3 Cups — Doing more with less

Last week I was in Chapel Hill, NC for a family event. Ever since the lamented closing of Fowler’s in Durham a few months ago, I haven’t had a favorite coffee hangout in the area. Now I’m glad to say I do again.

I tried to visit 3 Cups for the first time a couple months ago, but the place turns out to be closed on Sundays. This time around I made a point to drop in when it’s open. My family and I stopped in on a busy Saturday afternoon to find the shop near UNC buzzing with people.

I already knew 3 Cups serves Counter Culture Coffee, as does my current employer, so I was looking forward to trying their espresso. I was in for a surprise: no espresso machine! The only coffee on 3 Cups’ menu is drip and French press, with an emphasis on the press. Cafes au lait are available for people who really want a milk drink, but otherwise it’s all about the coffee.

This is a cool approach to running a coffee shop. I’m sure the many other shops in the area surrounding UNC all sell espresso. By choosing not to, 3 Cups offers less than its competitors. Yet by offering less, it offers more.

First of all, serving only drip and French press coffee puts the emphasis on the kind of coffee customers can make at home. This fits with their goal of becoming their customers’ favorite coffee retailer. People love espresso, but except for the rare enthusiasts who invest in expensive equipment and put in lots of practice, the stuff they make at home is always going to disappoint compared to what they get from the pros. Anyone can make traditional coffee with a little care, and with the equipment and excellent selection of beans available at 3 Cups, they can recreate the taste experience at home.

Secondly, coffee fits in better with the shop’s focus on single origin, artisinal products. Espresso is pretty much always blended and it’s rare for a shop to switch blends very often. Very few customers are going to drink straight espresso anyway; most of them are going mute its flavor with a lot of milk. Coffee, on the other hand, comes from a practically endless variety of origins, making it easier to communicate the differences among them.

Finally, skipping the spro makes running the shop a lot easier, leaving room and time for complimentary goods. Serving espresso entails making space for the machine, grinders, and beans, paying at least one barista to be on duty, and devoting a whole lot of time to training. My guess is that sticking to simpler brewing methods allows the staff to be better informed about 3 Cups’ other offerings: tea, chocolate, and wine.

At most coffee shops, even really good ones, tea is something of an afterthought and chocolate and wine may not be available at all. 3 Cups has all three items in abundance, all with extensive information available. I didn’t get to spend too much time talking to the staff, but they seemed to be just as informed about these other products as they are about the coffee; the guy I talked to was definitely into the chocolate part of the business.

3 Cups doesn’t offer much food, but they have a cozy relationship with the neighboring SandwHich, an artisinal sandwich shop selling some delicious fare. A hallway connects the two places and customers, dishes, and employees are free to pass back and forth. They also share a courtyard. The friendliness between the shops is a great solution to the problem of fulfilling customers’ wants without getting distracted from one’s core mission. Why have a great sandwich shop with bad coffee and a great coffee shop with bad sandwiches when you can just put a door between them and enjoy both?

(SandwHich got nice write-up in the local press here. The chips sound tasty but they were sold out by the time I got there. That’s how you know the place is good: the owners would rather sell out of fresh stuff than only sell things they can guarantee to always have on hand.)

Visiting 3 Cups reminded me of the less is more design philosophy espoused by the 37 Signals crew. By taking away a feature that almost every other coffee shop puts at the center of its business, this shop has really set itself apart with its simplicity and focus. I like it — so much so that I even forgot to see if they have wi-fi. Either way, I’ll be sure to drop in from now on whenever I’m in town.

[Cross-posted on Smelling the Coffee.]


Me in the future

While we’re on the subject of sexism and coffee, this old Folgers ad is worth a link. Feministing aptly describes it as ” your daily cup of vintage patriarchy.”

Antiquated as the commercial is, I do sympathize with the husband in it. Just ask the baristas I put through training. When I’m married, I’m going to be just like that guy, always complaining about my wife’s coffee making skills. “Honey, you know I like you to dose with at least 18 grams, and I think your grind is set a little bit coarse. And please don’t forget to purge the steam wand next time, ok?”

Thus the honeymoon will end.


The best part of waking up

This invention — an alarm clock that releases a synthetic coffee smell when the alarm goes off — is sort of neat, in a tacky sort of way. I’m sure it doesn’t smell as good as real coffee. And more importantly, there is no real coffee, so if you use the thing you’re starting your day off with disappointment from the very first minute.

Better idea? An actual bedside coffee grinder/alarm clock. The whir of the burrs wakes you up while releasing the sirenous aroma of real fresh ground coffee. Say, Guatemala Huehuetenango. The coffee dispenses into the state of the art automatic bedside Clover, which brews a perfect cup before you even have time to remember the name of the alluring woman lying next to you. All for just three easy payments of $19.95.

