A cup of coffee is the great social equalizer of the world. Two people can be from completely different places in the stratosphere of life, but when you sit down and share a cup of coffee, life becomes a little simpler.
I didn’t start drinking coffee until age 32. Growing up, my parents both drank coffee, black and strong, pouring the first cup before the break of dawn from an old electric percolator with a glass top, which as far as I can tell, basically boiled the shit out of it until it was done. That was 30 years ago. Back then, there were exactly two kinds of coffee in the grocery aisle: Folgers in the red can and Maxwell House in the blue can. My parents bought whichever one was on sale.
When I was younger, old people drank coffee. Young people drank Pepsi. It wasn’t until I was hired at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture that I became a coffee drinker, and it wasn’t by choice.
Six months after being hired to oversee local food programs, the Wisconsin Department of Ag received federal funding to help Wisconsin cheese factories transition from low-profit commodity cheese to higher profit specialty cheese, and to help dairy farmers build on-farm “value-added” dairy plants. I was re-assigned from local foods to a three-person dairy team and charged with visiting cheese plants and dairy farmers to help spread the word that we had grant money and expertise to help interested cheesemakers and dairy farmers start crafting value-added products.
Here’s how it worked: Jim Cisler drove, Norm Monsen navigated, and I threw up out the window because I kept getting carsick.
It turns out that visiting cheese plants as a representative of a government agency – that, by the way – also regulates and inspects these same cheese plants – is not particularly easy. Whenever we walked in the door, we were usually greeted with a look of disdain, a sigh of frustration and a sarcastic remark of “I suppose you’re from the government, and you’re here to help me.”
However, being Midwestern, we were always offered a cup of coffee and a few minutes to sit down and talk, usually in an office or break room, or if it was on a dairy farm, at the kitchen table. It was here that we would make a little small talk, share info about grant money available, leave our business cards and leave before they thought about kicking us out.
I can remember the first road trip clearly. We walked into a cheese plant to a round of heavy sighs from the owners and were politely offered coffee. Naturally, I declined because I didn’t drink coffee. We made some small talk, made our sales pitch, shook hands, and left. We then repeated this sequence at stop number two.
By cheese factory number three, something changed. Before I opened the cheese factory door, Norm gently put his hand on my shoulder and told me, this time I was going to drink the coffee. I told him I didn’t drink coffee. He said it didn’t matter. We were entering these folks’ place of business, taking up their time, and we had the extra strike against us that we were from the government. “Just drink the coffee,” he said.
So at the third factory, when offered a cup of coffee, I smiled, said thank you, accepted the coffee and then stared at it until the cheesemaker asked whether I took cream and sugar. After an emphatic yes, I then poured in as much cream and sugar as humanly possible and pretended to like it. Norm smiled. The meeting went more smoothly than the last two. I began to understand that the simple act of accepting a cup of coffee, sitting down, and sharing a conversation, put everyone a little more at ease. Sheer genius.
Fifty cheese factories later, I was down to just cream. Ten years later, I can drink it black if I have to, but I prefer a little cream, and I drink at least two cups every day. I’ve even become somewhat of a coffee snob, buying coffee from local roasters when I can and treating myself to a latte now and then.
More importantly, I’ve learned that if you have a request of someone – whether it be knowledge, an introduction, or business – asking someone out for a cup of coffee is a pretty hard invitation to which to say no. Once you’re drinking coffee, sitting across from each other and having a conversation, the playing field tends to flatten. I’ve done a lot of business over a cup of coffee. I’ve made a lot of friends over a cup of coffee. I’ve had a lot of good ideas over a cup of coffee. It seems to do both a body and soul good. Thanks, Norm.