Some people take their coffee waaaaaaay too seriously.

Two years ago I blogged about how it took me four years after receiving a gift card to get around to trying out Starbucks coffee.  I was impressed by it and declared that it was one of the best cups of coffee I’d ever had, but it didn’t turn me into a coffee snob. I still drink mostly home brewed drip coffee and only hit Starbucks when one happens to be at hand when I’m out doing something else not coffee related. Here at work they have a counter-top coffee machine from the Flavia company that claims to make very fancy lattes and espressos which the locals all say tastes like swill, but which is more than adequate for my deadened taste buds and I partake of a couple of cups of what it calls coffee, usually French Vanilla with the Creamy Topping pack added in, during the course of a day. In short, I’m of pretty simple tastes when it comes to the coffee I’ll drink. It has to be pretty damned bad for me to notice.

So it amused me to no end reading this article at The Consumerist about a small meltdown between a barista at a pretentious coffee shop in Arlington. Va called Murky Coffee and one of his customers that spilled over onto the Interwebs because both the coffee shop and the customer happened to have blogs.

It seems the customer, a fellow by the name of Jeff Simmermon, had tried to place an order for an iced espresso at Murky Coffee and was promptly told that wouldn’t be possible as it’s against store policy to serve iced espressos. This prompted a bit of coffee-rage on the part of Simmermon who explains what happened next on his blog:

The whole world turned brown and chunky for a second. Flecks of corn floated past my pupils, and it took me a second to blink it all away.

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll have a triple espresso and a cup of ice, please.”

He rolled his eyes and rang it up, took my money, gave me change. I stood there and waited. Then the barista called me over to the bar. I reached for it, and he leaned over and locked his eyes with mine, saying “Hey man. What you’re about to do … that’s really, really Not Okay.”

I could hear the capital letters in his voice, could see the gravity of the situation in his eyes.

He continued: “This is our store policy, to preserve the integrity of the coffee. It’s about the quality of the drink, and diluting the espresso is really not cool with us. So I mean, you’re going to do what you’re going to do, and I can’t stop you, but”

I interrupted. “You’re goddamned right you can’t stop me,” I said. “I happen to have a personal policy that prohibits me from indulging stupid bullshit like this — and another personal policy of doing what I want with the products I pay for.” Then I looked him right in his big wide eyes and poured the espresso onto the ice.

And things just went downhill from there. Mr. Simmermon was apparently waiting on his girlfriend to get out of some class and rather than take his newly iced espresso and finding someplace with people who are less overly concerned about how he drinks his coffee to wait for her in, he stuck around and ended up going back to the counter to order a second drink:

“I would like the strongest iced beverage your policy will allow,” I said.

“How about an Americano with four shots and light on the water” asked the barista.

I’d never had one before — so I said, “sure.”

Then he turned around and filled up a plastic cup with ice, filled it 3/4 of the way with water and carefully added four shots of espresso. He stirred it gravely and handed it to me, saying “enjoy.” And you know what? I really did. You’ve got to admire someone’s dedication to craft, and rigid adherence to a strict quality control policy. I was really, really impressed. So impressed that I swallowed my rage like so much cold coffee, opened up my wallet, and left a tip in the tip jar.

That sounds really magnanimous on his part until you see exactly what the tip looked like. For those of you who don’t want to follow the link, it was a $1 bill with the words fuck you and your precious coffee policy scrawled on it. Nice tip.

After he blogged about it word of the entry made its way back to Nick Cho via mentions on Boing Boing and Metafilter. Nick not only owns Murky Cofee, but also maintains a blog about the store. So being a blogger and doing like bloggers do Mr. Cho went ahead and posted an open letter to Mr. Simmermon:

I suppose some sort of two-cents is warranted here.

Okay, we don’t do espresso over ice. Why? Number one, because we don’t do it. Number two, because we don’t do it. Mostly for quality reasons. Also, because more than half the time, it’s abused (Google “ghetto latte”).

It was at this point that this flame war went from being not only entertaining, but educational. I had never heard of a “ghetto latte” before so I went ahead and did the suggested Google and learned that some folks have apparently found a loophole in how some shops are set up to turn a $2.41 drink into a $5.12 drink by taking advantage of the free milk on the condiment bar:

The “ghetto-latte” is ordering any size Iced Americano, with no water and half ice (This lady’s drink is an Iced Venti, no water, half ice, Americano). She then takes the drink and goes to the condiments bar and adds her own half and half.

