A barista at Ritual Roasters in San Francisco pours hot coffee into Thermoses about to be shipped around the country. (Courtesy Thermos)
Last week, Thermos overnighted me a cup of hot coffee from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C., to see if it could. It was a bald-faced PR stunt. It succeeded in both senses: The coffee was still hot by the time it reached me, and I am writing about it now.
Now you’ve been warned: This is an article about a PR stunt. It was, however, an extraordinary PR stunt—well-executed, conceptually simple, and bubbling with zeitgeist. And I accepted the hot coffee for reasons beyond my love of roasted arabica.
The stunt’s part of a larger contest (and context). In May, Thermos shipped 25 of its Facebook fans in the contiguous U.S. free coffee overnight from Ritual Coffee in San Francisco. This month, the second time it ran the contest, it chose a more midwestern provider: Spyhouse Coffee in Minneapolis.
Courtney Fehrenbacher, a marketing manager at Thermos, told me that the company hopes to re-run the contest every other month, at least until the end of the year. Altogether, Spyhouse will hand 35 of its steaming envoys over to FedEx to be distributed across the country.
But, dare I say, the stunt was about even more than Thermos, Spyhouse, the Stainless King, or the Iron Throne. It was about logistics.
As best as I can assemble it, here is the trajectory of the Stainless King and its erstwhile contents.
The coffee inside the Stainless King was Spyhouse’s Las Nubes roast: a coffee variety indigenous to Kenya and grown in El Salvador. The varietal was brought to El Salvador in the early 20th century when that country’s economy rested on its coffee production. This bean was grown on a similarly old farm, high-altitude land owned by the same family since the 1920s. (Or, at least, that’s the story Spyhouse tells.)
This bean, though. It was harvested sometime last winter before it entered its customary months of rest. Afterward, it was shipped to Spyhouse, which roasted the beans on July 21, 2014. It became the shop’s Las Nubes lot.
I presume it roasted those beans in the morning, because by the afternoon it was brewing the coffee. Around 4 p.m., the team got out their 10 Stainless Kings (designated for me and fellow members of the media) and filled them with Las Nubes, which they dripped. Then they put them in Thermos’s special packages—augmented with a bag of freshly roasted Las Nubes—and drove the boxes “about a quarter mile away” to the local FedEx facility.
According to a FedEx spokeswoman, the package was placed in a modified McDonnell Douglas DC-10, called an MD-10*. That plane’s a couple decades old, at least—McDonnell stopped making them in 1989—and FedEx owns more than anyone else. FedEx indisputably owns the largest private cargo fleet in the world, and, according to the trade journal Supply Chain, the fourth-largest aircraft fleet, period.
Perhaps the package was stopped and exchanged in one of FedEx’s global or national hubs, in Memphis, or Indianapolis. Eventually, though, it arrived in D.C. in the wee hours of the July 22. Unloaded from the plane, sorted, loaded onto a truck, and carried to The Atlantic’s office/cement island-fortress, the Watergate, it reached its destination at 7:21 a.m. The coffee had been roasted less than 24 hours before.
Of course, the coffee wouldn’t reach its final destination—my belly—for another hour or so. I got to work during the eight o’clock hour, hoping to intercept the Stainless King, and discovered Santa had already arrived.
With my colleague Adrienne, I unboxed the long-traveling liquid. Like Max’s dinner in Where the Wild Things Are, it was still hot.
Talking to Spyhouse’s founder and owner, Christian Johnson, I’ve been able to piece together the coffee’s temperature-history. Spyhouse uses water at exactly 203 degrees Fahrenheit to brew Las Nubes. Johnson estimates that by the time that liquid—now coffee—departs the brew shuttle, it’s between 175 and 180 degrees. Then it was capped, vacuum-sheathed, and sent on its way.
But still the conditions outside changed. “Depending on the exact placement of the package inside the aircraft, temperatures range from 40 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit during an average flight, with the average temperature being about 60 degrees,” a Fedex spokeswoman said of the Thermos’ cargo transit. And the pressure changed outside as well, rising to the equivalent of 8,000 feet above sea level.
