Tactfully discouraging sugar

the business of coffee houses

Tactfully discouraging sugar

Postby Matthew P. Williams on Tue Oct 27, 2009 8:06 pm

We usually taste drinks without sweetener, usually because as coffee people, it doesn't even occur to us to sweeten our beverages. Too ofter, however, we witness our customers sweeten their beverages without trying them, so the goal with the tasting was to see how our drinks fare in the hands of the consumer. A few of our baristas today did a very informal tasting today in the cafe - a cappuccino was made (all of our to-stay capps are 5.5 ounces with a double shot), and we tried it without sugar. Then to the remainder (at least 3.5 oz) we added roughly half a demi-spoon of organic sugar, stirred, and tasted.

The result was not good. The unsweetened capp was, not surprising, balanced, creamy, coffee-forward, and very sweet on its own. When we sweetened it, to our palates, it was sickeningly sweet - it was nearly undrinkable to our tastes because the sweetness was so over the top. It was eye opening for all of us.

Now, I'm sure there are plenty of people who consume so much sugar that they are desensitized to this level of sweetness. Maybe they sweeten by default because they just want a sweet fix. And sure, plenty of people are just conditioned to expect bad coffee and bad milk. However, sweetening before tasting is perplexing and problematic to us. Adding sugar not only makes a beverage far too sweet for our tastes, but it cools the beverage slightly, perhaps enough to make our already relatively (to the inexperienced consumer) cool drinks too cool.

I should add that we only offer organic sugar as a sweetener, no honey, no artificial sweeteners. Sometimes, sometimes this lack of choice creates the opportunity for me to -as tactfully as I can- get to the customer before they sweeten, for example:

"Hey, do you guys have any honey?"
"Actually, we only have the organic sugar, but you should try it without since the milk is already naturally sweet."

Our policy is to never be snooty, and I try really, really hard to follow that, so these small opportunities are quite rare. Almost always, the customer will try the drink, display the "hmm! aha!" look an their face, and leave the condiment bar without sweetening their drink.

The question is... without being snooty or confrontational, how can you get to the customer before the first sip? How can you encourage the customer to at least try their beverage (whether it's milk-based or not) before they sweeten it? How do you let them know that yes, it's ok to drink it without their usual added sugar?
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Re: Tactfully discouraging sugar

Postby Philip Search on Wed Oct 28, 2009 4:29 am

Well, there is a simply answer (Although it may not be an easy one)... keep the sugar behind the bar so that they have to ask. Id also recommend you try a dark, dark brown sugar, like a dark muskavado as it pairs better with coffee with the more malty/molasses sweetness. Make sure its a sugar that hasn't had the molasses added back in to it though.
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Re: Tactfully discouraging sugar

Postby geir oglend on Wed Oct 28, 2009 4:54 am

Why offer up all these expensive/fancy sugars if you want to ween people off sweeteners.
It almost encourages them to use it. Put out white sugar and write WHITE DEATH on it and see what happens? :)
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Re: Tactfully discouraging sugar

Postby Matthew P. Williams on Wed Oct 28, 2009 11:56 am

While keeping the sugar behind the counter sounds like a good idea, I think it's a logistical obstacle, at least in our work-flow design.

At peak hours, we have two baristas on two espresso machines. Each barista prepares both espresso and milk. Station management is crucial for high turnover, and our baristas are very good at staging drinks and thanking each customer in the middle of drink preparation. Sometimes, a customer will ask for the barista's whole milk (we have half and half and soy at the condiment bar), and usually it's an inconvenience and an interruption of a very methodical work-flow - at least in my experience. Essentially, I can't imagine interrupting my work-flow with sugar requests, not to mention the additional steps of sugar retrieval and cleanup after the customer inevitably sprays the counter-top with sugar (I hear my dad's voice saying "what, were you raised in a barn?" every time). The alternative would be to keep the sugar at the point of sale, but I also can't imagine a customer either waiting in line for sugar, or cutting in line to ask for it.

As for WHITE DEATH, I love it, but that borders on the confrontational.
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Re: Tactfully discouraging sugar

Postby Jim Dikaios on Wed Oct 28, 2009 5:04 pm

I agree, being snooty is not the way to go. We like to remind customers that we prefer our drinks without sugar. This post has got me thinking that perhaps posting a small note on our condiment stand suggesting that customers try their drinks unsweetened, may be a good approach.
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Re: Tactfully discouraging sugar

Postby JakeLiefer on Wed Oct 28, 2009 6:29 pm

As you mention, some customers just aren't aware of what a sugarless drink tastes like, and as soon as they taste it they'll enjoy it. For others, a sugarless drink tastes miserable, they might say it tastes 'too much like coffee' (ouch) or 'too bitter.' Indeed, this crowd may never change. My mother always adds sugar and cream to her coffee, even after I attempted woo her over with a wonderful Clover'ed Kenyan. After that first sip, she exclaimed that it needed cream and sugar (grrrr). In the midst of this, I found the need to be comfortable and understanding that some customers may always add things we don't like. They may dump cream and sugar in their coffee, but we should still treat them with the respect and courtesy of any other customer.

Being aware that some customers may never change, we need to focus on the customers that are willing and want to change. For this segment, there are 'barriers to entry' for a customer trying a new drink (or sugarless drink). In the case of a different drink, there's the fear of paying for a drink that they end up not liking. Others may want to 'get their money's worth' and get a larger drink (why pay for an 2oz espresso when for a bit more you can have a 16oz latte?). In the case of a sugarless drink, these aren't even a factor, as they can try it out beforehand without sugar. However, a customer may only be familiar with adding sugar or had sugarless somewhere else and disliked it. For this, you may just need a simple 'nudge' to get them over. Perhaps in your condiments bar you could put up a small, whimsical sign that both affirms their decision to choose, but encourages a shift towards sugarless. Something like:
"Welcome to the condiment bar. Here you'll find sugar and cream. Feel free to add as much or as little to your drink as you like, after all, it's your drink. However, per the barista's recommendations, we like to drink it without any cream or sugar. It may sound a bit peculiar. However, we think you should try it. Just a sip. You may love it. If not, add some sugar. It's your drink."
Your mileage may vary, and the language will have to suit who you are as a shop and group of baristas, but the important thing is to allow them to have the option to choose, rather than feeling forced by someone else to decide. (ugh, what has narcissism done to our culture??)

Or what if you offered up a sugarless challenge? Each time a regular sugar drinker doesn't get a sugar packet, they get a raffle ticket. At the end of the month, the winner gets a month's supply of 4 Barrel Coffee.

Or sell them a cookie and a sugarless drink for a small (10c) discount. They still get their sugar fix, but you've just made some more sales and they've moved to a sugarless drink.

I think the solution lies in affirming their decision to choose, offering reasons and incentives to go sugarless, and giving them the opportunity to taste the difference. The customer can decide what to do from there.
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Re: Tactfully discouraging sugar

Postby Edwin Martinez on Thu Oct 29, 2009 12:33 am

Have a BYOS policy... or charge a pentalty.. I mean a premium of $2 to add sugar?

Seriously though... I find people learn and take ownership as a result of having a choice. If one is a regular(and the coffee is good), I would start giving free second drinks for comparison. Let them be the one to convince you to stop making sugar available. I think it's a common default to add sugar to make an undrinkable coffee a drinkable dessert.
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Re: Tactfully discouraging sugar

Postby Ryan Willbur on Thu Oct 29, 2009 11:04 am

The sugar thing hits me on multiple levels. We feel successful at our store when we see the number of cappuccinos and espressos sold. Then, I realize how many times we had to put out more sugar packets and I get a bit sad. Either way, you have to acknowledge that to many people, cream and sugar go with coffee. Just like for some people, lemon goes with tea. They associate the two long before they enter your doors.

In many cases, I think the best way to shake these people outside of their viewpoints is to simply talk about the coffee. Tell them why it's good. Talk flavor descriptors to draw them in, and when they get excited about how it's going to taste, mention that the best way to get there is to leave it alone and not add sugar... and if it's a cup of brewed coffee, tell them to let it cool for a good 5 minutes first. Sometimes you'll get the "but I'm a cream and sugar person" backlash, but for the most part, if you extend a professional persona, they're probably going to give it a shot.