[…] Now my problem with that is… her 2 drinks cost $4.82 (entered as iced grande and venti americanos).

The EXACT drink she orders as we have it on our menu (with all the shots and milk she is actually getting) are called Iced Quad Venti Breve Latte and an Iced Triple Grande Breve Latte.

Venti (and Grande) Americanos come with 4 and 3 shots (respectively) of espresso and then water (and ice).

Lattes are 2 shots (and 2, respectively) espresso, milk and Ice.

Additional shots are $.55. Half and Half (breve) is also an additional charge.

The cost of those 2 drinks (as Lattes) is $10.24 or so!!!!

Is this just a case of the customer being savvy enough to play the system? Or should they be asked to stop? I personally feel they should be asked to stop.

I was more amazed that there’s actually a Starbucks Gossip blog where people sit around and talk about things like the above than I was at the idea that someone would game the system like that.

I grew up with a couple of guys who were big-time RPG Munchkins and masters at squeezing every advantage from the rule set of Dungeons and Dragons or Champions—I’m looking squarely at you Bob—and who often applied that same mastery to every day life. One example that comes to mind had to do with Burger King and how the Whopper Jr. could be ordered with extra meat which effectively turned it into a full-blown Whopper at a reduced cost. It wasn’t a huge savings, but it was enough that they’d take advantage of it every time they ate at Burger King. I don’t know if I got the example exactly right nor do I know if it’s still true today (this was 20+ years ago), but the point is I know folks who, if they were Starbucks addicts, might be inclined to buy “ghetto lattes” if for no other reason than the sense of satisfaction they’d get from min-maxing “the rules.” It wouldn’t be so much about the savings as much as it would be that it was very clever.

Anyway, Mr. Cho of Murky Coffee apparently lives in fear of folks like Bob who would be so audacious as to order a ghetto latte so he’s set up a number of house rules when you’re in his shop that would make the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld very proud indeed:

We have some policies at murky coffee. No sleeping in the shop. If you’re asleep, you’ll be tapped on the shoulder and asked not to sleep in the shop. We’ve had to ban a customer because of his chronic napping.

No modifications to the Classic Cappuccino. No questions will be answered about the $5 Hot Chocolate (during the months we offer it). No espresso in a to-go cup. No espresso over ice. These are our policies. We have our reasons, and we’re happy to share them.

To others reading this I will say that if you don’t like the policies, I respectfully recommend that you find some other place that will give you what you want, or select something that we can offer you.

The napping thing I can understand. You want to nap? Go find a hammock someplace else. The rest of it seems pretty arbitrary, but what the hell. He’s well within his rights to be as arbitrary as he wants to be and if he can keep the customers coming in spite of those rules then more power to him. Still, he might have ended his open letter with a tad more tact:

To Mr. Simmermon, you overplayed your hand with your vulgar tip-schtick. While I certainly won’t bemoan you your right to free-speech, I have to respond to you in your own dialect: F*@k you, Jeff Simmermon. Considering your public threat of arson, you’ll understand when I say that if you ever show your face at my shop, I’ll punch you in your dick.

Not that I can claim to have a lot of tact myself, but then I’m not posting my bullshit on the blog for my small business. Oh and on the threat of arson? Yeah, the opening to Mr. Simmermon’s blog entry started with ”…the only way I’m ever coming back to Murky Coffee in Arlington is if I’m carrying matches and a can of kerosene.” It was obviously not a serious threat, but then I don’t suspect that Mr. Cho’s threat to punch him in his dick is serious either.

So, yeah, some very enjoyable stuff going on here and slightly educational too. It seems the whole kerfuffle has blown up way beyond what either person involved thought it would. Not only did it end up on Boing Boing and Metafilter, but the Washington Post is did a bit on it and American Public Media’s Marketplace which has suddenly made Mr. Simmermon a bit attention shy. 

But not the folks at Murky Coffee:

Dear internet peoples,

Thanks for the over 200 comments that folks have left here. Again, despite the “feedback” (to put it lightly) that I’m a [insert expletive here] for not posting the comments, I’d rather keep the death-threats and suggestions on how to fellate myself in the moderation queue, even though a significant proportion of the feedback has been very supportive. There are plenty of places for folks to rant and rave, without us having to provide that soapbox. Thanks though to those who have written with supportive words.

