The Power of Play

When I was a kid, my parents would often bring us to Old Country Buffet, a gleaming bastion of gluttony and overconsumption that felt like paradise to a growing boy with an oversized appetite for mashed potatoes and soft serve ice cream. To my parents’ chagrin, I would often take the opportunity to whip up one of my infamous “concoctions”: earth-shaking combinations like table salt, ham, chocolate soft serve, and split pea soup, and giddily pass them to my mother to try. To this day, I feel these were some of my most creative moments. Pure play, with no concern as to the results.

There is something so special about these early years before we’ve been inundated with decades of societal messaging that mandate we value the product over the process. I find myself returning to this place frequently, embodying the childlike innocence of play: creation for the sake of creation. The resulting drinks, without fail, are the best drinks in our catalogue.

I’ve found this seems to be the case with all artistic endeavors. Art is the most resonant when the artist produces it for their own sake, and generously shares it with those around them. Art created for the sake of others is commerce, cold, and disconnected. As Rick Rubin, the infamous American music producer has famously stated, “The audience only knows what has come before”. As creators, it is our job to explore the unknown, to push the boundaries of our industry, and to provide our audience with products that say something about who we are, and what we envision for the world.

Ultimately, we are storytellers. For the last 25 years, we as coffee professionals have diligently told the stories of the producers, processors, and purveyors whose work comes before our own, doing our best to honor the products they have painstakingly created. While this is a noble cause, and one to be held close as we evolve, I believe firmly that as baristas, we are so much more than a mouthpiece for those who have come before. We contain multitudes, bursting with passion and brimming with story. We can and should be empowered to express ourselves through the products we serve: to surrender to the power of play.

Best of all, in my decade of experience in this industry, the harder we play, the more we profit. Everybody wins.

Discourse Bar Scene Photo / Steven Brandt

Narrative Drink Making 

Espresso, tobacco smoke, Sicilian olive oil, egg white, and a frozen bullet.

When listed out of context, this drink reads more like the setup to a joke than it does the build to one of our most infamous creations. Context creates a connection.

The combination was inspired by the infamous Don Vito Corleone from Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal 1972 film “The Godfather”. With this context, the ingredients begin to come into focus. The Don (which became the name of this creation) would certainly take his espresso straight, with a cigar in his left hand. As an homage to the source of Don Corleone’s wealth, I knew Sicilian olive oil needed to make an appearance, and thus egg white was required to join the oil and water-based ingredients together into a single silky serve. Last but not least, in an effort to avoid dilution and drive home our story, the Don was served on a single frozen bullet, precariously pointed towards the drinker.

Without the underlying story as context, my brain would never have combined these ingredients in a glass. Pursuing innovation for the sheer purpose of innovation rarely results in an impactful outcome, often feeling forced, baseless, and inauthentic. But pursuing innovation to tell more vibrant and transparent stories can create a sea change in the way our drinks are perceived, as well as the price that our guests are willing to pay to partake in them.

From January to December 2023, we sold 26,500 craft and experimental lattes like the Don, in comparison to 19,000 traditional espresso drinks like cappuccinos, cortados, and lattes. More importantly, however, while we sold only 30% more craft and experimental drinks, these drinks generated TWICE the revenue of our classic drinks, responsible for more than 50% of our overall revenue in 2023.

Photo / Kevin Miyazaki

We exist in a swirling nebula of stories. They are inescapable. From film and TV, to music and media, to the stories we tell ourselves, story is the language of our lives. The act of leveraging the power of story in your creations is called narrative drink-making, and is the core practice of our teams at Discourse.

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking.

“But Ryan, we struggle to get our guests past lavender lattes and pumpkin spice! How in the world are we going to convince them to try something this weird?!”

I hear you. Let’s start at the beginning.

Feet on the Ground, Head in the Clouds

When I worked as an application scientist at the global flavor house Kerry Ingredients, my mentor Travis Ralph, now head of RD&A for Alcoholic Beverages, taught me an incredibly useful framework. The company conducted extensive annual market research designed to sort common and novel flavors into categories from the mainstream to emerging, representing tried and true next to tomorrow’s trends. When creating for the mass market, where we were looking to appeal to diverse audiences spanning millions of people in an unimaginable swath of demographics, the best strategy was to stick to two flavors: one mainstream and one emerging.

