Coffee has a very unique service model, particularly in the length and frequency of transactions. Baristas usually get around 15 seconds to three minutes of interaction time with each customer, but if they're a regular one might see them most of the days they're alive. In total, a working barista interacts with between 100 and 600 customers a day. Based on these general facts, there are a lot of tricks that I believe we can use to maximize our quality of service and minimize the toll that providing that service can take. For me, one of the most effective tricks is greeting every customer with “Hi”, then a pause, then, “What can I get you?” instead of greeting them with “Hi, how are you?” – small stuff, but important, and not something I can even remotely take credit for.
I learned this approach to greeting working at Espresso Vivace, where it is spelled out as a cornerstone of David Schomer's service philosophy in a 2004 memo titled “Professional Barista — Mission, Style and Artistry.” This memo is included in the first-day packet for each new hire at Vivace. and was written by Mr. Schomer himself:
This business is based on regular customers. And if your concept is gourmet, the customer is possessed of enough sensitivity to appreciate the difference in your espresso. A sensitive person may not want a lot of personal conversation every day before coffee so I teach my staff to try to stay away from leading questions such as how ‘ya doing today? (Whadda ya’ mean how am I doin’ today? I am doin’ without my coffee that’s how.) Focus the encounter right away on the customers needs, “what can I get ‘ya?” Or “coffee time?”, or “how can I help you‘?”, keep it simple and welcoming to be approachable every day.
Espresso Vivace easily has the most loyal regulars of any specialty coffee business I've seen, and I think this approach to greeting has been key to keeping people coming back for 20+ years. The key idea is not that you don't ask customers how they're doing, it's that you learn to read your customers and don't force a meaningless interaction on them. When you say “how are you doing?” most of the time a customer will just respond with a quick and easy “good”, no matter how they're actually doing. This is especially true of the regular customer you see every day — engaging in meaningless social pleasantries can come to feel like a burden. It also becomes a huge burden for you when you have to repeat these fake pleasantries 100 to 600 times a shift.
I find it crucial to pause after saying “hi”, since that gives space for the customer who wants to engage in pleasantries to start them off by saying “how are you?” By using this approach for new customers, I'm able to give (what I hope to be) welcoming and approachable service that avoids feeling overly burdensome. That pause also gives you a learning tool where you can observe how much interaction that customer wants. As a rando off the street grows into a regular, you'll organically develop a more nuanced sense of when they want to be greeted with a “Hi, how are you?” born out of a genuine relationship you have with them. Sometimes your daily customers aren't interested in talking, and just want to be greeted with “the usual?” This is a sacred interaction, something that only status as a cafe regular can bestow on the customer – in those moments you are giving them joint ownership over the space you share with them, and all that comes with it, including the right to be grumpy before their morning coffee.
I learned this stuff by working with David Schomer and his second-in-command, the late (and greatly missed) Brian Fairbrother. It's my pleasure to pass this info off to you, and my Sprudgey overlords will be opening up the comments to this piece in case folks want to dialogue past 140 characters on Twitter.
Alex Bersnon (@alexbernson) is a professional barista and staff writer for Sprudge.com. A partial snapshot of his service resume includes time spent at Espresso Vivace, Joe NYC, Oddfellows, Vandaag (RIP), and Espwesso, a student-run cafe he managed and co-founded while at Wesleyan University. Mr. Bernson is currently on bar at Sweetleaf.