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Postcards from Seattle - Bean Scene Magazine, Issue 8, 2005

Appearing in Bean Scene Magazine,

Issue 8, 2005

Postcards from Seattle


This month our regular writers David Gee and Matthew Gee paid a visit to the coffee capital of the United States of America. Whilst there to attend the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s 17th Annual Conference and Exhibition, they spent a lot of time taking in the espresso scene. They found that whilst there are some things that Australians generally do better than the Americans, there is a lot we can learn from them about the importance of the barista in the whole coffee-making process. Flair, passion and personality – the US barista, it seems, has it all!


Seattle is home to many American corporate giants - companies like Boeing Aviation, Microsoft and department store Nordstoms are all based there. It’s also the city in which US show Frasier is set (think of the "space needle" and the skyline that features in the animation in the closing credits). Perhaps Seattle’s biggest claim to fame is that it is the official home of coffee in the USA. As coffee fanatics ourselves, it was great to be able to visit there. The USA has been the biggest driver of the coffee industry in the past 30 years and Seattle is where the coffee revolution all began.

The birthplace of chain-coffee

As everyone talks up Seattle as the coffee hub of America it was probably fitting that our coffee tour started at the Pike Place Markets where a little street café calling itself Starbucks opened its doors in 1971. With polished dark-stained wooden floors, hundreds of cardboard boxes stacked in the storage space above the shelves and a couple of well-oiled espresso machines sitting on the bench, it’s actually quite a quaint little café. It has obviously changed a little over the years but only to accommodate the newer products which Starbucks now sells and to make their fitout a little more sympathetic to the new company look and feel. The original signage is still out the front. (For those coffee geeks reading this, yes the mermaid on the sign outside is topless. She has strategically placed hair flowing down in front of her shoulders on every other Starbucks sign in the world).

There is another standout coffee chain in Seattle with brilliant warm red colourings, called Seattle’s Best. It’s a cheeky name to give a chain in a city where Starbucks is so dominant – but these days it’s really a moot point as Starbucks bought them out a few years’ back. According to the locals it has still maintained its original look and feel and they have a different blend to Starbucks which the real coffee aficionados prefer for its fuller flavour and darker complexion.



Bigger is better in the US

Visiting the coffee chains in Seattle was fun but they were really no different to the ones that we have in Australia. The main exception though is that they have done away with the 8oz/240ml cup that we call "small" or "standard" and only offer what we call a medium, large and extra large. The extra large is an enormous 20oz or 600ml. That’s a lot of coffee when you think about it and if they were making it properly (they don’t) they would be putting 4 x 30ml shots in those bad boys. The "bigger is better" mentality in the US is amazing. (The documentary "Supersize Me" could well have focused on coffee outlets in the US and not on fast food giant McDonalds).

Unfortunately we had missed our flight from San Francisco to Seattle (we didn’t leave enough time to go through the one and a half hours of security now needed for domestic flights within the US) so we had to fly into Portland, Oregon at midnight, hire a car and drive 3 hours to Seattle. Obviously we were reliant on a coffee-stop or two along the way to keep us going and because this was America, we knew that we would find several (if not scores) along the way. To our surprise, not only was coffee available 24/7 but it was available in virtually any cup size you wanted! The largest one was a whopping 840ml "bucket." To think that anyone would possibly ever have a stomach this big to fit in this drink both amused and amazed us. Yet obviously people do over there because over at the "soda fountain" there was a mind-blowing 1.9 litre "fun size" cup that, judging by the promotional posters surrounding the drink fountain, was being promoted as the newest popular "drinking sensation."

It all makes sense though when you think about how in photos in magazines you never see Cameron Diaz, Britney Spears or Paris Hilton sipping a normal-sized Starbucks coffee. It is always the grande or venti size. And these people are hardly your average American consumers! If these starve-yourself-till-you’re-Lara Flynne Boyle wafers are drinking grandes then you can bet your bottom dollar that Average Joe in the USA is drinking something that’s bigger than this.

Dishwashers a no-no in the US

The other major observation from the coffee chains in the US was that they still have a bizarre aversion to ceramic cups and glasses for drink-in customers. Paper cups rule supreme. We took over a chain of coffee shops in Brisbane several years ago that was based on the American coffee-chain model. When these stores were established, they offered no ceramics or glasses for patrons who were drinking their coffees in the café itself. Needless to say we changed things immediately. To us it was clear that Aussies simply don’t like drinking their coffees out of a paper cup if they are sitting in a café. It’s also a lot better for the environment to be using ceramic cups and glasses.

When is a caramel macchiato not a caramel macchiato?