It was about 72 degrees in the district as the package trundled through, and a few degrees cooler in my almost-refrigerated office. When we uncapped the Thermos, we measured its temperature to be 151 degrees.
“Wow. That’s amazing,” said Johnson, after I shared this heat conservation with him. “So really you only lost 25 degrees between when we capped the thermos to when you opened it.”
He added that the other factors involved in long-form transit—the altitude, the pressurization—shouldn’t have significantly affected the coffee’s taste. I think that sounds right. I found Las Nubes as described, similar to other El Salvadorean coffee I’ve had that didn’t migrate: acidic in a citrusy way, a little sweet.
According to Fehrenbacher, the idea for the contest came from an anecdote that Thermos’s president would tell. Once upon a time, the story went, a client had paid the company to regularly overnight coffee from across the country. (No one seems to remember just which client this was.) Why not see if they could recreate the story for marketing purposes?
The gimmickry of the stunt seemed to attract Johnson to the idea. But when he spoke to me, he obligingly remarked too on the pop-cultural power of Thermos. He and the other baristas carried Thermos-made lunch boxes as kids; they respected Thermos as a stalwart American product. Now, they were proud to partner with the company for the contest.
And Thermos is an enviable tool for that reason. It embodies “do one thing well”in the world of beverage receptacles. People buy it because they want something that does what a Thermos does—and every time, without fail, without system reboots or lag, it dispatches this task admirably. (Though if I have one quarrel with the Stainless King, its top cap was sometimes very, very hard to screw off.)
Talking to Thermos and Spyhouse, I was struck by the image at the top of this post: A Ritual roster, pierced and bearded, pouring single-origin coffee into that most mainstream of food receptacles: the Thermos. It’s more than urban-meets-rural: It’s the new dream of artisanal, ethical food preparation meeting the old dream of mass-produced American plenty.
It reminds me of the most recent product of K-Hole, a kind of art collective that mocks corporate trends-casting reports by issuing its own. K-Hole calls the aesthetic that gives rise to artisanal coffee “Mass Indie”:
Mass Indie ditched the Alternative preoccupation with evading sameness and focused on celebrating difference instead. […] Whether you’re soft grunge, pastel goth, or pale, you can shop at Forever 21.
But as Mass Indie becomes mass-er, it starts to hit snags. “Individuality was once the path to personal freedom—a way to lead life on your own terms,” says K-Hole’s report. “But the terms keep getting more and more specific, making us more and more isolated.” Each product, slightly different and catering to a slightly different audience, winds up isolating people in islands of taste and difference:
Feast.ly, Fast.ly, Vid.ly, Vend.ly, Ming.ly, Mob.ly: each provides a specific service, finetuned to a specific user need, brought to life by a specific entrepreneurial urge. They’re all targeting different audiences, but the general public can’t remember who’s who.
As Mass Indie approaches cultural domination, its elites flee. They’re alone on their perfectly curated and indecipherable islands of taste. They instead embrace—and please, please, do not stop reading when you encounter this word—normcore.
Normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity coolness that opts in to sameness. But instead of appropriating an aestheticized version of the mainstream, it just cops to the situation at hand. To be truly Normcore, you need to understand that there’s no such thing as normal. […]
Normcore seeks the freedom that comes with non-exclusivity. It finds liberation in being nothing special, and realizes that adaptability leads to belonging.
“If you live in the middle of nowhere,” Fehrenbacher told me, lauding her own company’s stunt, “you get to try some of the country’s best coffee.” Thermos has already shipped hot coffee to central Florida, northern Michigan, and (of course) New York City.
Looking at that picture of the bearded barista and the line of identical Thermoses, I thought, what could be more normcore than this?
