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Is Intelligentsia Walking A Fine Line With Changes?

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Feb 16, 2009 8:50PM

2007_01_Intelligentsia_logo.jpgFoodie/urban explorer, carless advocate and eager drinker of bucket boy haterade Mike Doyle is beating on a bucket of his own over at Gapers Block's Drive-Thru blog regarding Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea's decision to replace drip coffee in their retail locations with more intensive brews extracted from $11,000 Clover machines. "(A) sub-$3 cup of coffee is now a thing of the past at Intelligentsia," Doyle writes. From there, Doyle launches into overdrive, wondering if all the changes Intelligentsia has implemented in its retail locations in recent months is a case of a company putting the cart before the horse, especially in our current banana republic of an economy.

Doyle writes:

"It remains to be seen how well my home neighborhood's (Doyle lives in the Loop) 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."

Time to slow the roll, Mike. We placed a call to Intelligentsia for comment and none other than founder and CEO Doug Zell returned the call.

Zell defended the use of the Clover, as well as getting rid of giant servings and unsightly signage and discontinuing customer loyalty cards as being consistent with Intelligentsia's mission of raising the bar for what customers expect when they step into one of their shops (for more on this philosophy, please feel free to re-read our interview with Zell from this time two years ago).

"These decisions were geared to move us away from the sort of fast food approach of other coffee shops and into a more intimate and personal customer experience," Zell said. "We still believe that the taste of our coffee is the most important issue."

As for Doyle's charge that a $3 cup of coffee has gone the way of the dinosaur and New Coke at Intelligentsia, Zell replied, "That's completely untrue." In fact, the company's "Pick of the Day" standard black coffee tops out at $2.65 for a large cup. Is it still pricey for a penny-pinching student? Not when one considers that that's only a dollar more than most diners we've frequented in recent months, and the quality of the coffee is better by leaps and bounds.

Zell concedes that the changes Intelligentsia has made may have lost them some customers. "But we also believe that implementing these changes will attract more customers than we'll lose." Zell also recognized that there's a delicate balance between the ambition of Intelligentsia's philosophy and trying to maintain humility in carrying it out.