The Rolling Squad
Think, for a moment, about wheelchair ramps – it’s likely you encounter them on a daily basis. We all tend to take them for granted. Wheelchair ramps, or “curb cuts,” came about during the 1960s in the town of Berkeley, US when Ed Roberts, the proclaimed father of disability rights, worked with a cohort of friends and supporters to convince the Berkeley municipality that wheelchair users needed access to both streets and sidewalks without assistance.
Roberts and his friends came to call themselves “The Rolling Squad.” Each week, they literally rolled to City Hall and explained how being in a wheelchair greatly limited where they could go without adequate ramps or personal assistants. Eventually, wheelchair ramps were installed throughout Berkeley.
Those in wheelchairs made up a tiny percentage of the total population who used them, but with the ramps in place, the entire Berkeley population noticed that traveling around the city was easier. Bikers used these ramps all the time. Shoppers with carts full of goods, skaters, bikers, those with baby strollers or roller bags – now, we all take these ramps for granted. It’s the sort of implementation we think about, then find ourselves asking: How did we get around before the ramps existed? The ramps may have been designed for wheelchair users, but they benefited a much larger segment of the population: this is what we mean when we argue that accessibility and inclusivity have a broader definition.
Is Inclusivity Possible?
Is specialty coffee really accessible? We might argue that it is, provided it is prepared specifically for its consumer, yet most of us likely have that friend or family member who will probably never step foot in a specialty cafe because they simply prefer “regular coffee.” What even is “regular coffee”?!
As the specialty coffee industry, we imply simply through our existence that there are non-specialty coffee entities from which we wish to distinguish ourselves. Some might argue that “regular coffee” – or commodity coffee, if we’re being coy – is more inclusive and accessible purely on the basis that it is more comfortable for its consumers. Are inclusivity and craft mutually exclusive? Is it possible for us to care passionately about the things that distinguish us from the commodity coffee sector, yet be entirely inclusive and accessible?
Let’s take the beer industry as an example: 10 years ago, it was difficult to find a single craft beer offering at your local corner store. If we preferred “craft” to domestic or imported options, we had to know where to go to find it. Today, in the US, there are very few places that carry alcohol in the entire country that don’t have at least one offering of a beer we would consider “craft.” Somehow, a few brewers in the 1980s were able to convince a population that there was a difference between what they were doing and what had been available, and that what they were doing was tasty, interesting, and worth attention.
When we buy wine or beer off the shelf, it’s ready to go: you open the bottle or can and enjoy. Historically, this has not been the case with coffee. Our most common stock keeping unit is a bag of roasted coffee classified as a “consumable packaged good,” yet is not ready to consume. It is analogous to raw chicken, which requires cooking before you can enjoy it. The purchaser of the roasted coffee must know how to prepare their coffee before it’s ready to drink, even if they may not have a fraction of the knowledge we consider paramount to “proper” preparation. Coffee is further complicated by the number of hands through which it moves, from farmer to washing station, from mill to roaster, and eventually to consumer, either in roasted form or as a brewed product. One cup of the same roast of the same coffee will be brewed differently by each person who brews it, and sometimes between different brews by the same person, even when the utmost care has been taken.
Towards an Inclusive Future
Designing for inclusivity requires a certain mindset. As you evaluate a problem you’re working to solve, designing for inclusivity means considering the effect it will have on all possible users (or customers) who will encounter the fix you design.
Take, for example, the problem we raised earlier, that the preparation required by coffee before enjoyment is fraught with human inconsistency. Much has been said about the importance of consistency for the future of the specialty industry – we won’t rehash it all here – but one of the ways we can pursue inclusivity and accessibility in our industry is by promoting consistency in our end product. The massive jump in cold brew sales over the past few years is testament to this: in the US alone, cold brew coffee sales saw 370 percent growth in 2017 from sales in 2015. While this success is in part due to the tastiness of the product, we think it likely has more to do with the shift in how it is presented to the public: cold brew is pre-prepared in large batches (consistency) and presented as a ready-to-drink product (accessibility). The more we can find creative ways to control our customers’ engagement with our products, the more we can promote a comfortable – and accessible – experience. Using technology and innovation to mitigate the variability we suffer from inconsistency will allow us to access markets we never thought possible; making delicious specialty coffee easily accessible to demographics that have yet to experience it will rise the tide of all boats.
One way to do this is to take the elements of large-batch-brewing and ready-to-drink service we see present in cold brew and apply them to other products on the specialty menu. If we can innovate new ways to create and serve the beverages people love in a way that promotes larger and more consistent batches, the impact could be massive. What if we could serve any beverage on our menu instantly like a tap room at a brewery? Imagine being able to produce a gallon of espresso at a time coupled with a way to serve it days later without losing any quality. This type of innovation would shift the specialty paradigm: wait times, training, and certainly consistency.
Another way for us to pursue inclusivity is to reconsider the elements of packaging or coffee-purchasing experiences we consider to be “defects” and seek to reposition them as opportunities for engagement. After roasting, coffee beans emit a significant amount of carbon dioxide – as coffee spoils faster when exposed to oxygen, some roasters package their roasted coffee in plastic bags with degassing valves which provide an exit for gases inside the bag (but which don’t allow air in). Historically, degassing valves are often hidden near the back of packages because many decision-makers think of them as unsightly. Inclusive design thinking encourages us to question how we can make each product more exciting, accessible, and transparent to everyone, even prior to making a purchase. In the case of degassing valves, they provide an amazing aromatic portal into the coffee the consumer is purchasing without even opening the bag. Why not use this as an educational feature rather than hiding it as an unsightly defect? If the degassing valve is highlighted near the front of packaging and encourages customers to smell the coffee through it, consumers can make an educated purchasing decision based on the aroma of the roasted beans. Furthermore, this design feature encourages roasters to produce the best smelling coffee to draw in the consumer.
It is possible for specialty coffee to be inclusive and accessible. As we grow in our industry, we must determine the things that distinguish us as the specialty and be grounded in them. But we must also incessantly seek ways to design our products and cafes to be comfortable to those outside the spectrum of specialty, to make our industry one that promotes coffee for the people.