How a Coffee Shop Can Stand Out

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Ten years ago I was under the impression that Pete’s Coffee & Tea was the definition of a good coffee shop. This was because L.A.’s gourmet coffee scene had not been established yet.  [1] When fancier options first began popping up [2], their relatively scarcity lowered the standard. This did not mean that they were making subpar coffee, but rather that it took less to be impressive and stand out. Today, however, gourmet coffee shops litter the streets of not only LA but most major U.S. cities. As a result, a shop or cafe really has to offer something unique to make it worth coming back to.

As I argued in my previous post, bean quality is the most important factor in making a good cup of coffee. When it comes to coffee shops, however, bean quality matters less since every gourmet shop is going to use quality beans. [3] Rather, in no particular order, I find that barista competence, ambiance and brewing method are the most important things a coffee shop needs to do well in order to stand out. Demitasse in Santa Monica and Balconi Coffee Company in West L.A. are two shops that excel in all three of these categories, and to no surprise are my two favorite coffee shops.

Barista competence is important as it justifies paying $4 or $5 for a cup of coffee. After all, it is more economic to buy quality beans and brew your own coffee rather than going to a coffee shop and buying a cup. A barista that knows what they are doing, however, gives the impression that the coffee you are emptying you wallet for is better than anything you could make on your own. [4] Demitasse and Balconi stand out in this regard due not only to their competence when it comes to brewing coffee, but also in their extremely knowledgeable baristas. Ask them for a description of a particular bean, and they will give you more than the synopsis written on the menu. They will tell you how it compares to other beans, information on the roast of the bean and even negative characteristics a bean may have. The end result is not only a cup of coffee that tastes good, but a coffee shops that has grounds (no pun intended) for charging over $3 for 12 ounces of coffee.

A welcoming ambiance is important not only because it makes a coffee sippin’ experience enjoyable, but also because it reflects a shop’s approach to business. A coffee shop that appears to occupied with churning out cups of coffee creates an environment that is not suited for enjoying your coffee how it should be enjoyed: sitting down and in ceramic mug. In addition to their comfy benches and inviting bar, Demitasse does this by via their excellent presentation. Many of their offerings are served on a bamboo tray and are hard to refrain from snapping a picture of. Balconi’s collection of books and trinkets that litter the shop create an atmosphere that invites the costumer in. [5] These shops do not ignore costumer who want their coffee to-go but rather standout in their ability to make you want to stay in the shop and drink your coffee.

Brewing method is important as it is the most concrete way a shop can stand out. While there is something to be said about a quality pour over, every gourmet coffee shop seems to do it and it gets boring after awhile. Balconi and Demitasse stand out in this regard as they use coffee machines that are rarely seen. Demitasse, in addition to their aesthetically pleasing slow dippers that line the windows, brews coffee primarily via a Steampunk. This is a $20,000 machine that allows baristas precisely control  brew temperature, time, volume, agitation cycles and extraction, allowing for the exploration of a wide range of flavor profiles. [6] Balconi brews with a siphon, a technique that has been around for over 50 years, but is rarely seen in coffee shops. The resulting cup has the flavor profile of a french press but without all the sediment. In addition to this, both of these places pull top-notch espresso shots, something that cannot be said for most coffee shops.

1. I also did not drink coffee ten years ago, so I would not have been aware of any coffee scene that existed.
2. The first fancy coffee I shop remember opening up is Caffe Luxxe on Montana in Santa Monica. As the write on their website, Cafe Luxxe was  “Unlike anything in LA before, we were one of the first in the city to launch the ‘3rd Wave’ of coffee; a move towards hand-crafted artisanal espresso.” It is still a great place to get coffee if you can get over the lines and somewhat steep prices.
3. The exception to this being coffee shops that roast their own beans in shop. Coffee Tomo in West LA is an example of this.
4.This may be due entirely to placebo, but nonetheless, the experience having a great barista make your coffee is well worth the money, even if you could make something comparable at home.
5. Books are especially important, as provide something to do while you drink your coffee other than dick around on your phone.
6. In other words, using this one machine you can make a cup of coffee that tastes like French press brew or a pour over.

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