Appetite at Large: The Customer Is Often Wrong (and That’s Okay)

I’m not Katya McQueen and I do not work in the coffee trade. But this is to your advantage.

What I am is a writer who has edited and reported on food and coffee for several years. More important, I love coffee to the extent that I have tasted, critiqued and done enough research to know a bit about it.

I mention this because I would never enter into dialogue about coffee too lightly, and I hope you wouldn’t either.

But I am not, as I said, your Queen Bean Katya McQueen, and this is why I am writing this particular edition of the Queen Bean column—she would never write about herself and I can.

I’ve been a close observer of Katya’s coffee genius for a couple of years, more intently in the last month as I’ve been hanging out around the Midnight Sun every morning.

The Queen Bean happens to be my sister-in-law, which gives me a front row seat behind the coffee bar. Here’s what I’ve noticed:

The old chestnut, “the customer is always right,” doesn’t fly with Katya. Nope. The customer is not always right. This is impossible. Especially in the coffee business—coffee is complicated.

It’s a deep subject with textures, nuances, origins, ethics and timing to be considered. That short shot of espresso in your cup has a highly detailed background story that may involve drought in one country and war in another. Where there is sourness in one varietal, there is nuttiness in another.

It is served as a perfect thing, after a life of growing, harvesting, shipping, roasting, pulling, pouring and blending.

Any coffee proprietor worth his or her salt knows that background story as they know their own.

Conversely, the customer doesn’t. We’re not expected to—there’s a lot of research and processing to put time into.

This is why we pay for something to be made for us when it’s actually quite simple to make at home. We respect that coffee is complicated and involves many stages before it comes to us in our favourite drip or mocha.

We trust the people who make our beloved coffee have made some very important decisions for us, from how the beans got here to how they are treated once they arrive.

At least this is how it should be in a utopian life, where you can happen across any café in the world and rest assured you are in good hands.

When I was 18, I spent a month in a countryside village in Italy. I had yet to be introduced to the subtleties of good wine, but I was game to join my friends on a pilgrimage to a nearby bar that boasted an unusual proprietor.

He was called (in my rough English translation) “the Wine Diviner.”

He could (my friends told me with an air of awe) meet you, drink you in, and within a few moments pour you a glass of wine that would be the perfect choice for you.

It would be exactly the glass of wine that you, and only you, needed in that moment. He never failed.

I can tell you the glass of wine I had that evening, 14 years ago, has left a taste memory forever imprinted on my brain. I will never forget it. It was incredible.

I didn’t even really like wine at that point in my life and yet, what I tasted was perfectly delicious—clean, subtly sweet summer-like grapiness, a hint of fizz, not too overpowering, but still mature and sophisticated. It is still, in fact, my favourite wine.

At the Midnight Sun, I have spent my mornings watching a similar pilgrimage unfold.

The kind of men you don’t want to trifle with amble in—men who look as if they could take a car apart and put it back together in half an hour, or shoot a moose square between the eyes without a flutter of nerves.

The first thing they do is ask, “What do I want this morning?” And Katya tells them. She knows.

They’re not the only ones. Nurses who need a pick-me-up are pointed to the drip that will do the trick, and teenagers, thinking they want something syrupy, until they are steered toward a drink that’s deeper.

Like the gruff men, who probably never let anyone else tell them anything about themselves, they listen to her and take the advice.

Why? Because they know. They know that this is a business that isn’t built on that insipid adage “the customer is always right”.

It is built on a much truer, more human one:

“The customer has some vital knowledge to offer which will certainly be taken into consideration, but the staff here is a skilled ensemble of artists and a source of in-depth knowledge on the product you are about to purchase, so trust them and they’ll respect you and we’ll all be happy.”

Katya would never tell you she can do this, but she can.

And every coffee drinker should know they have a place where they don’t need to be right, they just need to trust the experts.

Katie Zdybel is a teacher and writer whose articles have appeared in numerous print and online publications.

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