|« New Finds that Aren't New||Spice Up Your Coffee »|
Restaurant Sat Feb 14 2009
You 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.
55 East Randolph Street (between Michigan and Wabash), Chicago