Some musings on why we made the move to table service…

When we set up our first retail space at Leeds Dock, there was no question in our mind that we wanted to run it with counter service – after all, it was a coffee shop and this seemed to be the norm. A few months in however, we started to become aware of some problems this presented us with:

1. Due to our location, we generally have distinctive busy periods around breakfast and lunch, it would frequently be the case that office workers trying to grab a bite to eat during tight lunch breaks would take one look at the queue that developed and would walk out seeking quicker replenishment elsewhere.

2. We have a very unique offering down here that needs a bit more time to communicate to the customer. Yes we have a very clear menu above the till but it does not fully get across the vast range of teas and coffees we have, nor the wide variety of plated food available. Too many times, we witnessed customers in a bit of a panic at the front of a queue who felt under pressure to order quickly and not take up too much time of the staff member serving them – sales of lattes and cakes (in the counter right next to them) were great, but we weren’t getting across everything we had to offer including the 5-6 single origin filter coffees we have on rotation nor the vast loose leaf tea menu. What we are trying to do down here is ensure that absolutely everything we have to sell has been sourced or made with the same care and attention to detail that we show our coffee. If a customer feels they have to place their order in 10-15 seconds, they are likely missing out on the very best of what we have available, often not even glancing at a menu.

Even if a customer knows exactly what they want, we still want a chance to be able to talk about the coffees we have on offer to ensure they are selecting the one right for them – this space is used to showcase some of our most interesting and complex coffees and sometimes we do not have an option that is familiar to a lot of people’s palates. During our Burundi takeover for instance, we had two espresso options available – one which tasted of pineapple, orange and caramel, the other was described as cola and foam bananas! We have always set out to make specialty coffee more approachable to everyone as this is absolutely what is required to allow the industry to continue to grow and develop – if we are not able to have that chance to communicate the coffee offering down here, it can often result in a negative first experience for the customer who might be made to feel isolated or intimidated.

3. The space we have here is pretty big, it really requires at least two members of staff front of house at all times as it can very quickly get to the point of feeling unmanageably busy – though when quiet, it could leave our team members with little to do and the atmosphere in the space became less customer focused. Not only do we have a focus and goal of providing the best food and coffee we can and pushing the boundaries of what is generally found in a coffee shop, we also understand we are in the business of HOSPITALITY – this means providing an environment that is hospitable at all times to the people coming in willing to spend some money in our store. Our definition and view of this is that there should be no one sat for hours on end with an empty plate in front of them, everyone should be offered tap water on arrival, customers should not have to repeatedly go back to the till should they want something else and the atmosphere should always be one that is friendly, welcoming and professional.

In March this year, 6 months after we had first opened our doors, we decided to make the move to table service. This was, as you can imagine, a huge change for the team and for the regular customers. It needed managing meticulously and was done so brilliantly by the wonderful Frankie who had come to us from Melbourne where it is the absolute norm for there to be table service in a coffee shop. The experiences that we have had in the coffee industry across Australia/New Zealand and even in London have shown that this is a tried and tested approach. Yes there have been some people that have questioned the decision, many of whom do not even work in the space. I now feel obliged to write this to try and communicate our reasons for making this decision and to set the record straight.

In our mind, a Barista’s role encompasses so much more than pulling espresso and steaming milk, we are very fortunate to have a team of highly skilled Barista’s working for us here to ensure the quality of coffee served and the maintenance of the machine and equipment is never an issue. It is time that Baristas started to fully appreciate the role they have to play in an industry that is so much bigger than just one space in one city. The specialty industry, whilst growing, still requires so much work to allow it to continue growing and developing. There are new challenges to be faced every day both in the consuming and producing parts of the industry. There is still a huge proportion of the market to be converted and that requires a lot more than just pouring a pretty design on top of a coffee, whilst we recognise this is important it is absolutely not the be all and end all. A huge part of people’s interaction with specialty coffee is the conversation that accompanies it and the knowledge that is shared – this simply cannot be done when there is a queue out the door and the Barista has his or her head down at the machine.

Yes, it is absolutely a skill that should be admired and celebrated but we believe our team are capable of much more than that. Many of them have completed SCA qualifications in Barista and Sensory Skills, what better way to communicate their skill and passion than to serve a customer their coffee and be available to market it and answer any questions? There have been some that have assumed this decision has turned our team into robots and that they are not meant to serve customers as they are supposed to be Baristas… we firmly disagree and have been so pleased to see many team members developing new skills and confidence in interacting with customers and most importantly, showcasing their own personality. We really do think it is in this way that working in hospitality becomes a career and those working behind a bar can positively contribute to the development of the industry they are working in.

Benefits

Since making the move to table service, the space runs so much more smoothly and the customers and staff each understand what to expect of each other. There is a process and system in place that has totally transformed and streamlined the day to day working environment for our team members. Our takings are up and our labour costs have remained the same. It did not happen overnight and not everyone was on board with it straight away but we are getting there slowly. We are now entering the realms of having a business that is sustainable thanks to the implementation of table service, we feel confident about making the shop work over the coming years and being able to continue to provide employment for the people working here. We are striving to create a space that is able to fully celebrate and encourage those working within it, all of whom understand they are part of something much bigger. We have only just turned 1 so bear with us, there have been some hiccups along the way but we learn every day and are so proud of the environment we have created for our customers and we are now turning our attention to our team. This move has not taken away any appreciation for the people making our coffee so brilliantly, if anything we are more determined to ensure they are confident in preparing it and communicating its story to our customers. I am running a sensory workshop for many of our team members to come along to this week in an effort to develop their tasting ability and flavour recognition. We are investing this time in our team because it has become even more important since table service has been implemented. Sometimes you need to challenge the norm to take something that was previously thought of as being great and prove that it can still be so much better.

We now know of other businesses making a similar decision and think it should be applauded, coffee shops do not have to follow the same route all the time and they can offer a service that is still casual and friendly whilst being professional, organised and customer focused. We are absolutely not saying it is the right path for everyone, for some it can mean needing more staff and therefore higher labour costs, I have simply shared our experience here – if any of our wholesale customers do want to know more or understand the best way of going about it then please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me at hols@northstarroast.com and for those that are still a little sceptical, again please contact me and come down for a brew and a chat – I promise I will convert you!

Hols x