Coffee, No Room For Cream (Or Passive-Aggression)

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

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Thomas Jefferson said the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. I’ve always fancied myself a patriot, ready to bleed if necessary for liberty’s cause. So it didn’t surprise me last weekend when I found quixotic occasion of valor while standing in line for coffee. A global franchise, the store’s name doesn’t matter. What does matter is my realization, standing in the asymptotic queue, that I must answer freedom’s call. My tree of liberty is a coffee tree, my George III is the store franchisee, and my war is not against taxation without representation, but unchecked favoritism of mobile over in-store orders.

Rest assured I am not some technophobe, a Luddite who spends his days convincing other Americans that time zones prove London is “in the future.” (That’s silly. As we’re reminded every New Year’s Eve, it’s Australia that’s in the future.) Plus I used cosmopolitan words asymptotic to describe the line that approaches but never seems to reach the cash register, and queue when line would have worked just fine. My global-futurist street cred is beyond reproach.

Now that I’ve revealed my battle position, Big Coffee, why should you be concerned? A fair question. For I have no stripes on my shoulders, no tanks in my division. Yet standing in line with me are countless foot soldiers from America’s heartland. Harried mothers of adolescent boys, who long for a moment’s peace over a café mocha in an enclosed space that doesn’t smell like a foot. Why punish them with slow service? Aspiring screenwriters hunkered down at your long tables from dawn to dusk, pausing not with German precision to pre-order iced-coffees, but rather only when their Muses inspire. Who will write the next Glengarry Glen Ross in the dystopian future you envision, where no artist is served until you’ve offered ten one-pump, no-whip lattes to your mobile gods? Cyclists, book clubs and financial advisors in nearby plush chairs all agree: this is dirty pool.

Remember, we’re in your store because we’ve been led to believe you want us in your store. This isn’t some bloodless fulfillment center manned only with self-driving forklifts – not yet, anyway. Yours is Class A retail space, softly lit and luxuriously appointed. If it weren’t for the yoga studio down the street, this would be our town’s social center. So quit being coy. You offer free WiFi. You play Miles Davis. Everything smells of cinnamon. Why, your glowing hearth is so beautiful that it I intend to use it as background in my family’s next Christmas card. Like a house at twilight in a Thomas Kinkade painting, your store is one big come hither look: once inside, why the go thither treatment?

It’s not as though you haven’t faced the issue before. When you introduced drive-thru coffee service, you didn’t play favorites. I know you allocated resources fairly because to this day I’m indifferent between the in-store and drive-thru lines. If the mobile customer is your most favored patron, I can live with it. Just be honest with us standing in line and, like another famous recalcitrant, say the words: Non Serviam. As things stand this minimal eye-contact, passive-aggressive posture is beneath you. Believe me, I know when I’m being dealt with passive-aggressively. If it were a golf shot, I’d be on the Tour.

I anticipate the free-market reply of the typical intelligent reader of these pages – two words, profit motive. Time is money, and mobile orders are both higher-volume and higher-margin business, all things being equal. But are all things equal? Today’s mobile machiatto order is tomorrow’s drone espresso delivery. In other words technologies change, but customer abandonment is forever. Keep this up and before long you’ll have no in-store customer base at all. Who then will buy the tumblers, totes and mugs adorning your shelves?

Well, I’ve said my piece, Big Coffee, which you can accept or reject. But if you reject it, know that I’m likely to follow the animal spirits into the marketplace and open my own coffee shop. But what to call it? Something natural-sounding that reassures my in-store customers that they will always come first. A Bird in the Hand Coffee? Perfect.