Single origin or special espressos are also good for that. We have people come in and ask for our single origin espresso to go and I'll tell them that if they want it in a paper cup they should just choose our normal espresso and wait to try the different stuff in a ceramic cup so they can really taste the coffee (Also, we do an upcharge for special espressos, so I also encourage them to make it worth the money). More often then not, people then keep the order the same, but choose the better cup. I take the same approach when they ask for the sugar.

Finally, Philip is right. Ditch the white sugar. Stuff is gnarly. We are using a turbinado for our simple syrup and it matches the coffee way better. The only other sugar we have is raw sugar. Keep is dark...
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Re: Tactfully discouraging sugar

Postby Alistair Durie on Fri Oct 30, 2009 2:50 am

I would suggest making your condiment bars as discrete as possible. I feel that many people add cream and sugar because they think that's what its there for - its what they're supposed to do - and its habitual. If you have sugar right beside the pickup counter, sugar use will go up. If you offer creamer powder, I'm sure they'd use that too.

The visual suggestion of sugar is "sweet", its a stimulus... if guests see your sugar they will use more of it. Try to reverse that power of suggestion, make sugar a little more difficult to see and get to. Do not make it look so attractive or convenient.
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Re: Tactfully discouraging sugar

Postby phaelon56 on Fri Oct 30, 2009 4:46 am

For those who have not tried or suggested that their customers try agave nectar it's worth investigating. The lighter more refined version (it comes in regular or in raw - which is darker) is a bit sweeter than granulated sugar on a per ounce basis but has a more natural flavor yet a less earthy flavor than honey and far more compatible with coffee drinks. Both types are in a liquid form, dissolve quite easily and have a low glycemic index. Many people who want a sweetener use the Splenda etc. types not so much because of caloric count but due to glycemic index.

I've experimented with it and find that in a 5 to 6 oz cappa anything more than 1/4 teaspoon makes the drink too sweet but obviously your customers taste will vary.
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Re: Tactfully discouraging sugar

Postby Brent on Mon Nov 02, 2009 1:32 pm

Philip Search wrote:Well, there is a simply answer (Although it may not be an easy one)... keep the sugar behind the bar so that they have to ask. Id also recommend you try a dark, dark brown sugar, like a dark muskavado as it pairs better with coffee with the more malty/molasses sweetness. Make sure its a sugar that hasn't had the molasses added back in to it though.


we kept the sugar out of sight, people asked, wasn't a problem.

At the end of the day, people know what they like, and like what they know.

And some poeple can be swayed to try new things...
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In defense of sugar.

Postby afnylander on Wed Nov 04, 2009 9:11 am

Hi everyone, I'm new to coffeed. I'm Anne Nylander, and I am a recovered sugar-in-my-coffee drinker.

I'm here to defend those well-intentioned people that happen to like the way sweetened coffee tastes, and perhaps stem the tide of alienating customers because of our professional preferences.

Before I worked in the coffee business I drank a vanilla latte every day for almost ten years. I also sampled a variety of other flavors and sweeteners, and had a fondness for what I now call "ridiculous blended drinks" as well. I went into a cafe, ordered my drink, and my baristas made it for me, no questions asked. I drank it, and enjoyed it - but I'd notice on days that the espresso was off or the milk wasn't textured well. Perhaps I was spoiled growing up in Seattle, where flavorings are the rule, not the exception, to the way things are in most shops. But when it was right - it was perfect. Friends tried to pull me away from the sweeteners but there just was nothing better than a perfectly prepared vanilla latte in my eyes.

What pushed me over the edge to step away from milk and sugar was 1. sampling and 2. working in the coffee business. Behind the counter of a cafe we are required to taste the coffees and learn to evaluate them. Most of us learn to love our coffee, and gradually we come to add less and less to the (more and more expensive) product. Finally, we settle on some form of obsessive home brewing methodology that costs hundreds of dollars and we drink expensive coffees we wouldn't dare adulterate.

But are our customers at that point?

Cut to last week. A friend of mine, visiting me from Seattle, met me at a client's cafe. I was proud to show her what I'd done, have her taste the coffee and love it. What does she order? "A single tall soy hazelnut latte." The cashier looks at her and 1. has a flash moment of judgement that because she said "single tall" she goes to starbucks every day (she doesn't), 2. blinked and said, "Um, we don't have hazelnut." I laughed and explained to my friend that NYC is very anti-syrup, and apologized. She raised her eyebrows and ordered the latte anyway, clearly disappointed in the experience, and finding us all to be snobs.

I was disappointed too, obviously. Clearly, we had let this coffee drinker down. And perhaps her palette isn't the most refined in the world, but neither was mine for a long, long time. It took more than just a few no-syrup lattes to get me to make the switch. I'm certain, though, that if I had been refused sweeteners, even by coffee professionals with the best intentions, I probably wouldn't be in the business today.

My final point is to agree with Ryan Wilbur and others who say that you should offer sweeteners, or at the very least sweeteners you can tolerate going into your drinks. There was nothing more annoying than walking into a place with gross sweeteners. I do think if you're doing that, it's better not to have it at all. Your customers can absolutely tell the difference when your ingredients are bad, and when the preparation isn't good. Just because they are drinking an espresso doused in milk it does not mean they cannot taste a well-prepared espresso in there! If you're lucky, they drink it every day, and can definitely tell when something is off.

A great example of a place that took their sweeteners seriously is Octane Coffee. When Neil & I stopped in on a drive to Talahassee FL, we grabbed a straight espresso each. Then I noticed the baristas were fiddling with a hotplate behind the counter. I asked, and discovered they were making their own caramel sauce! Did I leave with a caramel latte? Of course. Was it delicious? Absolutely.

So when you make your choice about sugar, try to remember it from your customers' side of the counter, not where you've gotten to. I'm not trying to say watching someone dump six packets of sugar on top of a perfect macchiato doesn't break my heart - it does. But rather than remove the sugar entirely, suggest that they whittle down from their sweetener. Provide samples of black coffee and require people to taste it with no adulteration. If you're comping someone a drink, try to recommend a less-sweetened alternative to what they have usually, and then work with them to find what they like - not what you/we as a coffee industry want them to like.

Let's try to keep our customers, rather than discourage them from first loving their drink the way that you prepare it, and then bring them further and further into the unadulterated fold.
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Re: Tactfully discouraging sugar

Postby aaronblanco on Wed Nov 04, 2009 7:37 pm

We don't have any sugar/sweeteners in the cafe. Granted, the cafe's only been open 5 weeks; but all 7 customers who have come in during that time (joke!) simply drink their drink and are happy. There is no condiment bar, so maybe that helps create a more "out of sight out of mind" scenario. There's just a place to order/pay/watch your coffee get brewed and then some tables with chairs.

It's just a business model choice for me. Fortunately, it seems to work for my scenario because the cafe is only a tiny room in the front of the roasterie that no one will ever mistake for a barn-burning high volume coffee bar. You have to know we're there (not the most convenient location during the morning commute) and have to want to go there (not the bestest-great part of town). Because of that maybe people are more apt to just go with it as it is.

I'm sure I'll get asked one of these days. I pray I can explain my choices with tact and grace.
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Re: Tactfully discouraging sugar

Postby Chris Baca on Thu Nov 05, 2009 2:17 pm

I agree with AB and others. Ditch the sugar. I feel like putting out sugar for people to use then discouraging them to use it sends a mixed message. By having a condiment bar at all you're setting people up to use condiments. Even though YOU know you only want that customer to have a better experience with their beverage and are incredibly polite and try not to be stand off-ish there's always a chance that some one will think you're just being a snob. Especially if you're suggesting they try their cappuccino without sugar when there's a bowl of sugar (which you put out for their usage) staring them in the face.

Try to convince Tooker to ditch the sugar for a week or two for a trial run and see what happens. You guys are in the perfect place to try something like that. Let it rip and let us know how it goes.

If you have to keep the sugar: as for me, when I make a suggestion to people on how they should enjoy their beverages it seems to help if you smile and are a talkative/personal barista in general. If you haven't even looked at or chatted with the person who's drink you just made, and the first words they here from you are focused on them not putting sugar in their drink...well, it can sound snotty. If you've already made them feel comfortable in your store and rapped with 'em a bit I feel like they'll trust you more and think that you're actually just looking out for them (which is what you're trying to do) and not just being a prick. But thats just my $.02

Good luck!
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