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Restaurant Sat Feb 14 2009

Intelligentsia Dumps Affordable Drinks on Randolph Street

intelligentsialogoYou might have noticed the temporary closure of Intelligentsia Coffee's Randolph Street (er, "Millennium") store for Valentine's Day weekend. Chicago's homegrown gourmet coffeebar chain is renovating in advance of rolling out the same controversial change made at the Broadway store in Lakeview last year: eliminating all regular drip coffee in favor of pricey, single-cup Clover drinks. That means, just in time for the New Depression and an unprecedented era of belt-tightening for most Chicagoans, a sub-$3 cup of coffee is now a thing of the past at Intelligentsia. Huh?

Over the past three years, Clover machines have been hailed as the savior of the coffeebar industry: for $11,000 a pop, any retail coffee shop can own a machine that serves up gourmet custom-brewed single cups of coffee. The idea is that drip coffee in the universally familiar steel urns of old loses much of its flavor while sitting and waiting to be dispensed.

I know many people who swear by the Clover brews at Intelligentsia. Last year, in a report on the purchase of the Clover Equipment Company by Starbucks, Wired labeled the machines as over-hyped for anyone with a less-than-gourmet palate, and it remains an open question whether the Seattle coffee juggernaut will keep the machines freely available to competitor chains. (It's also curious why Starbucks' own Clover website is so over-Flashed and clunky).

But whether you're a Clover fan or not, the fact remains the custom brews don't come cheaply. Given the down-spiraling economy, Intelligentsia, itself, has already rolled out a series of cost-conscious measures in the past few months, including selling (and charging for) only double-shot drinks, eliminating customer loyalty cards, quietly replacing cocoa with ganache in hot chocolate and mocha drinks, and cutting back weekend evening hours on Randolph Street from 10 p.m. to 9 p.m.

With 3,000 weary Wicked-goers no longer marching down the street every Friday and Saturday night, the new hours aren't a surprise. Changing the cocoa to dairy-laden ganache on the fly without a sign warning vegan and lactose-intolerant patrons, however, probably wasn't the most customer-friendly idea.

For that matter, neither was the corporate decision to take down all hanging product and pricing signage in favor of a single, small, hard to read placard propped on the counter next to the register. The idea from on high was to establish a more personal relationship with customers to get them to come back.

I question the worth of the idea. I write a good number of columns for Drive-Thru and my other bylines at Randolph Street, and since the change was made I see a lot more befuddled faces than before--not to mention longer lines while counter people have to explain the menu in minute detail to every unfamiliar patron. (I'm a regular and it took me a month before I realized the Randolph store still served paninis after that change). I fail to see how willfully confusing your customers in order to force them into dialogue with your coffeebar staff is good customer service, but maybe that's just me.

Last week I queried about half-a-dozen Randolph Street staffers regarding the impending Clover switchover. They all told me management thinks the change will be good for the store, but some privately expressed fear over the shift to an even more expensive menu. One also noted that a lot of regulars grumbled up on Broadway when cheaper, urn coffee was eliminated, but that customers have since "gotten used to the idea."

Maybe so. But moneyed Lakeview is not downtown Chicago. It remains to be seen how well my home neighborhood's diverse mix of fat-wallet yuppies, working-class office drones, and penny-pinching students will take to being charged $3.50 for a cup of regular coffee.

If I were Intelligentsia, I'd worry about those latter two groups. Not for nothing, but they're the majority down here, and I don't see them doing anything other than walking right back out the door and over to SBUX or Caribou Coffee when the Clover-only menu makes its Randolph Street debut on Monday.

I could be wrong. I did speak with one staffer who thinks the change will pose no problem at all. His reasoning was telling. "After all," he said, "we already have you paying $3.50 for a cup of gourmet tea and you keep coming back."

I'd probably have something to say about that in Intelligentsia's customer forums, but they closed them down last year.

Priceless.

INTELLIGENTSIA COFFEE
55 East Randolph Street (between Michigan and Wabash), Chicago
312-920-9332

Matthew / February 14, 2009 4:34 PM

This makes me so mad, I sent an email to Intelligentsia as soon as I read this post. Increasingly, they run their stores from an idealistic stance which alienates the customer and sets the company on shaky ground. It reminds me of Obama making the statement about the price of arugula at Whole Foods.