When it’s served at Starbucks of course. We were bemused by Starbucks latest heavily promoted drink – the caramel macchiato. Having recently acquired quite a taste for the macchiato, we rushed to the counter to order the concoction which sounded quite nice after our heavy lunch. The end product turned out to be some sort of caffe latte served in a large cup with caramel syrup dripped on top. An interesting-looking caramel caffe latte maybe but definitely not a caramel macchiato. The Italians would be horrified!


Baristas in the US treat their job as a career

It wasn’t Starbucks or Seattle’s Best that really interested us but rather the independent espresso bars that have made Seattle’s coffee scene so famous. There are guided tours that one can take around some of the more noteworthy cafés in Seattle but as we were staying with a friend who has been a resident of Seattle for years, we were assured of visiting the best espresso joints in town. Surprisingly some of these were as small as holes-in-the-wall. As a regular tourist you just wouldn’t find these places ordinarily but we were glad we did.

Whether we were sipping espressos in Caffe D’Arte, Espresso Vivace or the famous Monorail Espresso one thing stood out like a beacon. The baristas there seemed to genuinely love their job. It’s true that our accents were a novelty for few of them (and as such the service we received probably a little more cheery than usual) but you could tell just by sitting and observing these baristas that they loved their jobs. They also weren’t backwards in offering us information about their coffee such as what blend and degree of roast they were using. A few of them even offered us "seconds" and "signature drinks" on the house. One barista spoke to us for about 20 minutes while he served his other customers and prepared for us his signature drink consisting of about 4 different spices spread over the ground coffee in his group handle. The end result was quite exquisite. When you think about it, it’s a clever marketing ploy to win customers over and get them talking about your bizarre signature drinks. It’s a sure fire way to create a "buzz" about your café and spread the word that you are passionate about your coffee.

Every single American barista that we came across wished us well as they handed us our coffees and asked us to come back if we were ever in the area again. A few even wanted feedback on their coffees. You just don’t get that in Australia.

American customer service is something that Australian baristas could do well to emulate. It really baffles us to see time and time again in Australia surly retail sales staff dishing out appalling customer service. Far too often we see young whipper-snappers behind the espresso machine in Australia with nothing on their mind other than how may Bacardi Breezers they are going to drink that night or how many dance parties they are going to attend on the weekend. When they’re not in animated discussions about these and other similarly inane topics of conversation with their fellow staff members often they are being surly to customers or scowling at the boss when questioned about their work ethic. Occasionally the boss gets the better of them by firing them but then the whole cycle starts again in next to no time. Too often café bosses employ the first available person who shows a remote interest in working for their establishment. This is often because these bosses are flat out trying desperately to fill in a roster that has glaring holes in it. We know – we’ve been there before with a staff of 30-odd across 4 cafés.

It’s only when you stand back, take a breather and look at what you are doing that you realise the true error of your ways in hiring baristas without the "X factor". You could have won a swag of barista competitions in your time and be able to pour a great short macchiato but unless you had personality and passion for coffee, in our view you don’t deserve to be employed as a barista. After visiting the US we have decided that as café owners we’re not going to put up with baristas who have a bad attitude and who don’t treat their job as a career.

We can poke fun at the Americans with their paper cups, bizarre cup sizes and mis-named caramel macchiatos but you really have to admire the way that customer service is such a focus of the American barista. Australian baristas should sit up and take note.

Top Ten things we can learn from American baristas

  • Only become one if you have a passion for coffee
  • Only become one if you enjoy talking to people
  • Take an interest in your customers
  • Ask them about their weekend, wife, husband or kids
  • Develop a few "flare" techniques. Try tossing your cups as you get them off the espresso machine or using a cocktail shaker to make your iced-coffees
  • Develop signature drinks in your spare time to wow your regulars with
  • Say something to your customer as you hand them their coffee - a simple "Enjoy" or a "Have a great day" is all you need!
  • Know what sort of blend you are using and what degree of roast it is
  • Talk to people whilst making their coffees
  • The customer is always right

Matthew Gee and David Gee currently run a wholesale coffee business in NSW and a barista training school called BARISTA BASICS Coffee Academy that operates in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Newcastle. They have also owned four cafes in Brisbane (still own one), have been partners in a specialty coffee roaster, have written Australia’s first textbook on coffee, produced several training videos on commercial and domestic espresso machines and are currently producing a book focussing on domestic espresso machines.


Last year Matthew and David appeared on Bert Newton’s Good Morning Australia and Channel 9’s Fresh with Jeff Janstz. They have also worked as official espresso tasters for Choice Magazine’s 2004 and 2005 review of home espresso machines. They also periodically appear on Ella James’ Saturday night radio program on Sydney’s 2UE. In 2005 they appeared on Mornings with Kerrie-Anne Kennerley on Channel 9 and Today Extra with Nat Jeffrey on NBN3.

Ó & Ô 2004 David Gee and Matthew Gee

No part of this article may be reproduced without the express permission of the authors


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