores has improved our coffee quality, because of Don, improved our accounting department, and facilitated the emergence of a general manager, Brian Fairbrother. And my arty little self has more time for pure research, QC, and training. I expected three stores might spread me too thin and quality would suffer, but the opposite occured. We were forced to become a better orginazation by Sound Transit…what do they say? Every cloud has a silver lining?
However, that is the limit. Three stores means almost 40 baristi and barbacks to keep trained, and Don and I are in agreement that any more would result in incomplete training and coffee quality would suffer. As it is we train five days a week, usually one-on-one. Don has institued speed training in small groups. We also have a latte art trainer-Teal Allan.
Each store has a manager, we suggest that the manager pull four shifts/ week max to keep them in touch with the customers. For us the manager has always had to be developed from experienced staff. Our experiment with an outside manager did not go well (come to London for the gritty dirt). To have a store run well the manager is absolutely key and represents the face of the store to our customers.
In the roasting plant, we have a head roaster position, manned expertly by Dan Reid for the past eight years or so. We have a shipping manager, Tara, who also does accounts receivable. Accounts payable and payroll are run by Jen, with my partner Geneva, doing quartely analysis, inventory management and taxes.
Getting to the right size requires developing people into positions of responsibility. Here I am following in the footsteps of my father, James, who always was a boss at Boeing, running teams of engineers to develop stealth technonogy towards the end of his career. We are natural people managers and leaders. Like artistry, this has to be an innate skill with the owner wishing to create an artisan business. In larger business models the people virtuoso (the CEO) can be hired in, but often the skills required are at a conflict with artistry.
So the perfect sizes also creates real opportunity for the best to become career at Vivace. None of this was feasible at the two store size. But in my opinion three stores is the maximum size for an artisan coffee company to be doing espresso as a true culinary art.
The fidelity to our coffee has had some remarkable effects on the other side of the counter as well. With no advertising customers are our advertising. When they tell their friends about us it means that the people that truly love coffee are in our line which has a great effect on our ability to create culinary art. Whatever you look at daily, looks back at you. Good appreciative customers are essential if you are asking baristi to care about the coffee they make. The baristi need the appreciation for their art.
But the fidelity to our coffee also engenders absolute loyalty, and yes even love among our customers. Take for example the Sound Transit transition. We closed in early July 2006 and re-opened on September 26thwith no marketing at all. My new place did not even have a sign out front yet….We broke even the first day and the following day, a Saturday, it was packed and we never looked back. The store has out performed the Roasteria from it’s 6th week of business.
The point is that if your goal is to be in business for life, an artisan coffee business is extremely durable. We live in Seattle people’s hearts and imaginations precisely because we have never “sold out”. Each decision has always been looked at for the effect on coffee quality first and foremost…in a world of McDonald’s and Starbucks this means a great deal to a lot of people and makes Vivace an unsinkable entity. There is a real community built around our coffee shops.
As I have mentioned many times the unwavering focus on perfecting coffee also naturally facilitates sustainablility, social justice, and environmental integrity. You cannot produce mild arabicas at the highest level without natural shade-tree type coffee farms. The traditional method allows for a very diverse and healthy ecosystem on the land that is being farmed.
Similarly for treating your employees well. Unhappy, exploited workers are never going to be able to pick and process coffee at the highest level. Like anything, unhappy people cannot care about what they are doing. And coffee processed without care is never going to be the top coffee.
In part II of my lecture I will illuminate the company culture that has developed around this beautiful idea…coffee that tastes as good as it smells.
A home machine capable of perfect espresso
Right now I think it is fair to say that the espresso machine world is in the midst of a revoloution. The march toward the stabilized brewing water temperature, employing digital controls and improved group head designs, is no longer the sole domain of Synesso and LaMarzocco. That means I may not be aware of excellent equipment that is on the market and I can no longer state that something is “the best”.
Now that I have done my back-pedaling I can say that the Lamarzocco GS-3, marketed as a home machine, is a very, very good espresso machine. It is capable of perfect espresso, making a Northern Italian roast such as Vivace’s, taste sweet, and brings out the varietal flavors with incredible fidelity to the fragrance. With the GS-3 I can taste the hoppiness of a Brazil or the blueberry of a nice Harrar in my blends. (It has been my pleasure to brew my morning coffee on this machine for about a year now.) And, it plugs into a standard 110V outlet and requires no plumbing.
The steamer is capable of rolling the milk in a 1/3L pitcher, producing perfect foam in enough quantity for a true cappuccino. Order the “fine” tip.
The machine is high-stylin’ and looks vaguely 1950’s retro as LaMarzocco has been doing for awhile. I like the look. And, like all LaMarzocco machines, it is built to last.
As I said above, the brewing system is very good. It uses a dedicated boiler with PID control, and a very improved group-head designto bring all that stability to the coffee bed. The machine is easy to fill and has a removable drain tray that holds at least a liter.
Drawbacks..the machine is annoying at times. The control buttons are tiny and frequently do not engage without a focused attempt, which is in short supply at 5am. And, it buzzes and rattles due to the internal pump.
Now that Franke is out of the picture I can wholeheartedly recommend this machine with LaMarzocco’s excellent domestic distributors ready to stand behind your purchase.
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.
One step away we have a tiny bar sink with carbonated and filtered water taps, all syrups, extra porcelain cups, retail coffee, shopping bags and back-up bar coffee.
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.
Dear patient reader,
Some unexpected effects on barista techniques, specifically on monitoring the flow rate, have come up after we dropped robusta from our blend a couple of months ago.
Background: After sourcing mild flavorful robusta coffee in the mid ’90’s I have used robusta in our blends to enhance crema viscosity, mouth-feel, and duration in the cup. Then in 2001 we finally cracked the temperature problem on the espresso machine by introducing PID control of the coffee boiler and adding a pre-heating tank for the brewing water on a two-group LaMarzocco Linea. (For details find “Italy Meets Omega” in my archives at www.espressovivace.com/archives).
When the temperature of the brewing water is held constant at 203 degreesF. (at sea level) we were able to preserve the natural sugars present in our roast through the brewing cycle into the cup. Our espresso became much sweeter. I immeadiately noticed that the crema became very fragile and the duration became 30 seconds instead of lasting for over one minute in the cup. (The mouth feel became even more heavenly though, with a downy lightness impossible to express with words.) I called up Carl Staub the food scientist specializing in coffee and asked him “what’s up with the fragile crema Carl?” He asked right away “Is the coffee sweeter David?” I said it was much sweeter. Carl said that the increased sugar content would have a negative effect on crema life in the cup….something about the sugars breaking the long-chain surfactant molecules responsible for stable foam.
So finally in early 2009 I have concluded that crema longevity of sweet Northern Italian espresso is not helped by the addition of robusta in the blend. We have had an all arabica blend for about two months.
What I did not expect was the effect on flow rate management by the barista. Previously my pour would slow down towards the end of the shot noticeably. This quality is attributed to the use of conical grinders at Vivace that produce micro-particles that add much to the flavor and texture of our espresso. But, they migrate down in the packed cake of coffee during brewing and make a fine mat in the bottom of the coffee basket, slowing down the flow rate. This made my baristi struggle a bit to hit the mark of 23 seconds for 1 and 3/4 oz dpouble shot as they had to guess where it would end up as it slowed to a stop just at the finish line in the cup.
So why has it changed? The robusta we were using is Monsooned Indian Robusta. One of the characteristics of monsooning coffee (paradoxically) is that the finished roasted coffee has a much lower internal moisture content, thus requiring a finer grind than the other beans in the blend. A finer grind produces a signifigantly higher percentage of micro-particles than a slightly more coarse grind. (As a matter of fact, brewing pure monsooned robusta, the pour starts out fast and chokes to a complete stop at about the one ounce mark).
So the net moisture content of the blend was made a bit lower with the robusta in it. (Robusta was used at 14% of the blend). This created a finer overall grind for the blend, the effect was a slight increase in micro-particles in the blend creating the problem of the slowing flow rate of the coffee. With this coffee not present in the blend the total moisture contect increased a bit, leading to a slightly more coarse grind and less particle migration during the brewing cycle. Now we have more control over flow rate and shot cut-off, one of the truly dominant factorsa in a perfect cup.
