How coffee taught me how to be a consumer advocate

By | November 11th, 2013


It’s one of the most common questions I get as a consumer advocate: How did you get that job?

The answer: It started with coffee.

Seriously. My odyssey into advocacy began in 1984 with my first gig at a small business in Mountain View, Calif., that specialized in roasting gourmet coffee. It happened to be owned by my late uncle, who offered my younger brother and me a job and a place to stay in his spare bedroom.

You’re probably picturing me delivering lattes to the pilots at Moffett Air Field. Cushy job, right?

It’s true, our warehouse shared a fence with one of the runways. But this was no Starbucks summer.

From April until July, from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., I stood next to a blazing-hot roaster and processed one-pound bags of whole bean Colombian Dark, Guatemala Antigua and Tanzania Peaberry.

Fill. Wrap. Pack. Repeat.

Temperatures on the factory floor pushed 110 degrees on most days, and for relief we fled outdoors, where it cooled off to a more tolerable 90 degrees.

I’m not complaining. The summer of 1984 was, as one of my former editors would call it, a character building experience. So when people ask me about advocacy, I tell them how useful it was to do my time with the beans. Here’s what I learned:

Coffee makes people lose their minds.
After several weeks of working on the factory line, I was assigned the task of filling orders. That meant for the first time I saw how much people were paying for their gourmet coffee. Surprisingly, the Hawaiian Kona beans fetched the highest price. I say “surprisingly” because one of the perks of working at a coffee roaster is that you get to drink all the coffee — as much as you want — and the Kona was fine, but it wasn’t anyone’s favorite. Customers seemed to prefer it because it was more expensive.

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There’s a relationship between price and quality, but as I learned that summer, reason has little to do with it. Customers will pay more — often much more — because they think something is better. Even when it’s easy to prove it isn’t.

Later, when I began fighting for consumers, I saw the same poor decision-making with other products and loyalty programs. Customers didn’t always think before buying — and then turned to me for help. Thanks to Kona coffee, I understood.

A mistake is an opportunity.
When I made a mistake on an order — say I threw a bag of French Roast into a box instead of Espresso — I would get an earful from my supervisor. No one likes to make a mistake, and errors are often unavoidable. When you’re looking at a stack of orders and the clock says 3:30 p.m., you do your best with the time you have.

What I didn’t understand then, and wouldn’t until much later, is that it isn’t the poor customer service that really matters; it’s how you respond to it. If you want to improve, what steps do you take? If you don’t care, what does that say about your company? I’ve actually seen businesses that don’t give a hoot if their customers are happy with their product. The apathy is in their corporate DNA. The problem is unfixable.

That wasn’t the case at the coffee plant. After making enough mistakes with my orders, I was sent back to the packing line. And in retrospect, what were they thinking, asking a 16-year-old to fill orders?

You’ve gotta respect the beans.
One of the most lasting lessons of the summer of 1984 didn’t come until after I left. In late July, I collected my final paycheck and flew to Los Angeles to visit my grandmother. (What self-respecting teenager wouldn’t want to see the summer Olympics?) But here’s where I got to see how consumers were enjoying the coffee I spent all summer processing — or more to the point, not enjoying it.

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My grandmother had boxes of coffee she’d received from my uncle. She was proud of his business and never wasted an opportunity to share his product with friends and family. But she didn’t really understand that fresh-roasted coffee is meant to be ground and enjoyed quickly. She stored the coffee in the freezer or left the open packages on the counter, where it soon turned stale. In order to make the brew drinkable, she doctored it with heavy cream and sugar. Yeah, it was 1984 — none of that artificial sweetener, thanks very much.

I learned that no matter how great your product is, it’s meaningless when the customer doesn’t get to enjoy it. It’s like the telecom company running a high-speed fiber line through your neighborhood, but connecting it to a copper phone wire. The “last mile” renders the bandwidth all but useless. The consumer gets to decide if your product is any good. So respect the beans.