But there’s something that enables all of this, from my supping of the coffee to your reading this now: the global supply chain. The ability to fling ingredients and products from coast-to-coast and continent-to-continent makes not only Thermos’s contest but Spyhouse’s very business possible. It’s the supply chain that moves coffee beans from El Salvador to Minneapolis, where they can be roasted and sipped in days. It’s the supply chain—in the form of FedEx, which, remember, has the world’s fourth largest collection of aircraft—that performs the final stunt of getting coffee around the lower 48 in half a day.
Behind every ingredients list stand the movers and shippers of our world: each, like FedEx, possessing a private army of execution. I accepted Thermos’s coffee contest because it seemed a spectacle of logistics. But every single day of our lives is already that.
* This post originally described the plane which shipped the Thermos as a DC-10. It is properly an MD-10: a DC-10 modified by FedEx to have a larger cockpit and different hull. We regret the error.
Ano Novo Blend: Give the Gift that Keeps on Giving
The first custom Cafe Hound blend of 2010 is already receiving raving reviews from its first consumers! As we continue to sell out our limited stock we are closely approaching our goal of having enough money to send a charitable donation to the Barefoot Foundation (Pies Descalzos) down in Colombia. Below are some success stories from the English version of their website.
All content from the Barefoot Foundation website is the property of the Barefoot Foundation.
The stories from the communities we serve inspire us to continue working for those who need us most. These comments from our students and their families describe the changes in their communities. For each success story, there are thousands more children who we hope to serve soon.
Ferley didn’t think he’d ever get to go to school. His thin frame is shrunken by congenital rickets, making him look closer to six than to his eleven years. His mother Clarisa said, “I was afraid that if I let him go to school, the other kids would call him names and make fun of him, and that he would be a burden on the teachers.” Clarisa Rentería and her five children are refugees who fled the violence of Colombia’s civil conflict, eventually settling in Quibdó, a western Colombian city. She explains, “I arrived here in 1999. It was heartbreaking to lose it all and be left with nothing.” The family struggled to survive and could not afford a wheelchair for Ferley. Without a wheelchair, Ferley could not get around the rocky streets.
However, Ferley didn’t want to stay confined to the house. He begged to go to school and longingly studied his siblings’ homework. Pies Descalzos visited Ferley’s house and talked to his mother, convincing her that her son would be well taken care of. When Clarisa saw the desire and determination in her son’s eyes, she agreed. Pies Descalzos bought Ferley a wheelchair and he enrolled in the Pies Descalzos School.
Four years later, Ferley is a happy, popular student who always has a smile on his face. He and his best friend Bryan are inseparable and they dream of continuing their studies. “I like to go to school because I learn a lot and because I like to share with my friends.” Ferley loves math, social science, reading and dreams of becoming a professional singer of Vallenato, a Colombian folk music style.
Ferley with Shakira
To teacher Absalón Asprilla Gómez, Ferley is a special student. “When I face something difficult, I don’t complain, instead, I think about his situation. He is one of the best students in the school, with a permanent smile, despite it all. For me, this is very meaningful. It has helped me grow a lot as a person.”
Pies Descalzos hasn’t just changed Ferley’s life; it has changed his whole family. Clarisa earns extra money for her family by preparing breakfast and lunch for the Pies Descalzos Foundation school as part of the “If I eat better, I will learn more” program. “We prepare lunch for the students and we help with the breakfast, so that they have food and they can study with full stomachs,” says Clarisa proudly. The meals they prepare are supervised by a nutritionist and made possible through Pies Descalzos and the Instituto Colombian Bienestar Familiar. This program helps make sure that the malnutrition that affected Ferley doesn’t affect other children.
The Barefoot Foundation helps hundreds of families like Clarisa and Ferley’s. The Pies Descalzos schools are open to everyone and serve as a center for community development. Parents, neighbors and grandparents learn sewing, artisan skills and literacy while teens engage in micro-businesses, sports leagues, and leadership development activities. This neighborhood is changing and growing thanks to the community, and the Barefoot Foundation and the Pies Descalzos Foundation.
