Nora Šmahelová wears many hats. She’s an Ally Coffee Account Manager, a La Marzocco Deutschland Brand Ambassador, Co-Owner of Chapter One Coffee, a World Coffee Events Representative, and an Authorized SCA Trainer for barista and brewing certifications! And in case you thought that list covers it, think again! She is also an amazing ceramicist.
Since she makes this all look like a piece of cake, it was really exciting to get to chat with Nora about her approach with customers across her roles in the industry and how she creates balance in her specialty coffee career.
Angela Ferrara [THE BARISTA LEAGUE]: As a coffee shop owner, how do you think you've balanced serving the regular coffee shop customer vs. the third wave coffee enthusiast?
Nora Smahelova: We have a huge range on our brew bar with coffees from different origins and with different processing methods. We brew those in different brew methods. Beside this we always have guest filter coffees, so we can suit both the “regular” coffee shop customers and also the coffee enthusiast. We change the espresso on our grinders every day, so you never know what you will get… the roast profile is always kind of the same, but provided by different roasteries. We try to challenge our regular customer to try new coffee with the help of our menu.
A: Do you think it's important for coffee shop staff to meet the consumer where they are and serve them what they like, even if it strays away from the third wave standard?
N: Yes, of course. This is probably the most important thing in the high art of communication skills and knowledge of humans. Often it is much easier to educate customers who know less about specialty coffee, because they are more open minded and curious. You can make them happy and surprise them more easily with how coffee can taste. I still think that if you have good communication skills combined with a quality cup of coffee, you can even make a total milk drinker try a black coffee without any additives. We try to make our customers feel special and hope they will not leave thinking that we are one of those pretentious third wave coffee places.
A: Do you train your staff to recognize the type of customer that has just walked through the door to be able to give them the drink/service they want without patronizing them?
N: We train our staff solely on the coffee side. I am convinced that you can teach anyone to prepare coffee and learn about preparation of coffee, but inter-human behavior (as well as good manners!) you mostly grow up with. We pick our staff based on character and presence.
A: What is something that you wish other cafes would do to address the “regular” customers?
N: That’s a good question. I wish a lot of things from other cafes... Sometimes I wonder how dogmatically people act when promoting specialty coffee. I just wonder why people are making their lives so difficult. With trying to understand the needs of a customer, you have a better approach and can convince them to try new things. With forbidding things or abandoning sugar, e.g., you only scare people away.
A: Do you see this issue across all your roles? For example, do you run into the need to educate the consumer about third wave when selling green coffee, as well?
N: I do! This was a total surprise for me! When I started to work in the green coffee business, I was a total newbie in this area and I was expecting that I would learn from my customers, the roasters. I have learned from them, but again, taste is very subjective. My customers don’t have to like what I like and vice versa. In all areas in which I am working I am trying to view things as objectively as possible in order to be more open minded and to learn how other people interpret taste, which needs they have and how you can suit those best. There are way more dimensions in coffee than the small coffee community that you see during coffee competitions, coffee crawls, and on social media.
A: Since, like so many of us, it seems you ended up in specialty coffee by accident, what do you think keeps you so engaged? What do you love about it?
N: Well, I have the huge luxury that I can work with very nice people and can be very flexible and responsible for my own schedule. I even manage to have time to follow up and develop things which I really like and which give me the perfect balance to my coffee life. The coffee industry is a diverse and colorful scene, all gathered around the natural good coffee. Yes natural, meaning always changing. It’s quite a small business but there are so many open doors out there.
A: What are you most excited about next?
N: At the moment I am super excited because I have booked a stand at a design market. I will see if people like to buy my hand-thrown porcelain and clay cups. I don’t mind producing a lot of things, making drawings or sculptures, but taking care of selling them is a whole other thing. This is my weak point and by far not as much fun as spending a whole night at the pottery studio just creating. This year I have decided to focus more on this and jump over my shadow.
A: Do you have any advice for someone trying to build a successful and sustainable career in specialty coffee?
N: The most important thing is to be honest to yourself and not be afraid to ask questions. Also, of course, admit when you don’t know things. One who doesn’t question things will remain stupid, right? And you have to work hard, be self-motivated, and pursue aims in an honest way. I never “sold my soul” to brands that I didn’t like just for money. Of course, it was hard to deny offers when I really needed money often. Long-term wise it was definitely worth it.