blog from the ceo & superbarista of phoenix coffee, home of the best baristas in cleveland, ohio

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Crux of the Matter

After a year of not posting anything here, I am actually feeling a new theme emerging for this blog. This past year has been the most difficult one of all of my 18 years in the coffee industry due to record-setting high coffee prices and a record-setting slow economy. As a result of the financial pressure, I have had to struggle with my own mental outlook regarding my business and the coffee industry here in Cleveland. In May of 2010, I fell in love with rock climbing. As it turns out, many of the lessons I have learned from working on increasingly difficult rock climbing "problems" also apply to solving problems in my business.

There's actually a lot of correlations between successfully sending a route (which means climbing the whole route without falling) and being successful in business. The first thing I studied when I began to hang around the rock gym ( was the attitude that the stronger climbers had about their climbing. I immediately noticed that the stronger climbers never made excuses for their performance on the rock. If they fell, they fell. If they got the route, they got it. There was no whining about that they were too short or that they were too tired. They also did not tend to reference their previous performances, whereas weaker climbers often would make excuses for why they fell, and would describe themselves as being weak, or unable to climb a certain route. I would hear them say things like "Oh that route? I'd never be able to get that," or "That route is way too hard for me." Stronger climbers don't think this way, nor do they talk this way. The stronger climbers would be more likely to say "I'm not ready for that route yet," or "That might take me a while to work out that sequence." The first six months I spent hanging around the gym, I noticed how people described themselves and their climbing and how it related to the quality of their climbing. I tried to imitate the attitude that I observed in the stronger climbers, even though I was still climbing the easiest routes at the gym.

One Saturday, I ended up climbing at the gym with Oliver, one of the stronger climbers at the gym. I think Oliver had placed second in the recent boulder league competition. Oliver is tall and lanky, built like a marathon runner, and climbs the hardest routes the gym has to offer. At that point, I usually climbed with my 13 year old daughter Veronica, and I had certainly never climbed with anyone as advanced as Oliver. When it was my turn to climb, I could have chosen a route that I knew I could climb successfully. But instead, I chose a route on the most overhung wall that really challenged me, with Oliver belaying for me (so that if I fell off the climb, he would be holding on to the rope that would allow me to be caught by my climbing harness). I started up the climb and made the first couple of moves, and then fell off as I got to the most physically demanding part of the climb. Without much hesitation, I proceeded to get back on the wall, trying a different foot position. I made a concerted effort to not say anything about how I had been able to get that move previously. I just tried again. And fell again. And again. I struggled my way up the route. By the time Oliver lowered me back down to the ground, sweat had soaked its way through my shirt. Oliver couldn't congratulate me on a solid climbing performance, because I certainly hadn't climbed very well. But he did say "Methinks you have the right attitude for hard sport climbing." I loved hearing this; at least I knew I had the attitude right even if I didn't have the skill or the strength yet.

This particular lesson doesn't need explanation as far as how it translates to business. Everyone knows that no business problem can be solved if no one wants to solve it. And we all know how excuses can poison the water of even a well-functioning team. So the climbing world just gives us a very concrete, visible and measurable manifestation of the results of a success-oriented attitude.

One of my favorite things about climbing is the problem solving process that occurs when trying to get a difficult move on a route, as I described on the route I was climbing with Oliver. Climbing is really like a big puzzle that you complete with your body. Sure, it takes strength and flexibility, but more than anything, climbing takes a physical intelligence and creativity that could never be described, it just has to be experienced. The more I climb, the more I realize that the solution to any "climbing problem" will fall in one of the following categories: feet aren't in the right position (not high enough up the wall, usually), don't have the strength to do the move (this is rarely the case, actually), don't have the sequence or technique to do the move (quite common), or aren't seeing a hold that can be helpful.

