Milos’s trip to Chicago, and Anderson’s trip to California are pieces of the broad illy picture, for not only does the company supply Italy’s world renowned illy coffee in America, but it also supplies what is perhaps the highest level coffee education, grounded in almost 80 years of innovation. And education, in America’s coffee world circa 2011, is positively essential. The need for illy’s brand of education is one of the key things that separates the on-premise coffee business from the on-premise wine business today. Oh, the world of wine has massive educational needs as well, but they are of a different nature. Wine education often focuses on the incredibly diverse winemaking regions of the world, improving the working knowledge of the sommelier by expanding his or her scope. Beyond that, wine’s basic reality is that the product, once in-house, is virtually ready to go, just a corkscrew or cap twist away. Some refinement helps, of course, but the sommelier does not need extensive training to get the product into the customer’s glass.
In coffee, that kind of training – in this case, getting the product into the cup – is desperately needed because the product for a coffee roaster like illy is not the finished product that the consumer drinks. It is whole roasted beans, or ground roasted beans, which need to be transformed into something drinkable. In wine, this would be like asking the sommelier to open a can of grape juice and ferment it! “Wine bars serving wine only don’t require a chef,” observes Mark Romano, illy’s U.S. Director of Education, Quality, and Sustainability. “Restaurants require a chef, and coffee bars of all kinds require something very much like a chef.”
The other grand difference between wine and coffee in America is that wine, by now, is fairly well-grounded in our culture. Our wine boom preceded our coffee boom by many years. Therefore, the hotel/restaurant/café purveyor of coffee needs support and education to move beyond the old “cuppa joe” context, and fully participate in the global coffee culture. Furthermore, illy knows education has to work both sides of the street, educating those in the trade and educating consumers. Wine attained its status in America because dedicated wine people, like Robert Mondavi, furthered the cause of education. Illy, with its passion and wide spread, is in an analogous position now.
Let’s look at how illy handles these two coffee-specific educational needs. The details are of prime importance in global coffee education, for a cup of illy coffee ends up in the hands of six million people every day – far more hands than any single wine producer gets to.
It is, of course, to illy’s advantage for cafés and hotels to present the best possible coffee to their customers. It lifts the brand, it makes more money for the coffee partner, and it results in greater re-purchases. Education generates ROI. With this in mind, illy has brought in one of the world’s foremost experts on coffee, charismatic Trieste-born Milos, who has been working with the company since 1995, originally in quality control. He is a past winner of the Italian Barista Championship, a Specialty Coffee Association of Europe-certified Master Barista, and is on faculty at illy’s Università del Caffè (UDC). He currently holds the title of illy Master Barista, which means he is kind of like a Barista Emeritus, the head of illy’s training efforts targeted at consumers as well as illy’s accounts.
Milos provides invaluable insight into what it means to be a barista in Italy, transferring his passion for coffee to the baristas in the class. Selecting, grinding, dosing, and tamping coffee for espresso, and mastering the machine are all in Milos’s core curriculum to be sure, but are not the entire course of study. One of his favorite subjects comes later in the sequence: the application of steamed milk to espresso to create what is now called “latte art.”
“Making a perfect cup of espresso itself is very hard to teach,” says Milos. “But in latte art training you can see the students’ improvement minute by minute. Sloppy cups of cappuccino yield to beautiful lacy patterns before your very eyes.”
“Making great coffee, from espresso to the perfect cup of drip, comes down to obsessiveness,” Milos goes on to say. “The young barista must develop a feel for every step of the process and then be able to reproduce his or her actions in any environment. I teach my passion for keeping things clean, for example, down to when and how to brush off what part of the machine. With this detail, and every other, I teach obsession.”
Milos leads a wide array of programs for tradesperson and consumer alike. Mission critical is the very detailed, hands-on training he provides to accounts across country. These are professional sessions. Giorgio is also front and center at illy’s consumer-facing Master Barista Series, including Be Your Own Barista (given in a retail setting) and Coffee Sense (taught in café settings). Milos’s role as educator goes far beyond hands-on training. He is on faculty at illy’s Università del Caffé (UDC), established at illy’s home base in Trieste, Italy in 1999, and now running in 23 countries. It is very much a university, with an array of instructors providing a 360-degree view of coffee, from plantation to cup, from agronomy to biology, from history to menu design, to the business of coffee, and everything in between. The program has no parallel in coffee education, with a student body ranging from the very farmers who grow illy-destined coffee to the world’s foremost hoteliers and restaurateurs, to obsessed consumers.
