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April 25, 2007

It's true I like burritos

I used to get paid to do what?

A recent online survey conducted by Krups, the coffee experts and sponsors of the upcoming 2007 United States Barista Championship, revealed some interesting results. A national sample of 2,000 Americans* were asked, "What is a Barista?" Out of the five possible responses they were provided, approximately 1/3 of the coffee crazed Americans did indeed know that it is a barista who prepares and serves that cup of joe every morning.

As for the rest of the country, the results to the question "what is a barista?" were a bit more colorful:

-- 11% reported it was a lawyer from England
-- 7% thought it was someone who prepares alcoholic beverages
-- 6% said it was a fashionable garment
-- 1% reported that it was a person who loves burritos
-- 41% said they did not know

The first response is more impressive than my old job and there have been times when I could have gotten away with claiming it. The second is technically correct in Italian. I am not, nor have I ever been, a fashionable garment.

[Cross-posted on Eternal Recurrence.]

April 20, 2007

My Generation

Some of us are older than others of us.

April 19, 2007

The point of tipping

A couple of weeks ago Helena Echlin, a writer for the food website CHOW, interviewed me for an advice column about the etiquette of tipping baristas. I get the opening quote:

Jacob Grier, a barista at Baked and Wired in Washington, DC, and cowriter of the blog Smelling the Coffee, says he tries to tip a dollar per drink. “You tip a bartender if he creates a good rapport, so why not tip a barista for the same?”

I actually said quite a bit more than that, but it beats my WSJ lead of "make sure it coats your tongue." Not surprisingly, I do advocate tipping baristas, but not necessarily for the obvious reasons. And since I'm no longer actively working in a coffee shop I can't be accused of letting self-interest bias my opinion.

The obvious reason to tip a barista is as a reward for a quality drink, but I think there are several flaws with this logic. The first is that tipping in coffee houses generally happens at a jar near the cash register, before the drink is made. Regular customers may have some expectation based on prior experience of how good their drink is going to be, but for the most part people can't correlate drink quality with the tip they give.

Secondly, tipping could be considered insulting. When was the last time you tipped a chef? Almost never. Chefs are assumed to be duly compensated for their talents by the restaurant in which they work. Tipping them would be awkward, to say the least. Unlike waiters and bartenders, baristas generally are paid a significant wage, so it's arguable that they already receive due compensation for their skills.

Finally, research shows quality of service has very little to do with how much patrons tip, at least in restaurants. Here's one summary:

This view is reinforced by research conducted by Professor Lynn. He has analysed data involving 2,547 dining parties at 20 restaurants, and established scientifically what many waiters have long suspected - that there is only a very weak relationship between the size of a tip and the quality of service provided. It therefore makes little sense for a waiter to work harder in order to obtain a tip.

Michael Conlin, an economist at Syracuse University in New York state, investigated tipping by surveying 39 restaurants in Houston over 112 sessions, each lasting four hours. Conlin investigated whether adjusting for the number of courses in a meal produced a link between the quality of service and the size of a tip. (The idea being that the more courses to a meal, the more work the waiter has to do, and so the more information the customer has with which to evaluate the quality of service.) However, Conlin found that the number of courses had no effect on the size of the tip.

Tipping doesn't vary much with quality of service for repeat customers, either. A lot of people think they tip as a reward for quality, but this appears to be a myth. Michael Lynn has written a lot on this subject, so check out his page for more info.

So if tipping doesn't affect service quality, why do it?

The main reason -- and this applies not just to baristas, but throughout the service industry -- is that tipping is correlated with personable service. Wearing distinctive clothing, introducing themselves by name, and making eye contact with customers are all things Lynn has found servers can do to increase their tips.

Relatedly, tipping is most prevalent in extroverted, neurotic cultures:

Tipping exists around the world, but there are different customs in different countries. Lynn researched these variations, counting the number of service professions that were tipped in various countries. He then compared these numbers with the results of personality tests given to people in those countries.

It turned out that countries with the most extroverted and neurotic citizens (the United States leads in both categories) tipped the largest amounts and to the greatest number of professions. "Extroverts are outgoing, dominating, social people -- and tipping is an incentive for the server to pay you attention. Neurotics are prone to guilt and generalized anxiety -- maybe they tip more because of guilt over status differences between themselves and the server," Lynn says.

Who likes coffee shops more than neurotics? A bit of recognition and conversation is something a lot of people want out of their coffee shop experience, so I don't find it surprising that a custom of tipping would develop in that atmosphere. Rapport with one's coffee shop staff is a good reason to tip. (From my personal experience, I'd say that tipping well doesn't buy baristas' friendship and tipping poorly can be offset by general niceness. But baristas do notice who tips and who doesn't, and not tipping is a big strike against people who are already objectionable in some other way.)

James Surowiecki reaches a similar conclusion about why the practice of tipping lives on:

This is, on both sides, a more uncertain process than a simple service charge would be. But that uncertainty—that freedom to exercise discretion, to leave as little or as much as you wish—is why tipping has flourished as a social institution. (In the same spirit, Americans prefer giving charity privately rather than through their government.) Diners—eighty per cent of whom say that they prefer tipping to a set service charge—like the power that the ability to tip gives them. Waiters like tipping because it gives them the chance to distinguish themselves from the crowd and to score an occasional windfall. Tipping, curiously, has gone from being the antithesis of individualism to its apotheosis.

Another reason to tip is as a form of price discrimination. As I noted previously, skilled baristas in the US are underpaid. Compared to other markets, American consumers are less discriminating in their taste for espresso drinks. This means that artisan baristas are unlikely to stay in the field for long. Higher wages could induce them to stay, but the price sensitivity of many consumers makes this hard to fund. Tipping serves as a form of voluntary price discrimination for customers who care about good coffee without raising prices for those who don't. (I usually tip wherever I get coffee, but I certainly tend to tip more in places where I know the baristas care about what they're doing. I wouldn't be surprised if tips are correlated more highly with quality in coffee than in other industries, while still being a secondary factor.)

Lastly, baristas are better off getting tips than getting a higher wage (and charging correspondingly more for drinks). Receiving part of their income through tips gives baristas greater liquidity and lets them avoid, to some extent, income taxes and the regressive FICA "contribution."

So, in short, here's three reasons to tip your baristas:

1) They're friendly, eccentric, personable, etc., and that's what you want out of your coffee shop interaction.

2) Even if customers less discriminating than yourself don't realize it, they're good at what they do and deserve more than they're paid.

3) They deserve the money more than the government does.

[Cross-posted on Eternal Recurrence.]


Click and drag your mouse over the black page.

April 18, 2007

Organic coffee in jeopardy

I just learned of this story via the Counter Culture Coffee weblog. A recent ruling by the USDA threatens organic certification for co-ops of coffee growers and farmers of other crops. Organic certification of a farm requires expensive inspection each year. This isn't practical for the numerous small farmers in developing counties, so a regime of partial inspection has been allowed in place of inspection of every individual farm. Salon sums it up:

Until now, however, there has been a special provision for "grower groups" that made certification practical for farmer cooperatives in the Third World, whose memberships can reach into the thousands. Because of the immense logistical demands of inspecting every farm in a large co-op, a compromise was reached: An organic inspector would randomly visit only a portion of the group's farms each year, usually 20 percent. The grower groups would then self-police the remainder through a manager who made sure they followed the rules. The following year, an inspector would return and visit another 20 percent of the farms. After five years, all farms would be inspected.

The new ruling appears to eliminate this compromise, requiring every farm to be inspected. This probably means that lots of coffee growers are going to give up on certification and return to selling their beans on the commodity market, a loss both to farmers and to coffee lovers. For many crops it's also probably going to give an advantage to big plantations. I have nothing against big farms, but I doubt most organic consumers want their purchases to have this effect.

This is the problem with relying on the USDA for organic certification. The agency has succeeded admirably in branding the organic label, but ultimately the agency represents the interests of American agriculture, not of consumers. A consumer-centric certification agency would never make a ruling like this. I have to wonder about the internal politics that led to this decision.

Supposedly, the ruling came about in response to a discovery that a co-op in Mexico was violating organic standards. Perhaps some reform is in order, but eliminating co-op inspection seems like a huge overreaction. After all, no system of inspection is 100% accurate. The question the USDA should consider is not what kind of inspections get closest to 100% accuracy, but rather what trade-offs consumers are willing to make in order to support co-op farming. I feel confident that the vast majority of organic buyers would much rather accept a little uncertainty than cut small producers out of the market entirely.

Hopefully pressure from consumer groups will force the USDA to reconsider its decision. If not, alternative certification based on the reputation of private buyers, such as Intelligentsia's Direct Trade label, might become the best alternative. These brands don't have nearly the market power as organic certification does, but in the long run competing, private certification might prove much more effective than certification by government agency.

Update 4/19/07: Here's a letter to sign.]

[Cross-posted at Eternal Recurrence.]

April 16, 2007

Shakerato for the summer

The warm spring and summer weather hasn't hit DC yet, but it's sure to do so soon. That means it's time to start thinking about iced coffee drinks. Even for a coffee lover like me, there are days in DC when a hot cup of coffee doesn't sound so appealing. I'm a purist, so the heavily sweetened, artificially flavored frappuccino type stuff doesn't cut it. Iced americanos are nice, but my favorite is the caffe shakerato.


Caffe shakeratos are available all over the place in Italy, but rarely seen in the US. Perhaps that's because Italy doesn't share America's absurd history of alcohol regulations that tends to keep bars and coffee shops distinctly separate entities here. This drink requires a cocktail shaker, an item most coffee shops are unlikely to have on hand.

To make the drink, pour two shots of espresso and half an ounce of simple syrup over ice into the cocktail shaker. The sugar provides a little bit of cover, but since this drink is almost all espresso it's important to get a good shot. Shake it up well to aerate the espresso and melt some of the ice. Strain it into a cordial glass or a chilled demitasse to complete the drink.

The shaking creates a big, frothy head, the simple syrup provides a bit of sweetness, and the espresso gives the drink a strong, straightforward coffee flavor. Delicious and refreshing!

[Cross-posted on EatFoo.]

April 14, 2007

Ur portafilterz


April 4, 2007

Spilling the Coffee

Oh No! Don't Click Me!!!

Now clean it up.


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