One of the most frustrating experiences a customer can have is being recommended a coffee or drink by a barista that doesn’t match their taste preferences. In this podcast episode, we explore why the specialty coffee community’s ideal flavor profiles do not match with those of our customers—and what we can do about it.
Meet the Guests
Peter Giuliano is the Chief Research Officer at the Specialty Coffee Association and Executive Director at Coffee Science Foundation (LinkedIn).
Katie Rose Dawson is the Senior Director of Customer Success at Bellwether and an unapologetic dark roast lover (LinkedIn).
Shanita Nicholas is a Co-Founder of Sip & Sonder and the LA Investors Club (LinkedIn).
Amanda-Jane Thomas is a Co-Founder of Sip & Sonder and the LA Investors Club (LinkedIn).
Key Takeaways from the Episode
Let’s summarize the most actionable takeaways from the episode.
Customer Preferences Don’t Always Match Industry Priorities
Katie remembers inheriting an espresso machine from her dad, but not knowing which coffee beans to buy to use it. All she knew was she liked really darkly roasted “face melters”.
When she visited a coffee shop in search for espresso beans, she was greeted by an barista who not-so-gently explained that “espresso” is a process, not a roast, and that she should try a bag of lighter roasted coffee—naturally, she only made a few shots before giving up.
“It tasted sour. It was acidic. I think I just took one sip and was like, “Pass!” Like, where do I get darker coffee, because I didn’t learn anything from my experience.”
Katie’s experience matches up with research from the National Coffee Association, Atlas Coffee Importers, and Trade Coffee: most coffee consumers prefer a darker roast. So why do we keep suggesting lighter coffees?
The Shakey Moral Argument of the Light Roast
Peter Giuliano explains that dark roast coffee was once seen as sophisticated, but things started to change in the late 1990s as the local food movement came into full-swing.
“Once people started to get interested in local agriculture, knowing where their tomatoes were grown or going to the farmers market on the weekend, they wanted to apply that same logic to coffee. And so it became about the flavor profile of this cool Nicaraguan coffee from Segovia.”
This trend accelerated the push to lighter roasts, because lighter roasted coffee tends to have more distinct characteristics of the origin, rather than flavors from the roast technique.
Regrettably, light roasting became a way to honor farmers, while dark roasting came to be viewed as a way to obscure their work and dignity. To the growing specialty coffee community, lighter roasting became a sort of moral imperative.
The only problem? Everyday coffee consumers just didn’t follow long. Thankfully, the industry is quickly overcoming these black and white beliefs.
Most People are Specialty Coffee Adopters, Not Supers
The coffee industry is filled with super specialty customers—people who love to not just brew coffee, but think about how it’s brewed, where it comes from, and why it tastes like it does. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a super!
Most coffee customers, on the other hand, are adopters. They’re after a delicious, comforting, and warm cup of coffee, but they’re not likely to get excited about brewing ratios, rare origins, or wacky processing methods.
“Why are we offering consumers coffees that we strongly suspect they are not going to enjoy? Why are we treating them like supers when we know they’re actually adopters.”
The best coffee companies blend the priorities of both supers and adopters, finding a way to marry both the simple pleasures of adopters and the high-skill enthusiasm of supers.
How Sip & Sonder Blends Flavor Expectations
Shanita and Amanda-Jane, our friends from Sip & Sonder, described how they didn’t feel truly at home in the typical coffee shop when they were adopters. They liked great coffee, but they felt alienated by the intensity of baristas and other supers.
When the duo opened Sip & Sonder in Inglewood, California, they wanted to make sure that the voice of adopters was clearly heard and responded to, rather than overstepped with recommendations of lighter roasts or complicated brew methods.
“We take the time with each customer to actually hear them and get to the bottom of what their current experience is with coffee flavors profiles, and then translate that into what they can get at Sip & Sonder.”
Shanita and Amanda-Jane love creating seasonally-inspired drinks that start with the flavors their customers are enjoying, then finding ways to enhance them with coffee—not the other way around. It’s a truly customer-first approach to menu and culture development.