As Milos is master of coffee preparation education, his colleague Anderson teaches coffee business, analyzing a partner’s needs and opportunities like few others can, and charting steps large and small to grow revenue and profit. She communicates a sense of illy’s place in the on-premise landscape, making regular visits to top management at everything from cafés to five-star hotels, while all along the way elevating illy‘s role well beyond coffee seller, to coffee consultant.
It starts with a basic inspection of the venue. “Many of our competitors supply their accounts with a one-size-fits-all box,” says Anderson. “That’s not good for coffee. We customize and handcraft, account by account, across all preparation methods.” Often, this results in sober advice on what kind of illy product the account should buy: pre-ground beans (espresso and drip each get their own grind), or beans for grinding, or perhaps illy’s iperEspresso, a capsule that permits the creation of great espresso at the touch of a button. “In fact, we designed iperEspresso,” says Barry Sheldon, illy’s chief operating officer, “specifically for those accounts that didn’t have the infrastructure to regularly produce high-quality espresso from beans.”
So how does the evaluation process begin? “If I’m in a hotel,” says Anderson, “I always put myself in the shoes of the first-time guest in order to see WHEN I become aware of the primary coffee location within the hotel. Is it easier for me to leave the hotel, cross the street, and carry a coffee back in a paper cup?” A recent study, in fact, demonstrated that fully 50 percent of hotel guests do leave the hotel to take their morning coffee. “Seventy-two percent of coffee is consumed by noon,” Anderson continues. “So I’m always looking to see if the location is optimized to take advantage of the morning coffee opportunity. Oftentimes we recommend that the hotel re-purpose its liquor bar in the morning so that it becomes a coffee bar.”
Menu-training alone makes a huge difference in coffee. Those selling wine, as a contrast, invariably offer their guests a look at some kind of list. Astonishingly, this does not always happen in coffee establishments. “We recommended that a Boston café put up a large coffee menu on the wall, and the customers in line were ordering off of it as it was being carried in by the workmen!”
It is, in general, the upward education of the consumer that yields greater profits. Espresso-type drinks, compared to drip-coffee drinks, have much higher profit margins. “We get the purveyor thinking about price per cup, rather than price per pound,” Anderson explains. “It enables them to reach a high 90 points of profit, which is similar to the profit in liquor drinks.” At the same time, however, Anderson does not encourage accounts to solely focus on espresso because there will always be demand for brewed coffee, and she knows how to coax more dollars per cup there, too.
Anderson’s brand of instruction also goes deeper, to a cultural level. Above all, it is the goal of the illy team to prepare the barista and management staff to create an authentic Italian coffee experience for their consumers, “a coffee culture” as illy likes to say. Is the espresso machine centered on the bar or is it hidden on a bar loaded with muffins? Is the espresso served in a porcelain cup, which increases drinking pleasure? Is there an openness of interaction between barista and customer? Does it feel personal? “Most coffee sold at stand-up bars in America is minimally interactive,” says Anderson. “It is the money transaction that drives the purchase through. In Italy, it is the coffee itself that’s at the center of the experience. Knowing this is an important part of knowing what coffee is. You wouldn’t think of cold Chateau Petrus from a styrofoam cup as a wine experience.”
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The illy way is to remind the potential barista to smile, to look the customer in the eye. “Have fun with the customer, we tell the barista,” says Anderson. “Be on stage, front and center.” Illy helps baristas and staff understand where they stand in the “coffee chain,” giving them a sense of pride in the role they have to play. Anderson points out, “We ask our purveyors to consider literally the thousands of people who have worked through the long chain of coffee production. By the time the coffee reaches the consumer, the quality has been carefully protected by many people taking careful steps, and now it is in the hands of the baristas who have the final responsibility to create excellence. It is a challenge to which most are delighted to rise.” At each venue, illy has created the concept of the coffee champion, the one person considered responsible for the reception and transmission of illy’s education. “The job of barista is usually not a long-term job,” Milos says. “So the best way to train a staff and keep them trained is to identify and train a coffee champion who is preferably a manager, or even an owner.”