My first job, which paid $3.35 an hour, helped me begin to understand the complicated relationship between businesses and customers. The lessons I learned from packing bags of steaming hot Blue Mountain, Java and Sumatra beans into paper bags have served me well as a consumer advocate.

And here’s today’s unrelated poll …

Which drink is superior?

View Results

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  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Off-topic. Is your Uncle’s coffee shop still around. I live about less than five miles away and pass it on the way to work.

  • No, it’s long gone.

  • Robert Karpel

    Out of curiosity, on a typical day, what brand of coffee do you drink?

  • It’s 5:30 a.m. now, and I’ve been up since about 4:45 a.m. There is only one kind of coffee that will wake this old school reporter up: espresso. I’m a fan of Starbucks but I’m also known to buy some of the more exotic Italian espressos. I get it whole bean. In fact, I’m going to go make some right now …

  • EdB

    “Customers will pay more — often much more — because they think something is better.”

    This reminded me of a story one of my professors at school would tell. When he worked at Bell Labs, they wrote a program they felt was useful and helpful that everyone should have it and practically gave it away to anyone who wanted it. No one would take it. So they decided to sell it at a premium price and they couldn’t keep up with demand. Same product that no one wanted for free, but with a hefty price tag on it was selling like mad.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Hey, there’s no totally unrelated poll question attached to the story! Of course, I haven’t had *my* caffeine yet this morning (Diet Coke, thank you for asking), so my submission isn’t very good, but:

    “Did Christopher Elliott’s experience amount to a hill of beans? Yes or No?”

  • My unrelated polls are the best part of my site. Wake up and smell the coffee!

  • MarkKelling

    I am not a fan of most Kona coffees. There are so many small producers that you almost never know what you are getting and the flavors vary toward the bad end on the scale too often. I prefer Kauai coffees and whenever someone I know is going there I ask them to bring me a couple pounds back. Kauai coffee is also available thru mail order.

    I only drink Starbucks when I am in a hurry and don’t have time to make something better. Like today.

  • Justin

    Mr Elliott,

    Your last line makes great reference to the 75 year old Swedish Woman (now 80) given a 40gbit fiber link by her son Peter Lothberg (Internet Entrepreneur).

    So what did our fine Senior Citizen use the Internet and Fiberbox for? DRYING LAUNDRY!

    Moral of the story: Not everyone understands the value behind a product.

  • Justin

    Value is rooted in perception. Customers wrongly assumed Bell Labs’ freeware was inferior to paid versions.

    I.E. Microsoft Office vs. Open Office. Nearly identical. One is without cost and the other commands hundreds of dollars.

    Moral of the story? Price doesn’t guarantee quality.

  • Kauai coffee is far better, I agree. It’s bolder, with more personality. And you can’t beat that view of Niʻihau!

  • Raven_Altosk

    A good read while I enjoyed my cup ‘o joe.

  • Randy Culpepper

    Another story:

    Back when I was in college, I waited tables at a high-end restaurant in Baton Rouge. At the time, the two most expensive items on our menu were the rack of Colorado lamb ($39) and the Dakota bison ribeye ($36). Both were fantastic meals, but neither sold particularly well. We raised the prices to $45 and $42 (respectively), and sales nearly doubled. We couldn’t believe it.

  • Wow, that’s a great story! Troubling on so many levels.

  • emanon256

    I know this sounds crazy, especially since I am a huge fan of Espresso and Italian roasts, but if you can find some of the StarBucks Mexican Shade-grown beans, which is a medium roast, grind them fresh and put them through an Espresso machine, and add some steamed 1% milk, it is about the best cup of coffee I have ever had.

  • emanon256

    I’m sad, the only coffee place between me and Work is a Starbucks, all the local shops which make much better coffee are in the wrong direction, and I have yet to find the UCC origami filters Tony told me about, but I keep searching. At least some of the Strabucks Bold roasts are good.