I remember this method as Feet on the Ground, Head in the Clouds: a constant reminder to never forget where we are on the way to where we’re going.

Take for example Strawberry & Rhubarb, Basil & Yuzu, or Cherry & Black Cardamom. Combinations like these serve to meet your guests where they are, balancing comfort and growth, and more critically, building trust.

As your audience comes to associate you more directly with flavor innovation, they will seek to dive deeper into the unknown, trusting you as their guide. From this moment on, the floor is yours. The weirder the better: the more wild, the more wonder. Oftentimes, our greatest innovations have stemmed from an extensive exploration of these relatively simple frameworks.

Channel Orange, which has found a home on our permanent menu, was our first exploration into house made powders, a technique that has come to define many of the lattes we have created since. What began as an examination of how we could apply orange oleo saccharum to the latte format, resulting in a (miserable) waste-reduction attempt to eat the dehydrated candied peels before the marvelous realization that the brilliant flavor of can died orange could be transferred much more pleasantly via powder than rigid rind.

Photo / Matt Sampson

Similarly, while exploring the simple combination of strawberry, lime, and matcha, we discovered that waterless strawberry syrup made in a vacuum bag created a far more beautiful product than strawberry juice

simmered with sugar. Since, we have utilized our immersion circulator to create countless products, from sous vide coffee to infused milks, dulce de leche, and a veritable cornucopia of waterless syrups.

The greater your tool belt grows, the more you will be able to express yourself through your creations, and your audience will follow along, waiting with baited breath. This has a tremendous effect on the job satisfaction of your team, the engagement of your guests, and the top line revenue of your company.

Leveling Up

So where do you find inspiration for these new creations? And if they are popular, how do you work them into your cafe without destroying the ticket time your guests have grown to expect?

For many, looking to the World Coffee Events competition stage is both a source of inspiration and trepidation: an equal volley of “Wow, we need to do that” and “It’s just not practical”. After seven years of refining the process of achieving narrative-based innovation at scale, we devised a system that fundamentally changed the way we run our cafes called “Magic Moments”.

On the competition stage, competitors make an effort to draw attention to each step in their drink making process, but the reality is that most of these steps are not interesting to the average onlooker without the thorough explanation provided during a competition routine. Looking again at the world of high end cocktail bars, we borrowed the theory of batching, combining many drink elements into a single bottle to simplify service at time of order. For each drink that features multiple touches, we perform an internal analysis to identify “Magic Moments”, or the moments that we feel will have the highest impact when observed by the guest. Things like powders, bitters, fire and smoke. Everything else is deemed non-essential and batched to accelerate service at time of order. By using this method, we’ve cut our experimental drink service time from 3-5 minutes per drink to under 90 seconds, just a touch longer than it takes to serve the vanilla, lavender, and pumpkin spice lattes you may be serving currently, while adding tremendous amounts of value to the guest experience by drawing attention to the moments that matter most.

Holy Pin
Photo / Kevin Miyazaki

Starting slow, building trust, and identifying magic moments as drink complexity increases is a proven pathway to unlock narratives based innovation in your cafe, but what is all of this really for anyways? Why invest the  time and money in the training and technology of this pathway requires when there are so many other things that need our attention?

Why Innovation Matters

The COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally changed the world of specialty coffee, and led to an unprecedented surge in the sale of home espresso machines and special- ty coffee equipment. Whole bean coffee sales have increased 14% by volume since 2021, and Peet’s recently announced that they would step up their coffee pod production by 60% to meet growing demand. In July 2021, De’Longhi, a famed Italian home appliance manufacturer, reported an ‘extraordinary’ 319.5% profit growth amid surging demand for their home espresso machines (World Coffee Portal, 2023).

While this is all tremendous news for coffee roasters and equipment manufacturers, it places the traditional cafe in a precarious position. As we progress into the future where coffee drinkers are increasingly self-reliant, and have the ability to brew extremely personalized, intentional, and convenient coffee from their homes, cafe owners need to plan for how they will remain relevant part of the lives of their guests. Though I don’t believe there is a single “right” answer, I think there are several potential paths forward.

While a devout focus on relationship building and community engagement can serve to create a sustainable stream of guests, this is largely dependent on your staff, and can falter should you part ways with your most beloved team members. After all, in this model, your customer base are your barista’s guests, not yours, and they will likely migrate along with the barista should they move to a cafe nearby.