After twenty-one years you can see why I am not bored with my beloved tricky coffee. It always throws us a curve ball.
Here are a couple of pictures from my visit to Slayer. My complete test of the integrity of the brewing system will come later this month. But, just looking at it I am reminded of the espresso machine “sculptures” created by Kees Vander Westen. I can tell you now that the look, and feel, of this elegant machine leave no doubt that Eric Perkunder and Dan Urweiler have created a very beautiful work of art.
A tasty little number…the action and wooden paddles give the feel of a being at the helm of a fine yacht.
Schomer at bat….I will post a complete review as soon as it becomes available to test. Dan and Eric have taken a bit of advice from me on their group head and that is what we are waiting for.
Sorry for slow posts lately, I am on vacation in Montana with my sons Taylor, and Andre. When I return to Seattle I will research the new machine, Slayer, and post a review. Hwoever, while casting hoppers into the Montana rivers I often ponder the beautiful synergies that develop around a business if passion, rather than strictly cash, are the core values over time.
In our case, Espresso Vivace is 21 years old. It is true I shamelessly set out to create a legend from the beginning, but floating down the river of time it seems that perfecting espresso is much more compelling than legend management activities like seminars and symposiums. So I am lucky, my core value trurns out to be perfecting espresso as a culinary art. As I have pointed out in past articles on staff culture, knowing thyself is paramount in creating a passion driven business, and a small business will strip you to your core values in a few years due to it’s difficulty.
So if you live for the perfect curve in a glass bowl, or the sublime patina on a violin body, or even the fragrance of freshly roasted coffee, if you can actually form a business around it beautiful things sprout all around it like flowers after a desert rain.
Many aware people on every corner of our Earth are very interested in sustainability right now. Since my Greenpeace days I have been one of them. In coffee this is often labeled organic, shade grown, or bird friendly. What I find is that pursuing pure sweet arabica coffees without compromise means that the farms we buy from have shade trees, clean water, and do not use harsh chemical fertilizers. If the farms are not sustainable, the coffee can taste acidic when roasted to a Northern Italian degree. Shopping sustainably is more important then posting signs in your shop advertising sustainability. And key to this essay, it is just an artist persuing a beauftiful goal…creating sweet caffe espresso, it is not necessary to hold the world on your shoulders.
The same can be said for fair trade issues. When buying the best mild arabicas we pay well above the benchmark set for Fair Trade. And as you know, underpaid, unhappy workers can not produce top quality in any endeavor. So the pursuit of the sweet coffee also encompasses equitible treatement of the the people harversting and processing these coffees.
Another less obvious aspect of running these espresso bars for the purpose of creating coffee as art, is the effect that competition has on issues like racial, or gender discrimination. The model leap frogs the entire problem. In Seattle I cannot compete if I am so stupid the I cannot recognize talent because it happens to occur in a black person, or some exotic gender bender. My competitors, which there are MANY, will clean my clock if have a bias against a class of people before I even meet them.
There are also very sublime things that begin percolating on both sides of the counter in an artisn coffee business. On our side, Vivace’s fidelity to coffee as an art gives young talented people something to believe in. And, the ones that truly love coffee stay for years because of it . They come to work happy and eager to create beauty in the aroma and appearance of our cappuccino, and caffe macchiato. The entire business becomes a pleasure to run.
I say both sides of the counter because the customers also form a community around the belief that when they walk in the door, they are getting something that transcends commerce. We live in their imaginations, we actually mean something to them on a personal level. . This was powerfully illustarted to me when we lost the Roasteria to Sound Transit. I built Brix on the other end of Broadway, with very little foot traffic, and no institutional support. I opened Friday Sept. 26th with no ads and not even a sign over the door. On Saturday it was packed, and I mean PACKED. When the customers really love the coffee they treat the staff very well and they are free to be artists, which as you might know, need a lot of attention.
