Friday, September 6, 2013

S.C.A.A., Starbucks and Real Specialty

A couple of days ago the Specialty Coffee Association of America (S.C.A.A.) announced a two year deal for Starbucks to act as host of its annual convention and trade shos (The announcement is here). As a fan of irony (especially when it's unintentional), I especially savored this quote from the press announcement:

“Since opening our first store in Seattle’s historic Pike Place Market in 1971, coffee has been at the core of everything we do “ said Craig Russell, senior vice president, Global Coffee for Starbucks.

This is delicious because coffee has in fact become so secondary to the company's focus and image that it is dropped any reference to it in it's logo:

The only comments I saw on this were on SCAA's Facebook page. A few had a sense of Starbucks' pivotal role in the existence of good coffee in the U.S., but most were along the lines of "how could you?" or "what does such an evil/bad/large company have to do with specialty coffee?"

My comment was this:

Those complaining lack not only a sense of the history of the industry but of SCAA. An organization that advocates for "specialty" coffee by definition needs to not only define "specialty" but exclude that which is not specialty from its membership and activities. Can you imagine a Craft Brewer's Association that allowed members who used cereal grains and chemical additives, or a Slow Food group that asked McDonald's to be their main sponsor and give the keynote. Me neither - but that's SCAA.

The opportunity to stand for something has existed for years and has been betrayed for the sake of commercial gain and perpetuating huge, pointless trade shows and a bloated administrative structure (this goes back to Ted Lingle, in particular). 20 years ago there were plenty of us saying the obvious: specialty means first-rate arabica coffee, sold within a week of roast (and consumed within 2) if whole bean; brewed the day it's ground if ground; at a minimum strength of 60-70 grams per liter, etc. and that a member in good standing of a Specialty Coffee Association would commit in writing to live up to such standards and other equally obvious ones as a condition of membership. "Enforcement" would be by disseminating the standards to the consumers who pay the bills.

Had that been done, Starbucks, Dunkin, the bozos selling flavorings, the idiocy of barista championships, syrup mongers, form fill and seal machines and all the rest would all have been exiled to NCA where they belong and an SCAA show would be the size and feel of a Roaster's Guild retreat and the admin would be 3 or 4 people living on barista-level salaries somewhere very far from Long Beach. AND an SCAA seal or certification would actually mean something.  Maybe it's time for a revolution. Long since....actually. Ironically Starbucks is probably one of the least offensive recent hosts. Hey at least they WERE great once...descending to mediocrity from a great height beats never having soared.

To be clear, I think things at SCAA have actually improved greatly since the nespotism and scandals of the Lingle era. Ric Rhinehart is a brilliant guy, there've been a number of great folks on the board, and Peter Giuliano running the Symposium is wonderful. 

Nevertheless, the systemic problems I touch on in my comment continue, and I think the time is riper than ever for some sort of alternative trade association to emerge. 

Since S.C.A.A., through its systematic lack of clarity about standards, dissemination of them to consumers and so on has rendered the word "specialty" meaningless, let's just talk vaguely for a moment about the "premium" part of the coffee business in the U.S. Starbucks is clearly the dominant player - so much so that they really lack any sort of meaningful competition. They are, in the words of former head of marketing George Reynolds, "McDonald's without a Burger King, without Subway, without even Taco Bell."

Then there's Dunkin and McDonald's, Green Mountain, the big box players like JBR, Peet's, Allegro/Whole Foods and so on. Any of these larger players have substantial in-house investments in process control, QA & QC, and at the upper end massive investments in R & D both at origin and on the manufacturing and retail side. Having worked for a couple of these companies, I can say with certainty that the only reasons for them to be involved with S.C.A.A. are to keep tabs on each other and the smaller players and for positioning/marketing. They're certainly not there to make it easy for the next generation/Third Wave folks to catch up. Really from a strictly business point of view, the trade reality is you're either Starbucks or a member of the "Coffee Also-Rans of America" - that's how lopsided the actual market share situation is, and that deserves to be kept in mind amidst all of the press fawning over the Blue Bottles and Stumptowns of the world.

Personally I think the time may well be ripe for a coffee analogue to the UK's famous Campaign for Real Ale - an organization that has clear and contagiously inspiring standards and that from the beginning realized that educating consumers rather than being an insular trade organization is the key to long-term relevance.