19 July 2008

[liff, caffeine] If You Think PDX Is Anal-Retentive About Our Coffee ...


(via Boingboing, and WARNING: SOME OF THE LINKS CONTAIN NAUGHTY ADULT WORDS!) Now, here in PDX we take our coffee pretty damn seriously. No matter what they say in Seattle, The Invasion of the Caffeine People started here; I remember having my first espresso in 1985 down at a place called Coffee Ritz which was in the Galleria (back when it was a real shopping center and not whatever it it they're now trying to reinvent it as (which apparently is allergic to the old Peterson's quick-shop)).

Anyway! One day very recently, an Arlington, VA area blogger and (who really cares what bloggers do for a living?) posted a rant about a negative experience he had in an Arlington area espressomonger's:

I just ordered my usual summertime pick-me-up: a triple shot of espresso dumped over ice. And the guy at the counter looked me in the eye with a straight face and said “I’m sorry, we can’t serve iced espresso here. It’s against our policy.”

The whole world turned brown and chunky for a second. Flecks of corn floated past my pupils, and it took me a second to blink it all away.

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll have a triple espresso and a cup of ice, please.”

He rolled his eyes and rang it up, took my money, gave me change. I stood there and waited. Then the barista called me over to the bar. I reached for it, and he leaned over and locked his eyes with mine, saying “Hey man. What you’re about to do … that’s really, really Not Okay.”

I could hear the capital letters in his voice, could see the gravity of the situation in his eyes.

Besides the mental image of a literal crapstorm being so eloquently enscribed (and going up on the wall as one of the greatest bits of verbiage EVAR) the exchange (albeit from one side at this point) sure seems ... well ... a bit over the top. Pouring the guy's espresso ... whether or not you find that coarse ... over some ice was going to, what ... open a rip in the fabric of time and space and destroy us all?

It just seemed a bit unreasonable ... and it reminded me of a situation me and The Wife had some years back. There's a restaurant building down on SE Milwaukie Avenue just south of Powell Blvd ... right behind the ARCO am/pm that was upthrust on that corner sometime during the late Creosote era (Chinuk legends refer to that ARCO) that was a Tastee-Freeze but was then just a convenient burger joint. And me and The Wife™ like to mix our fizzy beverages up (yes, we are that prole. I learned my tastes at the concession stand at the Palace Theater in Silverton ... where'd you all learn yours?). And we asked the waitron to give us a soda pop mixture.

And she just stared at us, slack-jawed, saying she couldn't do that.

And you go inside, why can't you? I'd understand if I was asking you to fry me a burger, dip it in the rinsewater and slather turned mayo on it, and you said you couldn't do that. But all I'm doing is asking you to mix up some soda pop for me. They do it everywhere else. I can do it myself at the gas station next door.

You are told "no, absolutely not" on a totally resonable request, and all of a sudden ... fight or flight kicks in. This isn't a "customer is always right" sort of thing. This is like getting told that you can't have three napkins ... only two or four. Never three. And then your world despins and up becomes down and you lose your bearings for just a moment.

Well, we didn't cop any attitude ... as I recall, we did go over to the am/pm and get what we wanted the way we wanted it ... but to this day it seems odd to be told "no" to something like that.

As far as our Arlington correspondent ... well, you never know where lightning will strike. After the initial post, someone over at BoingBoing pronounced it nifty, and from there it went ... to the Washington Post of all places. And then even the owner of the espresso shop responded ...

Okay, we don't do espresso over ice. Why? Number one, because we don't do it. Number two, because we don't do it. Mostly for quality reasons. Also, because more than half the time, it's abused (Google "ghetto latte").

We have some policies at murky coffee. No sleeping in the shop. If you're asleep, you'll be tapped on the shoulder and asked not to sleep in the shop. We've had to ban a customer because of his chronic napping.

No modifications to the Classic Cappuccino. No questions will be answered about the $5 Hot Chocolate (during the months we offer it). No espresso in a to-go cup. No espresso over ice. These are our policies. We have our reasons, and we're happy to share them.

