Is Our Work in Coffee Ever Finished?
According to seven of our colleagues, the answer is “Sort of” and “Never”
A day ends at the stroke of midnight, but for many of us who labor over creative pursuits, it’s hard to say exactly when a project is finished.
Fortunately, the unfinished parts of our work are often the parts with the most potential. They’re the ones that draw us back to our desks and cupping table. They make us revisit our notebooks and calculations, wondering to ourselves: What if?
On March 18, we were thrilled to celebrate The Met Breuer’s inaugural exhibit Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible and the opening of our new Blue Bottle Coffee bar on the museum’s fifth floor. This coffee bar is the latest chapter in our tradition of collaborating with museums, which stems from our sense that creativity and coffee pair well together.
The Met Breuer’s exhibit raises the question of what it means for a work of art to be “finished,” which is a question we often find ourselves asking about our own work. Not every endeavor—as we’ve learned in this season of new coffees, food, and cafes—has a checkered flag at the end to signal its completion. So then, what does it mean to pursue a “finished” state? Why do we try?
We posed this question to seven creative minds at the Blue Bottle Coffee Company. Here, after some requisite head-scratching, is what they had to say:
If we were ever to feel “finished,” it would be a sad day.
“The concept of ‘finished’ and ‘training’ do not really go hand-in-hand. In my role as the Director of Training, I am responsible for making sure we are always looking to improve the quality, efficiency, and consistency of everything we do on bar. If we were ever to feel as though we had ‘finished’ designing our training program, it would be a sad day, because it would imply we had reached the peak of what we are capable of. It’s important to remain open to the idea that tomorrow could bring another discovery. People who believe they are finished do not usually keep searching for opportunities to grow."
Michael Phillips, Director of Training
There will always be a better way to design.
“As Production Designer, there are things I create and then pass on, which are no longer affected by me. Those are finished, and no longer mine. But, at the same time, there will always be a better way to communicate to our guests. There will always be a better way to educate and create dialog with our employees. There will always be a better way to design, a new experience to design for, and a new person in the audience.”
Maddie Clark, Production Designer
Communications & Design Team
Being “finished” means we first have to agree on what our goals are.
“Maintaining our blends is a constant work of ensuring that the final product is true to its intention. The constant dialing, fine-tuning, and tweaking to achieve an ideal feels like something’s always a little unfinished, because nothing is ideal. We have this intangible definition of the final product, so for us, being finished means we first have to agree on objective metrics and definitions of what our shared goals are—what our recipes and our roast profiles are. Our coffee is finished when we reach a consensus that this is as close to our ideal as possible—but we can always get closer next time.”
Judith Mandel, Quality Control Specialist
Oakland Quality Control Team
Along the way, there are several “pencils down” moments that occur.
“When it comes to the designs of our cafes, we have very explicit terms in architecture and construction to define the status of a project as ‘finished,’ but the actual nature of designing a cafe is an open-ended process. Along the way, there are several ‘pencils down’ moments that occur in order to adhere to a schedule, but over the lifespan of a cafe, we constantly go back and tweak things. We keep our feedback loop open and are constantly augmenting our design guidelines. I think some people would be surprised to know that our customers’ favorite cafes to visit and the baristas’ favorite cafes to work at are often at odds with one another. Navigating that balance between designing inspiring spaces with great hospitality and designing service bars with high functionality means that my work will never be ‘finished.’”
Dana Nishimura Bryan, Store Design Manager
New Store Openings Team
It’s not easy, but it’s also not hard—especially when you see improvements day by day.
“Building my team up into a group of coffee professionals is what seems to be my perpetually unfinished challenge. As people come and go and take on leadership roles or move on to other cafes and new team members come in, I have to start from scratch again. It's not easy, but it's also not hard—especially when you see improvements day by day: whether it's watching a barista’s latte art progress from a solid, symmetrical heart to a nice, two-tiered tulip; or nailing the dial on the Guatemala Pacamara; or creating moments with new guests who quickly become regulars. When I can step back and watch my team create delicious, beautiful cups of coffee and moments that continue to bring people back, that's when I know my work is done. For now.”
Selina Viguera, Manager
Abbot Kinney Cafe
We are never done trying to create a more delicious or more thoughtful item.
“When talking about culinary at Blue Bottle Coffee, the term ‘unfinished’ is one that aptly describes our work in the kitchen and cafes, because we are never done trying to create a more delicious or more thoughtful item for the Blue Bottle food menu. Sometimes it may mean changing an ingredient to use the freshest seasonal produce at the peak of the season; sometimes it may be in pursuit of a more sustainable source. A very well respected chef, Ferran Adria, had a habit of retiring a menu item when he felt it was perfect. Part of the process of being a chef is to create something better every day.”
Chef Scott Boggs, Regional Director of Culinary
It means walking away from a project before I think it is perfect.
“To me ‘unfinished’ means walking away from a project before I think it is perfect. It burns a little to be so dissatisfied with a cafe or a coffee blend or a postcard because of some constraint—whether time, or budget, or my own incompetence. However, even at my gloomiest, I'm somewhat cheered when I think of the words of legendary modern dancer, Martha Graham, when asked by the filmmaker Cecil B. deMille if she was ever satisfied with her work. Supposedly, Graham replied: ‘There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.’”
James Freeman, Founder and CEO