  • bodega3

    JC Penney’s stopped having sales, lowered their prices to everyday pricing and it failed. So they have raised their prices again and are now having sales, for which customer pay more for the item on sale than at the everyday price. Sales have picked back up.

  • emanon256

    Its like when Target puts $4 items on sale 2 for $10 and they sell like hot cakes!

  • Stephen0118

    Sometimes I wish I liked Coffee. I rely on tea and Dr. Pepper (and sometimes Red Bull) to wake me up. The only things I get at Starbucks are iced tea, refreshers, and frappucinos.

  • emanon256

    I was disappointed as well that there was no poll today. I vote that we get an unrelated poll!

  • OK, I added one. In the finest tradition of our unrelated polls, this one has almost nothing to do with the story and unfairly paints the issue in black and white. Have fun.

  • emanon256

    I love it!

  • MarkKelling

    The only good coffee shop in my neighborhood recently closed because a new Starbucks opened close by. They served coffee in the proper cup for the type of drink you were having – no paper cups! Their drinks costs a few pennies more but had an amazingly good flavor. Sad to see them go.

  • Randy Culpepper

    Edited for spelling/clarification.

  • emanon256

    That’s really sad. I had a student about 10 years ago when I was Adjunct faculty who was a manager at Starbucks. I asked him why they were so expensive, and he said wherever they open they shop the local coffee shops first, and intentionally price their coffee higher, so they are not hurting the competition. He said enough people like their brand that it doesn’t affect them, and that way they are not hurting the local businesses like Wall Mart. Its more than disappointing to know I was lied to, or this practice was stopped.

  • MarkKelling

    Nothing like a difficult job in your early teen years to teach you the value of money and that to instill in you that there must be an easier way to earn those dollars. :-)

    My first real job was mowing yards. At the peak I had 15 yards to mow as well as some landscaping all at properties within walking distance of my house. All this when I was between 14 and 17 years old. It had its benefits. Like being my own boss and giving me lots of spending money. It had its drawbacks too. Like customers who thought my work wasn’t good enough to pay me for and never having any free time to spend all that money I did make. But what it taught me was that in Houston, TX an office job is a lot easier way to make money especially in the summer!

  • It’s 11:50 a.m. I’ve had four so far. Do you think that’s enough?

  • That’s so sad. We love the independent coffee shops. Here’s our tour of the Seattle coffee shops that we took this summer. Now that was amazing coffee.

  • catwonc

    Best poll question ever :)

  • Thanks. It was either that, or “which is the one true religion?” but I couldn’t decide between just two.

  • EdB

    Hey! Where’s the “Other” choice? :)

  • Carver Clark Farrow


  • y_p_w

    I remember working my first summer job as a teenager. Also in the 80s, and ironically enough at my uncle’s machine shop in Mountain View. I didn’t worry so much about the heat, but that perhaps the machining equipment or the high speed saws might do a job on my fingers.

    Wasn’t into coffee back then. Now I run the gamut from drinking instant for its convenience, to whatever I can get at Peet’s. Peet’s history is that they dropped their Kona as a regular offereing because they felt it was a poor value, and that people were often trying to recreate experiences from their Hawaiian vacations (and a similar marketing strategy applies to Corona beer). They occasionally roast an extremely expensive estate-grown 100% Kona, but they sell it at $25 for a half pound. I’ve had it before when they had it for their brewed coffee, and it was OK but not spectacular.

    Now I suppose the one thing I haven’t tried yet is kopi luwak.

  • dave3029

    But another outcome of Penney’s pricing strategy and reversal – – workers who had their hours cut due to lowered sales are finding they are not getting them back due to the rollout of Obamacare and the redefinition of the full-time work week. (I have a friend who has suffered this personally.)

