Refusing to Profit from Mediocrity

by admin on July 18, 2008

Is the customer always right?

Even when their request (which they may well be willing to pay for) offends the sensibilities and standards of a purveyor of goods/services?

Maybe I should rephrase the question: If there is no inconvenience or cost to a business person, are they obligated to alter their product to meet the desires of a patron? And if the business person refuses to do so, is the patron justified in being miffed?

Recently two stories about coffee have been in the news: The first concerns Intelligentsia Coffee (an independent coffee roaster here in Chicago) announcing that its three cafes would no longer sell “venti” (20 oz) drinks. Doug Zell, Intelligentsia’s chief executive, explained that serving coffee in 20 oz sizes damaged the integrity of the product. If you want Intelligentsia coffee in one of their corporate-owned cafes, you are either going to drink it their way or not at all. Some Chicagoans are annoyed and are accusing Intelligentsia of snobbery.

The other story involves Murky Coffee of Arlington, Virgina. When a Mr. Jeff Simmermon requested iced espresso, he was informed that it was against company policy to prepare espresso in such a manner. Words were exchanged and Mr. Simmermon took the establishment to task in his blog. Nick Cho, the owner of Murky, responded via comment on Mr. Simmermon’s blog. In his comment he both explained his policy on iced espresso and threatened harm to Mr. Simmermon’s genitalia.

This “Murky” matter is now national news with people debating  “the customer is always right” vs “professional integrity”.

I favor professional integrity, myself. This isn’t just about coffee, it’s about aesthetics, morals, and principle.

Those of us old enough to remember the 1970s will recall the old Burger King commercial which assured patrons that they could “have it their way”. Yet while BK was customizing its odious “food”, a quiet revolution was taking place on the west coast. There, Alice Waters had established Chez Pannisse, a restaurant that was decidedly not about customer whims, but about teaching people to eat well. Chef Waters prepared a meal each day (from fresh, in-season, local ingredients), and customers ate it. (If customers didn’t want to eat the meal, they could go to Burger King instead.)

Because Alice Waters stuck to her guns and refused to cater to the lowest common denominator, we now have access to all sorts of quality foodstuffs, both in restaurants and in shops. Waters knew that the customer wasn’t always right, because, quite frankly, the customer can’t always be right. The customer needs education before s/he can be “right” about the proprietor’s specialty. People like Waters, Cho, and Zell would rather lose a customer, even suffer some ill-will, rather than profit from ignorance.

I call that good business. God bless them, and others like them, for refusing to succumb to demands for mediocrity.

Have a great weekend!

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

greg 07.18.08 at 2:05 pm

Good comparison. If Alice Waters chose instead to always cater to the masses, she would have never been as effective in differentiating herself, Chez Panisse, and elevating the possibilities for what most people ate at restaurants that passed for good food.

I too thought of the Burger King commercials of the 1970s. But I also thought of Primo and Secondo, the two brothers in the great movie, “The Big Night”, which explored the frustrations of a business walking the line between running a profitable business that catered heavily to public tastes and trying to keep a cohesive vision and set of standards to elevate what consumers considered “good taste”.

It seems that there are many good businesses that cater to a customer always being right. But its those businesses that challenge the status quo that have the real opportunity for being truly great and also making their customers better off for it. They may not always be profitable in the short run. But should they survive at their mission, their long-term effects can be enormous.

admin 07.18.08 at 2:34 pm

Thank you for stopping by and commenting, Greg!

I don’t support snobbery for the sake of snobbery: For example, I can’t abide shops that only sell very expensive products when less-expensive products of equal (or superior) quality are quite available. (Wine shops can be guilty of this.)

But when there is a very simple principle of quality involved (i.e. pouring espresso over ice makes it sour), then I think that a good businessman/woman is quite right to draw the line and preserve the integrity of his/her product.

Again, thanks for your comment.

Nick Cho 07.19.08 at 6:15 pm

Wow. Great blog post. It’s really great to see more and more people online who “get it.”

I will say that I seriously almost fell out of my chair when you mentioned Alice Waters (one of our heroes) in the same blog entry as our coffeebar. Wow! I’m floored!

Thanks again!

admin 07.19.08 at 6:25 pm


Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. I appreciate what you are doing, and I appreciate your willingness to communicate with others about what you do and why you do it.


Chris 07.24.08 at 11:42 am

I tackled this topic also, and all I can say is: nicely written. There is absolutely no obligation for a business to cater to the masses; and doing so could harm a business.

admin 07.24.08 at 7:27 pm

Hi Chris!

Thanks for stopping by, and I very much enjoyed your post as well. Thanks for the link, and I look forward to reading more of your stuff!

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