Before I launch into any sort of retelling of the day's events, I must share my review, or, rather, diatribe, of Royal Coffee Bar
, a coffeeshop in downtown Phoenix that had been recommended to me by a Seattlite in the Sea-Tac airport. RCB is conveniently close to the Downtown Phoenix Public Market, but I must declare that if you are in search of a nearby coffeeshop, you should go to the Fair Trade Cafe and Gallery instead (although I seem to recall hearing about a change in ownership, so no guarantees). Please.
Anyway. At RCB, I was treated to the most mediocre service imaginable--I had hardly realized such a degree of half-assedness was possible. The utter icing on the cake was the barista's pathetic half-attempt at latte art that came out looking like "Oops! I kind of tried to make a little flourish on your drink! Oh look! It's brown and white!"
But let me start at the beginning. When I pulled up on my bicycle, things looked moderately promising: RCB is housed in a modernesque, industrialesque building next to Sweet Pea Bakery, and has a large outdoor seating area with plenty of small tables complete with small, desert-friendly plants (finally, I thought to myself, someone who understands good coffeeshop seating!). After arguing extensively with a nearby tree, I managed to lock up my bike to a traffic sign, and then entered the shop through its oversize glass door. Upon entering, I noted simple, contemporary furniture and numerous careful placings of the shop's charming filigreed logo, and then I stepped up to the counter to place my order. Several moments later, the barista saw fit to help me.
I should point out that based on other experiences in the Phoenix area I no longer hold individual baristas responsible for poor service--it's up to a business's management to carefully hire and train employees and decide when they are qualified to serve customers (in the least, Starbucks got that part of the equation right). That said, it's a crucial judgment call to not let an underprepared barista run the show. Ahem. Oh, in addition--I won't claim my time behind a cash register makes me more or less sympathetic than the usual customer, but I'm at least aware of the basic requirements for the job.
I shall proceed.
Now, on to my experience. I have given up on ordering drinks with fancy language, so I asked for a twelve-ounce latte. I asked for it because it's always the same thing, despite the fact that some irritating companies have obfuscated and hyperinflated the language of drink sizes while other companies have failed to give their beverage sizes properly descriptive names. If 12 ounces is large, that's what I want. If it's small, that's still what I want. The barista indicated through grunts and gestures at the available ceramic cups that she was unclear whether I wanted an eight-ounce latte or a twelve-ounce latte. I reconfirmed my order by pointing to the properly sized cup. That clarified, she took approximately four hours to get some coffee grounds into the portafilter basket (that's the handle-thingy that's locked into the espresso machine). I kid you not*. I'm willing to wait for a good thing. Note the crucial placement of the adjective "good." Amusingly, she had to grind additional coffee to fill the second half of the portafilter. I point this out because really good espresso places will be careful to freshly grind the coffee for each and every drink. Now if it's a busy place and they're using pre-ground stuff, fine. This place was neither busy, nor established in my mind as good, and the occasional customers seemed to confirm this opinion. They did appear to carry their own brand of beans, which should signify that they are attempting to be the latter. But let's carry on.
She brewed the espresso. Any tamping technique could not be observed from my perspective, so it cannot be commented upon.
Then she looked around and after removing her head from where it was lodged somewhere deep in her posterior* she located the upturned milk pitcher on the drying rack. Then she sloshed some milk in it. Then she found a thermometer and dropped it in. Then she steamed the milk. Then she attempted to clean off the steam wand with a dry cloth. Needless to say, this did not appear to do much other than smear around the already caked-on milk.
And then--only then--she poured the milk in with the espresso, ending with the aforementioned wimpy flourish. Having had ample time to survey the available baked goods, I then requested a cookie. She located two plastic gloves, donned them, picked up the cookie and put it on a plate, and then threw out the two plastic gloves.
After I paid and received my change, she seemed to notice that I had a large number of bags with me (two panniers full of food) and exclaimed, "Oh! Would you like a hand with carrying your cookie?"
In my head, I though to myself, "No, woman. I'd rather not have anything to do with you, ever again." Out loud, I said, "I'll make two trips." I couldn't bring myself to drink that drink and eat that cookie inside of the place in her presence, so I absconded with my things to the outside, where I could eat and drink in peace.
The cookie was all right. I think the salt used to make it was too coarse, because occasionally I would chew into gritty, salty bits, but aside from that, it was a chocolate chip cookie. But by that point, it really didn't matter anyway, because any enjoyment I'd anticipated from drinking the latte and eating the cookie was utterly ruined by the process of acquiring it. All I could do was think of Ratatouille
and the pleased food critic at the end and, in contrast, how I presently felt.
I realize that the above description illustrates a degree of snobbery with respect to coffee. Let it be known that my favorite coffeeshop in Seattle (Cafe Allegro) does not provide latte art. But they *do* provide timely and straightforward service and a pretty delicious drink, without any false promises or pretenses. And the milk gets added to the espresso before the espresso has gone cold (crucial for proper flavor). It's far worse to give people false expectations and let them down than to keep expectations simple and then meet them.
As mentioned towards the beginning, I've thought quite a bit about the mediocre service available at many of the Valley coffeeshops, since I've experienced so much of it. Our neighborhood establishment in particular has occupied my thoughts in that regard, since I'm so frequently exposed to its peculiarities and horrors. This thinking has made it abundantly clear to me that it's small-minded to point fingers at any particular individual in such a business, or to heap high praises upon a single party. And again, I'll readily admit that Starbucks at least has that part right, in theory. Part of the half-assed phenomenon is Valley-wide (with occasional exceptions), and I only wish I had some way of making my complaints understood, for the benefit of all involved. Baristas who do a superb job benefit from recognition of a superb job, just as those who do a shoddy job must learn to shape up or ship out--even if your job is intellectually simple, have some pride, man. Perhaps the present barista was brand-new to her job, or suffered from some other complaint unbeknownst to me. Still, it's the job of the business to provide some consistency in their quality, and her half-assed attempts to make latte art suggested to me that she has some concept of what good coffee is, but an utter lack of any practical knowledge of how to achieve it.
Needless to say, it will take quite a bit of cajoling to convince me to ever go back. I fail to understand how coffeeshops here manage to stay in business, except through sheer lack of alternatives on the part of their clientele.
*There may be some slight hyperbole here.