OK I blasted through some very interesting subjets. For a complete development, and a chance to weigh in yourself, come to my talk at Seattle’s September Coffee Fest.
This is one of my favorite pieces to try to describe what we do as espresso pros….it started out as an in-house Quality Control (QC) memo but I hope you find it useful.
Mission, Style and Artistry
The espresso pro is so many things at once, a host, an artist in a highly technical culinary art, a performer on an exotic glittering stage, counselor, listener, friend and purveyor of caffeine. People come in dim and dappled and they need their coffee. We do our magic and shazam, time to rock and roll. (The ultimate transformation by coffee has been depicted in a Gennedy Taratofsky episode of “Dexter” entitled “Coffee”.) This the first reality of the barista: seeing and greeting people that may not be ready to face the world.
Here I reveal my dinosaur leanings…after seventeen years I am very concerned to be a good, approachable host. What is the style that allows a pro to put people at ease that are shuffling along pre-coffee in the morning? It is compassionate listening that makes you approachable day after day by the widest variety of people. Many espresso bar owners advocate a high chat style in a barista with lots of intrusive personality and flattering comments. I call this the personality trap. It may increase sales for a year or so, but ultimately the chatty one moves on, and the many of her customers may go with her. Putting out a lot of chat is also difficult on the barista, seeing 400 people a day, and they will burn out. To be a long term pro, a barista must conserve energy and use it where it counts, speed and quality. Also, if you are intent on making people feel great with flattering chat, you attract people that need that. Again, my approach is old school: I believe that when they come in my door they want a cup of coffee, my customers already have a life.
(Therein lies my only issue with the barista contests. They are very good for highlighting this new profession and developing skills to create beautiful espresso coffee. And they offer a few winners a career path in barista training and consultation. But they focus so much on the barista as a sort of a star that the young winners can get a self centered attitude and come to believe the whole thing of being a pro-barista is a showcase for their talents. Perhaps points for gracious, approachable style should be awarded. A customer can feel left out of this quite easily…and ordering a cappuccino can feel like getting guitar lessons from a rock star.)
So the encounter begins with eye contact. I would like my barista to make eye contact with anyone within the door within a few moments after they have crumpled in. Human beings are an aggressive, territorial species, and this says “ welcome to my space”. A nod to say”be right with ‘ya” is all you may have time for, that’s fine, the eye contact says welcome. Once they are in it is time for…
This business is based on regular customers. And if your concept is gourmet, the customer is possessed of enough sensitivity to appreciate the difference in your espresso. A sensitive person may not want a lot of personal conversation every day before coffee so I teach my staff to try to stay away from leading questions such as “how ‘ya doing today?” (Whadda ya’ mean how am I doin’ today? I am doin’ without my coffee that’s how.) Focus the encounter right away on the customers needs, using phrases like “what can I get ‘ya?”, “coffee time?” or that reliable old standby “good morning”. Keep it simple and welcoming to be approachable every day.
Then, you listen and get it right. Repeat the order back to them, emphasize the details they have stressed such as not too hot, or vanilla but not too sweet. The number one key to speed on a bar is getting the order right the first time. To endear them to you forever memorize the drink within two visits and simply greet them with “the usual today?”. People yearn to be acknowledged and listened to in our highly paced urban cultures and this is how we honor their choice to come in…we listen. When they need to talk you will know it. And, of course we chat when a customer initiates it and we have time. We would not be in this business if we did not like people.
So first and always you are a respectful, approachable host to your establishment.
is a dance of fluid efficiency. As a performance art, making espresso is clearly a case of the form following the function. The function, of course, is to prepare the finest espresso drinks in the shortest amount of time. And because it is a culinary art, people will consume the coffee, so every action must ooze confidence. This was the quality I most admired in the Italian baristi I observed, a rock solid underlying confidence that infused their motions with almost feline grace. And moving with a silky smooth physical style mimics the beauty of the espresso oozing from the spouts, or the velvet undulations of the steamed milk forming the rosetta patterns in the cup. Smooth efficiency is also the number two key to speed on a bar. Rushing will slow you down with mistakes and creates anxiety in the customers watching your performance. At best, the performance of the barista and the culinary art being created share same flowing style. And as any serious music student knows, the key to confident performance is in the preparation.
