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Thoughts on Dale Harris, World Barista Champion 2017

Over 60 baristas from around the world competed for the coveted title of World Barista Champion in Seoul this year. Watch the performance of Dale Harris here, you’d be as awe-struck as I was. His performance echoed thoughts I’ve been having lately on running a specialty coffee business and advocacy for this trade.

Dale Harris at WBC 2017

Over 60 baristas from around the world competed for the coveted title of World Barista Champion in Seoul this 2017.

I was awe-struck when I watched Dale Harris, the new champion, go about his routine.

You can watch his full performance here.

His performance echoed thoughts I’ve been having lately on running a specialty coffee business and advocacy for the trade and industry. 

His routine involved a theme where he was attempting to create a stronger relationship and interest in the farm origins and details. He figured that in order to do this, he needed to start first with a jaw-dropping and overwhelmingly intense sensory experience which would invoke the necessary interest in his audience for them to want to find out more information about the coffee and the farm. Giving out all these information prior to the sensory experience without context and repeatedly is commodifying the information and can become, in his words, “just noise”.

To Business and Beyond

This is the same approach that has been repeatedly advocated for in business management. We should always judge for consumer interest and demand prior to developing a product. Similar to the Agile approach where we first build a Minimum Viable Product to gauge and create interest and then refine it based on consumer feedback. Rather than the traditional approach of spending countless hours and effort building a complete product and launching it only to find out that the consumer has no interest at all. In this current day and age, if you are unable to create value for the consumer, it will be near impossible to create a business that will succeed in getting customers to pay you.

Translated to the coffee scene, this is the same as bombarding a customer with loads of information about the farm and processing methods and this brewing method and that roast profile; when all the customer wants is to quickly grab a cup of coffee and get on with their work. They just don’t care, or at least, not in that moment because they just don’t see the value in the information and they have no idea what to do with it. Majority of customers in cafes are so far removed and disconnected from what happens at the farm that all this information is just gibberish and mean absolutely nothing to them. 

The best way, and in my opinion the only way, to advocate for specialty coffee and get people interested in finding out more in-depth information about it is to first create that interest. We can do that by providing them with a complete and world class sensory experience. If we can make them go “wow” whether verbally or just in their head, and have them intrigued enough to start asking questions, then we can start to pull them in with more information about the coffee. This is how I, and almost everybody I know, got their start in coffee. They tasted something out of the ordinary, and that sparked their interest into finding out more and eventually becoming completely addicted and engrossed in the world that is specialty coffee.

Yet when we go about competing in barista competitions and in the business world, this is not how we approach our competition routines nor our business strategies. Instead, we bombard the judges with loads of information without any context. We build products without adequate market research but rather what we THINK is valuable or amazing and expect people to love it just as much as we do. Sometimes we get lucky, but most of the time this approach just falls flat on its face and is completely outdated, especially with the amount of competition and available alternative options out there.

This approach translates to other aspects of life as well, not just coffee or business. A great example is the Finnish education system which has been ranked at the top around the world and consistently stayed at the top for many years until others started copying them. From primary school, kids are immediately taught subjects from engineering to video game design without any of the deeper fundamental work such as general math or science. They are taught instead to use calculators and pre-existing solutions and answers for scientific problems to help them with their school work. 

Many people would think this is crazy, how could you possibly go through life, much less succeed, without knowing simple math and general knowledge? Yet Finland has consistently ranked at the top in education for decades. Why is this? The answer is the same approach used by Dale Harris. The school employs expert professionals that have a deep knowledge and understanding of the subject being taught at all levels of education, even primary school. Rather than having teachers with a broad but shallow knowledge of various subjects. This deep knowledge helps teachers to foster deeper interest and knowledge within subjects that capture the student’s attention; students actually reported liking school instead of hating it or finding it stressful. 

