A good coffee shop can make anywhere feel like home. It can transform a strange city into a cozy neighbourhood and make fast friends out of complete strangers. It can serve as a meeting place, a library, an office, or even a refuge from the isolated-in-a-crowd feeling of urban life. After only a few days you can feel like a regular. The language of familiar nods, gentle smiles, and unspoken orders is quick to learn. As a culture fuelled by both the caffeine and the ritual of ordering and drinking coffee, the staff at coffee shops have great power to be a turning point in someone’s day—for better or worse.
Revolver Coffee in Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood is famous worldwide. Although they have taken great care to build an incredible coffee program, hand-selecting coffees from leading roasters around the world, it is in part the atmosphere that draws customers in day after day. When you’re there, you can’t help but feel that things are moving. You can come in to work on an important presentation, meet a potential business partner, spend time reading a book, or visit with friends, and you will leave with a sense of accomplishment, regardless of the actual outcome. The forward movement of the space seems to attach itself to you.
I sat down with George Giannakos, the eldest of the four Giannakos brothers who, together with parents Tarry and Kristine, founded Revolver Coffee. George is the General Manager, responsible for overseeing the operations of the busy coffee shop. When I asked him about the atmosphere of motion, he knew immediately what I was talking about. “It’s an attitude of movement,” he tells me. “Imagine someone knocks on your door and you yell to them ‘It’s open.’ They come in and sit down and you ask, ‘What can I get for you?’ They reply, ‘I’ll have some water.’ And instead of getting up, you just point to the kitchen. You need to move around to create an atmosphere of hospitality.”
It would seem that exceptional hospitality is an exercise in constant motion. And hospitality is what Revolver does first and foremost. “We don’t serve coffee. We serve people. Other shops might say, ‘We make coffee.’ But if no one orders a coffee, we don’t make any coffee. What we are really doing is serving people.”
One of Revolver’s key service philosophies is that there are systems and patterns for doing everything. This allows staff to work in a manner that George somewhat reluctantly describes as robotic. It’s not quite the right word, he tells me, but he laughs and adds that “once you can work like a robot, you can serve someone like a human. It’s muscle memory. That’s what allows us to work in constantly changing positions and jobs. I can be in the back and look over and I can tell what’s going on, where I’m needed and where I’m not needed. I can finish something someone else has started and they don’t get thrown off. You just go to the next step because you’re not thinking. The moment you have to think about what you’re doing, you’re probably going to make an error.”
There is a commonality between service and athletic and artistic pursuits. A dancer can’t perform a piece of choreography until they have the muscle memory of the choreography; until it is ingrained in their body. Similarly, without the muscle memory of how to hit that perfect down-the-line forehand winner on the tennis court, you’ll overthink it and miss the shot. The important part of a dance piece is not necessarily the individual steps, but how the dancer expresses them. The important part of a tennis match is not which player has the most perfect down-the-line forehand, but which player knows when to hit it and whether or not they can do it under pressure. If your body hasn’t memorized the movement patterns, you can’t focus on what’s really important. For Revolver, what’s really important is the customer. Once the muscle memory is down, staff don’t need to think about the actual task of making coffee, they can focus on serving people. “That’s key,” George says. “We can look up and say, ‘Hey, how’s it going? What’s going on? I’ll bring the coffee over to you because you’re here on a date or you’re in an important meeting. We got you.’”
The overlap with sport doesn’t stop with the importance of muscle memory. George views the entire operation through the lens of a team. “When you come in, Revolver is making you the drink. It doesn’t matter who’s behind the bar because it’s a team effort and it’s Revolver’s recipe. It’s common in coffee shops for one barista to dial in the coffee (adjust the settings like grind and the timing of the espresso shots) pull those shots, and if a new barista comes on for a shift, they take over the station and readjust it to their specs. This way of doing things makes for a much more stationary work environment and the quality of the drink can become dependent on the specific barista to execute it properly. At Revolver, we move around and switch positions a lot more. It’s a different, more dynamic way of doing things. For us, coffee is a team sport. But a lot of places view it as an individual sport.”
“What’s the fastest way to move a basketball across the court?” George asks me. I know it’s a trick question, but I throw out a guess—“to dribble it in a straight line?” “No,” he responds with a smile, “to pass it.” Of course. “So, we’re a team sport. That can exist because I know exactly what you’re doing, and you know exactly what I’m doing; exactly where I need help and where you don’t need to help, which is equally as important.”
The most effective teams know how to play to one another’s strengths. Experienced athletes understand what everyone else’s role is, not just their own. George recounts a lesson from an old basketball book to illustrate the point: “First, get Michael Jordan vision. Watch Michael Jordan, look at how he does it. Look at how he gets open, look at what he’s doing when he has the ball, and look at his mentality. Then, lose Michael Jordan vision. Look at everybody else while Michael Jordan is doing his thing. What they’re doing is allowing him to do the things he does best. In a team sport, if you’re just thinking about yourself it’s not the most effective way to do something. Everyone contributes. When you understand that mentality, it answers your questions about how we create this atmosphere. ‘Why does it feel this way? How can we be this effective?’ Because we’re playing as a team, so to speak. Revolver is probably more influenced by sports than I realized. I didn’t realize it until now, actually.”
I wonder whether this is partly why customers enjoy hanging out at Revolver so much. There is a rhythm in the movements between staff as they work behind the bar that seems to flow much like a sports game or a choreographed dance. There is an undeniable sense of teamwork that ties everything together, with the customer as the end goal. You feel that the pass and dunk, so to speak, is happening in some way for you. And since the emphasis is on serving people, it actually is. “It’s service through coffee,” George describes. Good service truly is an exercise in constant motion.
George Giannakos is a co-founder and General Manager at Revolver Coffee. George has been in hospitality for his entire working life, the last thirteen years of which has been spent in coffee. He loves reading, basketball, and bread.