What the fuck is it with idiots and death threats? It’s coffee folks, not a fucking Eucharist. The folks at Murky Coffee shouldn’t be getting death threats simply because they’re more concerned with coffee than, say, world peace:

I can appreciate that a lot of folks think that it’s ridiculous that anyone would take as much apparent effort (as we do) to do coffee. Before opening our first shop in Georgetown a few years ago, I certainly didn’t think that there was any more to being a barista as there is to flipping burgers or being a Pez dispenser. The fact is, there’s a lot more to coffee than people think, and there was a time that a career position like a “sommelier” was completely absurd (before wine became “fancy”) too.

There’s a craft to coffee, that most people haven’t been exposed to. When we first opened our shop, nobody had ever seen “latte art” before, or was thinking about coffee bean varietals. Just as the average person understands at least that a “merlot” is different from a “chardonnay,” maybe someday people will understand that a coffee brewed from bourbon varietal from a particular coffee farm in El Salvador is different from a particular lot of Yirgacheffe from Ethiopia. Right now, to most people, coffee is coffee, just like a Diet Coke is a Diet Coke.

We take pride in, and put a lot of effort in making great coffee… NOT because we’re full of ourselves, or because coffee is our only obsession, but because we want our customers to have something good. Our standards are such that the average person-on-the-street, my own mother, a homeless guy, or the World Barista Champion (yes, there is such a thing) will get the same quality cappuccino from us, because people are worth it. Having the standards that we do are in support of that, although it may seem antithetical.

Coffee can be much more than what you’ve experienced before, whether you believe me or not.

Having been impressed with the coffee I had at Starbucks, as I previously mentioned, I can kinda see where he’s coming from with the above argument, but it still seems like he’s taking it way too seriously. The above sort of talk often sets off my bullshit detector because it usually means the person saying such things is going to charge an arm and a leg for whatever the hell they’re trying to sell me when I could be perfectly happy with a lesser expensive version of it. For all the pretentiousness on display at Starbucks the folks there, at least at the ones I’ve been too, don’t seem to take themselves all that seriously about it. Ultimately they just want to sell you something and if you’re willing to pay out $6+ for a cup of coffee then they’ll be happy to sell it to you, but they don’t make a lot of demands on how you partake of it.

I’m coming down right in the middle on this one. I can agree with Mr. Simmermon that most of the rules at Murky Coffee are pretty fucking arbitrary and silly, but I can also agree with Mr. Cho that he has a right to run his business as he sees fit with regards to coffee policies and that folks should feel free to seek out other overpriced coffee vendors if they’re not happy with said policies. I probably wouldn’t stop into Murky Coffee after learning of their policies myself, but I don’t live in the Arlington. Va area anyway making it highly unlikely I’d ever stumble upon the shop in the first place so it’s not like I’m a lost sale they should give a shit about.

Still, as a bit of flame-war entertainment the whole thing has been priceless.

17 thoughts on “Some people take their coffee waaaaaaay too seriously.

  1. I can’t sell you an iced espresso because it is a crime to water down espresso, and we’re serious about our espresso.  But if you’d like, i can sell you an americano… which is espresso dumped into ICE WATER.

    Does this make sense to anyone on the planet? 

    (this means fuck all to his “quality control” reasons, and makes the Ghetto Latte block his only reason for not doing it.)

  2. Starbucks et al- another example of US corporate style over substance.  Haven’t been to Europe for a few years- perhaps Zilch can tell us if proper cafes are being blasted by these chains.

  3. So far there’s just one Starbucks in Vienna, and word is, it’s not well patronized.  Starbucks is okay if you’re in small-town America, but it is not really necessary in Europe, where you can get good coffee.

  4. I have seen this anal-retentiveness about products in the most unexpected places, like in a butcher shop where the butcher and a customer got into a heated argument because the butcher didn’t agree with what the customer was planning to do with the slab of meat. Or a chef that almost got into a physical altercation with a guest who insisted on having his steak well done, against the chef’s principles and pride.

