Verve Coffee's Colby Barr on How to Help People Discover Richer Coffee

Categories: Coffee

In an effort to chart the ever-expanding specialty coffee scene in the Bay Area, we've been engaging a selection of local coffee personalities to pick their brains about why coffee and why now. Today we talk to Colby Barr of Santa Cruz's Verve Coffee.

Can you tell me a little bit about how Verve started and what you guys are all about?
Verve began one day four years ago while I sat on a curb and called a college friend of mine and said, "you know, we should start a coffee roasting company." It was literally a phone call; the next week we met up and started looking for places. A handshake deal from the get-go.

And why did coffee fascinate you then and now?
Coffee is fascinating because there is so much depth and personality in it. You never know what you are going to get and anything is possible. It is an endless exploration of what could be out there and what is possible. The more I learn, the more there is to know and so on. It's a serious rabbit hole.

You guys are a part of the new wave of roaster-retailers in the Bay Area (Sightglass, Four Barrel, etc.), but you're located in Santa Cruz. I wonder how you see yourself standing out from the group?

We buy and roast the best coffees on the planet, and serve them with smiles. We travel months and months to source our coffees directly each year and will continue to do so. However, for us, service is equally as important as quality. We go to great lengths in our hiring and our training ensure the best group of employees around. There are a lot of companies that talk about service, but it's another thing to really commit to it - especially when it is so easy to loose your head in the clouds of cultivars and tasting notes.

You need to execute on both sides of the fence - "coffee" quality and "customer" service. Nobody is going to care about our $50 half-pound bag of green-tip geisha grown only on the southeast slope of the 1,800 meter farm if we forget to greet them when they walk in the door. The key to getting people deeper into coffee is by first making them feel welcome.

Along those lines, why do you think the coffee business has developed such a stereotype of poor customer service?

It's garnered it because in many ways it's earned it. Because there is so much more attention and discussion on the coffee itself, many [in the business] find themselves in a false-position of authority because of it. That attitude is so easily felt by customers and does nothing to help them appreciate or understand more about coffee. It actually detracts from it. There seems to be a feeling of entitlement and disdain that comes along with coffee knowledge. Yes, it's really important to understand the depths of coffee agronomy and the nuances of tasting, but we are operating in a retail market, not a laboratory.

What do you do as a specialty coffee company to wash away this stereotype?

You have ease the customer on down the road. You need to first garner people's trust and confidence before anything and you need to provide a spectacular product. If people are in love with the coffee and your business, they are more likely to want to learn. If you force it down their throats, they're likely to be turned off from it and feel like an outsider.

It is all about people. It is only about people. You can't make somebody learn how to be nice or how to be outgoing - that was their parents' job. Candidates applying to Verve even have to attend a one week academic coffee program in which they must take a 4 hour test and score 90% or better to even be considered for hiring. That energy and enthusiasm for the job translates directly to the service they'll provide our customers.

How then would you most prefer your customers drink their coffee?

I think people should drink coffee however they want to drink coffee. I'd love if everyone would drink coffee with perfectly filtered water, freshly ground coffee, and brew methods that are conducted with focus, but sometimes the journey begins with a 20 ounce latte from Starbucks. The hope is that they will continue down the path and eventually end up in our cafes asking about Cup of Excellence coffees. It has happened, and it will continue to happen.


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Jessica Rios
Jessica Rios

Colby's customer service ethic has bewildered me for years as I've gone back to his coffeehouses time and time again, to consistently find baristas and cashiers (who aren't earning fat cash) genuinely happy to be at work. A rare sort of pride to find in retail. He is clearly a values-based business leader. Not to mention, I can rely on asking for and getting my cappuccino how I want it -- with a thick mass of silky foam, endlessly smooth to the swallow. My mornings wouldn't be half as rich w/o Colby's commitment to excellence.


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