Let’s Kill all the Menus

This thought’s been mulled over quite a bit, publicly, in the past year or two– and some shops have implemented very good solutions to this problem– but it’s been in the front of my mind lately, so here goes:

Menus in progressive coffee shops are pretty much pointless.

Two experiences which I continue to have, in every shop I’ve worked at, make this apparent. The first concerns that majority of customers who come into a shop already knowing what they want. Either they are familiar with the menu common to progressive shops– and so don’t need the shop’s offerings disambiguated– or they are expecting the Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts standard, and will order off of a phantom menu inculcated in them by repeated visits to similar shops. Either way, these customers bypass the menu entirely: they walk up to the counter and order exactly what they want, in the language they know, regardless of whether or not it’s available.

The second concerns the cross-section of customers who genuinely have no idea what they want. Either they’re simply in an indecisive mood, or they just want “a regular cup of coffee”, free of the careful consideration and arcane detail that are hallmarks of our cohort. To these customers, the menu is bewildering: a stack of unknown or half-known terms balanced by an eye-glazing matrix of numbers. They’ll stand at some remove from the counter, squinting slack-jawed at the wall above and behind the barista’s head, and finally just come over and ask what it all means anyway.

My experience has been that the vast majority of customers fall into one of these two categories, with a relatively small percentage falling into that group which will carefully weigh the posted options before deciding on one which is explicitly offered. To be clear: I don’t blame the customer for this; most coffee-shop menus (including the ones at many of the shops at which I’ve worked) are genuinely bewildering. So, given that they are, by and large, either ignored or a source of confusion, why have menus at all?

There are a few convincing arguments for the retention of some form of menu. The first is that, without a menu, price integrity becomes problematic: people don’t know what they should expect to pay, and so are both more apt to sticker shock when “ambushed” by prices at the register and more likely to feel that the cashier is taking liberties with the price of a drink. Second, the specific content of a posted menu can telegraph the seriousness of a shop to the customer: a limited posted menu, with coffee offerings described in some detail, says “professional” to those who know to look for it. Finally, the presence of a menu offers the option of plausible deniability: if it’s not on the menu, you don’t have to serve it.

I would argue that all of these functions can be performed by a well-trained, well-informed, professional team of baristas. Price lists and coffee offerings can be written up behind the counter for reference, but if the barista is going to end up having to explain the shop’s offerings in some depth anyhow, why not make that responsibility explicit?

The clear argument against this is that baristas already have a huge pile of highly complex and attention-intensive responsibilities to contend with. Adding more unnecessarily is a great way to engender resentment, and many baristas already resent the need to unpack the entire menu every few minutes.

My feeling is that, at least in part, this resentment stems from the presence of the menu in the first place: said presence creates the expectation that the customer will read it before asking questions. When this expectation goes unmet, annoyance is likely to ensue. If there’s no menu then, and the barista’s responsibility to shepherd the customer through the process of choosing the drink that will best satisfy them is made explicit and consistent, there’s a lot less to be resentful of.

The majority of my ill-will is aimed at hanging menus, which define customer service interactions in a very specific way: the customer, in general, looks over the barista’s head and doesn’t make eye (or really much of any) contact while ordering. This, in addition to many of the abovementioned issues, has been neatly sidestepped in a number of shops around the country by offering printed paper menus, either mounted in displays at counter level or provided for the customer to take and peruse while standing in line. Paper menus also make it extremely easy to offer rapidly rotating selections– a potential which restauranteurs have been using to great effect for years.

I like the idea of the printed paper menu a lot; in fact, I’m pushing to have them instituted at my shop. Still, I’m extremely interested in what a shop’s service would look like if it had no menu at all. My feeling is that it would promote a great deal more (and closer) interaction between baristas and customers– something which we, as an industry, could use more of.

I could very well be wrong, but I’d still love to try.

[Oh! And before I forget: Merry Christmas from all of us at Why Not? Coffee!]



Categories: Barista, Coffee, From the Editors, Grind, NEW, Spro'd Out!


Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

5 Comments on “Let’s Kill all the Menus”

  1. 12/24/2010 at 9:35 pm #

    Having worked in shops with both the “above head hanging menu” and the printed paper menu, I can certainly attest to the fact that a printed paper menu is far superior. I’m torn on wether I feel a printed paper menu is better than a lower level framed or posted menu.