The Story of El Minuto de Dios School, Altos de Cazucá
Elementary school teacher Consuelo Pachón barely recognizes her school, El Minuto de Dios, anymore. She teaches in Soacha an area south of Bogotá that was once a booming mining town. Today, its hills have been stripped of their natural resources, the mines left behind environmental damage and the jobs disappeared. The vacuum left by the mines has been filled with desperately poor people and internal refugees from Colombia’s civil conflict. Thousands flood in each year with nothing but their lives. Fifty-three percent are younger than 14 years old and many children have missed years of school while fleeing.
Before Pies Descalzos Foundation, El Minuto de Dios was in shambles. “At the start it was very hard. The school room walls were made of spare wood, the same kind they use to make fruit crates. The stairs were carved out of mud and, whenever it rained, the children slipped and fell. There weren’t bathrooms, just a latrine. “But now, the conditions have changed tremendously” she commented, raising her eyes to the ceiling in thanks.
The Pies Descalzos Foundation rebuilt the school; they installed sturdy buildings, libraries, computer rooms and safe bathrooms. Pies Descalzos, in alliance with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the government, and Secretary of Education of Soacha, the Minuto de Dios University and the Educational Alliance, support two schools in Altos de Cazucá. In each, they provide nutritious meals, extra programs for troubled kids, recreational and leadership programs, while supporting parent cooperative that help families leave poverty. The community and the children have a safe, supported place to develop. As Ana, one of the school’s parents said “they now have the possibility to imagine a tomorrow filled with human and professional possibilities in this society.”
Jhonathan wants to clean up Altos de Cazucá. The 17 year old environmental biology major at Jorge Tadeo Lozano University knows only too well the pollution that plagues this poor area south of Bogotá. He moved to Altos de Cazucá as a baby with his mother and siblings. The family struggled to eke out a living, but his mother wanted more for her children so she enrolled them in the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Institute, one of the Pies Descalzos schools.
“The Foundation radically changed my life,” says Jhonathan. “It taught me to relate to other people and that material things aren’t the only things that count. It helped me realize what my life’s project should be.” With Pies Descalzos’ support, Jhonathan scored among the highest students in the country on the high school exit exams. He and other top Pies Descalzos students received university scholarships from Pies Descalzos to pursue their dreams.
“The University is an enormous responsibility, not only for myself and my family, but to help the rest of my community,” says Jhonathan. He and another student, Maicol, are using their education to create a recycling business that will provide much needed jobs and help clean up the local environment. Jhonathan also returns to his old neighborhood to tutor kids in school and help them imagine their true potential. “We use games to make learning fun and to expand their interest in school” says Jhonathan.
He loves learning and is eager to continue studying. He would like to pursue a master’s degree in systems engineering and learn French and Portuguese. But, no matter how far he goes, he will never forget the Pies Descalzos Foundation, the Barefoot Foundation and the lessons they taught him about service and believing in his own potential.
Just because I think both the detractors (read: haters) and the supporters of the newish Starbucks move to test the higher end specialty coffee waters have made some very salient points with regard to the changing dynamics of the specialty coffee industry.
Starbucks MUST be respected for its sheer ability to throw money and professional marketing at any scheme that they arrange.
The hipster coffee house vibe — that many of the places that are charging $20 a pound for fresh roasted coffee from reputable outfits like Blue Bottle, Ritual, Novo, Intelligentsia and Counter Culture — does not appear to be something that the Starbucks corporate people will ever be able to roll-out on a large scale.
What it does appear Starbucks’ wants is to leverage its sheer advantage in liquidity (read: lots of $$$) and marketing to increase their share of a market that is a sub-sector of their core industry. As a major buyer of green coffee all over the world it seems logical that they would leverage the best of their strategic relationships to promote higher premiums, no? It makes perfect business sense and the following article gives a more balanced look at the non-hater side of the the 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea story.
We finally made it to see the new 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea (”Inspired by Starbucks” as it says on the door) on Capitol Hill in Seattle. After all the specialty coffee hubbub, press, and dramaover what this means, and after reading the considerably dramatic yelp reviews, we had to see it for ourselves. It puts an interesting question out there – can Starbucks make a better Starbucks?
