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Defining Success in the Coffee Industry

Posted on May 10, 2010 by

A couple of weeks ago Jason Dominy became frustrated enough to rant a bit on Twitter (probably not the best idea). The issue essentially being that there are high quality cafes within the industry that don’t get the “respect” they deserve from the global coffee community. More specifically, Jason’s new employer Batdorf & Bronson/Dancing GoatsThis prompted some thoughtful responses, including this one from Ben Helfen:

I raise this issue now (two weeks after the fact), because I haven’t really stopped thinking about it since Jason first brought it up. The coffee industry, like any other, is constructed primarily through a web of social connections. Personal success however, is constructed through your own expectations. As Jason himself acknowledges, Dancing Goat is a popular and busy cafe in Decatur, GA. So what’s the problem? If he’s looking towards his peers for the respect he feels DG deserves, then Ben’s response above summarizes nicely what they need to do. If I were to theorize on how one becomes a member of the coffee cognoscenti, I’d first acknowledge that it comes in at least two forms: Cafes/roasters, and individually. For cafes and roasters it’s pretty straightforward. You have to source amazing green, get amazing people to roast it, and put it in the hands of amazing baristas. But just as importantly, you have to contribute meaningfully to the community at large. Relationships have to be cultivated.

This issue dovetails nicely into my thoughts on the current NYC coffee scene. People love to believe there is a “war” going on with latest crop of companies opening shop here. The truth is that regardless of coverage in the press, every shop in population dense NYC has an equal chance for success. As long as it’s gauged fiscally, and by the happiness of the customers. If you define your success based on coverage in the media, you’re much more likely to fail. At the end of the day it’s about the people that return to your shop, day after day, for the product you provide them, in an atmosphere they enjoy.

  • http://www.jasondominy.tumblr.com Jason Dominy

    Very good thoughts. It’s good that my rant lead to a conversation about how we define success, and what we deem is “cool” and why it is. I have been in the industry long enough to know that there are cool companies and shops, and there are ones that are cool, but don’t get the same recognition as they should. Some of it has to do with advertising, competing or not competing, certain baristas, yada yada yada, but it doesn’t always equate to quality.

    For example, my favorite two coffees from the last year or so were both from PT’s. The first, the Ethiopia Beloya Selection #8, was a blueberry bomb. Juicy, delicious, mind blowingly good. The second, the Ethiopia Sidama ARDI they roasted up for CoffeeFest NY/NJ was very much a delicious fruit bomb, as well. An intense Fruit Loops flavor of blueberries, cherries and apples, it, too, was a great example of a great, properly processed and roasted natural African. However, do you hear of PT’s often when you hear people talk about the best roasters in the country? Nope.

    And I guess that’s what I meant. Sometimes we’re so shallow in our thinking, we miss some really good coffee, and really good shops. And at the end of the day, Dancing Goats is at least the second busiest coffee shop in Atlanta. It serves the community well, the people around there love it, and they do a really good job. Is there work? Yes. Will I be disappointed when I hear someone ask where to go to in Atlanta, and Octane is the ONLY place to go to? Yes. Am I being partial? Yeah, maybe a little, but I really think it’s a great shop, and will continue to improve under new a new manager who’s not only very active in the barista community at large, but also has competed, and will build a great culture in the shop.

    So, good words good sir. Let’s keep moving the craft and quality forward. Let’s push for the sake of getting better, not for the sake of griping and moaning. Let’s not only talk about what it takes to be the best we can, let’s do it. Then, we all stand the best chance to succeed.

  • http://www.wreckingballcoffee.com Nick Cho

    I’m still a little baffled that Jason cares so much about this.

    I appreciate wanting to see your friends, or your company get a little props out there. But I don’t get it: I know PT’s is very well-respected out there for their coffee (but especially their AWESOME people!), and I know Batdorf gets TONS of respect out there in the industry. Apparently to Jason, it’s simply not enough?

    To put it bluntly, people mention “Intelligentsia, Counter Culture, Stumptown” together as some sort of specialty roaster triumvirate. When they’re mentioned, it’s often as the “top-3″ in our segment of the industry. I think that they’ve earned that distinction in many ways that I don’t think I need to expound on here.

    After that, there’s a longer list of other roasters that are mentioned. Sometimes in mainstream/food-press “top 10″ type lists. PT’s and Batdorf pop up in those very often. As often, it seems to me, as any of the other in the peer group.

    There are great roasters, doing GREAT coffee, that I’ve come across that get NO heat out there in the “industry.” Who cares? The hundreds and thousands of customers to those shops, or of those roasters… shouldn’t they be the ones who matter?

    I remember Chris Owens once saying something about how he was bewildered that he had found himself among the “famous” baristas out there, and that ultimately, to him, it seemed that it was only because he had a blog (actually, THIS blog) that anyone out there in the coffee industry knew who he was, aside from his coworkers, friends, and customers.

