The skill in making coffee

Perhaps for the first time ever in life, I’m working in an office without a coffee machine. I don’t mind that so much for two reasons – firstly, having to go down 27 floors and then pay explicitly for a coffee means that my coffee consumption has come down drastically. Secondly, there is a rather liquid market of coffee shops around my office.

As you might expected, there is one particular coffee shop close to my office that has become my favourite. And while walking back with my flat white on Wednesday afternoon, I noticed that the coffee tasted different to the flat white I’d had at the same place the same morning.

Assuming that even artisanal coffee shops like that one are unlikely to change beans midway through the day, I’m guessing that the difference in taste came down to the way the coffee was prepared. Flat white involves some effort on behalf of the barista – milk needs to be steamed and frothed and poured in a particular manner. And this can vary by barista.

So this got me thinking about whether making coffee is a skilled task. And this might explain the quality of coffee at various establishments in Bangalore.

When the coffee bar is equipped with an espresso machine, the job of making an espresso involves less of a skill since all that the barista needs to do is to weigh out the appropriate quantity of beans, press it down to the right extent and then pop it into the espresso maker (I know these tasks themselves involve some skill, but it’s less compared to using a South Indian style filter, for example).

When you want milk coffee, though, there is a dramatic increase in skill requirement. Even in South Indian coffee, the way you boil and froth the milk makes a huge difference in the taste of the coffee. In Brahmin’s Coffee Bar in Shankarpuram, Bangalore, for example, the barista explicitly adds a measure of milk foam to the top of the coffee lending it a special taste.

And when it comes to “European” coffee, with its multiple variants involving milk, the skill required to make good milk coffee is massive. How much milk do you add.. How hot do you steam it.. Whether you add foam or not.. These are all important decisions that the barista needs to make, and there is a lot of value a good barista can add to a cup of coffee.

One of my biggest cribs about chain coffee shops in India is that the taste of the coffee isn’t particularly good, with hot milk coffees being especially bad. Based on my analysis so far, I think this could be largely a result of unskilled (or semi-skilled) and inexperienced baristas – something these chains have had to employ in order to scale rapidly.

The cold coffees in these places are relatively much better since the process of making them can be “fighterised” – for each unit, add X shots of espresso to Y ml of milk, Z ice cubes and W spoons of sugar and blend. The only skill involved there is in getting the proportions right, and that can be easily taught, or looked up from a table.

The problem with hot coffees is that this process cannot be fighterised – the precise way in which you pour the milk so that there is a heart shape on top of the cappuccino foam, for example, is a skill that comes only with significant practice. Even the way in which the milk is to be foamed is not an easily teachable task.

And that is the problem with chain coffee shops in India – lack of skilled labour combined with the need to scale rapidly has meant that people have tried to use processes to compensate for skills, and in most parts of coffee making, that’s not necessarily a good way to go.

Poor food

Until about 1970, when the so-called Green Revolution happened, India as a country collectively didn’t have enough food (remember PL-480 and “ship to mouth existence”?). Until liberalisation in the 1990s, even people who could possibly afford it couldn’t get the food they wanted (remember lining up at ration shops?).

In other words, Indians (as a country – there are still lots of people who don’t get to decide on what to eat since they’re way too poor) have had a proper choice in terms of what to eat for just about one generation now. More than half the Indians who are currently alive spent at least some part of their lives at a time when it just wasn’t possible at all to eat what one wanted.

What this implies is that what we consider to be “traditional food” is largely “poor food” – we and our ancestors ate that not because it was what was the most nutritious, but because that is what was available, and what we could afford.

And so you have most of our traditional food being extremely heavy in carbs and light on almost everything else. I have friends who comment that most Indian vegetarian food hardly has vegetables – consider the sambar, for instance, which just has a few pieces of vegetables floating around. It is a correct comment, but that is because most of what we know as traditional Indian food evolved through times of shortages and poverty.

There are times when I attempt to give people nutrition advice, and while people listen to me politely, they end up saying something to the effect that if they start eating “traditional food”, all will be fine with their health again.

We’ve evolved to fundamentally trust the familiar, and distrust the new. And so it is with our food choices. Without really understanding why we and our ancestors ate the food that we ate, we consider “traditional food” to be good.