Over the past year, I have related many business problems to these four categories of solutions. For example, last year when I realized we had to raise prices, I explained to our management staff that if we were going to have to raise prices as a way to "stay on the wall", the high prices were going to be akin to grasping at a higher hand hold. What I've learned from climbing is that if you're going for a higher hand hold, the best way to do that is by first getting your feet up on the highest foot hold you can find, even if it's a small one. That way, your weight is actually primarily on your feet & legs, rather than your hands. In business, I think customer service is the thing that we "stand up on". You can only reach that next level of hand hold if your feet are not placed on the highest level of customer service. And then, once your feet are placed as well as they can be, you have to trust their solidity on the rock, and just stand up and reach as high as you can. So that's what we did for our price increase. It was scary to trust our customer service, and just raise those prices, but that is what we did, and it worked. Here we are, a year later, still serving happy customers great coffee.

Today, I had a two hour conversation with one of my business mentors, a wise, gentle and kind man who is also a long time Phoenix Coffee customer, who happens to have a wealth of experience in business, about a sticky business problem that I am in the midst of solving. After I got off the phone with Eric, I felt a renewed sense of hope and optimism about solving this particular issue. Thinking back on the conversation, I had another realization about how the lessons of solving climbing problems can apply to business. Often, someone watching the climber, often the belayer, often an experienced climber, can offer what is called "beta", or advice, and that advice alone is what gets the climber through the move. Sometimes the belayer just has to point out a missed foot hold or a novel way to use a hand hold, and that is all that it takes to solve the problem. Well, that's exactly what Eric was able to do for me today. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in trying to solve the problem ourselves that we forget to ask for outside assistance. In climbing, that just leads to wasted effort, and so it is in business as well.

Thank you, Eric!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Best Coffee in Cleveland, Again

Thanks Cleveland! So proud to be chosen as Cleveland's Best Coffee by Scene Magazine, in the reader's poll. We do work hard to be sure the coffee is great, the service is memorably friendly, and the atmosphere feels like a place where Something Might Happen. I stopped in Coventry, South Euclid and the Lee Road Phoenix Coffees today and got a thrill from watching our baristas pouring the French Presses and brewing our Fair Trade Coffees on tap.

Next step is introducing our personalized French Press service, we're shooting for next Tuesday, October 19th. This service will allow our customers to try any of our coffees (even our most premium ones) by the personalized press for $2.50 to $2.95. We'll be setting up a special display in each store where the coffees will be pre-measured and pre-priced in the presses, ready for grinding and brewing to order. Thanks to Pat Mahoney, one of our Lee Road baristas, for coming up with the idea for this presentation. I am so glad to have such creative and smart baristas working with us at Phoenix; when Pat suggested this format, it made sense immediately and we're really excited to be bringing this idea to life!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Coffee Price Crisis in Cleveland

It's not just in Cleveland that coffee prices have reached a 13 year high. It's all over the country. But here in Cleveland, we're feeling the pinch. My coffee bill is going to be over 50% higher than the previous month, and that was already inflated. I am tempted to just follow Intelly's lead and go to manual drip and charge $4.00 for 12 ounces of expertly brewed coffee, served by a smartly dressed barista. But that wouldn't be Phoenix, would it?

We decided at our emergency manager's meeting the other day to go to all French Press and to set 12 ounces at $2.00, which is a $.40 increase from where we are now. We were so convinced that this was the right solution that Kate and Marcie even announced it on Fox 8 News. But then today I started looking at the logistics of this and in order to really present the coffee to the customer, we'd need a completely different layout in our stores. Which just makes my stomach turn, since we just finished a $20,000 renovation of the Lee Road cafe, and it now works better than it ever has. Furthermore, it's hard to justify taking tens of thousands of dollars worth of perfectly good coffee brewing equipment out of the stores and putting it on the shelf at our warehouse where it will probably just collect dust for a while. Selling used equipment is not easy. Furthermore, a dozen french presses for each store will cost around $4,000. Spending this money doesn't help me pay my coffee bill.

So another option, which we've already partially enacted, is switching over to all Fair Trade coffee. When I realized that conventionally traded varietals were at the same price as Fair Trade, I immediately switched over as many of them as possible at that point. That was easy. How about if we just went all the way and switched the rest of them? "We only serve Fair Trade coffee in our stores." That would mean our blends would need to be adapted to use Fair Trade coffees, which is challenging since Fair Trade coffees are usually not consistently available. But this could be surmounted. However, this policy would also mean not having Blue Moon, one of our most popular, and cheapest coffees. We could make Blue Moon with Fair Trade coffee, but instead of costing $11 per pound, it would cost $16. We'd probably lose a lot of Blue Moon customers. Maybe they'd just have to order in bulk from the warehouse or online?

