What makes a good coffee is not only the quality of the coffee beans, it’s also the cup, the barista’s friendly smile, and the passion poured into that easy yet elaborate process. Baristas know this well. In fact, new-generation cafés seem to smoothly embed all these elements. With coffee entering contexts like the workplace, we’d expect a similar level of quality control for the coffee served and consumed at work. Sadly, that’s barely the case.
It’s my pleasure to introduce Australian specialty coffee professional and barista Emily Oak, whom I met while talking at Chiang Mai Design Week in Thailand last December. On stage, Emily discussed coffee from the perspective of service and design, stressing the importance of a great design to contribute to making the coffee drinking experience memorable.
In this inaugural interview of the Workplace Wisdom Series, we chat about drinking coffee, the impact of good design in cafés, the importance of trained staff, and how to bring the exceptional experience of drinking specialty coffee into the corporate world.
Tell us a little bit about what you do. How is specialty coffee a part of your life?
I’d like to think that I’m a specialty coffee advocate, both in my paid work and the voluntary work I do for various associations and events. Specialty coffee is a section of the coffee industry that strives for a higher level of traceability, quality, and fair remuneration for coffee farmers, processors, and importers (in fact, everyone in the supply chain!). All these people to date haven’t really been recognized, paid or treated properly.
“Through increasing awareness of the complexity, taste, and quality that can be found in coffee, and moving the product away from being just a ‘caffeine hit’ to a beverage and an experience that can be enjoyed and enhanced, we like to increase the overall value of that product and experience.”
In my day-to-day job at ST ALi, I sell specialty coffee and support the cafés and spaces that serve the coffee in the quality of the product, marketing, communicating, and educating around their products and businesses.
Globally, consumers are becoming more aware of specialty coffee. Australia has been on the lead for a while, cranking out trends and stylish cafés. How has the coffee culture evolved over time, and what are the latest trends?
It’s a really interesting observation for me, having developed my skills and career in Australia. By comparing ourselves to other markets, I think we can understand how far ahead we are as an industry and how far advanced our consumers are in their general knowledge and appreciation of specialty coffee.
“In overall terms, people seem to be more aware of where all their food and beverages come from, and coffee/specialty coffee is a part of that.”
Although as a nation we are still predominantly instant coffee drinkers, consumers have a good knowledge of the specialty coffee menu, a variety of options, and expectations from any coffee shop or café they might walk into. The latest trends here are cold coffee options – specifically chilled filter or cold black coffee, moving away from ice cream, cream, and ice in cold beverages (which used to be more like a coffee milkshake!). Also, there is a simplification of the menu going on: fewer options, fewer sizes, more focus on taste, quality, and satisfaction.
At Chiang Mai Design Week, you gave an inspiring talk about the role of design in the specialty coffee industry. How is design beneficial to the industry?
It happens on a number of levels. Spatial design directs the whole customer experience, from how they feel when they enter a store, to where they move, how they interact with the staff, where they sit or stand to consume their beverage, what they learn, where and how they pay – the list goes on. If the whole experience is easy, simple, pleasant, and seamless, the perceived value of the product increases.
If any of these elements are inhibited due to poor design (product, space, industrial, interior design, or more), then it can detract from the experience and devalue the whole idea. An increase in value is absolutely paramount in making people comfortable to pay more for their coffee. That increase in price can flow back down through the supply chain and even up what is currently a pretty badly weighted system.
We’ve recently been seeing the rise of freelancers and solopreneurs, who work and have meetings at cafés. Are you taking this phenomenon into consideration when designing a new café?
Unlike a lot of other spaces, we don’t always offer Wi-Fi or create an environment that is suitable for freelancers who want to sit in our spaces all day. We certainly accommodate meetings, both social and business based, but it’s not very common in Australian culture to go out and work from a café all day. The experience of meeting in a café is more for person-to-person contact.
We can create pockets of areas within our spaces to encourage different activities, spaces for solo diners to feel comfortable, and communal tables to allow for that kind of sharing of space and interaction. A lot of the time it can also be based on the kinds of products we sell in a specific space. Some have a full kitchen and big menu, others are just for coffee.
Sensory Lab Collins was designed by the interior design and architecture firm Foolscap Studio (which also developed the space of Noma Australia), which is renowned for its cross-disciplinary approach, including service design. Can you tell us a bit about the design process?
To be honest, I wasn’t hugely involved in the early stages of the process there. However, as a company, we’ve always taken the design of our spaces very seriously. We appreciate the impact good design can have culturally. It’s a powerful tool that shapes mood, experience, and impression.
There was definitely an active interaction between the design company and ourselves. Both parties took the time to understand the requirement in the space, its purpose, and place in that part of Melbourne.
Also, we made a point of allowing good service design. It isn’t always inherent to architects and designers to ensure that the staff who work in the space have a positive experience too. Influencing the mood and feelings of your staff in their work environment also adds to the customer experience.
“Unhappy staff cannot provide good service.”
You caffeinated the ladies at the un-conference Make Nice 2016. How is the experience of catering coffee at a conference? How is the interaction between barista and patron different than at the café?
More often than not, if you’re commissioned at a conference, the patrons already have an understanding of your role. They are more open to conversation and interaction. It’s a more intense experience! With everyday customers in a café, it just generally takes longer, if at all, for you to open up that exchange.
People prefer drinking coffee during work meetings. However, many complain that coffee at the office is usually bad. Which tips would you give a business owner who wants to bring the culture of specialty coffee into the workplace?
Making espresso in the workplace is often the hardest style to get right because staff needs training. You need to dial in and set up the coffee, and small volume can become inconsistent. I’d suggest exploring other options – find and work with suppliers on filter/drip options. Specialty and educated suppliers will provide you with a ‘recipe’ to make your coffee. That should result in good, consistent coffee.
Which coffee would you recommend for a recharging morning break at the office?
Whichever makes you happy! It depends on which snack you might have with your coffee. Personally, I enjoy a whole spectrum – from cappuccino to espresso, filter, and cold brew. There is no one way that is superior to others when it comes to coffee. It’s important that you enjoy the experience the way you like it the most.
What is your favorite coffee at the moment?
Australia has a very warm climate most of the year around, so anything chilled and tasty is my go-to. That or an espresso. I tend to drink fewer hot milky drinks in the summer, but in the winter they’re my favorite!
Interact with Emily: