When Innovation isn't Innovative

Every morning when I visit my local café, I expect to receive the same thing I did yesterday... clean, strong espresso, served in a small ceramic cup, with a glass of water.


Like many professions, consistency is key.


On the surface, making coffee appears as a rather simple manual task... however, over the last 10-15 years you may have observed a trend within cafés for more digital and automated tools - wholly automated grinders, digital scales, electric tampers, thermometers and increasingly digitised espresso machines.


Personally, having spent some time on ‘the tools’ it gave me pause to wonder why?


Espresso is a relatively simple task, though it requires experience, craft and dedication in order to become proficient and deliver a consistent, quality result.


I think a relevant question to ask when being sold any innovation is... do we really need the fancy tools and do they actually improve the process or result?



The basics making espresso can be taught in five minutes:

  1. Grind coffee beans.

  2. Dose the grind into the portafilter (basket).

  3. Tamp the grind.

  4. Insert basket into the group head (espresso machine).

  5. Extract/pour the espresso.

  6. If the coffee requires milk, you would be steaming this at the same time.

  7. Add milk to coffee as required.

  8. Plate and serve.


Making one coffee is easy. Juggling multiple orders with different milks, delivering them hot/cold, consistently, cleanly, in-house or take-away, is where skill and expertise is required.


For a Barista, the advent of automatic tools are merely the substitution of a manual process for an automated process.


While appearing to remove certain tasks from a Barista, they do not replace the need for a Barista, nor does it produce a more efficient result and (in my opinion) reduces the quality of the product.


The want to improve something that doesn’t need to be fixed is often a case of applying the magnifying glass over the process rather than the result.


So whose innovation was this and how has it become so popular?


To answer this we need to dive into the granular math of making espresso...


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The average espresso portafilter (the basket) ranges in size between 12g to 16g; the basket size will depend on the type of coffee you use and the flavour profile you wish to create.


A 1kg bag of coffee, at 12g doses, will make approximately 80 basic coffees.

The higher the dose, the more grind you use, the fewer the number of coffees produced per bag.


Let’s suppose our local café goes through 5kg per day:


5kgs per day x 7 = 35kgs per week


35kgs x 4 = 140kgs per month


Our local café buys their coffee from a roaster/supplier who generally offers equipment to facilitate their product, thus creating a one-stop-shop for café owners.


Let’s say a supplier sells our café 35kgs of coffee per week, at standard 12 month contract = 35kgs x 52 weeks.


If our local cafe was brewing espresso at 12g per dose: 



1kg @ 12g = 80 coffees


5kg p/d @ 80 coffees = 400 coffees p/day


35kgs p/week @ 400 coffees p/day = 11, 200 coffees p/month


If we increase the math by only 2g dose:


1kg @ 14g = 70 coffees


5kg p/d @ 70 coffees = 350 coffees p/day


35kgs p/week @ 350 coffees p/day = 9,800 coffees p/month


An increase of 2g per dose results in 1, 400 less coffees per month.

Our café would need to order twenty extra kilos per month to satisfy demand.


If the average wholesale cost of coffee beans was: 1kg bag = $40


Our local cafés account previously valued at: 140kg p/month x $40 = $5,600 p/month


At 14g per dose, is now worth: 160kg p/month x $40 = $6,400 p/month



Over 12 months, the account is worth an additional: $9,600 p/a


Even though more coffee is being consumed, our café is not selling more coffee or increasing their profits - precisely the opposite - they’re spending $9.6k p.a more to satisfy equivalent demand.


Roasters learned that your average café will shop around based on ‘price per kilo’, so they adopted the classic ice-cream sales tactic… ‘keep the price the same, reduce the size’.


For our local café, it's an extra $10k p.a investment for limited return.

For an organisation, it's often 10 x this investment for an equivalent result.


Sales... under the guise of innovation... is inserted to exploit value from accounts, which would otherwise remain static.


Like all good innovation, once adopted by a peer, it will be copied by your competition; this is how automation has become the new hot thing in espresso.


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There is an argument to be made that automating the initial steps allows an amateur to begin making coffee and gets them up to speed quicker; it helps set a consistent standard and reduces wastage.



For suppliers and café owners, we need not take as much time to train the staff since automation removes certain responsibilities from the Barista; this can be a useful framework to satisfy a franchise model and scale at speed.


What is unaccounted for in this theory are two small factors known as;

physics and gravity.


Every single time coffee is ground and falls into a bucket, it will be variable.



Every single time water is heated and espresso extracted, it will be variable.


Every batch of coffee beans is variable and does not always grind consistently.


It is for precisely this reason a Barista is employed as quality control; brewing espresso requires a specific alchemy with a narrow margin for error, one requires expertise to produce a consistent result.


The bottom line is this:

  1. An untrained Barista can operate neither a manual nor automated process and is unable to troubleshoot when systems go awry.

  2. A trained Barista using either process will produce exactly the same result.

  3. Both processes, adequately performed, produce crisp, clean, hot, espresso, in under sixty seconds.


Innovation has been introduced, at face value, to ease manual labour/improve process.


In reality, to dictate terms a product will be served to maximise a providers profit.


While you may debate the pros and cons automation…when assessing innovation, we would be wise to focus on the desired result, rather than how elaborate the process is.


In truth, the process of making espresso has been innovated... simply not for the benefit of consumers, nor the café owners or Baristas to whom this innovation was sold.


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Christopher. S. Sellers is an Expert on Creativity + Innovation

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Founder + Director of Black Bulb Creative