What's the most fiscally responsible yet progressive and innovative solution here?

I'm calculating that we need around a $.30 per cup increase, at least, in order to make these coffee prices work. And about a $.15 per cup increase on lattes and mochas and other specialty drinks. What change could we make that would make this price increase easier to swallow and also move the company forward strategically and qualitatively? When prices go down, we would then have the necessary margin to pay baristas better and further increase the level of professionalism and coffee quality at our stores, and even to buy more "Cup of Excellence" and other super-premium coffees that are tough to afford now.

I suppose this could be a great example of "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger", but I thought we had already done our share of that just by getting Phoenix through the last year and a half of tough economic times. So here we go again. At least it's familiar territory, in a way. We're good at challenges like this, actually. We live in Cleveland, where only the tough(and smart)survive.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Barista Competition Season 2010

This year, we have one barista from Phoenix Coffee, Samantha Bako from the Coventry Cafe, preparing to compete in the Great Lakes Barista Competition. This afternoon I spent a couple of hours on our "World Barista Championship Certified" Aurelia espresso machine (from Nuova Simonelli) working with a couple of different espresso blends, getting the coffee and Sam ready for competition. The coffee started off with shots that pulled beautifully (lots of dark flecking, 25-30 sec pours) but tasted astringent and mouth-puckering, and had soupy pucks. Some of them were so bad that I had to force myself to swallow. Best not to torture the judges with a brew like that.

But Dennis Skitzki, Phoenix's own espresso pirate, pointed out that the machine is designed to be used with at least 18 grams of coffee in the extra deep triple baskets. He has recently conferred with Vic Bialis from Nuova Simonelli Canada. So we pulled out the gram scale and started dosing the coffee on the scale rather than by volume. This is an awkward process which involves first dosing the coffee into a paper cup and spooning it in clumps into the portafilter basket, then dosing and tamping. However, this extra step allowed us to document the precise weight of each brew and therefore control one variable. Once we got the basket full enough so that the spent pucks showed the impression of the screen and the screw, the shots started tasting better. This was around 19.5 grams of coffee.

We were using a blend of our Blonde Espresso and our Dark Espresso and the shots had cocoa and nutty overtones, and a rounded dark chocolate aftertaste. The coffee we were using was at least four days off roast, which we have found is key to "dialing in" a coffee. When the coffee is too fresh (less than four days off roast) it is still giving off carbon dioxide at a rapid rate and produces an espresso with fluffy crema with visible bubbles, and usually an inferior flavor. This is an inconvenient delay that requires foresight on the part of the barista. The coffee blended today, using coffee that was roasted today, won't be "available" for use in the espresso machine for four days.

What I learned today is that the biggest and probably most valuable lesson one learns from the competition process is how to "dial in" a coffee. It takes patience and more patience, it's tedious to experiment with all the variables. One has to explore tamping, dosing, grind size, polishing technique, brew volume and coffee amount for each coffee one considers using. It's daunting. I'm sure the mathematicians out there could tell me more specifically how daunting this is, considering there are more than 10 different iterations for each variable, if not more.

I'm sure Sam will learn a lot in the journey to the competition (which is next month!) and I will also get to brush up on my skills in the process.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Cupping Notes & Nez du Cafe Practice

On Tuesday afternoon, in honor of a visit from "Wiggles", a former Phoenix barista and coffee geek, in town for a couple of days from Chicago, we blind cupped four roaster's versions of Kenyan AA. Two were drum roasted, two were fluid bed roasted. Here are our cupping notes.

Bridgeport Coffee House, Chicago $12.00 per lb
From a small roaster in Chicago, roasts in a fluid bed roaster 5 or so kilos at a time. Fragrance was cocoa & toast, definitely the darkest roast in the bunch. Aroma on the break was pleasing, again, cocoa, chocolate. Flavor was pleasant, definitely smoky. Hard to distinguish as Kenyan, but totally enjoyable as a coffee. Easy to tell it was a fluid bed because it tasted a lot like our (Phoenix's) dark roast coffees.