    Perhaps, Jason, some of those companies who you seem to envy… maybe they’re not as respectable as you think. Be careful what you wish for. Sometimes, the emperor has no clothes, and you might be inadvertently wishing you were running around nekkid too.

  • http://www.jasondominy.tumblr.com/ jasondominy

    Nick, I fear you may be taking my comments out of context, and didn't read my blog post which better helped one understand my initial point, which I did in turn collaborate in my comment to this post. I care so much about it, because it's about respect. Maybe my comments are my region specific, and maybe there is a place where PT's and Batdorf get more respect, but in my region, and to baristas in our area, they really subscribe to that “specialty roaster triumvirate.” This wasn't as much about my company, as it was all the companies like mine, who stand in the shadows of other said companies, not always based on quality but on image. If you think for one second that there's not a popularity contest that goes on in our industry, you're smoking crack. My point was, that it's lame.

    And I don't envy those companies, I might envy how they get perceived, but I don't envy them. I work for an awesome company, with really cool coffee passionate people, putting out some badass coffees that you may not hear about because of said popularity contest. That's my point, and I'm sticking to it.

    Also, while I'm on it, why can't people post their thoughts and opinions about something without being set on fire and run through the village by people who don't agree, or just want to start something? Ah, that's another blog, one I shall start to work on now.

  • http://coffeelands.crs.org Michael

    Great discussion. I live and work in the coffeelands with smallholder farmers who all want to be part of the scene you are discussing and have their coffees described as passionately and appreciatively as Jason does below with those amazing Ethiopians. And while I won't pretend to speak on behalf of the farmer organizations I work with, from where I sit, PT and Batdorf look mighty impressive. From this distance, the glow of the “big three” maybe fades a bit and the picture flattens. From here, a roaster who is willing to come to origin to search out great coffees, make a commitment to — perhaps even take a chance on — a group of smallholder farmers focused on quality, and help them build a following for themselves through great roasting and passionate, informed presentation of that coffee in the marketplace is seen as something worthy of serious respect. I guess that brings me to my second point — not a point, really, but a question: how do the coffeelands fit into Ben's idea above of “community?” Obviously, Ben is talking about knocking down barriers between roasters in shared celebration of great coffee and creating a real community around that collaboration — it is an idea situated at the market end of the chain (and perhaps at the outer bounds of the quality spectrum in that market). But what about a roaster that sees coffee community as starting at origin and makes efforts to “participate in that community in a positive way?” I would like to think that “enlightened” engagement at origin could move a roaster's standing a few clicks on that subjective respect dial that started this strand of discussion, but I fear that few people who take quality as seriously as you all — and the growing tribe of roasters, baristas and coffee cognoscenti who are quality-obsessed — see investment at origin as almost a liability. The work of folks like Caleb and TJ at Kickapoo Coffee is helping to break down a bit the false dichotomy of commitment to social justice v. commitment to quality, but I feel it is still operative out there. When good stuff at origin becomes relevant to discussions like this one and begins to weigh on considerations of where a roaster ranks, then it seems like the idea of community is reaching back toward the production end of the chain. I feel like we are not there yet, however. Would love to hear what people in the quality-obsessed camp think.

  • http://coffeelands.crs.org Michael

    Great discussion. I live and work in the coffeelands with smallholder farmers who all want to be part of the scene you are discussing and have their coffees described as passionately and appreciatively as Jason does below with those amazing Ethiopians. And while I won’t pretend to speak on behalf of the farmer organizations I work with, from where I sit, PT and Batdorf look mighty impressive. From this distance, the glow of the “big three” maybe fades a bit and the picture flattens. From here, a roaster who is willing to come to origin to search out great coffees, make a commitment to — perhaps even take a chance on — a group of smallholder farmers focused on quality, and help them build a following for themselves through great roasting and passionate, informed presentation of that coffee in the marketplace is seen as something worthy of serious respect. I guess that brings me to my second point — not a point, really, but a question: how do the coffeelands fit into Ben’s idea above of “community?” Obviously, Ben is talking about knocking down barriers between roasters in shared celebration of great coffee and creating a real community around that collaboration — it is an idea situated at the market end of the chain (and perhaps at the outer bounds of the quality spectrum in that market). But what about a roaster that sees coffee community as starting at origin and makes efforts to “participate in that community in a positive way?” I would like to think that “enlightened” engagement at origin could move a roaster’s standing a few clicks on that subjective respect dial that started this strand of discussion, but I fear that few people who take quality as seriously as you all — and the growing tribe of roasters, baristas and coffee cognoscenti who are quality-obsessed — see investment at origin as almost a liability. The work of folks like Caleb and TJ at Kickapoo Coffee is helping to break down a bit the false dichotomy of commitment to social justice v. commitment to quality, but I feel it is still operative out there. When good stuff at origin becomes relevant to discussions like this one and begins to weigh on considerations of where a roaster ranks, then it seems like the idea of community is reaching back toward the production end of the chain. I feel like we are not there yet, however. Would love to hear what people in the quality-obsessed camp think.