business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

MNB readers are familiar with what has become my annual summer adjunctivity at Portland State University in Oregon. This is the seventh summer that I’ve made the trek to the Pacific Northwest to team teach - with Tom Gillpatrick - a retail/CPG marketing class during the summer semester. In so many ways, these summers have fed my soul … and they’ve done a pretty good job of feeding my stomach, too.

I have, over the years, twice written about Stumptown Coffee here on MNB; one of those columns was expanded upon and became a chapter in my book, Retail Rules: 52 Ways To Achieve Retail Success.

In the first column, I related an anecdote about the importance of getting things right -= even the things the customer doesn’t see. It came out of a conversation I had with one of the store managers, Bo, while I was sitting at the counter waiting for ,y latter to be made. It took some time (for reasons made clear in the column), but Bo put it this way: "It's not worth doing if we can't do it right.”

The second column came out of a conversation I had last summer while sitting at that very same counter, with a young woman named Alina, a very nice young woman who was weighing coffee grains to make sure that they were between 19.5 and 20 grams of ground coffee … and that yes, being off by a little bit, one way or another, would make a difference. The column was about how little things matter.

I tell you all this because a couple of days ago, once again having traveled to Portland, become ensconced in my short-term apartment rental and gone for an early morning jog along the Willamette River (I am nothing if not a creature of habit), I grabbed my iPad and backpack and walked to the Stumptown Coffee on Third Avenue.

And found that it had been remodeled. And upgraded. It seemed bigger and airier than before, and maybe just a little bit cleaner, and certainly the tables and chairs had been upgraded. I missed the old look, I must admit, which somehow seemed more authentic, but I don’t want to be one of those grumpy old men who always thinks things were better the old way.

But there was one big change that really bothered me.

They’ve taken away the counter where I used to sit. Lots of tables and chairs, all very nice. But no counter.

Now, in addition to being a creature of habit, I’m also a bit of a sentimentalist. I liked that counter. I got two columns and a book chapter while sitting at that counter, and spent a fair amount of time over the past six summers sitting there, drinking coffee, checking email and doing some writing.

And talking to baristas.

It seems to me that getting rid of the seats at the counter could end up being a mistake for Stumptown. Those seats created a sense of intimacy with the process and the people that combined to make the store experience unique. That’s gone now, and I’m not sure how it can be recaptured.

Intimacy with customers is hard to achieve and even harder to sustain. Sometimes it happens by accident, and sometimes it is designed into the experience (although even the greatest design cannot create it without the right people and culture). Having it, and then giving it up on purpose?

I cannot imagine this is a good idea.

I’m not sure why they did it. Maybe it was the store designer who thought it was a good idea. It should be noted that Stumptown now is owned by Peet’s, and so maybe there is a bit of a corporate mindset sneaking in (though it doesn’t feel that way … even if the physical facility has been upgraded, there is a but of a subversive vibe that remains).

Waiting for as refill on my coffee the other morning, I mentioned to the barista that I missed the seats at the counter. He looked at me, very seriously, and said, “I miss it, too.”

And that’s this morning’s EyeOpener.

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