Intelligentsia Coffee, Chicago $21.00 per lb
Fragrance was fruity, cherries. Aroma on the break was delicate. Flavor in the cup changed a lot as the coffee cooled. Started with characteristic Kenyan zip, citrus. The last sip was a dead ringer for Campbell's Tomato Soup. I was able to identify this as an Intelly coffee even with the blind tasting; it was clearly a drum roast because the flavors are more singular and easier to pick out. Intelly has really perfected their ability to pull out certain things in the coffees. Doesn't always make for a balanced cup, but it does make for an interesting coffee experience.

Caribou Coffee, Minneapolis $16.99
The coffee from Caribou was old; it must have come from Wiggles' private stock, as in from the back of his kitchen cabinet. The fragrance was flat, smelled like musty oat grain, the trademark stale coffee smell. Flavor was flat also, any interesting acidity had faded. Not a fair comparison, because of the product's age. But it was reassuring to be able to identify it as old so easily in a blind test. We put this in as our "ringer" to keep us honest. Sorry, Caribou!

Phoenix Coffee, Cleveland $14.00 per lb
Fragrance was peanuts and a little chocolate, definitely characteristic of coffee from a fluid bed roaster. Pungent aroma on the break. Medium body and some citrusy acidity, but not as much as I would have expected. This coffee changed the least as it cooled. Most balanced.

After our cupping, we also played with our "Nez du Cafe" set, (developed by Jean Lenoir) which is a set of 36 vials, all of which contain distinct aromas that are often found in coffee.

Here are the 36 aromas and my notes about how a few of them actually smelled... like notes to myself... I am preparing to take my Q Grader test sometime in 2010, which will require me to be able to identify all of these aromas (and much more). The Q Grader test is the most demanding analytical sensory test that a coffee professional can take. I have lots of prep to do!

1. Earth
2. Potato
3. Garden Peas
4. Cucumber hints of paper
5. Straw
6. Cedar hints of daffodil
7. Clove-like
8. Pepper smells like the trapp family inn in monteverde, costa rica
9. Coriander seeds
10. Vanilla
11. Tea rose/Redcurrant jelly
12. Coffee blossom
13. Coffee pulp
14. Blackcurrant-like
15. Lemon
16. Apricot
17. Apple smells like sweet tarts or other candy
18. Butter totally sweet smelling
19. Honeyed
20. Leather
21. Basmati Rice
22. Toast also smells like rice, but jasmine rice
23. Malt distinctively repulsive
24. Maple syrup
25. Caramel
26. Dark chocolate resembles soy sauce smell
27. Roasted almonds smells artificial
28. Roasted peanuts
29. Roasted hazelnuts really smells like filbert nuts
30. Walnuts hints of urine
31. Cooked beef smells like the iron tablets i had to take when pregnant
32. Smoke
33. Pipe tobacco
34. Roasted coffee smells like skunk (?!)
35. Medecinal
36. Rubber

I am also hoping that we'll be hosting some "Nez du Cafe" sensory practice sessions in 2010, so stay tuned.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

While the WBC goes on in Atlanta, we're throwing down latte art here in Cleveland.

I love the barista smacktalk. I love that Courtenay sent out an invitation to our latte art throwdown that said "There will only be one champion". It's particularly funny given that this same weekend, at about the same time, the best baristas in the world are competing for the title of World Barista Champion in Atlanta, Georgia. The finalists (who will be competing tomorrow) are as follows:


Here is the Barista Mag blog

Sammy Piccolo has made it to the finals for several years, five I think! It seems like he probably deserves to win some year soon. And I am certainly rooting for Mike Phillips, I got to work with him in helping to organize the Great Lakes Barista Jam in Chicago last year, and it was a real pleasure. Mike is a humble, intelligent and passionate barista and I would really enjoy seeing him win.

