Sunday, May 27, 2007

Espresso Culture in Beaver County

When many folks think of espresso, the first thing that comes to mind may be the sterilized, middle-class, faux third place atmosphere of a St*rbucks or just a bunch of snarky, "artist-types"--either behind the bar or at the tables--who may talk a big game about their own liberally-minded activities, but are really just the same ol' stereotypical Seattle yuppies that have, effectively, defined espresso culture in America. That is why, reading Seth Godin's blog recently, I began to ponder comments made to me about my work here in Beaver Falls, Beaver County, PA. Seth says:

Craig writes in with a story about a Dyson vacuum:

I have a question for you about buying decisions.

A while back I upgraded my Dyson vacuum cleaner when I got a great deal on the latest model. I had been using my old one for about 5 years or so but it was still in perfect working order. I had even replaced a couple of attachments for it via the Dyson website.
I gave my old Dyson to a friend. She had never used a Dyson before and she loved it. So much so that the very next day her own vacuum cleaner was put outside ready for the refuge collection!

But here’s the thing: a few months later the Dyson I gave her stopped working (not sure why, that thing was indestructible) so she decided to buy a new vacuum. Even though the vacuum I gave her was the best she had ever used, she didn’t buy a Dyson.

I was amazed how someone could love a product so much but replace it with an inferior product. I don’t think it was about cost because I told her where she could get an excellent deal on a new Dyson.

This just doesn’t make sense to me so I thought I’d ask if you had any thoughts as to why this happens?

My take: Craig’s friend didn’t see herself as the kind of person who would buy a Dyson. Sure, she might use one, especially if it was free. But buying a weird, fancy-looking vacuum is an act of self-expression as much as it’s a way to clean your floors. And the act of buying one didn’t match the way his friend saw herself.

So many of the products and services we use are now about our identity. Many small businesses, for example, won’t hire a coach or a consultant because, “that’s not the kind of organization we are.” Wineries understand that the pricing of a bottle of wine is more important than its label or the wine inside. The price is the first thing that most people consider when they order or shop for wine. Not because of perceived value, but because of identity.

Other than the fact that I've had nasty experiences with Dyson (never, ever buy their handheld vacuum), the post intrigues me. Many folks that I've talked to, both from and outside of the area, are always surprised by the presence of a coffeeshop in Beaver Falls (except, they say, because of the college). Things such as "The people there wouldn't care about espresso, just a cup of coffee" or "You're going to have a hard time talking people there into caring about quality". Maybe these things are true, but I don't think so in the end. Yes, Beaver County, and especially Beaver Falls, are blue-collar places. However, that is exactly the sort of fertile soil that an artisan-based culture can thrive in, along with a vibrant, re-thought espresso culture.

First, some un-education:

1) Espresso is not synonymous with yuppies or the consumerist culture. Espresso originated in Italy, where many folks in Beaver County can, with great joy, trace their roots. Espresso in Italy is associated not with the up-and-up, but with everyday life, whether you are a baker, a factory-worker, or a cubicle-dweller. Espresso, instead of being a symbol of the bourgeois, is a symbol of the varied and diverse sorts of people that make up every place.

2) Coffeeshops are not synonymous with those either. A coffeeshop, if being true to its historical roots, is a leveler--and has been persecuted throughout history as being too "democratic". Coffeeshops are places of relaxation, debate, bravado, humility, and artistry. Coffeeshops are places of humanity. And they smell great too.

With that in mind, it is easy for me to see why espresso culture, rightly conceived, can be so successful in this place. We want to be a welcoming, hospitable place where collegiate, businesser, laborer, home-maker, retired, and young can meet, mingle, and become a strong, democratic local community. All of the problems that people see within Beaver County, could be addressed by that sort of community. But this is another topic for another day.

A place with the mindset of hard work, thrift, and a history of (somewhat suppressed) artisanry is ripe for a full-orbed, healthy espresso culture. A culture that encourages hard work, thrift, quality, humanness, scale, and community. I'll drink to that.

Friday, May 25, 2007


A recurring question in my life, ever since (at least) high school:

Why, when we know of personality issues that need to change, do we not change them?

A related question:

Why, when we know that God has freed us from sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus, do we continue to sin?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Customer Service is Dead

Two incidents from today:

1) I received a shipment from one of our suppliers today. Noticing that the product was not the right size, I called the company. The woman on the phone told me it would be at least a week before it could be rectified (even though their company driver had just left). She then proceeded to tell me that I agreed on two separate occasions to the smaller size, in an angry and aggressive voice. I tried my best to calm her down, admitting that possibly the mistake was mine (I learned later that they had called to verify the size change the day before but were greeted with questions marks from my employees--so much for "double-checking"). Even if the problem was my fault, the way that it was handled on their end left a sour taste in my mouth. Customer satisfaction is the most important part of business. Even if it is the customer's fault, trying to maintain a relationship is much more important than pride-of-being-right. Her pride has, quite possibly, lost her a potentially lucrative account. Not to mention that if something is wrong, you should go out of your way to make it right, not "It'll be a week" for it to travel 25 minutes from the warehouse. What that says to me is: "You are not important as a customer. Our system is much more important." However, without customers nobody pays for the system.

2) I called a newly opening banquest facility to try and get our catering side of business on their rolodex. Allow me to write out the entire conversation.

"Welcome to ... Food Service and ... Banquet Center. Please press "1" for an alphabetical list of employees or "2" to dial their extension directly."

I have no idea who I am calling. There is no contact information past the initial phone number. I press "1".

"Dial "1" for John, "2" for Larry, "3" for Monica"

Names have been changed to protect the forgetful. I press "1".

"Hello, this is John, what can I do for you today?"
"Hi, my name is Russ Warren and I'm looking for a way to get in contact with the ... Banquet Facility."
"Let me see if I can get them to help you."

At this point, I'm put on hold, wondering who exactly "them" is, because if "them" was option 2 or 3, I would have the ability to call back later if they weren't there. But what if, horror, it wasn't someone on the automated list? I couldn't only wait and hope.

And wait and hope.

And wait and hope.

And wait.

And wait.

And, after almost 10 minutes on a muzak-less hold (not even a reassuring voice telling me that my call was very important but obviously ignorable) I hung up. Obviously, the banquet facility has no desire to have anyone rent it. They had no idea what I was going to ask for, so I may have, for all they knew, wanted to rent it out every Thursday for a year. That would have been a great contract. However, such was not the case. They didn't care about me or any other potential customer. Any business that doesn't have a human initially pick up the phone to talk to me already has shown me contempt. The difficulty here, though, is different from incident 1. They will get by just fine without my catering services (although they need to redo their phones so that folks can get in touch with them in the first place), however I am out of a potentially profitable rolodex because they don't care to take care of people.

Customer service, RIP 2007.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

All I can say is...

My new site, yet to be built--work is a little hectic right now, will be located at:

Artisanal Culture. What a beautiful idea to me.