    I enjoy that customers can stand back with the printed “handout” but I also experience that a percentage of customers, large enough to mention, end up just giving the confused look and coming back or walking away. Therefore justifying the posted menu in that it keeps customers proximitally close.

    The espresso drink portion of the menu is easy, basic, removable to me. The customer can just chose their size, at our shop (espresso or SOE, 2.5oz macch., 5.5oz Capp, 10oz latte, vanilla, mile, mocha).

    My concern and difficulty comes to the brew bar. Specifically our brew bar. We offer regularly 4 different coffees and one DC. We hope to enlighten the customer about farm names and developing a relationship with that farm or processing method instead of the generic “Ethiopia” this is a struggle and the grey area, as “Ethiopia may be familiar to them, hopefully, and may have positive connotations or negative.

    With the paper menu we used to have the farms listed first.
    Roughly 20% got it right away or were regulars and just ordered the “Amaro Gayo” our natural Ethiopia.
    Another 30% figured it out, with some struggle after reading Ethiopia or Sumatra
    But that left roughly 50% confused and simply lost in the foreign language of farm/region/crop titles.


    At this point, I’d love to try an experiment removing the menus, for a shift or a week for that matter and simply engaging with cutomers way more intensely.

    “can I get a coffee?”
    “of course, what do you typically like about coffee?”
    “I don’t know something dark.”
    “okay, I don’t have any dark roasts, but this Sumatra has a lot of body, kind of earthy, and this Ethiopia is super Round, fruit forward.”
    Two options, I feel would nicely represent our brand, while imaginably giving the customer a positive experience.
    “I don’t like fruit, I’ll try that Sumatra”
    From this point any further engagement on farm name or crop title is unlikely with this customer. But hey maybe the next one will be more into it.


    Either way, customer engagement. Win!

  2. Scott Davis
    12/25/2010 at 9:15 pm #

    In general, this sounds like making a coffee shop more similar to a bar, and I love it. I think it will totally work once the transition is made.

    Regarding what whyyoushouldhatecoffee said, in my experience the conversation about “what type of coffee do you normally like?” is completely unhelpful. That is a question that only a coffee lover really has an answer to. You are clearly familiar with this though, as your sample response was “dark”. However, notice what a mouthful you had to use to explain why you don’t have a dark roast but perhaps you have some “dark” flavored coffees. I think it is the rare customer of “dark” coffees that will appreciate your longwinded response, and I think it is common that they will feel even more intimidated. It is my view that when someone wants just coffee or something dark, we as baristas should ask no more questions, prepare their cup with whatever we think best, and inquire after if they like it, and if they would like to know more about it. Those who are curious will make their curiosity known. Those who are like things simple, will get to keep it that way. Most of all, if we really want to lure over this type of coffee drinkers, it may take giving away some really good cups for free or for cheap before we have truly swooned them. My worst experiences have been when I have just barely managed to make a newbie customer consider the delights of a SO or Clover brewed coffee, only to have them walk out when hearing the price.

  3. 12/31/2010 at 10:47 pm #

    My initial reaction was “WHAT?!” but then I realized that this does seem to be the norm for most bars, and nobody seems to mind paying 6-8 dollars for a mediocre cocktail.

  4. 01/01/2011 at 5:42 pm #

    Thinking more about this, I realized that I worked in a cafe in San Francisco (Il Caffe Emporio Rulli) that didn’t have menus. It worked so smoothly I didnt even think about it until you wrote this post.

  5. 01/20/2011 at 7:44 pm #

    Nice post. I think you make a valid point. Menus are in most cases unnecessary, because most people order habitually, or are informed/picky enough to know what to get. But why do they have menu’s almost everywhere (i guess bars excluded, as Sanford mentioned above)? They are there to guide customers to buy something. Maybe you are reminded of something you haven’t had in a while, or find that a place has something you haven’t tried before. The least costly, most effective way of doing that is with a menu. Menus can also add to the overall experience of a café. One shop I went to had its menus projected onto the wall, which fit the modern vibe of the place quite well (even though the wow factor wore off once the bulbs burned out after being on 24/7). Other places have really nice letter pressed paper menus which are an awesome touch.
    I agree with you about the overhead menus–they suck. But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: