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More Change Brewing at Intelligentsia

By Kevin Robinson in Food on Oct 12, 2009 3:40PM

Photo by confusedbee.
Early this year Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea stirred up some controversy over how they produced single-cup coffee orders. To wit: the local coffee purveyor had begun to switch how they brewed single cup coffee for patrons, abandoning the drip coffee method for a more labor and time intensive brew in the $11,000 Clover machine. That system, which was deployed in all but the Monadnock store resulted in a pricier cup of coffee and a longer wait. Fast forward seven months and Intelligentsia is again making changes in their stores.

I stopped by their Millennium Park store for a cup of coffee on my way to work one morning; Monadnock is my usual stop. I remembered that Intelligentsia was using the Clover method in this store and made my way over to the end of the coffee bar to wait for my cup. Here I was treated to another surprise - the Hario Ceramic Coffee Dripper, a system of ceramic funnels and a barista swirling hot water through coffee in filters. All of which made me wonder what Doug Zell was up to. A couple emails later, and I found that A.) Intelligentsia had "discovered" a new system to brew single cup coffee, and B.) that system will definitely replace drip coffee in all his stores.

Zell tells us that "frequently our customers say, 'why can’t I make coffee like this at home?' In the past the answer has been “you don’t have the same equipment (Clover, Urn, etc.). With the ceramic dripper, one can have a brew method that is exactly the same as we will be offering in our stores and have a great cup of coffee at home." The wait for Hario brewed coffee was about five minutes, but Zell assures us that he's "discovered a way to make sure our customers get their brewed coffee quickly in the busiest of times," through "a clever system with beautiful Japanese glass carafes." Brushing aside the costs of switching over to the Hario system, ("it was a happy accident that occurred when ALL THREE of our Clovers went down at the same time at Millennium Park... we can find a home for the Clovers we own as we have wholesale customers around the country that are interested in them"), Zell told Chicagoist that he didn't anticipate the increased cost of a cup of coffee would be an issue.

"The labor cost is not an issue as we expect our stores to cost a bit more to operate. We do, however, overall have revenues that exceed a typical Starbucks by 50-55%." There's no doubt that the change will cost Intelligentsia customers. As a loyal customer, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the issue, as I don't think either the Clover or the Hario system tastes better. The three strikes of higher cost, longer wait and a taste I don't enjoy will most likely leave me searching for a new coffee shop. That comment, from someone who has added ten minutes to his commute to get a cup of their coffee on my way into work, didn't seem to sway Zell. "If we are not what you are looking for, we can accept that," said after noting that "the vast majority of our customers are lawyers and traders I really don’t think the price point is the issue. I think the experience and quality of the product they get is."

Indeed, this is the continuation of Zell turning what has long been perceived a working-class foodstuff into a high end experience. And while it's unlikely that the competition will follow his lead, many of their customers will.