Throughout the US, the Midwest is renowned for its hospitality – and that’s as true in its coffee community as it is anywhere else. But what can the international third wave industry learn from Midwestern friendliness? I turned to Indianapolis, with its fast-growing specialty scene, to find out.
Café Integral at Freehand, Chicago. Credit: Matt Scheffer
Is Kindness Off The Menu in Specialty Shops?
In Indianapolis, coffee shops bring together quality coffee and quality service. A barista’s role is just as focused on the people on the other side of the bar as it is on what’s coming out of a portafilter.
For many of the coffee shop owners I interviewed, the integrity of their relationships with their customers is key. They see it as a response to concerns shared by many specialty coffee consumers and potential new customers: the unfriendly barista. My interviewees feel that consumers are looking for friendliness, inclusion, and accessibility – and they intend to provide this for them.
Brian Beyke of Quills Coffee and the I Brew My Own Coffee and Unwrapped podcasts tells me, “We want to bring a national level of excellence in coffee… in an accessible way to our customers.”
For him, it’s all about remaining focused on consumers’ wants and needs. “I’m one who likes the ritual of making coffee, but honestly I do think for most customers, it’s the experience they receive from our people which matters to them. We prize showing our customers we make choices which result in great service, because nice coffee goes well with nice service.”
Caffe Streets, Chicago. Credit: Matt Scheffer
Making Specialty More Accessible to Consumers
While some consumers feel confident ordering specialty coffee, for others, it’s viewed as inaccessible and confusing. Part of good customer service is finding ways to put the consumer at ease – and that may mean going outside of the café.
Earlier this year, Tinker Coffee held the first ever Indianapolis Cup, an event geared toward local coffee drinkers. It featured a series of quick talks on the science and practice of coffee followed by a cupping of coffees selected from the local area. Tinker Coffee was joined by companies such as Rabble Coffee, Coat Check Coffee, Uel Zing cold brew, Populace Coffee of Bay City, Milktooth, Open Society Public House, and Quills Coffee.
“We were holding cupping classes regularly, but we wanted to introduce more people to specialty coffee,” Steve Hall of Tinker Coffee tells me. “Our biggest goal was for people to realize these coffees taste different from what they expect, and that not all coffee is the same. There’s a much broader world to be explored at their own pace.”
Steve admits that there’s a long way to go, but says that the average consumer is learning more and more about specialty coffee. And as they do, they will feel more at home in their local specialty shop.
Consumers cup coffee at the Indianapolis Cup. Credit: Matt Scheffer
Café Layouts Center Around Consumer Experience
Yet customer service isn’t just about the barista and the consumer: it’s also about the space. And by putting customer needs quite literally at the center of that space, you create a better coffee experience.
Midwestern shops such as Intelligentsia’s Logan Square location and Madcap’s downtown Grand Rapids location are designed to offer full bar service. This allows for a setup much like that of a barista competition routine – and provides consumers with a new reason to approach specialty coffee.
In Indianapolis, coffee shops like Coat Check Coffee and Quills Coffee are providing areas for observing brewing and discussing extraction rates with the barista, but also have comfortable seating areas away from the coffee bar. This gives the customer the power to choose their coffee experience, whether it’s learning more about coffee, reading a good book, working, or spending time with friends.
Tinkers Coffee during the Indianapolis Cup. Credit: Matt Scheffer
In the coffee shop, the customer service time is short – often less than a minute. We have to take advantage of every possible opportunity available to us to provide good hospitality and encourage consumers to return.
The US Midwest might not always in the spotlight, but a cue could be taken from its tendency to always go the extra mile for a customer.
“I feel optimistic about growth in the future…” Steve of Tinker Coffee tells me. “People are genuinely nice here, and the coffee culture is a more hospitable experience. Smaller cities, and Indianapolis baristas in particular, are more willing to guide consumers through coffee.”
Written by Matt Scheffer of Open Fire Media. Feature photo credit: Matt Scheffer
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