First, set the stage. Any smooth performance begins with all the props being where they should be. Arrange your work area according to your working style. For me, milk containers should be opened in advance ( I hate wrestling with the little plastic rings, or worse, forcing open reluctant paper cartons in a slam), and arranged for easy access in your refrigerator. Syrup bottles are shiny, not sticky, and arranged in order of usage, with vanilla and almond right up front. The all-important rag hierarchy is established with a porta-filter wiping rag, counter-top rags (sanitized), steamer rag, and floor rags to act as mini-mops for small disasters. Back-up rags are one step away. Cups both porcelain and paper are clean and well stocked. Porcelain, of course are stocked on top of the espresso machine to pre-heat them. Back-up stock is one step away. Grinders should be detailed and stocked with fresh coffee, the back-up coffee within arms reach. Utensils, coffee brushes, scrubbing pads for the brass brewing surfaces, a small tool kit, band aids, pens, foam spatulas, and on and on…everything where it should be before the door is opened. Beginning to get the picture…
Good, because you are an important aspect of the picture. The espresso professional, at minimum, should present a clean appearance in grooming and clothing. Beyond that minimum, some style and flair is nice. Me, I favor dark tight fitting knits and a black or dark brown four-way apron around the waist. No chicken slaughtering, full coverage apron for me. (Yes, yes…I know that I cut my first video, Caffe Latte Art in a very purple bib-apron….ahhh…whadda ‘ya gonna do?) I like to look sharp and sassy, vaguely Euro-mutt, and always urban. For my staff I allow a wide range of personal style because I need them to be comfortable first and foremost to do a top job. But they must be clean.
Because it is a culinary art polished professionalism is the best style. This can be reflected in each motion a barista makes, packing, steaming, and pouring. One of my five-year baristi, Kasey, displays his artistry from the moment he picks up the packer. He has a flourish when he a picks up the packer to address the coffee. He sweeps it off the counter and the packing head sort of does a little circular motion on the way to the porta-filter, which he repeats after tapping. The circular embellishment is not dramatic and large, it is smooth and subtle, having developed naturally over thousands of shots. You have to be watching to notice…beautiful. It is his signature as a very experienced culinary artist.
Free pouring caffe latte art is the grand finale in this two minute dance. Even after sixteen years of watching these patterns ooze forth from our steam pitchers I still find them mesmerizing, and so do our customers. It is a classic finish that will stand the test of time. The beauty of the free poured patterns is that they are a natural extension of the behavior of the two liquids, espresso and steamed milk, combining. The sensuous, flowing form of the rosetta pattern echoes the viscous beauty of the espresso pour itself. They are silky foams doing what they want to do. The velvet beauty of the rosette is accomplished with an effortless flick of the wrist, and is never labored or time consuming. Again, it is the form following the function that is the mark of the professional.
For heavier foam, such as we prepare for cappuccino and espresso macchiato, the heart shape is my favorite to pour. The master of these patterns is Luigi Lupi. He is a very talented Italian barman, working in Verona Italy, that has decided to share his artistry with the world through a video entitled “Decorated Cappuccinos”.
There is another school of latte and cappuccino art that employs a scribe-like tool to draw the foam into beautiful patterns reminiscent of the swirls employed by French pastry chefs. Although these cappuccini are beautiful, laboring over the customers coffee with a tool just will not do on an espresso bar. For me personally, I would not appreciate a barista bending over my cappuccino and tooling it. These beautiful patterns would work well in a classy restaurant where the waiter simply appears from the kitchen with the artistic cappuccino. There is a master in Australia, George Sabados, sharing his knowledge of these creations in a video entitled “Coffee Making Skills”.
Counselor, Listener, Friend
Over the years I have had a number of strange encounters between baristi and my customers. I will never forget a strapping young man that worked in construction and bristled with masculine energy and coiled muscles, walking in to complain about rudeness he felt he had received at my sidewalk bar down the street. He had been coming for years and as he began to talk about his encounter his lower lip began trembling, his face grew red, and he began to cry. In his mind, he had been betrayed by a friend.