(Pop quiz: Which aspect of my above fantasy is most unrealistic? Hint: It’s not the $60 Clover.)

I actually did have an idea for an alarm clock once, but it used a paper shredder instead of a coffee grinder. The shredder is in one room, such as the kitchen. It communicates wirelessly with the alarm clock in the bedroom and is set to turn on five minutes after the alarm goes off. Before going to bed, put a $20 bill in the shredder. Then you have to get out of to bed to save your bill, and by then you’re in the kitchen, so you might as well make some coffee. See my original post on the economics of the situation.

I’ve since decided a better alternative would be to give the money to the charity of one’s choice rather than shred it. Perhaps the alarm clock could communicate the time for which it’s set to your computer. In the morning, you’d then have to log in to your computer in time to prevent an automatic transaction from billing your credit card for a donation.

The drawback would be that if your Internet connection is down or your computer isn’t working, you can’t stop the transaction. The upside is that over the long term, you won’t mind if you overslept a few mornings and ended up donating $100 to the humane society. Yet since that doesn’t mean you want to donate $20 every single day, the alarm is still effective.

[Via TMN. Cross-posted on Smelling the Coffee.]


Great moments in heterosexuality, pt. 2

What is it about latte art that just destroys my masculinity?

Chad and I are hanging out at the coffee shop. I’m chatting with a girl when Chad walks up with a rather sad looking latte.

Chad: “What’s with this?”

Me: “That doesn’t look too good. Who made that?”

Chad: [Points to the barista at the bar.]

Me: “That’s weird. She’s usually good. Oh well, nobody bats a hundred.”

Chad: [Starts to say something, thinks better of it.]

Chad, several hours later: “I do appreciate the effort, but just so you know, you should probably avoid trying to use sports metaphors in front of women.”

Me: “Damn it!”


A bounty of beans from San Francisco

A few days ago I got to enjoy some great espresso blends courtesy of co-blogger David. He was coming back from San Francisco and asked if I wanted him to bring anything back for me. Beans from two shops came immediately to mind: Ritual and Blue Bottle.

Ritual is a hip new coffee shop in Valencia. It’s been profiled in Wired as a hangout for techies, but it’s also known in the coffee world for having talented baristas, delicious coffee from the Stumptown Roaster in Portland, and style to spare. Blue Bottle is a roaster in Oakland with a charming walk-up shop in Hayes Valley. The espresso and Gibraltar I had there last fall count as some of the best coffee I’ve ever tasted, period. (I previously wrote up my visit to Blue Bottle on my own blog.)

David brought back three bags of espresso to try: Stumptown’s Hairbender and Blue Bottle’s Hayes Valley Blend and Roman espresso.

David brought the coffee by the shop where I work, Open City in Woodley Park. While I got the equipment ready to go, I started him off with a shot of our house espresso, Counter Culture’s newly reformulated Toscana. The summer batches of the blend had been a bit rough, with a consistent sweet spot hard to locate. The new blend, composed of two Sumatrans and a Brazilian, dials in very nicely with caramely sweetness. The crema-rich photo on the right is the shot I pulled for David. Pretend I airbrushed out the sugar packet; he didn’t actually use it and would be offended if I suggested he did!

Hairbender was the first blend we tried out. As I feared, it became quickly apparent that the beans had aged a bit too much on the journey from SF. They were just over two weeks old by the time I got to them. Nonetheless, the Hairbender’s crema held up well and the flavor came out like dark chocolate. Of the three blends, this one aged the best. It’s the one flowing from the portafilter at the top of the post and in the demitasse at left. It also performed well in the small cappuccino pictured at the bottom of the post.

Next on the lineup was the Hayes Valley Blend. Both of the Blue Bottle blends suffered more from ageing, coming out a bit thin. This is no fault of the roaster. Coffee isn’t meant to age well! A fun aspect of the Blue Bottle beans is the precise brewing instructions they come with. Working on a Synesso espresso machine, I was able to set the group head to the exact temperature recommended for each blend. For Hayes Valley this is 195 degrees. Unfortunately, I just wasn’t able to pull a good shot of this one, certainly nothing to compare to the sweetness they produce at their shop.

The last blend was the Roman Espresso. They suggest brewing this at a ridiculously low 184 degrees. I bumped it up two degrees to try to coax a little more crema out of the older beans, with mixed results. It still poured thinly, but the character of the coffee came through — lots of brightness and a little bit sweet. People who tasted it liked it. I’m anxious to try this one again with some fresher beans. When I order more from Blue Bottle, I’ll post again to give them a better review at the peak of freshness.

The last two photos are of the Hairbender capp and of the cafe from behind the espresso bar.

Thanks to David for bringing me the beans and taking the photos. We’ll do this again sometime!

[Cross-posted on Smelling the Coffee. This post was originally published on EatFoo(d) on 8/29/06.]