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Thirteen years of coffee and commentary. Tridecaphobes, beware.

Worst, Worster, Worstest. Or, Blame it on Starbucks.

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By most all accounts, Stanley Fish is a smart guy — well-read, thoughtful, erudite — an esteemed scholar and a critical thinker. So how, exactly, did Professor Fish come to write what Slate’s Ron Rosenbaum decries as, “The Worst Op-Ed Ever Written?”

It was Aug. 5, and professor Stanley Fish, the famous postmodernist and “guest columnist” for the New York Times, had some breaking news to expound upon in an op-ed piece. He had discovered a new development in American culture that deserved the kind of exegesis only he could deliver: the appearance of a new kind of coffee place.

Have you heard about these new coffee places? Professor Fish’s column made it seem as though they had never been noticed or discussed before.

“Getting Coffee Is Hard To Do” was the title of his essay, which in its self-satisfied cluelessness may just qualify as the worst op-ed ever written.

The article in question is, naturally, on the far side of the New York Times’ “TimesSelect” paywall. And so instead of linking to the NYTimes I will link to the same article, available complete and free of charge on the web site of the International Herald Tribune, thus saving the NYTimes untold electrons and subsequent ad views.1

Rosenbaum continues (at some length):

It turns out these new coffee places are incredibly difficult to navigate, even for a brilliant academic like professor Fish.

Here’s how he describes his harrowing experience: “As you walk in, everything is saying, ‘This is very sophisticated and you’d better be up to it.’ ”

Of course, we know that professor Fish is being ironic here. Some might say condescendingly so. From his tone, we know that the elements of what he mockingly describes as “sophistication”—”wood or concrete floors, lots of earth tones, soft, high-style lighting, open barrels of coffee beans, folk-rock and indie music, photographs of urban landscapes, and copies of The Onion”—aren’t true sophistication to a man of professor Fish’s discernment. They’re kitsch, faux-sophistication—and you can’t fool him. He can see right through it!

At which point we can very nearly see Mr. Rosenbaum — in a fit of ironic zeal — shaking his fist at the absurdity of it all. Before penning the line which shows his hand…

Although at this point you begin to wonder if his op-ed wasn’t meant to be a feature in the Onion (“Area professor befuddled by coffee place”), Fish is apparently serious about the profound difficulty this new cultural phenomenon presents.

As you, Mr. Rosenbaum, are apparently serious about your criticism of Professor Fish. And while you are each intent upon channeling the spirit of Andy Rooney2 it’s Professor Fish who wins the day. Because — unlike you, Mr. Rosenbaum — Professor Fish has a point.

Somewhere in Professor Fish’s editorial — beyond his curmudgeonly bluster and his longing for those bucolic diners of yesteryear and, perhaps, his effort to wring every red cent out of a paid-by-the-column-inch writing gig — lurks a simple truth: ordering coffee ain’t what it used to be. Moreover placing a coffee order is more difficult than it needs to be.

Today’s coffee bar — corporate juggernaut and indie, alike — is an embarrassment of excess, a superabundance of selection that requires more decisions to be made in mere moments than most will manage for the remainder of their day. More, those decisions are made amidst the cacophony of gushing steam wands, howling grinders and blenders, and the hipster coffee-house-music selection of the day that somebody’s dialed up to eleven.

Mind you, none of those decisions are even possible until the great, under-caffeinated masses pass their first test of the day by working out where to belly up and place an order (and where to pay for it, and where to collect their made-to-order coffee concoction.) And you know what? Despite the face that I’ve patronized hundreds and hundreds of coffee shops — and the fact that I do human factors engineering for a living, and that I’m intimately involved in the coffee trade — at fully half of the coffee shops I visit I get it wrong and have to be steered to my destination by the person behind the counter.

Oh, stop your arm-waving, you. Yes, I see you, coffee shop owners and managers. And I know what you’re going to say. “But, I have signs!” Yes, you have signs. Emphatically lettered, too… and with arrows. ORDER HERE! they say. PAY THERE! Allow me to get Dr. Phil on you for just a moment, and ask: “How’s that workin’ for ya?” Quite frequently the answer is, it’s not. And it doesn’t matter how big you make those signs, and it doesn’t matter how many arrows you add to them. The reason it won’t work is this: those aren’t the signs your customers are looking for.

Consider a simple scenario…

A customer walks in off the street… let’s call him Stanley. It’s his first time here.

  1. Stanley looks around to try to determine if he’s in the right place. Coffee shop? Check.
  2. He takes a slightly closer look at his surroundings to decide if this is someplace he wants to do business with. Clean? Well-lighted? Smells like coffee? Check.
  3. Stanley glances to see if there’s maybe something for sale in addition to coffee. He might like a cheese Danish. Check.
  4. Now Stanley checks out the menu above the bar. He’s looking for something tasty… a seasonal sort of specialty cappuccino. He’s looking. He’s looking. Still looking… Ah, there. Check.
  5. Just to be certain that he doesn’t lose it — what didja call that thing again? — Stanley steps forward to the counter with his eyes still on the menu and… finds that he’s someplace other than where you want him to be to place an order.

Stanley is now flustered, and perhaps a bit embarrassed. When you interrupted his order to direct him to where he’s supposed to be to place it he completely blanked on the name of the whatsit drink he was going to get, and — when he gets to the front of the line — he orders a small coffee. Black, two sugars.3

So much for your signs.

You know that old saw about the customer always being right? It’s not true, of course. Customers make mistakes all the time. And, like the goof that Stanley just made, a whole lot of those mistakes aren’t their fault. It’s the fault of folks who do, in fact, make it hard to order a cup of coffee. So, mister coffee shop owner,4 maybe you owe Stanley an apology.

And you, Mr. Rosenbaum… maybe you owe Professor Fish an apology, too.


Notes and Links

  1. Rumor has it that the NY Times is dropping the TimesSelect subscription service. Maybe they do get it after all, but it remains to be seen.
  2. No, no… you say. Nobody can channel the spirit of Andy Rooney; he is not dead. I say, have you *seen* him lately? That, friend, is a zombie. Andy Rooney died a dozen years ago, at least. To his credit he’s answered one of life’s more inscrutable mysteries: yes, your eyebrows do continue to grow after you die.
  3. And presumably Stanley hightails it back to his office where he spends the rest of the day writing a screed to be published in the Op-Ed section of a large newspaper.
  4. Or Miss, or Ms. or Mrs…. I’m an equal opportunity critic.

Author: deCadmus

Doug Cadmus is a usability guy, writer and sometime dramatist who moved to Vermont for the coffee, where he's the Web Guy for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. When not writing, reading, or tapping out haiku-like Twitter posts, he roasts coffee in his garage.

4 Comments

  1. Bravo!! I cannot tell you how many times a similar scenario has played out for me – it’s embarrassing. Thanks for tellin’ it like it is!

  2. Wonderful post. It’s rare when blogging op-ed can make me smile like this. And it’s not just because of mutual connections with Prof. Fish to UIC, either. I’m a coffee obsessive who has reviewed over 500 espresso retailers in my hometown, and your comments were spot on.

  3. I think this is why Starbucks has become so popular. People know how it all works. The fast-food of coffee? Sometimes you can see a local store across the street but people get nervous and choose the familiar Starbucks. Too bad.

  4. Patrick —

    I think — even with their tendency toward cookie-cutter store design — Starbucks is not immune to these problems. In fact, I’d argue that *because* of their tendency to copy what they’ve done over and over again they have needlessly multiplied some of those factors that are problematic.

    Still, for a goodly number of coffee shop customers, it’s “Better the devil you know…” ;)

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