Jay / February 15, 2009 5:21 PM

There are about 9,000 places to get a bad cup of coffee in Chicago - about three places to get a quality cup.

art / February 16, 2009 11:00 AM

This is the type of move I would expect from a company like this. Do one thing and do it in the best way possible. Don't "water down" your product to make it appeal to the entire market place. But if the entire marketplace should desire a perfect cup of coffee--they'll know where to go.

Josh / February 16, 2009 11:12 AM

Intelligentsia is the store that renewed my appreciation for a good cup of coffee - and the Clover bar contributed to that. But after being a loyal/proud patron for almost two years (read: daily), I was completely disappointed when I learned they had discontinued their loyalty program. Granted - free coffee isn't free, but it smacks of penny-pinching in a time when rewarding my loyalty added a lot of value. Now no more drip? I really wonder if these cost-saving measures will end up being more costly in the long-run.

LeahJ / February 16, 2009 3:06 PM

Do not fear!

I chatted with some Mill Park employees before the change, and they assured me there'd be a clover of the day for $2.00 or $2.50. This seemed to be true at the already-revamped Broadway store when I visited last week.

If you chat with Intelligentsia folk, they will engage you in a very interesting chat about specialty coffee, and trying to make people regard baristas in the same way they might regard sommeliers. I can see both sides of such an argument, but to keep things pertinent to the conversation at hand:

There will be $2.00 or $2.50 coffee. You just won't get as much choice.

Luke / February 16, 2009 3:51 PM

Sweet jebus, get over yourself. I wish I could get back the 45 seconds I spent scanning this post. Quick, get the President...my favorite coffee place is raising their prices. Oh, travesty!!!

MK / February 17, 2009 12:06 AM

"get over yourself. I wish I could get back the 45 seconds I spent scanning this post."

Oh, those 45 seconds will seem very worthwhile once you read this post from him: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mike-doyle/cta-mum-on-new-polk-stree_b_165762.html

Sarah / February 17, 2009 12:23 PM

It really makes me mad to read that they have switched from using cocoa to ganache in their chocolate drinks. I frequent Intelligentsia, and most often walked over from work in the afternoon to get soy hot chocolate. I am lactose intolerant and drinking milk can make me really sick.

I was also really sad when they discontinued their buy 10 get 1 free cards & was puzzled by their switch to signage with microscopic print. As a regular, I'm already opting to go to your store over a chain store. So I don't understand why they claim to be doing this to improve the customer's experience. Why don't they actually ask customers what they think?

Anthony / February 17, 2009 1:50 PM

This article is riddled with innacuracies, including his 'no more sub- $3 coffee' punchline. Also I have a hard time believing a true foodie would complain about any of these changes, anyway. Does he have some kind of personal beef with Intelligentsia?

A company taking financial risks to improve their product in this economy should be applauded, not scolded.

coco / February 17, 2009 3:12 PM

Really a total bummer. Seems like they made a conscious decision to go solely for the gourmet part of the market. Which I certainly appreciate the availability of, as a well made cup of coffee is something to behold and savor. I thought Intelligentsia was doing a pretty good job of slowly educating me about this already. Plus, they are local, and given the choice between the same product at a local purveyor and a national one, I'll pick the local even if it costs a little (a little) more.

But there are those times when you just need a quick delivery of the essential caffeinated payload, and there's no reason to wait two minutes and pay twice as much for a delicately flavored fully aromatic experience. I'm sad that I'll have to go to some chainier place for that now, or else just suffer with the office coffeemaker like a schnook. I just had my first cup of their clover press. Man, feckin' tasty, but it took like several minutes and a dozen steps (exactly why I don't get espresso drinks--well, that and their essential unamericanness). But the price hike really puts what was already an indulgence up into luxury territory for me, so I'll probably be visiting Intelligentsia less.

Matthew / February 17, 2009 3:35 PM

In my first comment, I mentioned that I'd written to Intelligentsia after reading this to vent my anger. I got a response last night which I felt was more than adequate. It was long, and clearly wasn't a form letter, as it addressed specific points from my original email.

Whoever wrote the response (it was signed Doug Zell, but come on) explained that there would be a blend of the day which cost $2.00 for a small. They also offered me a complimentary gift card to make my next few cups less damaging to my pocketbook.

