Coffee in restaurants and what Colin did next.

Eating and drinking is my hobby. I’ve had the pleasure of eating in some incredible restaurants in the last year. Some really exceptional places that do amazing things in every facet of the operation from the salt, to the oysters, to the beef to the wine and everywhere in between. Everywhere that is, except the coffee.

I do this strange thing where I insist on ordering coffee after an amazing meal because I know its going to be terrible and 99.99999999% of the time it is. I really don’t know why I do order it. Am I trying to make myself feel clever? Is it a curiosity thing? Do I secretly want to be proved wrong?

I’ve worked in a few restaurants and understand that everything needs to be weighted in terms of margin and speed but at €4 a pop I think some restaurants are well placed to actually serve a quality product.

The most frustrating thing for me personally is that when, inevitably, the coffee is awful, I say nothing. I don’t complain, i don’t send it back. I just sit there and keep my frustration to myself.

Its annoying because if the wine, cheese, fish, beef or any other offering isn’t right I’ll be the first to say so. When it comes to coffee though I don’t expect the same level of quality, even though I’m charged for it and often times a lot more.

Part of me thinks that as a barista it is my role to point this out to restaurants (who I see as the ultimate podium for all things culinary) and encourage them to improve their offerings. However, the other part of me feels that me having a pop at someones coffee because I can do better is just being, well, dickish.

So, I’m posing a question to restaurateurs across the country and I vow to abide by the majority results. This could get ugly, be nice….


19 thoughts on “Coffee in restaurants and what Colin did next.

  1. WiseMona says:

    I never order coffee in restaurants. Ireland has a long way to go in serving up a nice cup of freshly brewed coffee. Save your money. Really- €4.00 a pop.??..more fool you ..

  2. Great post! If I may share a personal experience, I am passionate about coffee (non professional) and started a blog in which I review cafés in the area where I live (Zurich, Switzerland). […and this is not meant as advertising, I doubt to find readers of German here 😉 …] I avoided to include places that are bound to be terrible from the beginning, probably for the same reason that it is easier to praise than criticize, and because it may be more promising to talk coffee quality with a place that seems to have a tiny bit of interest in coffee to begin with. Although I cannot claim to reach an incredibly broad readership, I know in fact that some places took notice of having been reviewed and there even was one place that after additional criticism in the comment section by other readers sent their staff to a day of training and communicated so. Obviously this won’t change the world, and coffee quality in Zurich still is generally bad, but what I came to believe is that if coffee quality is starting to be addressed, at least SOME gastronomes will start paying attention to what they do. But as long as nobody complains, they don’t have amy reason to change anything.

  3. Iain says:

    I think this all comes down to viability (and success) of training, knowledge of and access to good coffee and equipment, but ultimately, the customer!
    I have worked in kitchens for 20 years, Ive also had coffee in my peripherals for about 15, I know its importance in restaurants but I have seen first hand the limitations it normally comes with.

    Outlay (and ongoing) costs are an issue, because of my connection with coffee, industry friends regularly come to me with ‘So I was hoping you could come do a training with my staff on making coffee’. I normally come back with, “that sounds great, first we should talk about equipment, what you do and don’t need”, I am always met with the same answer “Don’t worry, (horrible multinational coffee roastery name here) has supplied everything we need right down to the sugar sachets….”

    Training is an issue, all of the formal training I have personally seen is 2-3 days (normally part of another hospitality course) and is generally taught (not always) by someone who knows very little about even basic espresso preparation, I think I can sum it up like this “2 clicks on this grinder handle to dispense the coffee we ground sometime earlier this day/week/month into this metal thing which goes in the coffee machine, push down with this tool with 700kg pressure, bang 7 times violently with tool, lodge it in the gap and press one of these 4 buttons, if serving with milk, heat the milk to 167 degrees and combine, most importantly students, espresso machines must be cleaned at least annually”

    I think that is almost universal for ‘generic’ training facilities, of course there are external training facilities and individuals, normally the roastery will also provide at least some form of training, which I am sure is better than this.

