This piece originally appeared at Baristahustle.com, along with other pieces, while I was working as an editor for the community newsletter.
Coffee is a drug, and its service is determined by the habits and rituals of addicts. Some might say food is its own drug, and alcohol obviously has its own intoxicating and addicting properties, but coffee is a special case. It’s the most widely accepted drug on the planet, something which millions can barely function without; and it’s consumed starting in the early morning, well before all but the most serious of addicts start partaking of other things.
For truly stellar coffee hospitality, I think one must cultivate a particular empathy for the plight of the addict, and a sensitivity to the rhythms of their rituals.
The first thing to understand about the rhythm of addiction is that it is private. People feel intensely emotional, and often intensely guarded about their drug habits. Many of the hardcore coming into the cafe on a given morning have already made some form of coffee at home, engaging in a likely knowingly substandard first hit of the day, that hasty, lonely rush that compels them out into the world. Once they arrive, the cafe itself acts as a semi-private space, a liminal zone helping ease the transition between the private, desperate, druggy fight against fatigue and the public display of perkiness.
The private mania of a drug habit means that guests may be very self-conscious about their orders and interactions in a cafe. A little compassion towards this can go a long way. Know when someone just wants the juice from you, and leave off on the single-origin sermon for them. Get to know a budding regular’s order and make it the exact same way every time. Play music appropriate to the hour and mood of the day. Have some compassion for mumbled or jumbled orders. Create a sense of welcoming regularity and predictability for guests that helps ease the addict’s transition to regular.
This is an important point worth focusing on: addicts have habits, and habits make rituals, and rituals are almost always done the same way.
Regulars (addicts) usually order the same drink every time, or rotate through a very small selection. They usually put the same amount of condiments in every time, preparing their hit with as much care as a dedicated stoner rolls a joint. Consider that most addicts put milk and sugar in their coffee without tasting it first—with set condiments is how they know they like their drugs. Coffee addicts even go further than simply how many sugars they put in: they often come in at the same time, sit at the same table, talk to the same people or duck out quickly the same way each time they visit a cafe.
The regularity of addiction has interesting implications for service. First and foremost, it helps explain why convincing someone to try their coffee without condiments, or to branch out to a different preparation or origin, can be so challenging. Change is hard, especially when it concerns what can be the life or death matter of coffee addiction.
When it comes to serving addicts, it’s also important to be sensitive to how much talk they want around their ritual. I’m a big proponent of the idea that the best service is silently presenting a regular with their drink exactly how they like it, timed to the moment they hit the register—no talking whatsoever, unless the guest wants to talk about real topics. While it’s not always possible to completely eliminate the tedious back and forth of service, a focus on service efficiency and clear menu presentation can help hew away extraneous bits of service chatter, leaving space for more pleasant conversation, or silence, as desired.
Baristas deal drugs both literal and figurative. Obviously caffeine helps fight off the clinging cloak of fatigue, but in a larger sense, a barista is selling their services as caretaker of fatigue, as someone who will take in the dreariness and gray, inject a bit of life into you, and send you out to face your day renewed.
This is why exuding a calm, capable, attentive presence behind bar is so crucial. Ushering people from fatigue into wakefulness is a heavy responsibility. As a dealer, your addicts will be attracted to confidence in what you’re supplying.
Which brings us to another implication of the regularity of addiction: predictable product. One thing the budding legal marijuana markets in the US get right is their focus on consistently named strains with lab-measured and printed levels of various psychoactive substances: drug users want a predictable high. Giving accurate, useful information to differentiate options helps users zero in on their own preferred hit, delivered in the form they want it, every time.
In the coffee context, predictability is two fold: first, there is the actual production of the coffee itself, and second, how the various coffee options are presented to the customer day to day.
Making predictably delicious coffee drinks the same way each time is a challenge, but it should be self-explanatory as to why a consistent hit (both in terms of amount of caffeine and flavor) is crucial to making addicts feel comfortable frequenting your business. The question of presentation and different options is slightly more complex. First and foremost, I think it means that you should strive to have as consistent an array of offerings as possible.
Think about it: if you went to a beer bar craving a stout you had there a month ago, but the bartender told you they only have IPAs in right now, you’d probably be pretty pissed. And yet coffee bars all the time rotate through coffees without ensuring that they consistently have options for people who like heavier coffees, lighter coffees, brighter coffees, sweeter coffees etc. etc.
I’m not saying cafes have to offer five different coffees at all times. I’m merely saying that there needs to be consistency in styles of offerings. Nothing is going to make an addict more unhappy than hearing that their favorite hit is unavailable—if it is necessary to rotate out options for whatever reason, you better have a good answer figured out for alternatives to offer people.
Addicts can be a finicky lot, but a focus on predictability and a respect for their fragility can turn them into the most fiercely loyal guests you can have.