I'm not really sure what to make of the switch to Clover. Yes, I agree with the company that it will improve the taste of the brew; even without the superior flavor, the coffee won't be sitting around in a carafe before it is served. But, I never had any problem with their drip coffee, and I know coffee pretty well (I'm not a massive coffee drinker, so I've never gotten used to the taste of inferior coffee). Still, especially given the quick and thorough response of the company leaves me feeling pretty good about the whole affair.

Probably the most surprising aspect of the response was that the email directly referenced this post. Intelligentsia must really keep their finger on the pulse of Chicago's foodie scene, or else they received so many complaints because of Gaper's Block that they knew immediately where it had come from.

By the way, I'm going to post the entire text of their response on my blog.

Doug Zell / February 17, 2009 9:11 PM

Matthew,

I wrote the response. We most definitely pay attention to what is going on around us. I saw what you posted on Gapers Block, our customer service folks got an email from someone named Matthew, and I simply put the two together. That's it.

As far as the changes we put in place, they really are about continuously improving the coffees that we source, develop, roast and serve.

Kind regards,

Doug Zell
Founder/CEO
Intelligentsia Coffee
(I swear it's really me)

Andrew Huff / February 17, 2009 10:22 PM

Thanks for commenting, Doug.

Luke / February 18, 2009 12:53 PM

I own two independent coffeebars in Pittsburgh and we've been serving Intelligentsia coffees for three years. The vision they have for their company closely mirrors the vision we have for ours, albeit on a much smaller scale. The thing about working in specialty coffee is that the longer you're around it you learn to appreciate all of the hard work that goes into carefully sourcing/roasting/brewing a great cup. As retailers, we want to share that experience with our customers and sometimes that means limiting choices to the sizes/drinks we feel proud to serve. For us, a focused menu with fewer sizes and choices gives us a chance to feature what we feel is best about our business, rather than opening things up a la carte and serving a watered down product. Sticking to our vision isn't snobbery, we're just trying to share our passion with our customers and respect the coffees we've chosen to serve.

Marc / February 18, 2009 3:31 PM

One other clarification: Intelligentsia does offer a non-dairy cocoa option (the same one that was previously used) for customers who ask. The ganache is now standard but the vegan option is available.

mary / February 18, 2009 4:23 PM

Does anyone know if Intelligentsia is still offering a free 8 ounce coffee with the purchase of a pound of beans at the Randolph location?

MK / February 18, 2009 10:46 PM

Another error in Mike's post worth mentioning is this:

"and cutting back weekend evening hours on Randolph Street from 10 p.m. to 9 p.m. With 3,000 weary Wicked-goers no longer marching down the street every Friday and Saturday night, the new hours aren't a surprise."

I don't know exactly what time Wicked shows began, but it definetely was well before 9:00. And I know that the show finished around 10:30 every night. So any business that the cafe received between 9:00 and 10:00 would not at all be related to Wicked. Everybody at that time would be in the theater watching the show. But I suppose placing that in the post makes it seem to those not paying close attention that you are carefully analyzing the issue.

Marc / February 20, 2009 10:19 AM

Yes. Customers do still received a free 8 oz coffee with purchase of a pound of coffee.

g50 / March 1, 2009 1:19 PM

Couple of responses to Mr. Doyle's original articles.

If you see customers confused about where to line up, what to read - I don't know what to say to that. Everything seemed intuitive to me.

As for students and office workers...students only have four dollars anyway, why wouldn't they go for quality? And office workers go to Starbucks or elsewhere anyway - I do not think this demographic is familiar with Intelligentsia - at least at Millenium Park. At Monadnock, though, the fat-wallet yuppies and office drones seem to be more like one group than two.

OliviaB. / March 17, 2009 5:57 PM

Wow that was amazing how the CEO of Intelligentsia responded. Anyway, coffee over here in Seattle is still more/less the same price. The latte' cards are still around in some coffee shops but I can understand why their slowly disappearing from the scene. In fact, I totally understand why a coffeeshop would reduce some of its bells/whistles to cut cost, but to RAISE prices on coffee - that's hard to swallow.
--------
OliviaB.
Seattle DUI lawyer

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Drive-Thru is the food and drink section of Gapers Block, covering the city's vibrant dining, drinking and cooking scene. More...
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