Now that I can afford it, I try to make sure I have balanced meals, and a lot of “traditional indian foods” that I grew up eating hardly get consumed in my house now. Consider the uppit – which is mostly carbs (semolina) with a small handful of vegetables and some fats thrown in – incredibly unbalanced stuff. Or beaten rice (avlakki/poha) – which is so light that you start feeling hungry within a couple of hours of eating. And so on – once you start looking at at the nutritional value of what you are eating, you will find yourself thoroughly dissatisfied with a lot of “traditional stuff”.

So my advice to you is this – if you can afford it, give what you are eating a thought, and make sure you get the right kind of nutrition without giving too much concern to your “priors”. And if you’re on a tight budget, optimise that to make sure it goes as far as possible in providing you a balanced diet.

How children change your lives

Over the years I’ve developed this fairly elaborate process of eating curd rice. First I serve myself the rice, and then allow it to cool. Then I pour over curds, and then mix it with the rice. I then serve myself pickles, which should be served on TOP of the curd-rice mixture, and then mix it in. Then I serve myself a fried snack (such as spiced groundnuts or bhujia or a mixture) on the side, and vary the quantity of it I take with each spoon.

So I’m at home with Berry today and decided to have curd rice for lunch. I’d just served myself the rice and curd and mixed it when she decided to wake up from her late-morning nap. Realising she was hungry I decided to feed her first, and first fed her rice mixed with a dal I’d made for her. The normal course of action would have been to then feed her curd rice, and then get on with my meal.

But then I was hungry and feeding her curd rice before I ate it would have made me impatient. In any case, I figured that since we were both going to eat the same thing, I might as well feed her off my plate (I’m quite used to sharing utensils with her, though I haven’t been able to ask her what she thinks of it – she doesn’t speak yet). The only problem was that I could mix in the pickle, since that would have made the mixture too spicy for Berry.

So for the first time in I don’t know how long, I mixed my curd and rice and moved it to one side of the plate. At the other end (our rice plates are elliptical), I served myself a little pickle on one side and mixture on the other. As soon as I started eating, Berry made her way to my knees, and we started eating alternate spoons – I’d add pickle and mixture separately to each spoon of mine, and feed her the curd-rice mixture alone when it was her turn.

She ate well enough for me to get myself a second helping! The only downside of this process (feeding her off my plate) was that I couldn’t measure how much she ate, but I’m not too obsessed with that.

When they tell you that you never know the ways in which kids can change you, I’m not sure people were talking about the way they eat curd-rice!

5/13: Cookers

I still remember this huLi Pinky had made sometime in the early days of marriage. Having never lived by herself until then, she hadn’t bothered to learn to cook, and all that she knew about cooking came from watching her mother.

When we got married, given that her job demanded she leave home early, and mine demanded that I stay late into the evening, we formed an arrangement where I’d make breakfast and she made dinner.

I occasionally missed my part of the deal – waking up so late that food wouldn’t be ready by the time she had to leave. Sometimes, I’d make breakfast just in time for me to run to her bus stop and hand over her box, but there were times when I let her go to work hungry.

She never let me down, though. Even though she hadn’t had much experience cooking (though she had a medal for winning a university-wide cooking competition), she would make sure every evening that there was food by the time I came home. And on most days I would be extremely well fed, though occasionally, like that day when she made huLi with Mangalore Cucumber, I don’t have particularly great memories of đŸ˜›

She learnt quickly, though, and over time, has turned out to be a great cook (I like to argue that the time she spent living alone helped!). Now her repertoire is far more diverse (in the initial days she’d exclusively make South Indian food), and she continues to delight me with her cooking.

I especially remember this period in time when I had just started off as an independent consultant, and was mostly working from home. We had recently fired our cook, and she was so concerned that I was eating “random things” for lunch that she took it upon herself to make my lunch before she left for work.

She had to be at the bus stop at 7:15 in the morning, which meant waking up at 5:30 or so, just so that she could make lunch for me. And since I wasn’t eating much rice in those days (for health reasons), she had to make chapatis which would take extra time. I frequently told her that I’d whip up something for myself but she was insistent on feeding me. It was a “wifely duly”, she’d sometimes tell me.

