Monday, October 18, 2010

Focus: A Love Letter to Intelligentsia Coffee

So last week I told you about a Starbucks misadventure...  Today, I'd like to tell you a coffee story of a different sort.

If you're a coffee lover in Chicago, chances are you have at least heard of Intelligentsia.  If you're from around these parts, love coffee and have NOT been to Intelligentsia, I would strongly suggest you pay a visit.  It can be a life changing coffee experience.  There are some locations around LA so do pop in if you've a chance.

Admittedly, I don't go as often as I'd like.  When I do go, I'm reminded of what coffee should taste like, how magical it can be and how something as "simple" as a cup of coffee can turn a frown upside down.  Apparently, I'm not the only one who feels that way because every time I'm at the Randolph Street location, it's jam packed.  Amir says another location is packed during the week as well.

So why did I put simple in quotes?  Well, it is anything but a simple process.  Intelligentsia buyers travel around the world to visit all of the coffee producers to ensure quality of the bean, ensure that the grower is committed to healthy environmental practices and sustainable social practices.  Also, trade partners (including exporters) have to pledge to transparency such that it's clear that the grower is getting the agreed upon price for the beans.   You can learn more about the Direct Trade practice here.

They also spend a lot of time analyzing and refining their roasting and production processes.  They have two dedicated facilities (Chicago and Los Angeles) and the approach sounds a little bit like alchemy.  Oh sure, they've got machines to do the heavy lifting because they're roasting 3 million pounds of beans a year.  But it's not possible to do well without someone closely making adjustments as needed based on science, experience and intuition.  There's more of a description here.

So how do they actually make a cup?  Watch this 2 minute video to see their level of precision in action.  It will give you a sense of the precision behind the scenes!

The last part of the video, you see that they have roughly 700 - 1000 transactions per day.  Of course, some are espresso drinks -- Amir says the cappuccino complete with the milk froth design on top is magical.  But, many are the prosaic cup of joe demonstrated here.  It's a beautifully choreographed dance with consistent level of quality in every single cup.

Why spend so much time talking to you about coffee?  Well, because this isn't a love letter to coffee.  It's a love letter to focus.  The laser like precision from farm to table can only be admired if not replicated.  It is a love letter to strategy.

Too often, we get caught up in the shooting star or dreams of a magic solution that will help with everything because it's too hard to have a vision that translates into a viable strategy with the end state refined/defined product/service as the output of that strategy.  The folks at Intelligentsia have made a commitment to the most perfect cup of coffee possible and have created roadmaps to get to that end state from growing to buying to roasting to serving.

They understand that it's more than free mp3s, free wifi, etc., that set them apart.  They may also understand that their level of precision may prevent them from the same level of ubiquity as other places.  And they're probably fine with that.  That level of ubiquity would be counter to the dedication to the most perfect cup of coffee possible.

I don't know these people personally but I don't think they are geniuses.  And I say that because it's easy to dismiss other people's focus/discipline/whatever by ascribing superhuman qualities to them.  What are these people if not geniuses?  They are patient.  They are thoughtful.  They are disciplined.  They have vision (but are not visionaries).  They are master strategists.

Their precision inspires me to do better.  What's your take?

Parissa Behnia
Idea Chef

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