    The staff are an issue, the people responsible for making coffee in restaurants are usually a waitperson or barperson who has either shown an interest in, or was the last to opt out. I know very few people who have starting working in a restaurant to expand their knowledge of coffee preparation (but I do know a few!), if you are a professional in any area and you are asked to undertake the tasks of another professional (especially if its something that you don’t have an interest in) you are unlikely to be able to do it as well as someone who has undertaken that profession, I find the same thing in cafes with great baristas who are also expected to sell wine (and sometimes serve food) they are rarely able to provide even an acceptable level of competence in that task (which is not their fault in my opinion).
    There is a way around this, hire a barista, I just started writing why this was a bad idea and writing out the math, its actually not a bad idea (provided you can average around 7 cups an hour throughout a shift) and the product is of good quality…

    Customers are the biggest problem, cafes are somewhat sheltered places where upon walking in you can normally gauge (somewhat at least) the style of drink you are likely to end up with, there are clues like the size of cups on the coffee machine, the aroma in the air, the sound emanating from the steam wand, etc etc etc, customers who want a soya caramel mocha grande know that chain style cafes are a good option, customers who want silty muddy java goto gas stations and takeaways, people who want well made, well sourced and roasted beans will normally go to an independent cafe or coffee shop.
    I will go out on a limb and say I believe that 90% of all coffee drinkers like shit coffee, if your only market is the 10% who like great coffee then I think thats good and there is enough population to make that work, but if your target market is diners, and 50% of them drink coffee, then 45% of your customers are going to think you are an asshole for serving something other than Illy or LaVazza. leaving you only 5% of your customer base who appreciate it (assuming you get every cup to those 5% right)

    Ultimately, I agree with you to no end, but perhaps we need to get the cafes consistently making great coffee before we worry about restaurants (as a whole, there is certainly room for some great coffee in some restaurants) but we still have to take care of the 45% who want crap…

  4. Hesitating to complain because you know (in most cases) that they’ll know nothing of the caliber of coffee you’re paralleling this cup against, and couldn’t even begin to fathom the situation? Whereas if it were the cheese, beef, or wine- knowing they’re a restaurateur, you’d sort of expect them to understand.

  5. M. G. says:

    Listen coffee is terrible in the vast majority of Irish establishments too hot, too weak, crap quality need I go on? But tea is even worse – really crap quality tea bags and you are still charged the same for it as an equally bad coffee. Irish restaurants and hotels need to wise up. We the consumer know the difference and expect and demand better and no everyone should complain because only then they might actually listen. I complain about everything that I consider bad quality and do I feel bad? No… I am paying for it. !

  6. haysparks says:

    I never order coffee after dinner as it keeps me awake. Shame as I’d love a single espresso, but couldn’t be bothered with decaffeinated. Many years ago in Locks Restaurant, Dublin, a waiter offered me a pot of mint tea made with fresh mint. Heaven! Ever since then, it’s become a kind of litmus test…a great restaurant can always grab a handful of mint and make mint tea. Perfect service completes the pleasure.

  7. Niall Sheridan says:

    I buy the best coffee and tea money can buy for myself at home. I would expect nothing less from a restaurant!! And yes, I would return lousy coffee or tea!!

  8. Mike Haggerton says:

    You simply must send it back, Colin, with a smile and feedback, just as you would if the lamb was brown in the middle. It gives them an opportunity to try harder to impress, and to understand customer desires. By not sending it back we prolong the problem within our restaurant culture. Keep ordering, keep sending back, and keep politely saying “I’ll happily pay for everything except the coffee, thank you.” If everyone did that then restaurants would soon hire and train baristas.

  9. Eric Hancock says:

    I suspect that the situation is a little better here in New York. Better restaurants make an effort to serve good coffee and exceptional restaurants make an effort to brew it well.

    The standard here in NY seems to be Stumptown coffee. There are a few places, 11 Madison Park comes to mind, that have quite a good coffee service (though it does come out to more than 4 Euro).

    I wonder if this is because New York is more of a coffee town than Dublin?

  10. Maria says:

    What if you approached these restaurant owners as a coffee consultant in a business to business environment, offering support in roaster and equipment selection and training?
    I think this would be more effective than giving feedback on the spot in a consumer to business situation. As noted by tyler above, they probably wouldn’t know where to start to solve the problem.
    As noted by Iain above, improvement might require changes in the restaurant business model, but some in the high end are already seeing the value in doing that, like Canlis in Seattle, and this is an objective worth pursuing.

  11. Graham Charlton says:

    I speak as a complete novice, but a long time consumer and it strikes me, as with many things, that training people to make coffee in commercial environments is formulaic, i.e. companies take the sheep dip approach. Competence is a combination of learning, skill, and experience. I have seen Colin state that everyone can make good coffee, and I take this to mean that there is no special skill and that the key is learning and experience.

