In praise of specialisation (or, why we don’t do sandwiches)

In praise of specialisation (or, why we don’t do sandwiches)

By Catherine Franks

My favourite customer order ever was from a woman about four years ago. She strode right up to the till, glanced over my shoulder at our coffee menu, and then looked me in the eye and ordered a pineapple juice and a coronation chicken baguette. She was so specific about what she wanted, I actually found myself glancing back at the menu to double check that it was not in fact written up there - maybe a prank by a member of the team. Nope, there was the normal coffee list from espresso to latte, some teas and hot chocolates. In the case next to me was our regular selection of cakes and the grilled cheese sandwiches we used to do. Definitely no sign of pineapples or chicken. When I broke the news to her she decided she would try elsewhere.

I’ve got to admire someone who really knows what they want and goes after it. I also totally get that, sometimes you really do fancy a particular thing. I quite regularly fancy a slice of pizza, but when I do I make sure I go to a pizza shop. And there it is, the point I’m winding my way towards, I think specialising in something is a really really good thing.

I go to a pizza shop because I know they make really great pizza, it’s what they do, it’s what they are known for and they get geeky about it. They use a specific flour, they have special ovens, their sauce is a heavily guarded secret. Nobody else makes the pizza quite like them. Not only that, I have collected favourite pizza experiences in different shops over the years.

Does anybody remember the Seinfeld episode about the Soup Nazi? Yeah, the guy was an asshole but he made the best soup around so people queued up around the block for it. Well that is what I want from my pizza specialist (though I do love it when they are not assholes). I don’t want to go to a place that has burgers and a Sunday roast and a Chinese stir fry as well as pizza. That will pretty much guarantee that the pizza is utterly disgusting.

It is ok to disappoint people 

Kurt Cobain once famously said; “I would rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I am not.” And that gets to the very root of one of my favourite qualities: authenticity. For me, it is far more important to honest about what you are about than to try to please everybody by pretending to be something you are not. If you are a pizza specialist, you are going to disappoint the person who wants fried chicken and that is ok. We are a coffee roaster so we are also going to disappoint people who want something other than coffee. Or want coffee that is different from the way we make it.

Over the years we have pissed off or disappointed a lot of people. Obviously on one level this is really hard. Especially when by nature, most of us who work in hospitality are people pleasers. But on the whole I think it is a good thing. Why? Because those people were looking for something that we manifestly are not - a cafe with high chairs, a restaurant that serves cooked breakfasts, a tea shop with scones, a coffee shop that does massive coffees with syrups and cream and sprinkles. These things are all fine and necessary (well maybe not the coffee with sprinkles) and they are things that other people can offer and offer well. But we do not.

Personally I love tea and scones and really enjoy going to an old fashioned tea shop for them from time to time. One with gentle music and antiques and cosies on the teapots and scones warm from the oven, topped with cream and home made jam. I cannot think of a better retreat from a rainy afternoon.

But that is not what we offer at Steampunk. We are coffee roasters.

We offer the whir of the grinder, the whoosh of the steam wand, even the churning noise and toasty smells of the coffee roaster itself. There’s banter with the team, hip hop on the Spotify and the occasional bark of an excited dog. There’s the smell of brownies fresh out of the oven, because a slab of dense chocolate alongside a coffee is the next best thing to heaven. If you want to buy beans for home brewing, you can talk to someone who knows and loves the coffees and can recommend their favourite beans or discuss how to brew them with you. You can see through our glass wall to the roasters cupping coffee samples, roasting and packing. Sacks of coffee from all over the world are stacked in the corner.

Regaining focus

The pandemic and all of the lockdowns and difficulties of the past couple of years have really underlined the importance of specialisation to me. It is impossible to be good at everything, the best you can hope for is a sort of inoffensive blandness. Trying to please everybody and have a little something that suits everyone’s tastes will basically just turn you into an Ikea. But even Ikea doesn’t please everybody - I for example would far rather root around a barn full of old junk and antiques then follow endless arrows around flat pack room sets.

During the full lockdown at the start of the pandemic we, like many others, hit pause and had a chance to reassess what we were doing. We did this at both a professional and on deeply personal level. We were able to step away from the endless crisis after crisis that is the reality of running a really busy cafe. Although we have always been pretty specific and our focus has remained relatively narrow, over the years we had gradually expanded our offering. And we loved what we offered. I can tell you the whole team misses having cheese toasties for lunch and we know that our customers really loved them too.

But what realised was this: if you are putting cheese toasties on a grill, plating them up and running them out to tables, you are not able to focus on making the coffee as well as you could be.

The reset of the pandemic allowed us to see this and to choose what was most important to us. The answer was coffee. When we reopened we were determined to keep our focus squarely on that humble bean. As a result we have been able to offer a new menu of cold coffees over the summer, we have a constantly varying seasonal range of beans that we rotate much more frequently over espresso and filter and we have much more time to spend with customers - talking about coffee or even just life in general. Either way, we feel that we have been able to vastly improve the quality of what we offer as well as the level of service.

The way forward

We are all just human, and we are working just now at a time of incredible challenges. Within hospitality there is a real crisis of staffing. For businesses in general there are increasing difficulties in getting stock and dealing with spiralling costs without putting prices up to a level that will kill trade. We are trying to look after our teams working in more hazardous conditions and dealing with wildly different attitudes from the general public - from the super cautious to the Covid carefree.

During difficult times, there is a greater inclination to want to please everyone, to offer more in the hopes of getting more people through the door. We are doing the opposite, we are offering less but making sure that what we offer is the best possible thing we can do. We will never please everyone but we can strive to do our one small thing to the best of our ability and be proud of that. We can get super geeky and share our passion about it. And we can just hope that we will find our tribe of others out there who love what we do and want to join us on this amazing coffee ride.


This blog post is dedicated to the person who is not and was never a customer who came in yesterday and said our lack of sandwiches was a “good reason to not come back.” Bye.

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