In New York, when we first heard about it, we were skeptical. When we think of Starbucks, we picture the lines of caffeine deprived junkies queued up by the dozen, packed into a place pumping out big milky drinks by the gallon, with rarely a smile on any face – customer or barista. Like most situations in New York, the stakes are higher, and the throngs battle it out to make it out with their drink. Does it taste like coffee? Perhaps, but what’s most important is that you made it out with something hot and you’re still alive.
This is the line at the original Starbucks retail location at Pike Place Market, downtown Seattle. This location used to be a fine purveyor of coffee beans only; now it looks a lot like an everyday Manhattan retail location (read: packed and stressful).
Starbucks’ reputation in New York is bad. And for people who’ve only known that big, corporate, bad-tasting, fast food retail-y experience, I don’t blame them. But as a Seattleite that grew up alongside the explosive growth of the company, I always speak positively of my very first experiences getting lattes at (where else?) Starbucks. And it was good. Our whole industry, and certainly my company, would be much less significant (even nonexistent) if Starbucks hadn’t tapped the consumer demand and opened the floodgates.
But still, there’s no denying that Starbucks lately has fallen on hard times. The coffee just hasn’t been that good, the shops are kind of dumpy, all Starbucks’ seem to have an unpleasant smell (what is the deal with that smell?). I hadn’t had coffee from Starbucks (with the exception of a Clover coffee last year) in several years. Why bother, when there are independent places, with great coffee, and great service (you can visit our tour if you need tips) right around the corners from many a Starbucks in NYC?
On the other hand, there are a lot of independent cafes that rest happily with the knowledge that they’re not Starbucks. But are they good? Well, no, not really. The coffee is ok, maybe some of the baristas are nice, and the atmosphere is decent. By and large, these cafes provide a sub-par experience. As consultants, we run into this mentality all the time, and are constantly checking that clients begin providing a much higher standard of service, and of course, most importantly, are providing the best possible product. There is simply no way that being “not Starbucks” is anything more than a lie owner/managers use to tell themselves they are doing a good job in their cafes. Most very high end cafes think of Starbucks as completely irrelevant – and while I think there are some great aspects of Starbucks (they’ve got independents trounced when it comes to retail and merchandising, for example, and it’s worth watching them for that), I generally tend to agree with the high end independents.
So when we walked into 15th Avenue Coffee on Capitol Hill, steps away from Victrola, we were keeping all of our standards as high as we do at any shop we visit. What’s the atmosphere like? Are we greeted right away? Are the chairs comfortable and are there multiple types of seating? Can we see this space being multi-functional, serving a lot of customers from various backgrounds? And of course, how is the product?
We were greeted cordially and were provided with some suggestions about what to try. I had a macchiato, and Neil got a Costa Rican coffee. We were served in porcelain cups. The latte art on my coffee was lovely. And most importantly, the coffee tasted pretty good. Maybe not the most unbelievable, delicious coffee in the world, but certainly pleasant and drinkable, and considerably better than many independent cafes in Seattle. I’m fairly certain that most coffee consumers wouldn’t see a discernible difference when picking between 15th Ave and Victrola in terms of cup quality. In New York, this shop could make a killing.
Does that mean that Victrola needs to look out? It’s doubtful. Victrola has a strong customer base and has been making great coffee for years. In fact, my theory is that Starbucks moved to that location to test the waters in a very tough location for them, just steps away from a high-end independent. In this spot Starbucks is definitely going to see if it’s possible for them to reclaim their glory as a high-end, products focused business. I think that for quality focused independents, this new incarnation will only increase awareness and bring in more customers, especially if they launch cafes in cafe-deprived areas.
What about other, smaller, less quality-focused cafes? Should they be concerned? Absolutely — if you’re using Starbucks as your measuring stick. Those cafes are in trouble anyway, they just haven’t seen someone come along to challenge them yet. But look out, everybody. Here comes a company that means business and wants to reclaim what it has lost.