By Chris Tellez of Working Coffee
You wouldn’t think it difficult to give away a cup of good coffee. Considering how widely we consume it, how expensive it can be and the fact that it happens to contain a rather addictive substance, giving away coffee should be pretty easy, right? Six months ago, I decided to test this question. What would happen if I drove across Canada and gave away free, great quality pour-over coffee in every city I stopped in?
In January 2013, I started a little company called Working Coffee. The aim was simple: Help coffee professionals make better coffee. I started working with cafes, restaurants, offices and anywhere else that needed some improvement in quality. As the spring approached, I was offered an exciting opportunity to help a new cafe open its doors. The only catch was, this particular cafe was on the other side of the country. I had one month to be there, and two words crossed my mind: Road Trip.
Driving meant stopping in new cities, a perfect opportunity to explore local coffee scenes. However, as you may not be shocked to read, the Canadian coffee scene is still quite young, and many of these cities had very few great options for coffee consumption and exploration.
With this realization, I decided to launch “The Cross Canada Chemex Tour,” and one week later, the Working Coffee Bar was built — a self-contained mobile pour over bar that folded up and fit snugly into the back of my station wagon. The plan was simple, drive to every major city in Canada between Toronto And Calgary, set up the Working Coffee Bar, and give away lots of free coffee. Nearly all of the coffee was donated by some of Canada’s best roasters, including Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters and Fratello Coffee from Calgary, Matchstick Coffee and Bows and Arrows from Victoria, and Detour Coffee Roasters from Toronto. All the equipment was also provided by Eight Ounce Coffee, a Canadian Coffee Equipment retailer.
Taking a coffee shop on the road comes with a peculiar set of physical and technical problems, but other than occasionally running out of water, the coffee making side of the tour was pretty smooth. The real difficulty was getting people to approach a free outdoor coffee bar with an open mind. At first, people were hesitant to stop, chat and drink some coffee. They acted as if I was running some kind of scam, like they expected me to start selling them a time-share. After some gentle coercion, most people made their way over, if not to learn about coffee origins and processing techniques, than at least to pick up a cup to warm their hands (it was still pretty cold in Canada). By the end of each service, almost everyone was happy, full of coffee and armed with some new information, and perhaps even a new perspective on coffee. Yet I couldn’t stop dwelling on the initial difficulties I had creating these interactions. Why were people so skeptical of free coffee?
After some reflection, I’ve developed some theories on this kind of inherent distrust: We are constantly inundated with information. Between social media, television, movies, and traditional advertising, we are met with an immense amount of information to process, and the overused term “Free Trial” sends up red flags in us: Marketing ploy. In order to get by as consumers, we have to filter out a lot of unnecessary information, and try and focus on the things that matter to us most.
This means that we generally take part in a form of passive interaction, giving only a small fraction of our attention to each interaction we have. I was asking a lot of people to actively take part in the experience I was trying to create, without any warning or any clear and concise reason for the event to take place. However, once people saw the genuine nature of the Coffee Tour, they let down their guard and a lot of really fascinating conversations and great connections were made. Given the time and the right approach, people were more than willing to take part in what became a very inspiring event for everyone involved.
Unsuspecting passersby on random Canadian street fronts may not be a perfect reflection of your patrons, but I do believe some of the lessons I learned on my tour apply to the retail bar. Primarily, when offering a new experience to the public, it is vital that we do our best to create an approachable environment, while remaining sensitive to the consumer’s level of engagement. This means starting the conversation simply, offering up a nice cup of coffee and only getting into the more technical stuff once you’ve gained a little bit of their trust, and once they’ve begun to demonstrate some interest. Without their trust, there’s no chance to have a meaningful interaction, and without that, what’s the point of standing behind a bar — or, outside in the Canadian cold — all day?
Chris Tellez is the owner of Working Coffee, a coffee education business focusing on creating coffee professionals. Working across Canada in the coffee industry since 2006, Chris has competed nationally & organized coffee events across the country.