To others reading this I will say that if you don't like the policies, I respectfully recommend that you find some other place that will give you what you want, or select something that we can offer you. David, the barista in question, is respectful, passionate, and cares about making good coffee, and he cares about murky's policies. Nobody's perfect, and maybe David could have chosen different words or a slightly different tack in responding to Jeff Simmermon's request. But that's life. At murky, we try to treat people with common courtesy, and expect the same from our customers. Not in response or in turn, but because that's how people are supposed to treat each other. We're not supposed to go through life looking for reasons to get pissed off. Life's too short for that sort of thing.

I could assay the comments, but there are just too dang many of them.

Or maybe they could have just given him his iced espresso (which, when you think about it, is just an iced Americano sans water) and insulted him when he left. There's a fine line about caring about quality and telling the man how he's going to enjoy his coffee. One of the commenters (and the original blogger) called it a "soup nazi" mentality, and it kind of looks that way.

Just to show I've got some sophistcation, I do know a thing or two about enjoying espresso. The "proper" way (if you will) to enjoy espresso is to remember that espresso is where we get our word "express" ... fast. Espresso is a very volatile beverage which will actually begin to degrade in quality if not consumed within about two minutes of its making. Moreover, it's the original energy beverage: everything bold and beautiful about coffee, and absolutely nothing else.

Here's how you drink an espresso:

  1. Recieve the espresso from the barista.

  2. Breathe in the aroma. Seriously. Just take a moment to do this. If that doesn't get your pleasure center going, take a pulse. You're probably dead.

  3. Sweeten with whatever sweetener you prefer.

  4. Drink, but don't savor too long. Consume quickly, not so quickly that you can't enjoy the flavor, nor so quickly that you burn your esophagus and mouth, but don't linger. Espresso is for the moment.

  5. Note the spring in your step and the way the world sparkles now.

Some coffees are overtures, some are lovely background music. Espresso is punctuation, with a shout. If you want to linger over your coffee, get a latte.

Now, all that being said, would I drink my espresso the way the aggrieved fellow did? In the words of the great Will Smith, Aw, HELL naw! But if I were a barista delivering an order? I'd give the fella what he wanted.

And then make fun of him after he left the store.

As the original blogger said at the end of that post:

Look, this thing has officially gotten overexposed. Way overexposed. I’ve been writing this thing for years, and this thing is just a tiny drop in a bigger bucket of other stuff that has nothing to do with overexercised outrage. The comments are closed here because really, what can ANYONE say that’s going to add a fresh perspective? Now that the Washington Post has done a story about this, it’s officially DONE.

Wasn't it H.L. Mencken who said that America ought to get what it deserves, and when it does, get it good and hard? You just can't predict where lightning will strike.

Thank God we live in PDX, where YAY CHARBUCKS IS CLOSING SIX STORES BOOYAH we're reasonable, considerate adults who grant our fellows the respect of having their own tastes for things.

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Kevin Allman said...

...unless we are two bike advocates, one of whom happens to be driving a car at the moment.

Anonymous said...

First let me admit that I'm from Virginia, but not THAT part of Virginia. My sister lives in Arlington and it might as well be D.C. D.C.=so much more uptight and stuffy than Portland. I feel like I'm in a foreign country there.

Dale Sundstrom said...

Murky's owner now admits the policy is NOT about the coffee.

In a discussion with me in the forums on CoffeeGeek, Nick Cho admitted that the main reason for the "no icing espresso" was not "Mostly for quality reasons," (the coffee) as he originally claimed, but to discourage the abuse of complimentary dairy products.

Setting policies for stuff like this just prevents your employees from using and developing their own good judgment and communication skills. Coffee and customer are both important; choosing one at the expense of the other is foolish and unnecessary.

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

Thanks for the tip, Dale. That makes so much more sense than some overweening obsession with the quality of coffee, which I think is admirable ... up to a point.

One wonders how this would have played out if Cho give his staff the liberty to be honest about that one.