Several months ago, my wife and I went to dinner at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants – a place we frequent every few weeks. As we pondered margarita options, we asked the waiter for an order of table-side guacamole, a delicious specialty and a great way to kick off the meal. Much to our disappointment, our waiter informed us we could no longer get guac table-side; rather, it would come already prepared and straight from the kitchen. Sigh. Add another item to the demise of handmade food and beverages. Rekindle the pour-over argument.
What’s the “pour-over argument”? It’s perhaps the most contemporary example of the struggle between handicraft and automation. At your local coffee bar, most drinks are poured-over, meaning individually-prepared using a single paper filter, adding the coffee grounds and finishing with a slow pour of the water. If your coffee arrives with foam-art, consider it a pour-over. The argument asks whether it’s worth the wait for an individually-prepared coffee, when a large-batch machine can produce the same result in a fraction of the time. One estimate claims large-batch can produce 100 coffees in an hour, while a barista creates less than ten.
I’m not here to defend the pour-over, but simply to discuss it. In fact, my first thought when I heard “pour-over” is what you see in the photo above. Admittedly, I love the speed and consistency of Keurig’s K-Cup’s, and I’m an unashamed frequent-flier at Starbucks. But that’s not to say there’s not a chair at the table of life for pour-over’s. Even if the quality of handmade can’t be distinguished from large-batch (taste test, anyone?), what about the calm of watching “drink-art” creation, and the opportunity to socialize with the barista? Perhaps it’s the fringe-benefits making pour-over’s the healthier option.
Table-side guac is just one example of “pour-over’s” threatened by today’s demand for speed and efficiency. If I ask you to think of a product previously handmade but now produced by automation, I’m sure you can name several. Milkshakes. Beer. Even pizza, which can now be prepared start-to-finish by a robotic chef. But the flip-side of robots is advertisement focused on food-prep the old-fashioned way. “Handmade” milkshakes. “Craft” beers. “Fresh-squeezed” lemonade. And pour-over coffee.
Business’s bottom line loves the idea of automation. Labor is typically your most expensive line-item, so who would argue with removing it? Well, maybe those willing to pay for the experience. At your finer restaurants, you can still find table-side salads (Caesar), entrees (Chateaubriand or Steak Tartare), and flaming desserts (Baked Alaska, Bananas Foster, Cherries Jubilee). At Sunday brunches you can still enjoy made-to-order omelettes and waffles. With those examples, I’d argue you’re not just paying for the food. You’re also paying for a slow-down moment: a chance to enjoy a chef-artisan do his/her thing while engaging in a little conversation. As a recent Wall Street Journal article puts it, “[pour-over]… is more about delivering peace in a fast-paced time”.
Here’s my plea. The next time you’re having something prepared in front of you – whether a simple burrito at Chipotle or an elegant Steak Diane adjacent to your white-clothed table, put away the phone, take a deep breath, and just enjoy the moment. Have a chat with whomever is preparing your meal. It’s an experience worth poring over.