Launching an events business, like a mobile pour over or espresso bar, is another alternative source of revenue for cafe owners, and is a model we have pursued heavily over the last 18 months to hedge our investments in active retail spaces. Corporate events, weddings, farmer’s markets, and street festivals all have significantly better margins than day-to-day retail service, and large scale events can bring in weeks worth of profit in one fell swoop, with little to no waste or under-utilized labor. While a tremendous fiscal model, events are a feast or famine business and can quickly fall to the wayside, robbing the cafe of executing its’ long-term vision.

To us at Discourse, the two best ways for a cafe to ensure future relevance are curation and innovation. If you don’t roast coffee, serving as a coffee discovery platform should become one of your quintessential roles in the lives of your guests. Providing education and access to incredible new coffees from around the world, and new and improved ways to brew them, keeping your guests engaged with your cafe, even if they decide to brew the coffee themselves at home. Our incredible Head of Coffee Quality, Rich Stauder, lovingly cups dozens of coffees each and every month to curate our rotating monthly roaster, and then selects four coffees from their catalog to share with our guests. Not only does this provide a steady flow of retail coffee sales, it empowers the barista team with a variety of coffee profiles to build their creations around.

Innovation has been the through line of our success since our inception in 2017, guiding us through five years as a destination coffee shop, and empowering us to open three locations and two cocktail bars in three years here in Milwaukee. This focus on innovation has yielded three primary benefits for our company.

Rich Stauder, Head of Coffee Quality
Photo / Ryan Castelaz

First, it has served as a significant point of differentiation from strong local competitors. Instead of competing on sheer cup quality, we’ve introduced menu offerings that can only be experienced at our cafes, ensuring that if guests want to experience those profiles and preparations, they have to stop at Discourse.

Second, it created a snowball effect of word-of-mouth advertising. While the bar and cafe market at large is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 5.4%, in 2023, our average year-over-year revenue growth was a stunning 35%. We are tracking to continue this exponential growth trajectory in 2024, with January 24’ seeing a 73% growth in revenue from the January prior.

We have invested $0 into traditional advertising in that time frame. As guests have indelible experiences with our drinks, they share them with their friends and family, and build excitement around the brand. When they inevitably come to experience the shop, they are already primed to have an exceptional experience, and when they do, they in turn tell their friends and family, creating an infinitely self-propelling marketing engine that frees up company capital to continue to make investments in train- ing, research and development, and new technologies.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, it has attracted and retained the region’s best talent. Once you have established a reputation as an innovator in your market, baristas interested in taking the next steps in their career will see you as perhaps the only option to continue their journey locally. In what has been a difficult time to hire for many small businesses, Discourse has maintained a backlog of extremely qualified applicants with a strong desire to work in a creative framework that empowers them to express themselves through drink. Coupled with a competitive compensation package, a focus on innovation can ensure your cafe is able to hire and retain your area’s best talent.

The Future Is Now

Amuse by Ryan Castelaz
Photo / Kevin J. Miyazaki

There has never been a better time, or a more necessary one, to empower your cafe with this framework.

1.) Teach your team the power and promise of play

2.) Embrace a “feet on the ground, head in the clouds” mentality

3.) Build trust with your guests and grow your drink making tool belt

4.) Encourage your baristas to dream without borders and express themselves through their creations

5.) Reap the benefits of your investments

We don’t believe this is the only way, or the right way, for our industry to evolve into the future. It’s simply our way. We will continue to play and to share our stories with anyone who chooses to engage with us, and if the metrics are any indication, we’ll be blessed to share them for a very, very long time.

Story /  Ryan Castelaz

Author of The New Art of Coffee: From Morning Cup to Caffeine Cocktail (Rizzoli, 2023), resident mixologist at fox 6 news, and creator / co-host of the podcast “Hot Coffee for the Creative Soul”. He has served as a brand ambassador for Espro, apothekary, and Free Spirts, and has hosted workshops on drink making and creative thinking throughout the U.S., France, and Canada. His drinks have been enjoyed coast to coast, twice featured on the Emmy nominated pbs show “Wiscon- sin Foodie”, and covered in print in food & wine, Barista Magazine, punch mag, plate magazine, daily coffee news, and many others.