Monday, June 25, 2007

Portland Blues: Java Joint Hits the Skids

A stray scolding from a irritated barista permanently severed my long-time patronage with Portland Brews this morning. The break-up was overdue. You see, I like their coffee, but lately that quality is not enough to overcome their deteriorating service.

The Portland Brews on Murphy Road consistently suffers now from what set in a few years ago at Fido: a staff of struggling artists and musicians more focused on talking up their crafts and gigs than on slinging coffee. That would be fine if the place were not consistently stuffed to the gills with customers who seem too happy to buy a single cup o' joe and camp out there long after their buzz has worn off. However, rarely can one find a table there for grabbing a quick breakfast in a place whose quality does not match its seeming popularity.

Speaking of breakfast, our relationship went rocky when Portland Brews decided to stop preparing a hot breakfast, choosing instead to offer only bagels and pre-made dishes. Their reasons: they were losing money by having some staff in the back cook and they wanted to devote more time and money to special espresso roasts for the connoisseurs among their regulars. I do not know how they have room for connoisseurs with crowds of students keyboarding away or local suits holding meetings in a java joint rather than in their conference rooms.

But since the change was made a few weeks ago, I have seen no special espresso roast offers for that elite clientele and the customer relations of the staff has gone downhill as their time free from the bondage to the cookery in the back room has increased. Food prep now means mostly popping bagels in a toaster out front, and yet, almost every time I have ordered a bagel since the changes were made, the staff either forgot my order or forgot to fish the bagel out of the toaster. I have actually waited 10-15 minutes on a couple of occasions to get a toasted bagel. The staff seemed more consumed with debating the finer points of acoustic rifts and less concerned with taking my order and letting me go in a timely manner.

This morning was the final straw. I ordered a double breve with no bagel. Seems easy enough, especially when I had been ordering the same 12-ounce to-go drink in the same place at least twice a week for a year. Mind you: I had not even had my coffee, yet; and what coffee-drinkers among us would blame me for having a bit of a pre-coffee snarl? And what barista should not expect a lack of humor until the drinker imbibes? Even while moody, I politely ordered my breve and I patiently weathered the barista chatter about "practicing octaves with one hand and scales with the other even without a metronome."

When the call came that my drink was ready, I found that they put it in a 16-ounce cup. I told them that I wanted the same 12-ounce cup that they always pulled out the minute they saw me at the register having made no prompt at all. I wondered to myself why they would assume that my breve should go in the larger cup. No matter, because everybody knows that the tenets of customer relations dictate a new cup of coffee: businesses eat cup-sized losses to hold on to the regular-sized customer.

Not in this case. The Barista proceeded to chastise me for not telling her clearly beforehand that I wanted mine in the smaller cup. She also said that "next time" I needed to tell her as much because "Half-and-Half is very expensive to waste." The pre-coffee snarl and lack of humor were now no doubt obvious on my face. Even so, I made no loud scene, as she made me my usual drink, but I did calculate what would come next.

When she called me up to her bar for my breve, I informed her quietly but bluntly, "There will be no 'next time.' I have been a regular customer here for a long time, but I will not be back 'next time.'"

Then I walked off calmly and coldly with my piping breve, and out the door, which only gave her the chance to reply, "But, sir ...!" Half-and-Half may be expensive to waste. But can it be any more expensive than the loss of a regular customer and each $1 tip he coughed up for every $3 cup of coffee he bought since the place opened? I leave Portland Brews to work out that equation on its own.


  1. As a former barista, I almost automatically side with my compatriots in struggles such as these; but in this case, there is a clear right and a clear wrong. A breve should never try to fill a cup that big. You should not have had to ask.

  2. Portland East is by far the best place to go if your gonna do Portland Brew. There is always a place to sit, its quiet but with good music in the background and they always have a good selection of food. And to top it off, a wonderful friend of mine runs the shop most days and she is extremely polite and efficient.

  3. I used to work at that store, and I've heard much of the same bad news from a lot of people, sadly. I'm not clear from your narrative if you ordered the drink in a 12-oz cup or if you assumed that the staff would recognize you and remember your preference. Either way, you shouldn't have been scolded, and the crap with the bagels drives me crazy.

    If you didn't specify, I can only sympathize with you on the tone the barista took. PB has always done all lattes, mochas, and breves in 16oz cups by default (this used to be printed on the menu boards, but I'm not sure if it is on the newer ones), so if you just ordered a breve, they were right to put it in the 16oz cup, whatever joe lance's preference might be. The "clear right" is to consistently prepare the drink the way it is presented on the menu unless the customer asks for something different.

    One systematic problem with Portland Brew is the lack of a manager in each store, with a reliance instead on many part-time workers. This is the root cause of the poor service, and of regulars not getting the special attention they deserve. I don't know who was working the morning you describe, but when I was still working for PB, there were people who would work just three shifts a week, at three different stores. Those workers will never recognize you as a regular, no matter how long you've been coming in. I thought at the time that this was a bad idea, and it is one of the reasons I left.

  4. I'm not sure I understand the gravity of the situation given it was over the size of a paper cup and a slight 'tude from a barrista. I would have a hard time leaving a favorite coffee shop over one incident like that. Would you consider forgiving the person's mistake [I know it's hard], and have you settled on a new place to get coffee?

  5. To repeat what I wrote above: being lectured by the barista about the price of Half-and-Half was the last straw that broke the camel's back. The service has consistently deteriorated. I'm not enough of a slave to anyone's coffee that I can overlook a continuing streak of bad service.

    I generally overlook a lot of annoying barista behavior. I can remember waiting patiently at a Bongo East cash register once while the employee finished a non-emergent personal cell phone call right in front of a sign that admonished customers not to talk on their cell phones while ordering at the register. It takes a lot to make me choose not to come back. P-Brews has consistently done a lot.

    There are plenty of other places to get good coffee, and I use them all. I've even started going back to Fido even with their crowds, because their service has improved tremendously. And from what I've heard from the inside, the P-Brews owners simply do not appreciate the obvious need for decent middle management in their stores.

    I view my termination with P-Brews more as a financial decision than a culinary one. By blogging it, I hope to find out if there is a chorus of disaffected consumers who have had similar experiences. I don't expect this to affect anyone else whose experiences at P-Brews is generally great, the way mine were a long time ago.

  6. I used to work at Fido, and can recall actually being brought to tears by having irate customers lecture me for no fault of my own a couple of times. I can't imagine lecturing a customer in such a manner.
    Instead, she should have taken that as a lesson to make it a point to ASK the customer what size they desired.