Questioning the Condiment Stand

Barista

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Imagine you’re at a bar. You order a Manhattan, but after taking a sip you discover it’s not sweet enough. You politely mention it to the bartender, who reaches behind the counter, hands you a bottle of vermouth and says, “Help yourself.”

According to Cole McBride, most coffee shops do something similar with their condiment stand. Baristas serve an incomplete beverage and ask the customer to finish it, all the while expecting a tip. McBride is manager at Las Vegas’ PublicUs, a new café joining a growing number of coffee shops rejecting condiment stands in favor of a full-service approach.

“We want to make the drink for you from start to finish,” says McBride. At PublicUs, sugar and cream are precisely measured by baristas and offered to customers in numerical increments, from one to six. McBride credits the system not only for improving hospitality, but greater consistency and efficiency as well. McBride is not alone in his assessment.

“We wanted our guests to do as little as possible to enjoy the beverages we were making them,” says Sam Lewontin, manager of New York’s Everyman Espresso. Lewontin does not mince words when asked his opinion of condiment bars. “They’re always kind of a disaster,” he says. “At best they are a place where you serve your guests things you can’t be bothered with. At worst they are messy, not well stocked, and traffic bottle necks.” Everyman decided to forego the condiment stand when owner Sam Penix and Lewontin were planning their second location. The pair completely re-imagined their service model around the customer’s experience. “We really wanted our cafés to be about hospitality from end to end,” says Lewontin. “We didn’t want a moment where our customers didn’t feel taken care of.” After the experiment worked, Penix and Lewontin remodeled Everyman’s original location around the same system.

Milk is offered by request at Coava Coffee Roasters café in Portland. Above, the condiment bar at Birch Coffee in Manhattan. (Both photos: Cory Eldridge.)
Milk is offered by request at Coava Coffee Roasters café in Portland. Above, the condiment bar at Birch Coffee in Manhattan. (Both photos: Cory Eldridge.)

Unlike the short lived no-sugar trend, proponents of no condiment stations are insistent they are not trying to force their taste preferences on their customers. “We ask everyone if they want cream and sugar,” says McBride. Likewise, the team at Everyman Espresso went through extensive taste testing to find their recipes for sugar and cream.

Although both Lewontin and McBride insist most people enjoy being served, they also recognize some customers prefer to doctor their coffee themselves. “Cream and sugar is on a level of being holy with certain people. They take it seriously,” says McBride. Lewontin agrees. “There are definitely people out there who want to do it themselves,” he says, estimating ten percent of cream-and-sugar drinkers prefer self service. Everyman accommodates this demographic by offering small carafes of cream and sugar by request. Customers are then free to take their personal condiment stand to their table. “The guest still has the opportunity to fulfill that ritual,” says Lewontin.

Condiments_Thatchers

Established cafés that are thinking about removing their condiment stand should proceed with caution. Successfully implementing a full-service approach requires extensive training of staff, exact measuring tools, and possibly a full café remodel. Training should teach baristas how to curate a full service experience for their customers, to ask all customers their drink preferences, and guide new customers through the system.

Behind the counter, McBride and Lewontin look to the techniques of mixologists to ensure consistency: good jiggers with precise measurements are needed for reproducibility. The physical layout of the café comes into play as well. “Condiment bars are fixtures,” says Lewontin. “If you suddenly take all of the condiments off it, that’s weird.” McBride is also skeptical that a café could change their system. “I’m not sure if some cafés are laid out in a way that they could do this and have good service,” he says. PublicUs relies on servers to check if customers are happy with their beverages. If the cream or sugar isn’t perfect, they remake it.

Yet for Lewontin, the benefits outweigh the costs. “Not having a bar moves the line faster and keeps our costs way down,” he says. “You’re wasting less and keeping your café cleaner and better looking.”

Michael Butterworth is a regular contributor to Fresh Cup and the founder of the Coffee Compass.