    I will wager that students being taught to make coffee as part of their general training, are not encouraged to taste what they have brewed. A chef that didn’t taste his food would not last long. Baristas make good coffee because they care about what they serve, i.e. it is their behaviour that has the biggest influence on the product. Surely, this must be encouraged too.

    And if you are served dire coffee in a restaurant, then of course you should give feedback, which shouldn’t be in the form of a complaint, but a factual account of what you were served compared to what you were expecting, with no emotional element (anger, disappointment etc). You may be surprised at how well such feedback can be received if given the right way.

  12. Iain says:

    I have a different expectation of coffee in a restaurant as I would do in a cafe.
    A cafe (as far as I know) always offers coffee, often offers various other things, but the only thing that actually identifies it as a cafe, is coffee.
    A restaurant is an establishment that serves food, often alongside various other offerings, normally supplemented by a bar, which often provides coffee, its not a given and I would personally rather a restaurant didn’t serve coffee if it wasn’t able to provide a good one, but I’m not every customer, most restaurant customers wouldn’t know (based on taste) if an espresso made from 6 month old monsoon malabar against a freshly roasted 90+ CoE was better or worse, regardless of who was making the beverage, I would personally love for Colin to give this a go, take the same care with both coffees and see what the results are.
    However with that in mind, I think more than half of all the cafes around the world serve either shit coffee, or don’t know how to prepare it, most countries I would say its more than 80%

  13. Ian Boughton says:

    How very interesting – we are again (yet again !) taking up this very subject for Caterer and Hotelkeeper magazine in a couple of weeks’ time. We also wrote a feature on the subject for Restaurant magazine last year, before which the editor said : ‘please just don’t keep going on about the standard of coffee in restaurants…’

    But we rather had to.

    -Ian Boughton,
    Coffee House magazine.

  14. Maria says:

    In fact I’m looking forward to the day when the waiter will explain the coffee menu as she / he explains the food and wine menu in quality restaurants. I believe people who go to these establishments are open to learn about good coffee and appreciate the difference – what a great opportunity to educate and bring specialty coffee to a broader public!

  15. Coffee should be as important for a restaurant as everything else it serves. If you wouldn’t send a main course that wasn’t right then don’t send a bad coffee.
    I personally love coffee and when I eat out it leaves a bad impression when I finish a meal with a badly made coffee.

  16. Iain says:

    ‘don’t send a bad coffee’
    Great advice, but where is the line drawn? who sets the bar? the best in the industry?

  17. Mike Haggerton says:

    Who sets the bar for bad or good coffee? I’d suggest that when a barista is properly trained, the standard they need to attain becomes obvious to them… it is never quite good enough! If you’re a professional barista assessing your own coffee on a regular basis then you know what is good and what is bad. It’s no different from being a chef. Who set’s the bar there? The chefs themselves… and the good ones strive to do it better. This is achieved, both for baristas and for chefs, through investment in training… thoriugh training, not two hours with the machine supplier.

  18. Iain says:

    Its just too big to say ‘good’ or ‘bad’, there are different schools of thought on countless elements of preparation, and I don’t know that anyone is in a position to say ‘this is the best’ and be categorically correct. I have ‘my’ ideal set of things that I think makes a great espresso, Colin has his own, you no doubt have your own as does almost everyone I know, we may agree with certain elements but I doubt we could find a ‘base’ that even the ‘professionals’ could say ‘that is a delicious beverage, period’
    I have been served bad coffee by some of the worlds best baristas’, great coffee, great equipment etc, sometimes things just don’t work out every time and its not always evident.
    I think coffee shops and cafes have a long way to go before we start getting too worried about restaurants, I think in a lot of cases, when cafes (collectively) improve, restaurants (and the owners) raise the bar, its certainly evident (not everywhere) in Australia and New Zealand, its still not great but its alot better than what Ive observed in the UK and what has previously been the standard.

  19. Gerry says:

    I come to realise that in general ppl running these establishments just don’t care. Good coffee has received enough discussion over the past few years(Newsprint, Internet, TVandFilm ect) especially for ppl in the food industry not to have realised there is a massive difference between a good cup of coffee and a bad one and they should really be paying more attention to what they serve. Even in delicatessens that have more than adequate dual group machines and mazzer grinders the coffee is below par, why, training or lack of it, high turnover of staff and a general reluctance to do better. Like the restaurants their sole attention appears to be on the food. I think we really need to start complaining so they might feel a need to change their ways but like so many other Irish ppl I am not that comfortable complaining.

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