Every now and then, I'll seek the advice of an expert when formulating questions on a particular subject. This week, former On the Line feature (now representative for Equator Coffees) Alexandra LittleJohn provided enough insight on Jeff Clinard to make this week's interview special.
Why did you choose the concept that you're running with?
My concept is a pop-up coffee shop, sourcing from some very specific roasters that southern Orange County has never had access to, but with a pretty traditional cafe menu.
My goal is not to revolutionize how coffee is enjoyed, but make sure it is actually ENJOYED. I want people to love their coffee. So I branded my company and focused my efforts to represent/serve San Clemente and the people who live here. It is why my brand looks like a surf brand, because I am in a town of surfers. I work insanely hard to make sure the coffee is good, but is also very approachable. Meaning you can ask for cream and sugar without any hesitation.
I chose a pop-up model to test it out. See if this community wanted this type of coffee service, and I chose The Cellar because it is my favorite restaurant in Orange County. And its customers are already used to progressive wine options, cheese options and food options. So progressive coffee options fit easily. Also Dawn, the owner, is awesome.
Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
Favorite meal growing up:
Grilled cheese and tomato soup!
Your best recent beverage find:
The date shake from Nekter Juice Bar. I love dates.
Let's discuss your time at Peet's
OH, MAN. I loved it there. I had some of my best customer experiences there, and am still friends with all of my co-workers.
As much as Peet's is great as a company, I just miss my co-workers. It taught me a lot about what I wanted out of customer service, and how awesome people can make minimum wage jobs seem like the best thing ever.
(The) Main thing I am proud of is my introduction of trivia. To help with customer boredom while waiting for drinks, and to encourage them to talk to us baristas/each other, I started putting out trivia questions one day. I am proud to say they still do that at my old location. Even if this Bear Coast thing falls through, I am still leaving a legacy!
What is your view on excellent customer service?
Customer service is a conversation. They ask for what they want, and we respond with what we have. But it is beyond goods and services. It is an experience. What people want with coffee and most eating out is luxury. They don't need coffee made for them like people need medical help, but they want it. They take joy from that, so making sure to keep the customer happy isn't just good customer service, it is what they come into our shop for. Disneyland is a perfect example of that. The ticket you pay for literally gives you just an experience. And that is worth it. So engagement and conversation go hand-in-hand with great skills in making lattes and coffee. So I hire for personality along with skills on bar.
Also, meeting a customer where they are. Don't give them the experience you would want as a service provider, but rather, give them the experience that fits them. Are they a sugar and milk person, or are they a black coffee person? Find that out, before you insist on what they should order. I could keep going . . .but I am realizing that these are starting to run on. Basically, make people happy and go from there. High fives, espresso and bear hugs.
Most undervalued ingredient:
Water!!!! In coffee, beer, wine . . .everything. Water is beyond important.
Weirdest customer request (and did you do it?):
A guy wanted me to grind and brew un-roasted green coffee. Which, if you don't know, is as dense as granite. So it would be like dropping rocks into our grinders. We politely stated that we couldn't do that. But due to a health craze, people kept thinking it was a weight-loss option. It's not. THANKS FOR NOTHING, DR. OZ.
I viewed your US Coffee Championship performance. Tell us about the experience, and how you decided on an all-Journey competing soundtrack (excellent choice, by the way).
I have never worked so hard in my life. I had just opened my pop-up when I decided to participate in the USCC, and so it was several months of my working seven days a week on my coffee bar, while training and prepping in any free time I had. I felt like a caffeinated Rocky Balboa. And my brother actually made me a Spotify training playlist that included some Rocky montage songs.
In some ways it wasn't my first rodeo, but in actuality it was my first. I helped the Portola Coffee Lab team prepare for competition while I was there, but never competed myself. I was used more for management and training than I was for my skills on bar at that shop. So this was the first time I got to put myself out there as a competitive barista.
At the end of it all, I was a better barista. I knew my coffee and coffee suppliers better, and knew what it felt like to be pushed beyond my normal limits. Even though I did not place in the top six, I know that I represented my little company and my coffee well.
As far as music choice goes, I am totally a believer of the fact that competing in front of an audience is still a performance. So why not choose songs that get people going? Same mindset I have with karaoke. So even if I made some bad drinks, they can still say, "Man, remember that guy from Bear Coast who had a bunch of Steve Perry songs? That was rad." It made it fun, and my presentation was about the journey of the coffee, so it was pretty easy to make Journey my go-to music choice.
Weirdest thing you ever drank:
Milkshake with olives, chocolate and mustard at a church overnighter. Still can't eat olives to this day. That was 17 years ago.
You're making breakfast; what are you having?
Thick toast with butter and jelly, and a massive mug of coffee while watching cartoons in pajamas with my wife, daughter and dog! But toast. Always toast.
Favorite places to eat.
MRK|Public in San Clemente. They are doing with food what I hope I am doing with coffee. Taking things people don't normally have a chance to order, but making it approachable for our city. I love those guys, and their food is beyond amazing.
I followed your coffee token scavenger hunt. How did that idea come about, and what has been the response?
To show off how beautiful our town is, and to get people to actually understand that Bear Coast Coffee is local and is more than just the Instagram feed of coffee pictures. I just made a list of spots I like to visit around town and hid some free drink tokens. I honestly didn't know if it would work, but people seemed to dig it. Tokens and scavenger hunts.
I think most of my marketing is inspired by grade-school birthday parties. As far as the tokens go, my graphic designer/partner in Bear Coast crime, Sarah, and I have a goal to make Bear Coast very tactile focused. You don't just see cool Bear Coast stuff. You experience it. You feel it. It helps go along with the experience focus I mentioned above in customer service. So the tokens were a part of that. You buy a token and exchange it later for any drink we make. Since the tokens cost less than most of my drinks, you save money at the same time with the wooden token. Win-win and wooden.
Your earliest food memory:
Cereal box toys. Still a fan.
Any advice for aspiring baristas?
Work on a bar. Any bar. See if you actually like the customers. Because you can read every blog out there and pour from your home machine, but until you are in the thick of a holiday rush, trying to keep your bump screen clear . . .you won't know if you really have the bug.
But if you do like it, then my second bit of advice is get involved with other baristas. Latte art competitions, and specifically the Barista Guild of America. Meet other people who do what you love, and you will grow like crazy.