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The Scoop: When is the Customer Right?

You may have already read about the recent brouhaha at Murky Coffee. If you haven’t, you can catch up on it here, here, here, here, here, and here. So I suppose in one sense, I’ve already broken one rule of the scoop about timely submissions, but I’d like to think that I can offer some helpful post-game analysis.

Here’s a quick recap of the events. Murky Coffee (famed DC institution I haven’t yet had the privilege to review) was visited by a customer, Jeff Simmermon, who ordered a triple shot of espresso over ice. The staff of Murky refused to fill his order, as per their policy. Murky doesn’t served iced espresso because icing espresso produces off-tastes and because some customers have taken to adding copious (and costly) quantities of milk at the condiment bar (the so-called, yet offensively named, “ghetto latte”). Mr. Simmermon got irate at the cafe’s refusal to serve him, scrawled some expletives on a dollar bill and stuffed it into the tip jar. Mr. Simmermon then blogged about the experience. Murky’s owner, Nick Cho, responded online with some expletives of his own and soon everything was out of hand.

Most interesting to me is the shape of the public commentary. Much of it resembles a cross between American Idol and The People’s Court with folks casting votes for either Mr. Cho or Mr. Simmermon as though one of them is clearly right and the other clearly wrong. Some websites, like US News and World Report, even set up actual voting this way. But this kind of dichotomous thinking seems to obscure the more subtle and important question about whether there were other ways this situation could have been handled that don’t have a clear winner or loser.

Please Don’t Harsh My Mellow

Before I get to the real issue, I think it would be useful to set aside the ferocity with which Mr. Cho and Mr. Simmermon went at each other. As funny as the expletives may have gotten, the whole episode was handled pretty poorly. It seems that much of the public agrees, judging by the comments. I’m sure someone “started it,” and I realize that it’s easy for things to get out of hand, but this one broke out into a virtual duel. Please, let’s all take a deep breath and relax.

It’s Not a Matter of Rights

I think we can safely rule out whether Murky, or any cafe for that matter, CAN refuse a customer’s request. They obviously have the right to refuse any order just as the customer has the right to shop elsewhere. The wisdom of this decision can be called into question depending on how well the cafe is doing as a business (it may need every customer it can get), but there’s no contesting both the cafe’s and the customer’s rights.

Cost Is Not a Factor

I think we can also rule out concerns about undue burden to the cafe, as is the case with the freebie lattes. Taking advantage of this latter kind of loophole unfairly costs Murky money – customers should behave themselves – and Murky should protect its bottom line, although it might want to consider whether reprimanding offenders directly rather than penalizing others through corporate policy isn’t the better solution. A cup and ice for Mr. Simmermon, however, cost Murky very little and create little hassle, unlike substitutions at a restaurant might. So there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason NOT to give the customer a cup of ice for cost reasons.

Sometimes You’ve Got To Give a Little Bit

I think the real issue boils down to reputation. By all accounts, Murky serves great coffee. They should be proud of their high standards and the quality of the coffee they produce and they should go to great lengths to protect that name? However, I’m not convinced that being rigid and dogmatic in serving customers is the best way to protect this reputation.

The real solution here is customer education combined with a little flexibility. Murky should see Mr. Simmermon’s request as an opportunity to share their love of coffee and Mr. Simmermon – the customer is not off the hook either – should see this and every situation as an opportunity to learn. How about this scenario instead?

Customer: I’d like a triple shot of espresso dumped over ice.

Cafe: Oh. I’m sorry, we don’t serve iced espresso. I realize this may not be what you’re used to at other cafes, but we take a lot of pride in the quality of our espresso, and when we ice it, it just turns out tasting bad. Can I suggest an iced americano, instead? We think that drink really does taste better.

Why stop there? If things aren’t too busy, why not pull a side by side demo for the customer and introduce the espresso challenge. Maybe the cafe could even consider offering the customer a free or discounted drink as an incentive to try this suggestion.

