Beyond the talks and minds that make TED famous each year is a particular kind of fuel we're proud to be in the business of: coffee, and the customer service that goes along with it. This year, we were honored to have two of our best coffee professionals, Teresa von Fuchs and Tamara Vigil, selected to help out at the TEDcoffee portion of TED. Here's Teresa's firsthand account of what made it so special.
I first heard about TED when someone sent me the video link of Jill Bolte Taylor detailing her stroke. The story of a Neuroanatomist experiencing her own brain in such a unique way, and then being able to detail that experience just blew me away.The venue for sharing this was TED—and uniquely TED.
So when I was invited, along with 30 other respected coffee professionals, to be a part of this year’s TED, as part of the coffee service program, I was thrilled. Thrilled by the thought of rubbing shoulders with great minds in so many different fields. (And of course there was some of that—I actually met Dr. Bolte Taylor, along with some other very inspiring and smart people). And thrilled by the coffee peers selected with me, and by the way new ideas were able to germinate and bloom so quickly in the simple act of working together. Thrilled by how with even the barest infrastructure, we all took the task of pouring what we loved about coffee so seriously into every cup.
A little background on this year’s #TEDcoffee, as we called it. While serious coffee has always been important to the TED organizers, this was the first year the Barista Guild of America (BGA), the Roasters Guild and the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) had the opportunity to take on the project and present a coffee service as a collaboration.
The Roasters Guild held an open call for coffee submissions, and blind cupped coffees from 36 different roasters. They then selected five coffees to be highlighted as single origins, and created one blend using coffees from three different roasters.
The Barista Guild sent invites to members it had identified as having strong “skills in not only making great coffee but being exceptional ambassadors for specialty coffee.” And the SCAA asked its equipment and smallwares members if they could loan/donate/pitch in to create the seven bars that were open continuously during the event. There’s no overstating what a massive amount of logistical, organizational and plain-old-elbow-grease was required to just set the process in motion, let alone pull it off as a raging success. Huge props, hugs and high fives go out to Chris Schooley, Head of the Roasters Guild, Trevor Corlett, Vice-Chair of the BGA, Julie Housh of World Coffee Events and Peter Giuliano of SCAA Symposium.
The day before TED opened, 30 baristas flew to California from all over the world and met up at SCAA headquarters in Long Beach to get the scoop on the work we had cut out for us during the next week. Our organizing leaders had invited the barista team because they knew we could all make great coffee and spin a good yarn about what makes it special, but they had an even clearer idea of what they wanted service to look like. Ric Rhinehart, Executive Director of the SCAA, started us off by talking about how we’re all here because we love coffee:
“We think it’s really important, but at the end of the day, it’s just coffee. We’re not curing cancer, its not rocket science, there’s no nutritive value. But that’s one of the reasons its special. We don’t need wine or music or love to survive either, but it’s those things that make life richer, sweeter. And coffee has that power too, to enhance our lives not because we need it, but because we love it. And we can share that love with the folks at TED.”
We were encouraged to talk about the coffees by talking about what we were doing, not just the seed-to-cup story, but focusing on the craftsmanship and artistry of making specialty coffee special. In the same vein, Chris Schooley asked that we focus on the actual people who roasted these coffees. We were given info about each coffee, and each roaster detailed how he or she approached this coffee. He asked that we name the roaster, not just the company, for each coffee when we served it.
Trevor Corlett followed this up by reminding us that the story of all of us coming together from competing companies, that we volunteered our time and paid our own ways to be there, could help create the potential “lightbulb” moment for people in attendance. These were, after all, some of the brightest people in the world, coming together to share ideas: why wouldn’t they want to share some ideas about coffee with some of the brightest coffee pros around?
All this inspiring talk about service and love eased us into the nitty gritty of schedules: though it was now pushing 10pm, some folks were still needed to finish setting up the bars. And this was basically how the rest of the week would run: morning meetings started at 7am, we started closing the coffee bars down at 7pm, and then all tromped to dinner where we’d discuss the finer points of how these big ideas of service were translating into the day-to-day details.
So how did all these big ideas translate into actual service? About as well as they do at home, in all of our best-intentioned specialty coffee businesses. A small percentage of folks already got it and were thrilled with what we were doing and that we were there. A similar percentage commented that they’d come in with a cup of something else and soon realized they couldn’t drink it once they compared it with the deliciousness we were serving. A few folks had their socks blown off for the first time. Most folks said thank you. And a good number barely registered that we weren’t catering staff. And though that reality could seem disheartening, it didn’t kill the love we poured into every cup one bit. It didn’t dampen the collective professional passion, or our ability to remain open to learning something from the person working beside us.There was a really natural and quick evolution of bar/work flow as folks from all different shops and backgrounds worked together during the stampedes to fill every cup, and how we drew together in the slow times to coax attendees into engaging. The story of collaboration, of the three-roaster blend, of working next to someone who at other times is a “competitor” (in business life, or literally your opponent in a barista competition) infused the whole experience, creating real magic. As Peter G. encouraged us in our early meeting, this helped us bring “real humanity into the equation of specialty.”
I don’t mean to downplay the joy or truly incredible experience many attendees had—there were meaningful and rewarding service moments every day, when someone (like former VP Al Gore or the head of Google) started asking questions about the coffee or what we were doing, or why our badges said volunteer when we were clearly working hard, or had that look of pure delight when they took a sip and actually tasted the coffee.
One of my favorite, though silly, moments was overhearing an attendee, or TEDster as we called them, walk by and ask her friend “Did you know the coffee people here are world champion coffee makers? They came just to make us award winning coffee.” But one of the biggest things I took back with me was how much we can learn about preparation and presentation from the spirit of collaboration—of working with people who you’d otherwise not have the opportunity to work beside. This coming together renewed a focus on the coffee as a whole as special, not just our company or shop or cup or even the coffee producer, but the collective work and passion that goes into the whole equation.
Along these lines, I want to mention a parallel I’m still chewing on from one of the talks I got to hear during the event. We talked about this and many other ideas from the talks in our clean-up or slow moments, but I’d like to know what you all think about how this idea can relate to our work: musician and performer Amanda Palmer talked about wanting to never lose a direct “intense kind of eye contact” connection with her fans, about how she approaches her art, her life and her music with a daring trust in her fans and collaborators to support and “catch” her.
And from that perspective it looked like maybe the music industry has been asking the wrong question, when it wonders “How do we get people to pay for music?” The question she wants to explore is how can we ask them to pay for music? And in that vein, I’m wondering how we can we ask our customers and coffee drinking people what’s special to them about coffee and in what new ways we can draw them into our love and passion.
Thanks for reading, it was a long, awesome week and this is really only the beginning of the ideas and inspiration bubbling up. For a full list of “winning” coffees, “world champion coffee makers” and partner supporting organizations that made #TEDcoffee possible, check out the BGA blog here.