Stay Dialled

Every specialty cafe worthy of its name will, before opening the doors to the public each morning, pull some espresso shots, look at the flow, change the grind setting slightly, and taste its product throughout.

This process1 is known as “dialling in.” Every time a new coffee comes into the hopper, variables need to be changed before sliding the cappuccino across the counter. The difference between having the espresso base extracted for 32 and 27 seconds2 is the difference between having the guests drink something bitter and dry, or something sweet, balanced and luxurious.

And then, life happens. You open the doors, people come in slowly at first. You blink and find yourself with five orders standing in front of you. Each of them with their special wishes to accommodate. Each of them expecting just as good of an experience as the guests receive when getting into an empty cafe with an energetic barista who just opened the doors. You have 20 drinks to make, and they better be good.

So you engage your autopilot, you’re hammering drinks out, you’re in the zone.

Except, during the storm of people coming in and out of the shop, the environment changed. You didn’t realize, but the temperature inside went up. It’s suddenly more humid than it was when you opened the shop. The shots you had perfectly dialled in in the morning, those 35g over 27s, are now 40g over 22 seconds. Your last customers didn’t get that sweet and balanced drink you had set up that morning. They got something salty and astringent. Definitely not up to your standards.

So you get back to the drawing board—and by drawing board I mean your grinder—and you tighten the grind. Shots are perfect again, and the unlucky guests who got in just before you take the moment to perfect everything again are nothing more than that: unlucky.

But we don’t want to have “lucky guests” and “unlucky guests.” We want all of our guests to have a similarly good experience; the best we can provide.

What we should be doing is keeping an eye out and making adjustments all the time. We should cultivate the clarity of mind to see beyond the storm of guests and focus on delivering the best product we possibly can.3

Beyond the counter

I’m sure we all had a time in our lives when things were going our way, when we were on a roll; productive, putting out good quality work, busy but on top of our games.

And then, life happens.

We fall off track, slowly but surely. We skip the gym one day, thinking we’ll make up for it tomorrow. We accept work that’s not quite up to our standards but it’ll do for now, because the next piece will hit home. We sleep in when we could have woken up earlier and gotten a headstart on the day in front of us. We tell ourselves we don’t have that much to do anyway so we can afford it.

One day of slacking off turns into a week where we didn’t get that much done. That week into a month, and when we take a minute to think, we realize we’ll need a big turn to get where we were before this whole thing started.

A cafe is a fast-paced environment, our lives are arguably slow-paced. The opportunities are bigger, but so can be the risks of falling off.

Behind the counter, you will immediately see the time it takes to pull a shot, and most of the time the beverage weight as well. You get instant feedback on every single one of your actions and can adjust accordingly. If one of your regulars gets a shot that wasn’t quite up to standards, it’s not that big of a deal. It is ultimately just a cup of coffee, it’s not gonna ruin someone’s day.

Beyond the counter, you won’t get this instant feedback. You won’t get a complaint that the coffee is sour or bitter simply because there isn’t a dissatisfied guest. You’ll go through your weeks, day in and day out, under the impression that everything is running smoothly.

Until it hits you that it’s not.

That’s why we need to constantly dial ourselves in. To constantly provide ourselves with the instant feedback that life by itself won’t. We’re the only ones responsible for making sure we’re not falling off track.

How do we do that?

Structure.

In the same way that we’ll make sure everything is running to plan before opening the doors and letting the first guest in, we can start our days in a structured fashion, develop a morning routine that will prepare us for the day that is to come. Go over our appointments and tasks we need to do. Plan ahead.

And in the same way we’ll thoroughly clean each and every one of the machines we’ve used during service, we’ll clean ourselves up at night. Feedback ourselves about our days. Sit down before going to bed and think about what went right, what went wrong, and most importantly, what we can do better tomorrow.

Stay dialled in.

Footnotes

  1. which I’ve of course simplified to its bare bones
  2. For my readers in the industry, the numbers are arbitrary
  3. This applies for the barista on duty at the machine. However, I’ll be the first to say that if you’re having to choose between delivering an outstanding product or outstanding hospitality, you should go with the latter 100% of the time
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