Students who develop an interest in the relevant subjects will eventually dive deeper to understand the more basic and necessary knowledge on their own. For e.g. students who have an interest in computer science or engineering would be self-motivated enough to find out more about math and how it works to help them solve their related subject problems. It has been shown that this intrinsic motivation is much more effective at encouraging learning and actual long-term memory recall. Compare this to being forced to learn a wide breadth of topics with shallow surface level knowledge that we have almost all but forgotten by the time we even turn 21. 

If we, like Dale, can provide a sensory experience that is “wow” enough to invoke interest and fascinate people, that would create the necessary intrinsic motivation in them to seek out more knowledge and understand more about specialty coffee on their own rather than us forcibly shoving information down their throats.

Compound Coffee Co.’s tagline is “Greater Coffee Experiences” and our work has always been dedicated to finding ways to improve that sensory experience which we provide to our customers. We hope to drive more interest in the coffee industry and what farmers do at origin which has so much impact on the final cup. Hopefully, with enough interest and education, there will come a time in the future where consumers are willing to pay more for extraordinary coffees and that demand will lead to more money reaching the farmers. This will help promote a sustainable living income for the farmers and also a thriving coffee farm culture that can enable and empower them to achieve so much more than just great coffee.

True Hospitality

There are so many lessons about hospitality that we can learn from this short 15-minute routine. The first one being Dale’s approach to interacting with the judges. Right from the get go, he specifically asks them NOT to turn to or look at him but rather focus on what’s in front of them and enjoying the sensory experience that he has prepared for them. This takes the entire spotlight off him and instead places it on the judges and their experience of the coffees and visual presentations. It takes, in my opinion, a truly humble person and a barista sincerely gunning for a purpose bigger than himself (in this case, a connection with the farm) to be able to present in this manner. Many baristas are always in a mindset of “look at me look at me”, and “this is what I did or look what I discovered, I am so awesome” as opposed to Dale’s “Hey look at what this farm did differently and here's how that impacts the coffee based on this study”. There is barely a shred of ego in his entire performance.

Later on, while giving his instructions to pick up and smell the aromatic cubes, he had to repeat himself a second time to encourage them to do so as there is clearly a pressure to be on time. Dale inadvertently apologizes for his instructions being difficult. It is clearly not difficult, but Dale apologizes anyway to avoid any feelings of pushiness on the judges and to make them feel comfortable. This is a great example of what real hospitality is like, even through such a small and insignificant gesture. The goal is to make your guest feel as comfortable as possible and take any pressure/uncertainty off their minds to allow them to enjoy their experience as fully as possible and Dale achieves this effortlessly. 

Some people might retort that there is no need to apologize. It’s not like they did anything wrong. But that is missing the point entirely, while it’s true that you didn’t do anything wrong, it isn’t about right or wrong here but how a simple gesture like this can actually make a customer feel completely different. There are a tremendous number of “professionals” who can’t get this right simply because their ego & pride gets in their way. It takes a real understanding of and commitment to hospitality for professionals to be able to perform these little actions as it stems naturally from a sincere desire to please the customer and try to make them feel as comfortable as possible. 

People just going through the motions of their jobs or who don’t actually enjoy their jobs will find it incredibly difficult to reach this level of hospitality because it will be exhausting to constantly keep up such behavior for an extended period of time. 

During the third phase of his presentation, he invites the judges to turn around to the next table and casually adds “squeeze in closer, it’s okay, we’re all friends here”. “We’re all friends here”! What a simple yet masterful sentence! When was the last time, if ever, anybody said anything remotely similar to “We’re all friends here” during their routine to the judges? How would YOU feel when you’re at a café/bar/restaurant and the barista presenting to you talks like that? It’d make you feel totally welcomed there wouldn’t it? Yet how many people would be comfortable, let alone sincere enough to actually mean it when they say such a simple sentence to their customers. How many people are actually sincere about befriending their customers?

This entire routine has been a real inspiration to me, and I hope that it will be the same for everyone else. It was truly a master class in hospitality and a focus on providing a world class customer experience, all whilst maintaining an impeccable technical standard and serving a purpose bigger than the barista himself; the farm and their story.