One Cup At A Time
Last week I moved to San Francisco.
But that’s another story.
Instead, I wanted to write down my thoughts on Philz coffee.
To explain Philz, you need to understand the American coffee scene. It’s all over the place, but it can be loosely defined in ‘waves’. Here’s Jonathon Gold:
The first wave of American coffee culture was probably the 19th-century surge that put Folgers on every table, and the second was the proliferation, starting in the 1960s at Peet’s and moving smartly through the Starbucks grande decaf latte, of espresso drinks and regionally labeled coffee. We are now in the third wave of coffee connoisseurship, where beans are sourced from farms instead of countries, roasting is about bringing out rather than incinerating the unique characteristics of each bean, and the flavor is clean and hard and pure.
Coming from Australia, I’ve been amused by every aspect of American coffee culture. Despite the hype, care and craft that goes into a cup of joe at a ‘third wave’ chain like Blue Bottle, I find the whole experience lacking and soulless. In fact, if I was ordering from a chain (instead of a local cafe), I’d prefer the happy bustle of a Starbucks. Their espresso’s (I order a doppio machiato) are decent, and always taste exactly the same, and the stores have energy and warmth.
Blue Bottle in comparison feels like a miniature apple store, with white walls, minimal menu, and delicate branding. The coffee has become this ultra stylized product, that should be cradled and respected and photographed. I think they’re missing the point.
So when I finally wandered into a Philz, which are all over SF, I was prepared for more of the same.
Here are some of the ways that Philz stands out.
• They focus on drip coffee. That’s it. They do drip coffee really well, and nothing else. They literally don’t serve espresso at any stores. There’s no frothing milk or screech or hiss or whack of the filter. This is the most important part of their brand. Textbook positioning.
• Bartenders not baristas. Rather than a cashier who takes your order, and a separate barista station, there is a long bar of baristas, each of them stirring and brewing about 4 individual cups each. The ordering process is reversed, so a barista will take your order, and you pay once you’ve got your coffee. This is much more like ordering a drink at a nice cocktail bar than a cafe. I’d be interested to know how throughput is affected, but the customer experience is fantastic.
• They walk their talk. Their tagline “one cup at a time” is baked into the process. My barista asked me to make sure my coffee was “perfect for me” before I paid for it. This confused me, but later I understood that everything about the Philz transaction was centered around personalization. Here’s an obvious insight: Everyone likes their coffee different ways. Black, two sugars, oat milk, half and half.. But rather than viewing these small tweaks as blasphemous, annoying or disrespectful to the skills of the barista, Philz embraces it. It’s one cup of coffee, and we will make it the way you like it. Simple as that. And arguably, it’s not all about taste in the end is it? Rather, how you feel you were treated. Consider a sommelier who quietly pours the wine you’ve chosen out of a unmarked jug. How would you feel about that? It’s the same wine, or is it? Buying Philz is not just getting a coffee, it’s getting a bit of attention, getting treated nicely, listened to.
• Another motif from their branding that is reflected in their stores is the mint leaf. I ordered a Turkish coffee and got a sprig of mint in my cup. When I paid, I asked if all coffees got the mint treatment. “Only if the coffee has a little leaf next to it. But we can put it in any coffee you’d like.” Again with the personalization. Personally, I didn’t love the mint flavour, but it was an interesting, memorable visual, and another quirk that made Philz just a little bit more different than another chain.
Bottom line. I’d never heard of Philz before I moved to SF. From the outside, I thought the branding was a bit ‘crunchy’ and expected a bog average Peets or Starbucks imitator. Instead, I saw a coffee company doing things very differently and building a long lasting, strong brand. From ordering a cup, to my first sip, I immediately understood the appeal, and was impressed by a brand that was super consistent in its message and product. It’s dorky, but it will easily outlive Blue Bottle.