Thinking about it, I should have never doubted that she’d always keep me well fed. Right from the early days, whenever we spoke or texted immediately after what might be considered as a “normal meal time”, her first question was if I’d eaten, and what I’d eaten. And after we got married, she’s taken it upon herself to make the best effort possible to ensure that I eat well.

And that continues to this day, even though it sometimes means cooking while simultaneously taking care of Berry. Like last evening I was meeting someone and got home fairly late. And despite Berry having been a bit cranky, Pinky had managed to make a wonderful, and innovative huLi! She later told me that she had to make the huLi with one hand, while holding Berry in the other!

I look forward to many more years of being fed thus!

1/13: Leaving home

2/13: Motherhood statements

3/13: Stockings

4/13: HM

Pizza from dominos – good and bad

Last night we decided we wanted pizza from dominos for dinner. Having been used to Swiggy, I instinctively googled for dominos and tried to place the order online.

There is one major fuckup with the dominos website – it asks you to pick the retail outlet closest to you, rather than taking your location and picking it yourself. And so it happened that we picked an outlet not closest to us.

I quickly got a call from the guy at the outlet where my order had gone, expressing his inability to deliver it, and saying he’ll cancel my order. I gave him a mouthful – it’s 2016, and why couldn’t he have simply transferred the order to the outlet that is supposed to service me?

I was considering cancelling the order and not ordering again (a self-injurious move, since we wanted Dominos pizza, not just pizza), when the guy from the outlet in whose coverage area I fell called. He explained the situation once again, saying my original order was to be cancelled, and he would have to take a new order.

Again – it wasn’t just a fuckup in the payment in the Dominos system, in which case they could’ve simply transferred my order to this new guy. So I had to repeat my entire order once again to this guy (not so much of a problem since I was only getting one pizza) and my address as well (it’s a long address which I prefer filling online).

Then there was the small matter of payment – one reason I’d ordered online was that I could pay electronically (I used PayTM). When I asked him if I could pay online for the new order he said I had to repeat the entire process of online ordering – there was no order ID against which I could simply logon and pay.

I played my trump card at this time – asked him to make sure the delivery guy had change for Rs. 2000 (I’d lined up at a bank 2 weeks back and withdrawn a month’s worth of cash, only that it was all in Rs. 2000 notes). He instantly agreed. Half an hour later, the pizza, along with change for Rs. 2000 was at my door.

The good thing about the experience was that the delivery process was smooth, and more importantly, the outlet where my order reached had taken initiative in communicating it to the outlet under whose coverage my house fell – the salespersons weren’t willing to take a chance to miss a sale that had fallen at their door.

The bad thing is that Jubilant Foodworks’ technology sucks, big time. Thanks to the heavily funded and highly unprofitable startups we usually order from, we’re used to a high level of technology from the food delivery kind of businesses. Given that Jubilant is a highly profitable company it shouldn’t be too hard for them to license the software of one of these new so-called “foodtech” companies to further enhance the experience.

No clue why they haven’t done it yet!

PS: I realise I’ve written this blogpost in the style I used to write in over a decade ago. Some habits die hard.

Sweetshop optimisation on festival days

As I mentioned in my earlier post, while Varamahalakshmi Vrata is considered rather minor in my family, it is a rather big deal in my wife’s house. So I headed to a nearby sweetshop called Mane hOLige to fetch sweets for today’s lunch.

Now, this is not a generic sweetshop. As the name suggests, the shop specialises in making hOLige, also known as obbaTT, which is a kind of sweet stuffed flatbread popular in Karnataka and surrounding areas. And as the menu above suggests, this shop makes hOLige (I’ll use that word since the shop uses it, though I’m normally use to calling it “obbaTT”).

I had been to the shop last Sunday to pick up hOLige for a family gettogether, and since I asked for the rather esoteric “50-50 hOLige”, I had to wait for about 30 minutes before it was freshly made and handed over (Sunday also happened to be yet another minor festival called “naagar panchami”).

Perhaps learning from that experience, when heightened demands led to long wait times for customers, the sweetshop decided to modify its operations a little bit today, which I’m impressed enough to blog about.