Of course, the customer may just really want an iced espresso. If so, is it such a big deal to provide it to him just this once? Let him ruin his coffee. Maybe he’ll learn a lesson, but maybe he simply doesn’t (or can’t) taste the difference. For some people, coffee never will be the magnificent beverage the specialty coffee industry (and I) believe it is. Next time, he can order his drink somewhere else (let’s just not forget a little friendliness while doing it).

Customer: Hmmm. Well, I don’t generally care that much about the bad taste. I just like it iced. Can I have an iced espresso anyway, please?

Cafe: OK. Well, like I said, we don’t normally do this, but what I can do is give you a cup of ice and let you pour it over yourself. It’s no big deal, but just know that we can’t stand behind it if you don’t like it. And, I can’t promise we’ll do this for you next time either. It’s technically against our policy. You may want to consider checking out one of our competitors down the road that have this item on their menu.

The Washington Post reports that Mr. Cho and Mr. Simmermon have made some highly qualified apologies. While they may not deeply regret their actions, they want to put this incident behind them. The solution presented here isn’t perfect, but hopefully it’s realistic, a little flexible, increases consumer coffee knowledge and still respects individual opinions and wishes. It won’t change the world, but, oy, it’s making me feel a little verklempt. Please, talk amongst yourselves.

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5 comments to The Scoop: When is the Customer Right?

  • catahoulacoffee

    Aaah, 50 cents for cup of ice. Have a nice day and come back ya’ll! timber

  • Skip

    “let’s just not forget a little friendliness while doing it”

    This is the key for me. I don’t have a problem with the cafe owner being a little dickish about coffee standards, and I don’t have a problem with the customer just wanting his damn drink. But the cafe needs to be dickish with a smile, or at least politely. Upbraiding customers doesn’t help the brand and it doesn’t help business.

  • Getting upset over such a simple and unassuming order seems so silly. The orders that really annoy me–both as a customer and a former bar girl–are the ones so complicated that the customer barely even knows what they are ordering (triple mocha sugar-free-carmel half-caf breve macchiato, but I want it the way it’s made in Italy, which is more like an Americano, but with an extra shot–what?).

  • Swan

    I was a regular customer of Murky for a long time. The coffee is spectacular. But rude treatment of customers is common there. Merely asking personnel to reset the internet modem can bring a nasty, that’s-beneath-me response. I guess there are a lot of people who just want coffee and a table to sit at, but I want a neighborhood coffee shop who understands that people who go to an indie coffee shop, as opposed to, say, starbucks, want a different experience. The quality of the drink is part of that, but it’s not all. And when I visit any business, I want the personnel to let me know they are glad to have my business by greeting me politely and complying with reasonable requests, and saying thank you.

    The customer in question might have stepped over the line, but I’m guessing based on my experience at Murky that he was provoked.

  • Kberg

    It’s a late post, but I want manseeking coffee’s suggestion on coffeegeek’s suggestion to pour espresso into a cold porcelain cup and slowly stir over ice, vs.
    the suggestion that upon waiting 10 minutes, that the claim of iced espresso being different is untrue, sure espresso is volatile, a few points, here does the ice quickly cool it providing there is enough to retain it, or does pouring it over ice “break up” the shot, one can use cold water, but it dilutes the espresso, so its preference

    A suggestion get a device to instantly “freeze” the espresso and then pour hot espresso on it,that aside,

    Also, the ghetto latte is a misnomer, here’s why, there is no such thing as in “iced latte”, its a misused term
    a latte, cappuchino, and cortado refer to varying amounts of steamed milk, for instance if I take a shot of espresso and add cold milk, is it a latte, no, so how does adding ice magically make it a latte?, coffee shop owners call it an iced latte and automatically default to the highest price charged since a latte often represents the biggest size espresso drink, its not an abuse of the system just a misnamed product.

    One coffee shop charges $1.50 for “cold brew ice latte”
    and its high profile too. There is no such thing as ghetto (term used), hot latte is there.

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