I have seen repeats of this scenario many times in sixteen years. There is something about making coffee for someone every day that transcends commerce. Perhaps it is our compassionate listening style that slips us past people’s urban defenses. But, people will bond with a good barista. This vulnerability on the part of regular customers requires compassion and kindness on the part of the barista.
However, when you see hundreds of people a day a pro barista might run into a few that are not worthy of kindness. For us the customer is always right, and if this does not prove to be the case, the customer is gone. I empower my staff to “eighty-six” abusive customers telling them that in my absence the barista on duty is the host of this espresso bar. In my sixteen years this has led to one or two instances of a customer being asked to seek coffee elsewhere. My people are professional baristi and are given my respect when they don the apron. Trust is the only way to manage people with the sensitivity and intelligence to produce espresso on our level, and knowing they have my trust relaxes them and fosters the confidence that is the basis of the whole bar persona.
If a pattern of customer vs.barista squabbles develops then of course the barista is gone.
Clearly we have a new profession. To learn the intricacies of espresso preparation requires years of experience. We have shown the pro-barista to be a culinary artist and performance artist at the same time. This begs the question of salary-how can we espresso bar owners ever pay them enough to keep the good ones in the job? There is a limit to the posted price for espresso drinks. Artistic coffee can go as high as 20% over the corporate chains, maximum. Even charging that much is risky. Fortunately, espresso lovers are very appreciative of the artistic work that we do-they pay my people directly.
The answer lies in bar design to encourage tipping.
If you have ever seen the crowd in Lance Burton’s magic shop in Vegas after his act you will see an amazing sight. Normally sane people are just tripping over themselves to buy 5 cent “Coin Vanishing” gimmicks for $10 each. It proves that if you amaze and inspire people their wallets just fall open. The same is true for the espresso performance. So place the cashier adjacent to the final pouring area. A customer is paying as the drink is flowing into the cup, saying “Oh my god…that’s so beautiful I hate to drink it” and stuffing bills into the tip jar.
After “Goodbye Roasteria” I wanted to post a piece about the new bar we built on Broadway at Brix Condominiums. As you know if you have been reading here, I found out that I was losing my Roasteria Vivace over three years ago. I have mentioned that we had no advertising and completely packed this place the day after opening, a phenomenon I attributed to the power of appealing to the imaginations of our customers by staying true to our charter : to research, develop, and promote caffe espresso as a culinary art. When you do not sell out, a coffee ompany can transcend commerce and take a place in people’s hearts.
Yada, yada, yada….we got that I think.
What I have not mentioned is how perfect Brix came out. The shop is exactly as beautiful as it appeared in my imagination in the months of design and the grind of construction.
Our serving area is designed to look like a small theater…with Imperial Brown granite elegantly surrounded with Caffe Forest Brown marble featuring a swept back curve for each side of the lowered portion. Lowering the main bar here was the idea of Lisa P. who has been with Vivace since 1989. She is pictured in the painting below the rim of the bar at the old cart, handing a coffee to Gunars Berzins, an eccentric Broadway figure who helped open the cart from 1988 until 1992. The lowered section of bar meets ADA code as well for handicapped access.
I designed around this stone color, Caffe Forest Brown and for the first time we have no green in the shop. The colors are brown, yellow and blood red in small quantities as an accent. Here we are looking dowen the counter from the serving area. Note the small imperfections in the radius of the bar top. Caffe Forest Brown marble gets it’s beauty from the red veining within the brown and this is a challenge on radius cuts due to it’s softness. I think the slight wobble in the curvature is very charming and gives the counter a hand done feel.
The walls came out a perfect yellow. An artist named Paul Morris applied seven coats of” Shimmer Stone” to get the yellow just right.
The best thing about Brix however is the clientele. Brix is surrounded by N. Capitol Hill, home to the sweetest people in Seattle.
It is actually over 100 degrees in Seattle today, an all time high I think. I will post this soggy entry and promise to wow you next time with “BarPro” an in-house customer service essay I wrote about five years ago