But illy has another key way of motivating, with a program called Artisti del Gusto (ADG), which recognizes independent cafés that create their own interpretation of the authentic Italian coffee experience through the artistry of a classically-trained barista. There are 60 of these across North America today. Once a café is accepted into the program, illy intensifies training, marketing support, and quality monitoring to combine the inspiration and precision of Italian coffee tradition with the artistry of the local barista. While Artisti del Gusto cafés commit to illy as exclusive coffee purveyor, they do not actually become illy cafés. Each maintains its distinct identity, with illy’s deep support “running in the background,” in computer parlance.
There’s always something new to think about on the illy road. The cup is never half empty, nor is it half full. It is brimming continuously with manifold opportunities to educate.
Anderson has finally arrived in Los Angeles and is looking to maximize all of the education opportunities discussed above. She proceeds directly to the JW Marriott Los Angeles L.A. Live hotel and arrives with the mandate to “give the coffee program a punch,” by building the coffee culture. One of the reasons this Marriott was chosen for a visit is that it is home to an espressamente illy coffee bar, which is illy’s worldwide franchise operation, with over 240 locations from Palermo to Shanghai. An espressamente illy at the Marriott Biscayne Bay in Florida recently started imprinting their plastic room keys with coffee imagery and a message encouraging the guest to visit the espressamente illy. Why not here?
In the morning, Jan gathers her team, illy’s regional manager along with its budget analyst. They meet with their Italian colleague who oversees espressamente illy globally and with espressamente illy’s North American consulting manager, and discuss better modes of training for employees. Special attention is given to the ways in which espressamente illy marketing in Italy (the franchise group is Italy-based) might differ from espressamente illy marketing in the U.S.
Portfolio Coffeehouse, an L.A. member of the Artisti del Gusto group, is a successful and well-loved café that has increased its business since becoming an ADG. On average, these cafes see a 20% increase after converting to the program. Says owner Kerstin Kansteiner, “The ADG partnership with illy has elevated Portfolio Coffeehouse from a very good café to one where superior education and training have pushed us into the top echelon of independent cafés in the area.” Kansteiner welcomes the illy team with beautiful espressos, cappuccinos, and lattes, and then joins them at the table. Here, the emphasis is on listening as Kansteiner tells the illy team exactly what she needs to upgrade staff training. It is decided that the Portfolio barista will 1) attend the next session of illy’s UDC being held at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, and 2) receive a visit from Milos for hands-on training.
Finishing at 11 a.m., the team moves on to the Arclight Theatre, a venue that combines an outstanding movie theatre with a bar, retail area, and coffee cart. Arclight is building a new café area at this location and this meeting brings together the illy team with Arclight’s management and design team. “We’re opening their minds to another way of thinking about and selling coffee,” says Anderson. “Their original coffee location reflected the old mind-set of the coffee queue, folks moving through without much interaction. Their new café will have a much larger area of consumer interaction. We spoke with them about typical vs. authentic, and successfully conveyed the illy vision of the barista experience.”
The team is on a roll, and lunch is not even considered. On to a local winery named San Antonio, which has plans for a beautiful café. Team illy and the management discuss all the elements that an opening will entail.
Then it is on to the new restaurant, L.A. Reflection, for another discussion heavily tilting towards design. Though restaurants bring in less revenue than, say, hotels, illy is interested in this one because it will be open 24 hours a day, with many customers at the right times of day looking for coffee. “This is mainly a discussion of the interface between our concepts and their aesthetics,” Anderson explains. At L.A. Reflection, they have decided to do all signage by projection on screens. “They tell us it’s cleaner, meaning fewer resources go into the production of signs,” she says. “But we leave wondering if there’s not some deeper link to the most famous industry of L.A., which also depends on projection.”
And on it goes, throughout the afternoon and evening. Then to San Diego and San Francisco, before flying back to New York a week later to meet with Milos and reconnoiter.