    People do take their coffee way too seriously, considering what swill it is compared to what you get in most European countries (yo, zilch). The best coffee I’ve ever had was in Switzerland, where they have a knack for making strong, smooth coffee.

    Starbucks is in the business of selling mediocre coffee with an astronomical markup. I do have sympathy for the Starbucks munchkins, but wouldn’t they be better off with some home-brew?

  5. First off, longest post ever.

    Secondly, I now have a new favorite drink at Starbucks. I’ll be able to stretch those giftcards people love to give even further!

  6. Ghetto latte? I’ve done that for years. Get a hot chocolate or a frappuccino, drink half, fill with 2% or half/half, drink half, fill with 2% or half/half, repeat. Thats the only way their drinks can be a decent value.

  7. I don’t really have a problem with his “punch you in the dick” comment, given the “fuck you” on the “tip” money.  Cho said that he was just responding in kind, and, yes, it’s banter.  (I do have a general problem with people’s arguments degenerating into “fuck you” and “so’s your old man”, but that’s a different issue.)

    And at some level, a merchant has the right to serve his product (or not) how he wants, and the customer has the right to go elsewhere if he doesn’t like it.

    But that doesn’t mean that I don’t consider stupid policies to be stupid.  I think dumping ketchup on a cheese soufflé would be horrid, but if I ran a bistro and served a customer a cheese soufflé, and he asked for ketchup, I’d give it to him.  It’s his meal.

    So there remains the issue of “cheating”, and that’s where I think the stores get it wrong.  First, nothing is “free”; there’s no “free milk” out there.  The store’s cost for that milk is rolled into the prices.  The fact is that if people do the cheap iced latte thing on the sly, the store’s milk costs will go up and the prices will go up to compensate.

    Some coffee shops will put the milk in for you, which is their (reasonable) way to limit how much you use.  And I think that’s fair.  I think shops should take the dizzying array of silly drink names away, and charge you for what you want, per shot of espresso, per shot or glass of milk, or whatever.  If you want two shots of espresso and a tablespoon of milk, maybe they don’t charge you extra for the milk (that is, that’s included in their overhead cost).  If you want two shots of espresso and a glass of milk, that’s what you pay for.

    That’s fair, and then there’s no need for silly rules.

  8. What the fuck is it with idiots and death threats? It’s coffee folks, not a fucking Eucharist.

    Just wait ‘till the Vatican decides it needs to boost its numbers…

  9. Well … iced coffee is a crime in and of itself, whether it’s called Americano or Iced Coffee or whatever. Making such a huge issue about tiny things happens, and happily, this one was on the internet so we can all have our popcorn while watching the drama unfold smile

    I think the worst thing that can happen to coffee in the first place though isn’t drowning it in water or even chilling it with ice, but putting it into paper cups. The great thing about the Starbucks over here in Europe is that they don’t do just that, we get proper china mugs here.

    And, no iced coffee that I’d be aware of. The mere thought is shocking enough.

  10. I stumbled in here looking for info about the quote in elwedriddsche’s signature block… thanks for the smile here.  Calling your upscale coffee establishment “Murky Coffee” seem indicative of someone who’s not terribly tuned into the marketing side of things, eh?

  11. Just kinda randomly stumbled on your blog. I have never understood the appeal of Starbucks. I swear its all marketing and herd mentality. Their coffee as someone above suggested is ‘mediocre coffee with an astronomical markup’, and all the goofy size names and pretentious attitudes in the world are not going to change that. I myself like a nice Kona bean coffee made in a French Press. Thats the way to go. I mostly wanted to comment to say ‘Thank you.’ Until I saw this post I had no idea there was a Starbucks fanblog…I find that fact absolutely hilarious. Even more so considering how active that thing is….

  12. @mhmjr I kinda agree, Starbucks doesn’t make remotely the best coffee in the world. They do have nice blends though, where coffee is just one of many ingredients, and the atmosphere is nice (we have sofas in ours, dunno if that’s international). I like going there, but not when I want extraordinary coffee.

    In Berne CH by the way, if you ever happen to stumble by, the best coffee is the one you get in Adriano’s, right by the Zytglogge, followed by Spettacolo (not the one inside the train station, too much smoke there to truly enjoy coffee).

  13. I drank Flavia all last week at a Red Hat class—that shit is nasty glorified instant coffee.

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