In Luke 16 (it’s in the Bible) there is a story about a poor beggar man named Lazarus who lived and died in the shadow of a very wealthy man. During their lifetimes they each lived vastly different lives: the wealthy man dining in luxury and comfort, while poor Lazarus having to eek out his very existence, literally, wishing for “what fell from the rich man’s table.”
In due course each man died, reads the text, and this is where it gets interesting (and where I want to focus the point of this post). In typical biblical fashion, the author tells us that after death, upon each man opening his respective eyes, the tables had quite dramatically turned. Poor, humble Lazarus, who had scrapped his way through life, was now enjoying his eternal rest for a life lived free of vice, while the rich man, who ostensibly brushed aside the beggar in their earthly life (though the text does not bear this out explicitly) now found himself in a place of unbelievable torment and agony.
(Incidentally, they say the thing about hell isn’t the heat and the fire, it’s having to live with yourself and your selfish, destructive earthly decisions forever.)
Anyway, the main word here in this passage, for me is “chasm.” Turns out when the rich man awakens to his fiery torment he can see Lazarus way far off in the distance, in the proverbial “bosom of Abraham” being comforted and generally relaxing and having a good time in paradise. But when Lazarus calls out to Father Abraham for relief here is Abraham’s reply:
Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad
things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and
you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can
anyone cross over from there to us. (Emphasis mine)
A “great chasm.” Some translations call it a gulf. Others, a deep ditch. You get the gist.
My point here is that I see such a rift opening up in my corner of the coffee world, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Another way of thinking about it is imagining a group of cyclists in the mountains of the Tour de France or some such. Everyone is plugging away to the summit, when all of a sudden a group or two or three guys simply up and pedal off, leaving the poor trudgeons to fall away in ignominy.
The gap I’m referring to is one I was thinking about Saturday in Austin at Caffe Medici, where I went to help judge a latte art contest. About a dozen folks showed up, smacked down their ten clams and queued up to produce as good a set of tulips (this month’s theme) as possible. Some were positively awful. Others quite fabulous. And I got to thinking that the really great ones sprang from the hands of those who worked at the elite shops in Texas, while the “latte amoebas” were being poured by shops that had little money, little exposure, little in the way of anything that could help them up their game and level of service to their customers.
Now, I know what you must be thinking right about now, and I agree wholeheartedly: Latte art is by no means indicative of quality coffee. You can have the prettiest stuff up top and nothing worth a sip beneath. I know. But I guess my larger point(s) is/are that the gap that seems to have opened up here in our small corner of the world is in some ways a small parallel to those happening in the wider world, where the “haves” have begun to quickly widen the gaps between themselves and the “have nots” in terms of equipment, economies of scale (i.e., opening second, third, etc., locations, often great distances from the original home base), training budgets, top barista competitors, etc.
What these events portend, I believe it’s too early to say definitively. But my sense is that we’re on the cusp of watching these few large companies in our industry begin to grow and flex their muscles and form a middle tier monopoly as they leave the pond from which we all sprang (and where so many of the rest of us still remain) and jump to the lake, or the gulf, as it were. Try as they might there is a real danger of corporatization afoot that I believe will be to the detriment of these great gems of our industry and to the rest of us.
Don’t misunderstand me. I love the great coffee companies of the U.S. They are a beacon of inspiration against which we often gauge our own metrics of excellence. But for those companies and baristas who are just coming into the game, I hear the fear and awe in their conversations as I pass by, of how giant these outfits seem and how distant they are already feel. The awe and respect is great–these companies deserve our admiration–but that cannot last forever and I fear it only can lead to disdain and these corporations begin to chain themselves across America (and possibly the world).
A friend asked me recently how big I thought Brown could get before the artisanal qualities of the “Brown brand” became diluted. After holding forth for a while on Brown’s strategy for making people the cornerstone of every growth plateau, I guess I thought that it’s definitely different for each company, but that surely if you grow beyond a certain size you run the risk of dilution and that means disillusion from the many coming up underneath you and a solidifying of that chasm betwixt indie us and corporate them.
I remember once hearing George Howell pontificating on the Ted Lingles of the world and their approach to quality. Lingle used to say that the goal of the SCAA was to broaden the base to encourage as many as would to enter the bigger tent and thusly the quality standard was preached to a wider and wider audience. Howell, on the other hand (and not surprisingly) flatly disagreed. He said the real work was way up at the top of the quality pyramid, pushing ever forward, even if the current picture was one of riders coldly leaving the pack for the summit. Eventually, it was left for us to surmise, the benefits of that upward thrust by the few would trickle down and benefit the rest of the pyramid, and THIS was the way to draw people to our standards of quality first, quality always.
This post is obviously only half-baked; and I heartily welcome your pro and counters. Should we celebrate that pack of great riders as they pull away and heap scorn on the cave dwellers left at the root of the mountain? Or do those who blaze ahead have some responsibility somewhere to help bring others along, somehow, some way? (and what would that even look like?) And is the gulf that is being fixed between the haves and have nots really even there? Your comments below, please.