Taster’s Choice

By Noah Graff

Last week in Palo Alto my fiancé, Stephanie, and I went to a unique coffee shop called Philz. Philz distinguishes itself from other coffee chains because its stores only serve pour over coffee engineered for each customer. They don’t make espressos, lattes, macchiatos, cappuccinos or frappuccinos. They don’t even have standard drip coffee, though they do serve wonderful pastries and tea that is also made with the individual pour-over method.

For those unfamiliar, a pour over cup of coffee is made one cup at a time, by pouring hot water though an individual filter into the cup. At Philz the baristas grind the coffee beans for each individual cup right before pouring the water. Grinding the beans right before the cup is poured helps bring out the strong distinct flavors of the coffee.

I had been to a Philz several years ago, but Stephanie had never been before. When we arrived I immediately told our barista, Edward, that we were Philz virgins so we needed guidance to order our drinks. Edward was extremely friendly and informative and put us at ease. He asked what type of coffee we normally drank at a typical coffee place. I told them that I normally get a latte, perhaps with a flavor shot. We went over a few choices and he guided me to a coffee variety called Tesora, which was described on the store’s blackboard as a medium blend with aromas of Caramel, Nuts, and Butter. All of the 20 coffee varieties on the cafe’s blackboard had descriptions like that, with in-depth flavor descriptions resembling a how one would characterize wine or cheese.

Noah and Stephanie with barista Edward at Philz Coffee in Palo Alto, CA.

Edward told me my cup of coffee would taste similar to a caramel latte. He told me that he would first give it to me with only cream and no sugar added. I just about always take a bit of sugar in my coffee, but he told me that because the coffee was so freshly roasted and ground just before my cup was made it would be bursting with flavor and sweetened by the proper amount of cream he would add.

He was dead right. The coffee had a wonderful flavor, in fact it had a lot of flavors that were easy for even my novice palate to identify. The coffee didn’t taste bitter despite having no added sugar. I wanted it just a tad sweeter, so Edward added just the right amount of sugar for me to insure the coffee’s distinct flavors would not be drowned out.

As Stephanie and I left the cafe I noticed there was no table with cream or sugar for customers to add themselves. This gave the cafe a paternalistic feeling. The cafe evidently thought it could engineer the coffee I desired better than I could. No cream, no sugar, and I had only one choice for how my cup would be made. But I suppose it made sense. If I knew how to make better coffee than a professional barista then why should I pay one to make the first 90 percent of the drink? I didn’t prep the coffee beans, I didn’t operate the coffee making equipment, so why should I put the finishing touches on the drink?

If a producer is great, why should it give the customer freedom to screw up what it sells? To me the Philz formula is a great model. Listen to a customer. Help a customer obtain her vision, but don’t give the customer the ability to screw up a beautiful product.

Question: Do you prefer fewer menu choices when you go to a restaurant?

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8 thoughts on “Taster’s Choice

  1. Lloyd GraffLloyd Graff

    I must admit, Philz has the best coffee I’ve had though I d0n’t relish the long waiting lines. They know more about coffee than I’ll ever know or really want to know. Quite a different experience from the generic Starbucks approach and the product is far tastier.
    Philz has a plethora of choices but it is a fun experience. I like it when a waiter tells me if there is a stinker on the menu. Generally, I want to go to a -lace with half a dozen things they do really well. A pancake house for pancakes not chicken fried steak.

     
  2. Stephanie Herzfeld

    This makes me think of “The Paradox of Choice”, an interesting read that stipulates that having too many choices of any type of good can paralyze a consumer. To a degree I suppose that’s true, but I think having many choices, particularly at a coffee shop, is important. Sometimes you don’t know exactly what you want, but just know you want something in a particular category, so having choices helps you narrow down and identify the particular thing you want whether it’s a caramel latte or chocolate fudge brownie ice cream!

     
  3. Kevin Meehan

    I’ve been using the “pour over” method for the last 20 years with a Melitta cone filter and holder along with a Capresso burr grinder. I highly recommend it to all coffee lovers. My four millennial children had fun constantly deriding me on this method until Starbucks and others made the pour over hip and exclusive. Maybe I’m getting the last laugh.

     
  4. Ron Zarach

    Fewer choices. I am a coffee person. I can do without the espresso’s, latte’s, etc. Also, Sizes like small medium and large would be a great improvement. Grande sounds like the largest size. Venti is what I do when they get my order wrong.

     

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