localfilter: in which I go off about my coffeehouse

This will be uninteresting to you if you don’t hang out locally, and possibly uninteresting anyway, but I finally emailed Kelly and told “Corporate” what I think of them lately.

Dear Kelly:

I was at the old 17th Street Diedrich tonight. It was a beloved employee’s last day, so a lot of people showed up to give good wishes, etc. It struck me that there were more people in there at night than I had seen in weeks, and I thought “They should have farewells to popular employees more often and they’d do more business.”

Unfortunately, you’re running out of good employees and return customers simultaneously. I’m going to complain at you for a bit now about the 17th Street store, but I am absolutely sure that some of these problems are happening at other locations. It makes me wonder if you guys are going to make it, sometimes.

Coffeehouses are comfortably relaxed, hip hangouts and they’re also businesses. I’ve been a barfly and patio rat for almost a decade here now and seen this place decline into failure at both.

In 1996, you sometimes couldn’t get into the parking lot at night. The crowd spilled upstairs and into the lot sometimes, and at least once the fire department showed up because too many people were on the balconies above. On the nights when recovery groups showed up, I would frequently arrive to get a cup and walk out because of the overcrowding. In the mornings, a line of commuter yuppies wound around the building as they waited for their lattes.

Now the place is a graveyard. No more high school kids getting brand-imprinted on the beverages. No more cops taking breaks. No more big groups of scene kids or church committees at the tables. Even most of the street lunatics seem to have moved on. There are maybe ten regulars, a gaggle of right-wing lunatics who smoke cigars and get free refills all day, and occasional students and local workers who grab a coffee. Even the mornings are a ghost of what that rush used to me. The last group of high school kids to hang out and work at that place are now all about 22.

Why? Well, you may know already, but I’m not going to assume anything. I know you’ve (rightfully) moved up the food chain a lot there, and one store is pretty small from that distance. So, here’s the scoop.

1. The place is filthy, and has been for years. Even when the current manager gets things swept better or mopped better, the bathroom has been gross for more than three years; no one actually cleans it during the day. It’s repellent to customers and demoralizing to staff to have grime and mess everywhere. No one is telling the employees what to do. When they’re in between helping infrequent customers, they just stare into space.

2. Employees aren’t treated well. Baristas are making minimum wage with bad tips for a job that pays 8 bucks an hour at Starbucks. A smart teenager with good customer service skills can get 9 bucks an hour at In-N-Out. At one time, the relaxed atmosphere and big tips of a Diedrich coffeehouse made up for a lot, especially for young employees. It’s not so bad being underpaid when the people are fun, there’s good music in the air, interesting people show up, and the bosses treat you like a human. And employees then forgot how to use ATMs because they always had cash from tips. Now the place is run by a corporate iron fist. The piped-in muzak is soul-killing, people get dinged for nose rings and joie de vivre, secret shoppers spy to catch anyone not upselling. It’s all the spontaneity and fun of a Starbucks with the pay and benefits of coal mining. Your new hires are either very young kids who move on as soon as they realize what’s going on, or otherwise unemployable losers. If you paid $9 an hour and trained people well instead of dumping minimum wage employees on the place, it might be easier to find someone who is willing to clean a bathroom. If you can’t pay them better, you should at least act like the “not so big” slogan means something and stop treating them like call center employees and blaring muzak at your customers.

The assistant managers and shift leads are horribly overworked and underpaid. When your best people are leaving because a company like Target treats them better, you have a problem. The managers must be underpaid too, because with few exceptions none of them have given a damn about the place in years. I’m going to assume that the corporate politics is painful in some way that makes actual management impossible, because the managers let the grime and the mess and the bad coffee and the collapsing building continue while they retreat to their little offices.

3. Spreadsheet mentality kills. Reducing the hours because people weren’t showing up at night produces a self-fulfilling prophecy. The groups that used to arrive at 9:30 and leave at 11 because the place closed at midnight, now just don’t show up, because they showed up at 9:30 and 15 minutes later the chairs were being stacked. Now you have a dead spot that starts at 7 p.m. instead of one that starts at 11 p.m.. I assume the next step will be to close at 6 p.m..

4. The building is collapsing. It’s held up with weird unpainted pieces of wood. Occasionally a drunk-looking guy will show up and add another unpainted piece of wood. It really looks like you’re waiting for the building to collapse so you can close the store. It’s unattractive and frankly a little scary.

5. There’s never any coffee. No, really. About three fourths of the time, you’re out of one of the coffees of the day, and hang on we need to brew some more. People just leave, and don’t come back. Whatever policy caused this to start happening is totally crazy.

6. The big flatscreen TV thing belongs in a bar or a Carl’s Jr., not a coffee house. It has something to offend everyone: TV in a coffee house, no TV that anyone wants to watch. Sexual content inappropriate for children courtesy the E! channel. Badly made ads for the coffeehouse that you see while you’re in the coffeehouse. It hurts, and it fits in a coffeehouse the way blueberry muffins would fit in a bar.

So here’s the deal. I don’t know whether the company officially wants this particular store to continue or succeed. It may well be that the old place has been hung out to dry for financial or political reasons I don’t need to know about, or that the company wants to be Starbucks Junior and have the stores more like the new 17th St. place. Maybe the time for big open patio type coffee houses in Orange County is just over. But if that’s the case, you should just close the place. It’s an embarrassment right now.

If you don’t mean to close this place, you’re going to need a new manager with a reason to care. You’ll also need new employees with some reason to care, whether it’s money or fun, and preferably both. You’re going to need a reason for people to go to this place instead of the two Starbucks within a rock’s throw and a reason for this place to balance the other store you have within a half a stone’s throw. You’ll need coffee all the time, not just a third of the time. And you need to dump the big ad TV. I bet you need to do some or all of these things at a lot of other locations too, but that’s just my bet. Without any idea of who is making the big decisions that caused this mess, I can tell you that some of your baristas who are technically still children have a better handle on how to sell coffee than some of your colleagues do.

This is a lot of verbiage from one customer at an old broken down coffee house. If you shitcan the place, I can always find another way to sit around with coffee and meet new friends. But if you do business this way all over, you should just bail out and tip your hat to Starbucks and to the real independent places. Right now, you’ve got the worst of both worlds.

With best wishes for your future success, wherever that may be,

4 thoughts on “localfilter: in which I go off about my coffeehouse

  1. Ya, I often visit the store on Bristol and jamboree and it is DISGUSTING. I mean, so dirty that I walked out last time I was there instead of ordering something! I’m used to a little coffee house grime, I’ve worked in a ton of them but this was off the scale gross.
    The backbone of that company is absent and boy does it show.

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