  • MarkKelling

    I used to drink 3 triple espressos on the way to work, tea at lunch, another coffee drink in the afternoon, tea with dinner, and then a cola while watching TV at night. Had to stop when my heart started doing flip-flops from too much caffeine. Now I just drink one cup of decaf in the morning. :-(

  • omgstfualready

    I wish I liked coffee sometimes. I love the smell, but when I was young(er) I tried coffee and it tasted gross. Everyone said I’d learn to like it, but that seemed pretty stupid to me so I never bothered with it again. Same with tea. I drink an alarming amount of plain water.

  • emanon256

    I used to drink two or three cups of strong drip coffee every morning or two double espresso’s (depending on whether or not the garage sale espresso machine was in a working mood) and another cup of drip at lunch, and then another cup of drip in the early afternoon. Then I stated getting swelling in my esophagus, and the Dr. made me switch to decaf, I can’t even have tea. I have now switched back to one large cup of half/caf or a small cup of high test with no issues so far other than I miss coffee. At least there are some decafs that taste as good.

  • wiseword

    Stupid question.

  • jpp42

    Cause and effect not related. Sure they may be reducing full time workers (which is a problem across the retail industry) but there’s no evidence this wouldn’t have happened anyway.

  • jpp42

    That’s not a good example. Open Office is vastly inferior to Microsoft Office in many ways. I use it because of the low price but hate every minute.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Yeah, like “Caffeinated Soft Drink”?

    See @elliottc:disqus, your loyal readers can find something to complain about, even on the most innocuous of topics! :)

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I bought some for my snooty coffee drinking friends. I gave a small unlabeled bag to one friend and asked that he brew it and report back to me, to test his coffee “nose”. He reported that it tasted like sh…tuff. I said that it WAS. True story.

  • dave3029

    At least in the location my friend works, the initial cause of the lowering of the hours WAS Penney’s change to their “simplified” pricing model. When their sales plummeted – – and she had personally increased her department’s sales by over 300% from the year before she worked there – – her hours were cut from 39 to 25 per week. When the model was abolished, the hours were NOT restored above 29 hours due to the change in the definition of a full-time week by the ACA. Now, would those hours have been reduced anyway due to ACA? Possibly, but the workers who already had their hours cut due to the poor pricing model Penney’s chose will never know – – all they know is that their hours were cut and are NOT coming back. Those who were working 39 hours a week were cut because of the failure of the pricing change, and now will not be raised above 29 so Penney’s can avoid providing healthcare benefits, regardless of whether their sales come back or not. End result: employees who did not get benefits at 39 hours will now still not get benefits, but have 10 fewer hours and the earnings that go with that.

  • Nigel Appleby

    Only 4 – what’s keeping you?

  • Carchar

    I shelled out for a bag of Jamaica Blue from my mail order coffee company, so that I could see what the high price was all about. I also ordered Kobe beef in a restaurant once just to see whether the higher price was merited. In both cases, I felt scammed. Neither coffee nor beef tasted like they deserved the extreme mark-up.

  • Don’t even get me started on Blue Mountain. Love Jamaica, but not for the coffee.

  • y_p_w

    If you’ve ever seen real Wagyu beef (and not necessarily cross-breeds) there is no mistaking it. There is just an intense marbling that you just don’t see in most beef. What most places sell as “Kobe beef” is nothing close to real Japanese Wagyu. Turning this kind of beef into burgers would be a waste.

  • omgstfualready

    Coffee (and tea) lovers in Pittsburgh adore this place; they roast on site. I would not be surprised if they did mail ordering. I don’t drink the stuff so I don’t have direct info but I know the wistful far off look people get when they think about this place. I’ve been inside with others and the staff are awesome.

  • omgstfualready

    Sorry – I didn’t think and put a direct link to a local coffee roaster that I know people enjoy. Sorry if that was in violation of the site.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Great Wagyu beef raised locally and sold at a very nice upscale farm-to-plate restaurant in midtown Omaha. I agree, nothing like it, and in Nebraska, we eat a *lot* of beef.

  • Extramail

    Diet coke

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