Now, as the subtitle on the board above says, the shop specialises in “hot live hOLige”. They are presumably not taking VC funding, else I’d imagine they’d call it “on demand hOLige”. You place an order, and the hOLige is made “to order” and then handed to you (either in a paper plate or in an aluminium foil bag, if you’re taking it away). There is one large griddle on which the hOliges are panfried, and I presume the capacity of that griddle has been determined by keeping in mind the average “live” demand.

On a day like Sunday (naagar panchami), though, their calculations all went awry, in the wake of high demand. A serious backlog built up, leading to a crowded shopfront and irate customers (their normal rate of sale doesn’t warrant the setting up of a formal queue). With a bigger festival on today (as I mentioned earlier, Varamahalakshmi Vrata is big enough to be a school holiday. Naagar panchami doesn’t even merit that), the supply chain would get even more messed up if they had not changed their operations for the day.

So, for starters, they decided to cut variety. Rather than offer the 20 different kinds of hOLige they normally offer, they decided to react to the higher demand by restricting choice to two varieties (coconut and dal, the the most popular, and “normal” varieties of hOLige). This meant that demand for each variety got aggregated, and reduced volatility, which meant that…

They could maintain inventory. In the wake of the festival, and consequent high demand, today, they dispensed with the “hot, live” part of their description, and started making the hOLiges to stock (they basically figured out that availability and quick turnaround time were more important than the ‘live’ part today).

And the way they managed the stock was also intelligent. As I had mentioned earlier, some customers prefer to eat the hOLige on the footpath in front of the store, while others (a large majority) prefer to take it away. The store basically decided that it was important to serve fresh hot hOLige to those that were consuming it right there, but there was no such compulsion for the takeaway – after all the hOLige would cool down by the time the latter customers went home.

And so, as I handed over my token and waited (there was still a small wait), I saw people who had asked for hOLige on a plate getting it straight off the griddle. Mine was put into two aluminium foil bags somewhere in the back of the store – presumably stock they’d made earlier that morning.

Rather simple stuff overall, I know, but I’m impressed enough with the ops for it to merit mention on this blog!

Oh, and the hOLige was excellent today, as usual I must say! (my personal favourite there is 50-50 hOLige, if you want to know)

Cafe Coffee Day doesn’t serve Espresso!

Yeah, you read that right!

A weird thing happened this evening. I was at the Cafe Coffee Day outlet on Richmond Road this evening meeting someone, and asked for an espresso. The lady at the counter said that espresso wasn’t available, and if I could have Americano instead.

Now, while the coffee at CCD is generally not of the highest quality (it’s basically a meeting space for rent, and the coffee is incidental), I like to have coffee that is of at least somewhat reasonable quality, and on that count their espresso generally does well. When they have it of course.

When the lady told me that espresso wasn’t available, it was hard to believe, and I pressed to find out why that was the case. They could serve Americano (which is Espresso with hot water), or Cappuccino (Espresso with steamed and foamed milk), but not Espresso.

How were they able to make Americano or Cappuccino without the ability to make Espresso. It turned out that the coffee machine was working fine, and they could turn out an Espresso, except that the cup in which Espresso is served was out of stock.

A short argument later (they agreed to make a “cappuccino without milk” but they’d charge the cappuccino price for that), I demanded to see the manager. And then I decided to take down the name of the person at the counter on my phone. At which point an even more bizarre thing happened.

She suddenly fled to take cover behind the counter! She just wouldn’t let me see her name tag, and she wouldn’t come out from behind the counter. And that also effectively meant that the cafe was refusing to serve us, since nobody was willing to take our order – thus forcing us to deny them of their business!

The person I was meeting presently mentioned that there was a Barista not far from there, and a quick walk later, I was sitting down with a cup of double shot espresso there (it’s one of the very few Baristas still operational in Bangalore).

The funny thing is that Barista served me the espresso in a mug that is not normally used to serve Espresso! Maybe there’s really a shortage of Espresso cups in Richmond town!

If anybody from the company is seeing this, this happened today (15th June 2016) at around 5:30 in the evening at the Richmond Road outlet (opposite HDFC Bank). It seems like it’s the result of some messed up incentive structure for employees. 

I have experience in designing salesperson compensation structures, and would be happy to structure a better incentive scheme for the company (for a fee of course)!