Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Crazy Capital City Coffee Kerfuffle

Here's another one that happened right before camp, and I haven't been able to finish the post until now...

My headline is somewhat misleading; this didn't exactly happen in Washington, D.C., but it was in their metro area (Arlington, Virginia, to be exact). A guy (visiting the area from Brooklyn) walked into a local independent coffee shop and ordered a latte over ice, only to be told that the shop won't serve it that way:
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.”

[...]“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.

He continued: “This is our store policy, to preserve the integrity of the coffee. It’s about the quality of the drink, and diluting the espresso is really not cool with us. So I mean, you’re going to do what you’re going to do, and I can’t stop you, but”

I interrupted. “You’re [expletive deleted] right you can’t stop me,” I said. “I happen to have a personal policy that prohibits me from indulging stupid [b.s.] like this — and another personal policy of doing what I want with the products I pay for.” Then I looked him right in his big wide eyes and poured the espresso onto the ice.
Wow. Just wow. And there were plenty of other interesting things spawned by this event:

  • Later on in the saga, the same customer (who was stuck waiting for his girlfriend to get done with a rehearsal) needed some more coffee, so he went and asked for "the strongest iced beverage your policy will allow." He was given a four-shot iced Americano, which isn't much different from what he wanted in the first place. Why didn't the original barista just suggest that, instead of laying on all the attitude?

  • Also, not only is the protagonist of this story a blogger (whose account is quoted and linked above), but another patron in the store is also a blogger and posted his own account of the episode.

  • The owner of the coffee shop, who was not present at the time but came up with the "rules" that include no espressos over ice, responded to the blogger on his store's site and, well, threatened to punch the guy in a delicate part of his male anatomy if he ever came back. (He would recant the threat in a later post, saying that he was only as serious as the blogger himself, who said--obviously facetiously--that the only way he would return to the coffeeshop was if he was "carrying matches and a can of kerosene." But from where I sit, the punching threat seemed more plausible. Your mileage may vary.)

  • If you have a lot of time to waste, slog through the comments on both blog posts and the coffeehouse's site; it's fascinating, in a watching-a-train-wreck sort of way. There are a lot of references to the famous "Soup Nazi" episode of Seinfeld, and many people who also say that, no matter how much a barista considers him/herself an "artist," it's still not nice to treat customers the way this barista did. Others, of course, are totally in the coffeehouse's corner.

  • It should be noted that the coffeeshop owner had another DC location shut down for being behind in both rent and taxes. Ouch.

  • One of the things that came up in the comments of the various blogs was that the no-iced-espresso policy might have in part been a response to customers making something that's often called a ghetto latte, which involves ordering an Americano with no water and half ice, then going up to the condiment bar and adding enough half-and-half to make it the equivalent of a regular latte at about a third of the price. I'd never heard of this phenomenon before, but it was discussed on a Starbucks-themed blog a few years ago. Later on, the company stated that it doesn't object to the practice. (I've never done this myself, obviously, but, in leaner times, I would add quite a bit of chocolate powder to a drip coffee and refer to it as a "poor man's mocha.")

  • And this may be rare for Internet tiffs like this, but the story eventually made it into the Washington Post. As the protagonists noted, at the end of the day, "it's just coffee."
But the reason I posted this story was not just because it's amusing and a great time-waster. It also made me think about "the customer is always right" in relation to my own profession. While there may be some debate as to whether a coffee barista is an artist, a musician almost certainly is. I'm passionate about the music I play, and I'd hate for someone to come up to me at a gig and ask, say, for a G-weasel song. Would refusing to play one be the same as the aforementioned barista's refusal to serve espresso over ice?

But then I realized that we're comparing apples and kumquats here. I don't know any smooth "jazz" tunes from memory, nor are they in any of the Real Books. I could legitimately decline to play them because the band doesn't know them. The coffee place, on the other hand, had both ice and espresso, but they declined to serve them in tandem. And I know that I wouldn't be snooty about my refusal, either; I might well be thinking "No way would I play that crap!" in my head, but I sure wouldn't express my thoughts to a customer that way.

(The flip side of the above, is, of course, that it could be beneficial to have the occasional cheesy tune in your repertoire. One of my colleagues at camp was talking about how he plays "Yakety Sax"--or at least an approximation thereof--at his restaurant gig every week, because a lady once asked him how much she'd have to pay him to play it, and he facetiously replied, "A hundred dollars." When she showed up later with a C-note, he played it not only that night, but every night the lady was in attendance, which was at least once a week; the tip jar would be filled with a fresh twenty for every subsequent playing. I guess it all depends on the extent to which one is willing to dip into the cheese vat for money, but this one sounds like a good deal, so long as nobody films him and puts it on YouTube, I suppose.)

This is an old story now--two weeks is an eternity in Internet time--but I felt the need to post about it anyway. Feel free to chime in on any of the above stuff in the comments.

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