Tuesday, February 17, 2009

On caffeine, coffee houses, and coffee.

So there's some drama going on right now in the Chicago blogosphere about the renovations to the three local Intelligentsias, and the subsequent revamp of their price structure. (In order: Original GB:DT post, Chicagoist responds, GB author Mike Doyle quits GB because of this, and The TOC Blog summarizes the whole mess.

Setting aside the drama, I do think there was a basic reporting error, as there will be under-$3.00 coffee. A Clover of the Day will be offered, with S-L prices ranging from $2.00 to $2.65. I'm also a regular at Mill Park, and all the baristas who told me about the change immediately mentioned the Clover of the Day; I find it hard to imagine that Mr. Doyle asked any barista "Will there be coffee under $3?" and received an incorrect answer.

All the passioante talk about the changes at Intelligentsia did get me thinking about what people expect when they go to a coffee shop. I think part of the discontent with Intelligentsia right now could be traced to a disconnect between what some current customers want them to be, and what Intelligentsia wants to become.

More on that later. Now on to my GRAND THESIS. It involves taxonomy! Don't you love a good taxonomical grouping?

Here it is: people who buy coffee from coffee shops do it for (at least) three different reasons: for the caffeine, because of the coffee house, or for the coffee. There's going to be a lot of overlap in these three categories; I'd put myself in all three, depending on my circumstances. And people could go to Intelligentsia for any of the three reasons above (though I suspect most fall into the latter two categories, given the price and availability of the stuff. But let's get to the grand generalizations!

For the caffeine: These folks drink coffee like it's medicine. It is a necessary input for adequate daily output. They want coffee now, and they'd probably prefer it cheap, as long as it's drinkable. An alternate grouping wants their caffeine, and they want a socially-acceptable milkshake.

I'm this person: whenever I can't get to Intelligentsia in the morning, either because I'm starting work at 6 am or because I really need those extra 30 minutes of sleep. This happens more frequently than I like. I'm lucky enough to have a Keurig machine at work that dispenses adequately non-nasty caffeinated hot brown water; let's not talk about taste, because there is nothing to talk about. Before the Keurig, I respected the Dunkin Donuts stuff; SBUX drip coffee has always tasted like burning tar to me, so I never drink the stuff. However, while their drip is wretched, SBUX does make some delightful caffeinated milkshakes. I may have enjoyed one or two in the past.

Likely targets: DD, the tiny SBUX/Caribous with no seating, gas stations, every kitchenette in every office everywhere.

Because of the coffee house: The coffee house environment, hearkening back to the Ottoman Empire (or if you prefer, Vienna in the 1700s)! The history of intellectual progress props you up as you putter along on your laptop or meet up with your friends!

Getting slightly more serious-planting yourself down in a coffee shop for awhile is great. You can go alone ot get away from the distractions of home for less money than if you went to a restaurant (and without any of the social stigma). Groups can hang out, chat, study, knit, or whatever. I've seen small business owners interview employees in Hyde Park Starbucks, and I've seen Russian professors emeriti gather together for mid-morning tea and "conversation" (aka lots of gesticulation and loud Russian) at Unicorn in Evanston. I love them both. The atmosphere of these places varies greatly, as does the quality of the coffee, but it's probably the atmosphere that keeps people coming back.

I'm this person: On Wednesday nights at Julius Meinl (Southport/Addison) when I meet up with the Kelly Girls, my knitting group. When I tutor a friend in math at Noble Tree Coffee (2444 N Clark... it's Lincoln Park and it's fabulous). Back in the day at Filter. At numerous spots around my neighborhood, like Mercury, Atomix, and Alliance. Very frequently at the Mill Park Intelligentsia (if you show up at 6:30 am, it's pretty easy to get a seat).

Likely targets: Anywhere listed above, plus tons of other places. SBUX and Caribous with seating can even count. Apart from those corporate places, the Loop was pretty bereft of coffee houses until Intelligentsia opened two shops. However it seems that Intelligentsia is bnow aiming more for people who will come there...

For the coffee: They're members of coffeegeek.com. They wen to Intelligentsia's Coffee Geekfest weekend before last. They can talk coherently about the proper control of coffee through the wet milling and drying process, and use the term "commodity coffee" as a pejorative. They have strongly-held opinions about Chemexes, Clovers, and what varietals may taste better using a particular brewing method.

I'm this person: Because I can say "yes" to some of the above. Because when Intelligentsia higher-ups talk about how baristas should be as regarded as sommeliers, how they do much much more than just push a button at this level, I agree. Because when I went to San Francisco, I dragged my friend along to Ritual Roasters and Bluebottle Coffee Co. (where I asked so many questions that they asked me if I worked in coffee). Because this is geeky, and I am a geek.

Go to: Intelligentsia. Metropolis and The Coffee Studio probably also count, but I don't know them nearly as well and suspect that they aren't quite so geeked-out as Intelligentsia is at this point.

So... the Intelligentsia change. I'm sure the higher prices for coffee will drive away some caffeinators and coffee house folks. I bet it will even drive some coffee fanatics to brew at home (with their own roasts, or maybe Intelly's). But the price increase isn't because of Clover machines, it's because this coffee is the 1983 colheita to a jug of Gallo that DD serves, and it's because the well-trained baristas deserve to be paid a premium for their skill. Intelligentsia (along with a few other companies across the country) has worked to create an educated, interested, coffee-loving group of consumers. Now it's time for a test of how far this group will follow them, and of whether the group is large enough. Despite the economy, I'm guessing yes; I'm guessing that in a few years, the thought of ordering pre-brewed urn coffee at Intelligentsia will seem as strange as ordering a round of Slippery Nipples at the Violet Hour would be now.

But we'll see, won't we?