Customers Are Paying to Trade Places With the Barista

Latte classes are the hottest thing to come from the coffee bar

Two years ago, Christian Ott decided to run a Sunday afternoon seminar on coffee appreciation. Ott had just been hired as director of coffee for Stone Creek, an artisanal coffee chain with 10 locations in and around Milwaukee, and he figured he could teach his clientele a thing or two. But as the seminars got going, it was Ott who learned something. "I realized there was a lot of interest in crafting coffee," he said. So Stone Creek expanded its educational offerings (which include courses like "Intro to Espresso Theory"), eventually building them to three-hour classes, three times a month. "The Home Barista course is actually the same content we teach all of our new baristas," Ott said.

Stone Creek is one of many artisanal coffee operations that have gone from being coffee shops to full-fledged coffee educators. From Seattle's Caffe Vita, San Diego's Bird Rock Coffee, and New York brands including Toby's Estate, Birch Coffee and modcup, upscale coffee shops are opening their barista training up to the general public, teaching the finer points of brewing, crafting and tasting coffee.

Modcup offers its free brewing class at its Jersey City Heights, N.J., location.

But as the restaurant business is already one of the toughest businesses out there, why on earth would any player in the hyper-competitive coffee segment take on the added burden of education? It's because the benefits are many—from the chance to sell more proprietary blends to filling seats during off-hours to word-of-mouth marketing.

Take Toby's Estate Coffee, for example. Much like Stone Creek, Toby's offerings started with simple coffee appreciation classes that have since morphed into an entire Brew School that now offers courses such as "Latte Art" and "Espresso II." (Prices range from $35 to $150 per class.)

At Toby's Estate, the "Dynamic Cupping" class shown here is just $5.

"We've had an explosion of interest," said co-owner Amber Jacobsen, who adds that the classes not only "help us sell more beans" but also to build the kind of customer relationships that traditional marketing cannot deliver. "Especially from a social media point of view, it's a good way to interact with our customers," she said.

Jacobsen has even found that her Brew School, as it's known, acts as a pipeline for recruiting employees—no small feat considering the perennial problem of labor in the restaurant industry. "Absolutely we've found new employees," she said. "All the time people say, 'I love your coffee and want to work for you.'"

For other retailers, barista classes function as a differentiator in the marketplace—a means of demonstrating that a brand's attention to quality is genuine. It's also a sideline that doesn't cost all that much, given that staff, real estate and equipment are all already in place.

"It helps us put our brand out there as an authority in the industry," pointed out Jeremy Lyman, co-founder of Birch Coffee, which has six locations throughout New York and offers a three-hour latte- and espresso-making class ($295) that is often sold out well in advance.

The $35 "Home Barista" class offered at Stone Creek instructs

customers on the finer points of preparing an espresso.

"We thought that having routine classes could allow us to generate a following that would be loyal to our core mission of brewing the finest fresh coffee experience," added Justin Hicks, co-owner of modcup, a café and espresso cart based out of Jersey City Heights, N.J., which runs a free brewing class every Saturday morning. "It allows our consumer to become educated and raise the bar on what a quality cup is. If we can bring up the standard of what everyone is drinking, then we can bring change to the entire coffee game."

Because discriminating consumers, especially millennials, look to such "third-wave" coffee brands to elevate and refine the quality of the entire category, operators contend that offering barista classes has even become just the kind of thing their customers have come to expect, like pastries and free wireless Internet service in stores.

"This education is ultimately important for the sustainability of our business model," said Stone Creek's director of team development Drew Pond, who oversees the chain's courses, priced at $35. "Third-wave coffee is about providing the best coffee available to a discerning clientele. Educating customers on coffee and quality creates a greater market of discriminating drinkers."

Ultimately, observes New York restaurant consultant Noelle Elyse Ifshin, a brand that creates coffee drinkers creates coffee advocates. These classes, she said, "make for more brand loyalty, make customers into brand ambassadors—and you can't pay for that kind of marketing."