What is the biggest problem in the specialty coffee industry?

I often like to ask baristas, roasters or anyone interested in coffee what they think the biggest problem in the specialty coffee industry is. The answers I receive are often well decorated and quite interesting. A barista once told me that one of the biggest problems is that customers are looking to add their own twist of individuality by ordering beverages that are far off the spectrum or ludicrous – 1/8 strength latte is my personal favorite.


I think while something like this is worth considering, it isn’t the biggest adversary to growth in the industry.


The relationship between the time value of money and instant gratification


We’re all familiar with the concept of getting what we want, when we want it and as consumeristic and agonizing as this ideology is, I feel that it is partially warranted when you’re paying for a service. The time value of money (TVM) is an economical term that states that a dollar in your pocket is worth more than a promise to receive a dollar in the future.


One treat now—or two if I wait. That’s the choice young kids can make when they’re taking the Marshmallow Test, a famous measure of how well children can delay gratification. I think this test can be applied to adults in circumstances that require decision making. Although this is a study in its most basic form, the end result of the study showed that kids that were able to delay gratification were more satisfied with two marshmallows as opposed to one.


In the study, I found it interesting how the researcher asked the child the question: which is most valuable, one or two marshmallows? Is $2 more than $1? Basic cognitive ability suggests that it is. What happens when we have to wait?


A more refined test conducted by Tyler Watts and UC Irvine’s Greg Duncan and Hoanan Quan found that a child’s ability to delay gratification was heavily influenced by social circumstances. Similarly, someone’s choice to wait for a beverage is affected by a whole heap of external considerations, these considerations affect the result – which is overall satisfaction.


You’re in a line waiting to get your coffee, do you leave if you’re required to wait for more than 5-10 minutes? Is $1 received now more valuable than $2 received in the future? Are you guaranteed a good coffee if you wait longer? Possibly not. But I do believe that you’re guaranteed a better coffee if a barista is given the time to make one. The best systems in the world cannot overcome human emotion. Pressure and time influence the quality of the final beverage prepared.




After posting something on my personal Facebook page, it occurred to me that one of the biggest problems experienced by consumers is a lack of accessibility. I don’t think this is limited to quality of the coffee consumers drink – I think consumers are missing out on the overall experience of specialty coffee.


I was speaking to a friend and we were talking about education in the industry. He was talking about how there is a massive pool of chain coffee drinkers that know their order off by heart but have little knowledge about where the coffee is produced or how it is prepared – this is from his personal experience working behind the machine of a commercial espresso bar.


We don’t have an availability problem, coffee is everywhere. The problem is that people don’t know the difference between commodity and specialty. This leads to so many other problems, but we can save those for later.


Have we actively sought to teach people about what they’re drinking? Growth in the industry is limited by a market we are unwilling to teach. We have handicapped ourselves. We can’t create a market by keeping the best to a handful of cool kids – giving the layman customer a piece of paper with random numbers and a description about the plantation on it doesn’t teach them anything. We need to actively seek for approachable ways to educate.


I’m not saying that we need to force customers to drink beverages they’re uninterested in, I’m saying that we need to show them what they’re missing out on – at some point commercial coffee negotiated with their senses to lead them to believe that it’s the best thing available. We have the same opportunity to negotiate with consumers.


Matthew Brown (Seven Miles) writes: ‘’Quality is not a hardwired or fixed thing that comes inherent in each of us. It is emotionally contextual, which means that your beliefs around it strengthen with repeated experience in a certain emotional context.’’


We need to create an experience worth remembering. If it means serving a big latte with two sugars and a sweetener, then so be it. We need to be concerned with serving the best we can possibly serve.


‘’It seems that the motivation to sell specialty coffee is to ensure that we have an impact all the way down the supply chain. That everyone is being paid fairly. If people are willing to pay a little more and understand the value of that product, then we should make it approachable for them. Select certain coffees, roast it a certain way, so long as we can have that impact.’’


If your motivation is the same, the key is helping consumers understand value – that’s it.


Cheers, Jacques

find Jacques on instagram @cfc_jacques


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