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Consider Active vs. Passive Consumer Education at the Coffee Bar

2009 Creative Commons photo by Jake Liefer.

2009 Creative Commons photo by Jake Liefer.

A customer’s enjoyment of the coffee that we serve is a critical link in the chain that gives this industry footing, leverage and, ultimately, meaning. The best coffee on earth — grown, processed, roasted and prepared to perfection — when served with arrogance or even an excess of enthusiasm may fail to be enjoyed, which in turn renders all preceding efforts and investments virtually moot.

While education is essential in demonstrating the value of specialty coffee to the uninformed but curious consumer, servers that preach indiscriminately to all from a behind-the-bar soapbox are more of a deterrent than a draw into our densely layered world of agriculture, social justice, environmentalism, pure geekery and of course sensory delight. Therefore it’s an important and worthwhile exercise to consider the two basic forms that education can take in the café environment: active and passive. 

Active Education

Active education is the one that seems most prevalent in the cafes I’ve visited. Conversations at the register, the espresso bar and the manual brew bar are the primary examples. These fact-filled chats can be a great way to educate people on the joys of specialty coffee, but this kind of active education can be risky.

Engaging a guest at six in the morning, who just rolled out of bed, tripped over the dog and stubbed a toe, is a sensitive situation. This guest just wants coffee. She/he doesn’t want to be asked which of three coffees or seven hand brew options he would like, nor to hear a flowery poem composed of tasting notes. As coffee professionals, we need to know when to engage and when not to engage. An early-morning, half-asleep guest may still be polite, and may even start the conversation, which certainly presents an opportunity to educate — but we still need to read and engage them at their level.

A guest who orders a 16-ounce, almond milk, hazelnut-flavored latte probably doesn’t want to know about the varietal makeup and growing altitude of your current Colombia, or the particle distribution of your EK43, although they might love to learn about the quality of your almond milk, or the craft of your syrups if they’re made in-house. We need to build a bridge for people, and it doesn’t start with TDS and extraction yield, despite what many of us might hope.

Active education works best when it is guest-prompted, because it allows the education to happen on the guest’s terms. When a guest drinks black coffee or straight espresso and asks for a recommendation, that’s the time to talk about origins and tasting notes. When they inquire about different brew methods, that’s a golden opportunity to lightly scratch the surface of ratios and TDS, then pause to see if their eyes glaze over. The important thing is to know when a customer is ready and willing to accept the information you’re excited to provide, and then to gauge their response before piling on more.

Passive Education

Passive education is information provided to customers for them to approach or ignore as they please. These include free media such as coffee information posters, sheets or pamphlets, brew method cards, table-toppers, and other signage. One of the more creative forms of passive education I have seen is a row of eight glass jars filled with beans at different stages of roast development. A nicely designed card explaining what happens at each phase was placed in front of the corresponding jar. These and similar forms of education are not only non-intimidating but also potentially very decorative, and best of all, they deliver helpful information that guests can take or leave on their own terms.

At its best, passive education opens the door to active education, which is what makes it one of the most important customer services tools at any café’s disposal. It inspires guests to approach baristas and ask for more information. It leads them to internet research on their own time, and sends them down the exciting rabbit hole of specialty coffee. This can be encouraged by carefully crafting your own bits of passive education, such as a brewing equipment display that’s just light enough on information that guests can’t help but turn to café staff to satisfy their curiosity.

Demonstrations Bridge the Divide

Scheduled events, classes, and demonstrations are an ideal combination of passive and active educational strategies. While organized classes held either after hours, off site, or in a limited space require sign-ups and scheduling, impromptu, in-café demonstrations do not. Either way, customers can choose to participate or not. However, chances are, the more passive method of an open daytime demonstration will inform more people than anything requiring a sign-up or advance planning, as casual customers and random passers-by are always drawn to a spectacle.

Public demonstrations require minimal commitment on the customer’s part, which eliminates the intimidation factor. There’s no obligation to pay attention, therefore anyone that does is doing so on his or her own terms, to whatever extent they feel comfortable, for as long as they have the spare time. All the café needs is a passionate coffee professional to run a “surprise” demo, and by the end, it is all but guaranteed to have engaged more guests than would have signed up for the same event.

There may be consistent handfuls of people happy to sign up for cuppings, brew method classes and flavor pairing sessions, and that’s great. Yet when a café has a barista on the floor making hand brews for two hours, that barista may interact with dozens of people, having casual conversations that range from a one-minute “what are you doing?” to much longer conversations about chemistry and agriculture. The key is that these are conversations. Friendly, interactive, unforced and not intimidating.

As an industry, we have to remember that many coffee drinkers’ notions stem from sensibilities that long predate our engagement with SCAA specifications. Even people new to coffee tend to approach a coffee shop counter with certain preferences and perspectives built in. They came to order coffee, therefore they already know at least one way that they like it. Whether or not they hold the opinion that theirs is the way coffee “should” be, our job is never to tell them that they’re wrong, but hopefully just to widen the field of view. We must demonstrate that coffee can be enjoyed in more ways than one, and/or that they might enjoy their one way even more if they knew more about the coffee at the center of it.

At the end of the day, consumer education is not just good business or PR for an individual café. Educating the public is critical to the continued success and expansion of the specialty coffee industry as a whole. Whether the education in a given shop is passive, active, or a little of both, the important thing is to make sure that we communicate in ways that stimulate, but don’t intimidate; that invite, but don’t obligate; and that welcome people into this thing we all love, called coffee.


1 Comment


It’s funny how we keep trying to tackle the SAME problems and issues from 5-10 years ago, thinking we are making progress by CONTINUALLY bringing them up…….and not making an impact. Each. And. Every. Time…..

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