Meanwhile, back here in Cleveland, the Phoenix baristas gathered at our West 9th cafe. Many actually showed up early to practice (how rare is that for a Phoenix barista to show up EARLY?) The patio was full of bicycles and baristas, and the cafe filled up with friendly folks interested in seeing and tasting the artistic lattes. George Nemeth from was updating our "leader" board, with the scores, and Dawn Andrews (our roastery maven) and Paulius Nasvytis, owner of the Velvet Tango Room were our esteemed judges. Dawn and Paulius were judging four different categories... Balance & Symmetry, Color (& contrast), Distribution and Originality/Creativity. Each barista had five minutes on the machine, which is a very short time for the barista to familiarize him or herself with the particular grinder, group heads and steam wands. Most baristas poured multiple drinks and then chose the prettiest one to present to the judges.

David Perelman-Hall of Exceptional Light Photography photographed the drinks

But since I don't have those images yet, I will post a few images that I took towards the end of the throwdown.

Julie Hutchison, owner of our Lakewood cafe, took first place. She won herself a Reg Barber tamper, a $25 gift card from the Velvet Tango Room, a t-shirt and some chocolate. Stephen Shaum, from West 9th, took second. He won a pound of Puerto Rican Selecto, a $25 gift card from the Velvet Tango Room, a t-shirt and some chocolate. Then there was a tie for third place between Jake Stofan from the Lakewood store and Wes Johansen from our East 9th cafe. I do have pictures of these two pours.

Here was Jake's

And here was Wes'

So Wes won the third place prize of the Velvet Tango Room gift certificate, as well as the other goodies, that Jake also got, t-shirt & chocolate.
Interestingly enough, they both used a bit of half & half... Jake used a blend of half& half and whole milk, and Wes used 100% half&half, which helps with definition, as you can see. Wes has also developed this interesting swirling technique that he uses as he introduces the milk that is pretty cool. And his most recent theory is that the freshness of the crema is more important than the texture of the milk. So he brews his espresso, I think, after he textures his milk. Interesting.
A few short months ago, Wes and I were neck-in-neck in terms of our latte art skills, or at least that's what I thought. That's why I would always challenge him to impromptu throwdowns at the stores, because I felt that I could probably win. As you may be able to tell, he has really pulled ahead of me. I have to admit, I'm steamed. As in motivated. How did he get so much better so quickly? OK, granted, he has been working at a cafe full time and I have only been working one or two shifts a week on bar, so I do feel quite rusty when it comes time to pour. But I have got to hand it to him for perfecting his craft and really making his smacktalk something of substance, after all.
Oh, and by the way, Carl Jones says he was robbed of his points (he did score a bit low) and he demands a rematch sometime in the next six months (Dawn, don't worry, Carl is kidding).
After the throwdown, I got to ride my bike home (after fixing a nasty flat, involving a trip to Shaker Cycle for a new tire, thank you Steve Bedford) and enjoy the first really sunny, warm day we have had this spring. It was glorious. I think I am going to ride my bike again tomorrow for the coffee tasting at W9th!

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Congratulations to Michael Phillips from Intelligentsia Chicago

Nice Job, Mike!
Here are the results of this year's United States Barista Championships...

In 1st place -- Michael Phillips, Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, Chicago, IL with 730 points.
In 2nd place -- Western Champion Nick Griffith, Intelligentsia Coffee, Los Angeles, CA with 719.5 points.
In 3rd place -- Great Lakes Champion Scott Lucey, Alterra Coffee, Milwaukee, WI with 697.5 points.
In 4th place -- Ryan Willbur, Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, Los Angeles, CA with 693 points.
In 5th place -- Devin Pedde, Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, Los Angeles, CA with 658.5 points.
In 6th place -- Mike Marquard, Kaldi's Coffee Roasting Co., St. Louis, MO with 654 points


USBC Finalists!

1. Scott Lucey – Alterra Coffee – Milwaukee, WI (Great Lakes Champ)
2. Mike Marquard - Kaldi’s Coffeehouse - St. Louis, MO
3. Nick Griffith – Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea – Los Angeles, CA (Western Champ)
4. Ryan Willbur - Intelligentsia Coffee - Los Angeles, CA
5. Devin Pedde - Intelligentsia Coffee - Los Angeles, CA
6. Michael Phillips - Intelligentsia Coffee - Chicago, IL

There are interviews with everyone here. Very interesting.

Good to know that in Chicago, we were up against the very best in the country, apparently!