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“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.

Categories: Chicago Food & Drink Reviews Food and Drink News Media

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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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15 replies

  1. Hi,
    Just happened upon your pages here and thought I’d share a page on my website, go to the site and find the ‘Longboarding for Coffee’ Page. It is in reference to your carless effort. Espresso Blōc is the beginning of my artisan coffee project, I certainly have more planned, but this is my start.

    -Bailey, from Sonoma County, California

  2. This is too much! Where will it end? Who would have thought what a hornet’s nest you stirred up.

    Best part so far is your comment on Lui blog
    “You’re welcome. Thank you in return for the blogpost. After I contacted your boss, Doug Zell, about it this morning, he apologized on behalf of the company that employs you and invited me out for a cup of coffee to discuss this whole ongoing affair. Of course, you may know that already. In his reply to me, he noted he’ll be speaking with you soon.

    Have a nice day.”

    The have a nice day part was particularly funny.

  3. Well, being a coffee lover(I won’t be pretentious and use connoisseur), I was thrilled when Intelligentsia came to my part of the Loop. I have tried the Clover-style several times and always got a perfect cup of coffee. Now that the economy has “tanked”, I’ve gotten frugal and buy a pound of ground coffee at Intell and brew at home and then come into the Randolph store once a week to enjoy a coffee and read the latest New Yorker or write in my journal. Truthfully, since the new prices started, it’s much easier to find a seat and just mellow out. I guess those seeking free wifi and people watch can do so in other places. I will continue to support Intelligentsia. Death to Starbucks!

  4. I never Yelp’d Intelligentsia, but if I did, the review would go something like this:

    Let’s not kid ourselves: the Randolph store is here for a reason, but it’s not to bring great coffee to the few highrises surrounding the Millennium Park store. You’d have to be desperate to walk more than four city blocks to drink over-priced coffee in cups barely bigger than a French tea cup. Service is not their forte, and for that matter, neither are their food offerings–frequently dry and crumbly breads and paltry drink offerings. At prices guaranteed to hit tourists where it hurts, I don’t get the aura my friends and coworkers believe about Intelligentsia. Starbucks may have bitter regular coffee, but at least their stores have better pricing, reward customer loyalty and provide the same experience from store to store. If Intelligentsia cared, they’d bring some of their dirty sofas and hip employees from the Broadway store to the Randolph cafe. My money goes to Dunkin’ Donuts–the best tasting diner-style coffee for the price.

  5. Mike,

    This is James here. I suppose you’ll believe me now when I say I don’t write on Mr. Zell’s behalf? Allow me to say at the very least that I may have gone a bit overboard in my response. I hope you don’t take it too, too personally.

    Allow me to follow his example and offer to buy you a cup of tea or something else sometime? Not at Intelligentsia – I mean for it to be on my dime, not Doug’s. I think you and I have much more in common than is apparent at first glance. So let’s hash out our differences as proper adults, in person sometime?

  6. Jeff and Matt, I’d prefer not to make this quite so personal in terms of Liu.

    Although, for the sake of archiving Liu’s comments, in the event the post in question is removed from his blog, here were his exact words to me as published earlier this morning:


    ‘Dear Mike Doyle. Grow up, and get over yourself.’

    (General — James Liu on February 27, 2009 at 1:03 am)

    Mike Doyle, is self proclaimed former customer who wrote an article full of factual inaccuracies and who then takes umbrage when he gets called out.

    I guess it’s too bad that when you’re wrong, you’re just wrong. Turns out, there’s sub $3 a cup coffee at Intelligentsia after all. And may I suggest fact checking your “claims” with someone who would have known the right answer? Oh, like me, or my manager, or for that matter, Doug Zell? Look, maybe you’ve never worked at a newspaper, but when you make a factual claim, you need what’s called a “source,” who except in cases of danger to the person or some like circumstance should be named. And when quoted, quoted precisely if possible. Well, if you want to be credible anyway. And your source can’t be “directly from the staff.”

    And for that matter, nothing in the Sudo’s Chicagoist post mentioned above can be characterized as a personal attack. If anything, it has more facts in it than what you write, and if you think its ad hominem, it’s because you’re paranoid, Mike. If I were you, I’d grow a thicker skin, or else stop blogging. When you make unsubstantiated claims based on inaccurate information from unnameable sources, you and not your editor bear full responsibility for the consequences. Snide backhand slaps are the language of blogging – and if you don’t have a thick skin to back up your strong opinions, then just get a friends-only Livejournal instead.”

  7. This barrista sounds like a pretentious cock. What am I saying? He works at (un)Intelligentisa, so he must be a pretentious cock. I, like you, spend a lot of time in coffee shops. But I am not what you call a coffee connoisseur. I don’t even like coffee that much, usually I am there to use the free wifi and get the hell out of the apartment.

    But this sort of interaction is exactly the reason I don’t go into Intelligentisa. I’m not saying that everyone at every Intelligentisa store is a jag-bag, but my experience with those at the Broadway store have been less-than-nice.

    It’s times like this when I am reminded of Edina Monsoon from “Absolutely Fabulous” and what she says to a snotty clerk, “You’re just a shopgirl, you know?”

  8. [UPDATE: I received a polite response from Doug Zell at 8:40 a.m. this morning regarding the below email. I will not reprint the letter, but suffice it to say Zell was classy as usual. Liu should take a lesson.]

    For fullest disclosure, I also contacted Doug Zell as a courtesy after publishing this post. The text of that email follows:

    “Doug, while I no longer frequent the Randolph Street store, my beef–such as it was–in the unexpected Clover controversy was with Chicagoist and its harsh rebuttal. As a former customer of yours, I’ve made my personal decision and I leave my readers (on CHICAGO CARLESS and Gapers Block) to make their own.

    So I can’t tell you how disappointed I was to find Randolph Street barista James Liu calling me out on his personal blog, Free Pour, in this blog post from early today . Liu contends that I spoke to no one at the store before writing my Gapers Block article and goes on to name and defend both you and Intelligentsia on his blog.

    Oddly enough, not only did I speak with Liu, but I quoted him in the article. In fact, he was the person with whom I spoke at greatest length about the Clover and price changes. His comments to me that day were the biggest motivator in my decision to end my three years of regular, almost daily visits to Randolph Street.

    I want to give you a heads up that I have rebutted Liu’s comments in detail on CHICAGO CARLESS here

    Not for nothing, but if he’s your idea of a customer ambassador, I’d think again. I was considering dropping in and sampling the Clover pours for myself (and frankly, I miss the staff!) After Liu’s blog post, however, I think I’ll leave well enough alone and stay away for good.”

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