“We’ve replaced the fine Doug Zell Intelligentsia normally serves with James Liu, let’s watch…”


(Photo: With employees like these, who needs competitors?)

Ten days ago, when I lamented the over-the-top response of Chicagoist and some of their readers to my Gapers Block piece on how Intelligentsia Coffee alienated me as a customer, I never thought Intelligentsia’s own staff would jump on the bandwagon.

I was wrong. Today a staffer from Intelligentisa’s Randolph Street store whom I quoted but did not name in my original article launched an attack from his personal blog, allegedly on behalf of his employer. I hardly think Intelligentsia honcho Doug Zell would find a rant on a regular customer by store staff to be a useful form of customer service, but at least one of Zell’s staffers seems to think there’s worth in it.

The staffer in question is James Liu (find him pictured publicly on Flickr, on the right in this photo), and oddly enough, he is the person most responsible for my walking away from Intelligentsia after three years as a loyal customer. On his blog, he accuses me of getting the facts wrong about the elimination of sub-$3 coffee at his store, and says that’s because I didn’t talk to store staff. In part, Liu writes:

“…may I suggest fact checking your ‘claims’ with someone who would have known the right answer? Oh, like me, my manager, or for that matter, Doug Zell?”

Funny thing, not only did I talk to Liu, but his was the featured quote in my original article. Perhaps he doesn’t remember his own words, appearing in this passage from Gapers Block (emphasis added):

I could be wrong. I did speak with one staffer who thinks the change will pose no problem at all. His reasoning was telling. “After all,” he said, “we already have you paying $3.50 for a cup of gourmet tea and you keep coming back.”

Liu was specifically referring to the fact that for months I regularly came into the store and ordered an obviously expensive cup of tea without fail. He went on to tell me that if customers like me weren’t turned off by tea prices like that, why should Intelligentsia expect me to walk away if they raised the price of regular coffee–no matter how I might protest at the beginning.

I didn’t think the entirety of Liu’s comments merited quoting, nor did I choose to use his name (I wanted to protect the identities of the staffers with whom I spoke). However, since Liu feels it appropriate to call me out on his personal blog on behalf of Intelligentsia Coffee, I’m happy to set the record straight.

Liu and I indeed discussed pricing–in fact he was the store staffer with whom I spoke at greatest length regarding the planned menu changes.  When I mentioned more than once the elimination of a sub-$3 coffee option, he did not correct me.

As it turns out, sub-$3 regular coffee is still available at the Randolph Street Intelligentsia since the changeover. Liu notes on his blog a featured Clover-of-the-Day can be had for $2.65. Considering sales tax in downtown Chicago is 11.25%, that resulting price tag of $2.95 is an almost negligible nickel away from a $3 cup of coffee. But who’s quibbling?

Well, Liu is. And that’s a shame. I was further surprised to read on his blog his contention that nothing objectionable was written in Chicagoist’s rebuttal. I don’t know, calling me a “hater” over a three-year old fight to lessen noise pollution in downtown Chicago that found me on the side of the Chicago City Council instead of illegal street musicians seems pretty objectionable to me. In fact, both NBC 5 and Time Out Chicago called out Chicagoist scribe Chuck Sudo over his unnecessarily rash response and Chicagoist editor Marcus Gilmer emailed me to apologize for Sudo’s zeal.

The bottom line: Intelligentsia’s recent price increases to almost $3 regular cups of coffee do not, in and of themselves, keep me from coming back. As I alluded to in my article, it was Intelligentsia staffer James Liu’s minute-long personal gloat that lost me as a customer.

Hearing Liu tell me that Intelligentsia regulars–like I was–weren’t paying the store what the coffee was worth, were too much on auto-pilot to walk away over a price increase, and (this was the kicker) shouldn’t be coming in anyway if they can’t afford real gourmet coffee turned my stomach. If I made any mistake in my Gapers Block article, it was most likely in not reporting all of Liu’s comments as I have here.

After I left the store that day, Liu’s words rang in my head for hours. Had I really been told by an Intelligentsia staffer that I owed the store more money than I was already paying–in the middle of an unprecedented national recession–for the privilege of drinking their coffee?

In a word, yes. (And perhaps equally disturbingly, Doug Zell, himself, confirmed just that in the Time Out coverage linked above.)

Have I set foot in an Intelligentsia since speaking with Liu?  Two other words fit the bill here.

Never again.

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