Wow, this has gotten really out of hand. A guy walks into Murky Coffee, orders an iced espresso, and is informed that the store doesn’t offer that drink. Flame war ensues.
I was at Murky when the incident happened, sitting outside away from the action. I was amazed even then at how quickly the story spread. Immediately after the guy, Jeff Simmermon, left the infamous dollar tip, the barista David came outside to show it to my friends and me. Within minutes another customer blogged about it, a friend emailed me the post, and I’d taken a photo of the bill for posting. I later decided not to post it because, really, this isn’t the kind of thing that deserves to be taken beyond the shop. It’s too late for that though: BoingBoing and Metafilter picked up the story and there’s a Washington Post article on the way.
Now I do want to write about it because my friends and the shop where I got started as a barista are being slandered as pretentious jerks who don’t care about customer service. This is especially unfair to the barista, David, who was following the store policy. There’s a sign on the register clearly stating that Murky will ice any drink except for espresso and cappuccino. David made this clear and explained why the shop doesn’t offer those. Whether or not he could have handled the interaction better (and I suspect he in fact handled it pretty well), that should have been the end of the matter. Instead Simmermon made a scene, left a vulgar tip, and got one of the world’s most popular websites to repeat his story portraying the barista as a pretentious hipster who takes coffee way too seriously. It’s frustrating to then see Murky mocked all over the internet and this guy taken to be a hero for mistreated customers.
Simmermon does raise a fair question about whether the shop should have a policy against icing espresso. It’s something the store could physically do, and isn’t the customer always right?
Well, maybe. That’s one way to run a business. But there’s a constant tension in the coffee world between giving the people what they like and trying to raise the bar for specialty coffee. If Murky was really selling customers everything they wanted, they’d be installing blenders and a giant rack of flavored syrups, too. That’s the road to becoming Starbucks, with its frappuccini, Vivanno-whatevers, and push-button mediocrity. The higher end shops define themselves not only by what they offer, but also by what they say no to. A lot of places won’t make blended drinks. Others are cutting out 20 ounce and even 16 ounce cups. At Murky, they define espresso and the classic cappuccino as their signature beverages. They won’t ice them, they won’t serve them to go. It might cost them a few customers, but it shows the pride they take in their work and their respect for the coffee. I think that’s refreshing, and it elevates the company’s image as the most dedicated shop in DC.
It’s not an arbitrary policy, either. As owner Nick explains at the Murky blog:
Espresso is a fairly volatile thing, and when it hits ice, it seems to go through a chemical change that we can’t fully explain (and I haven’t seen a good explanation within our industry quite yet). It does appear to have something to do with ascorbic acid, but when we make our iced americanos (espresso + water + ice), we pour the shots into room-temperature water before adding the ice. Believe it or not, it does make a difference. Pouring espresso over ice creates unpleasantly acrid flavors.
Maybe Simmermon’s just being sarcastic, but it sounds like he really enjoyed the iced Americano he eventually received. If he’d listened to the barista’s advice in the first place, he would have discovered the drink sooner. And at the very least he shouldn’t have publicly mocked the barista for upholding the store’s policy.
Anyway, there’s three things to take away from this. One, don’t be a dick on the internet. Two, trust your barista. Three, pay a visit to Murky. Despite the insults swirling around online, they’ve got a friendly, talented crew right now, and they make a damned good espresso.