Catalina Coffee Doesn’t Care About Its Customers

The good thing about having a blog is that when you feel like you were, perhaps, in a bit of a snit when you wrote a particular piece or item or post, you can always go back and edit it later.

With that in mind, I’ve put the rest of this article after the jump.  Several of my lovely friends and readers pointed out (both here and in private) that I don’t know Catalina’s side of the story and, anyway, this didn’t personally happen to me, so I really ought to chill out.  Which…yeah.  They’re right.  Also?  I’m thinking of instituting a new policy whereby I don’t write anything for 24 hours after having a wicked fight with someone, since my judgment seems to be a bit skewed afterwards.  🙂

So we’ll wait to hear Catalina’s side of things, if that ever happens.  And until then, you can continue to read (and comment) below the cut.

…so why should you care about Catalina?

Let me preface this by saying that my mother is also a small-business owner.  Through helping her with her business and listening to her many stories every single day, I, too, understand the need to “fire” clients or customers who are rude and/or abusive.  But the reaction in this case is unnecessary and appalling.

Everyone in Houston knows Catalina Coffee.  This coffee shop on Washington Avenue arguably serves the finest coffee in town.  It’s not only my favorite coffee shop in town, I’d venture to guess that once someone goes to Catalina, it automatically becomes their favorite coffee shop too.  The owner, Max Gonzalez, knows his stuff.  Upside-down, backwards and sideways, the man is a coffee master.  He not only sources the best beans, but roasts them to perfection and always serves the perfect cup of espresso or cappucino.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, when so many Houstonians are still without power and so many more without any way to get in touch with loved ones via email or conduct business on laptops that aren’t charged, it’s been heartening to see so many restaurants, malls, coffee shops, etc. allow customers to come in and charge their electronics while enjoying a hot meal.

The Houston restaurant community has been more than generous during these trying times, giving away free ice (such as Catalan Food & Wine and Thai Spice did), offering hefty discounts on meals (such as California Pizza Kitchen did) or simply allowing people to use their space as a charging station even if those people didn’t have the money to buy anything (as Panera Bread has been doing).

Catalina‘s snubbing of its customers is even more appalling in the face of all this generosity and the continued lack of power that most of its patrons are dealing with at home.  I’ll allow Sean Stoner to explain in his own words, as he did in a blog post yesterday (emphasis is mine):

As many of my followers know, Catalina Coffee is one of my favorite coffee shops and hang outs. In my opinion, it epitomizes cafe culture (albeit a unique American variant) and has, bar none, the best coffee in Houston, period. In many cases, like many regulars there, I’ll make it by more than once in a day. I’m very sad to say, however, I had an extremely unpleasant experience today…

Though I’ve made a few appearances at Catalina after the storm for coffee, today I arrived with my fully discharged laptop needing to catch up on a couple of mundane tasks, including paying a few bills and moving utility services to my new residence (incidentally, my old place has power but no Internet; my new place has no power). I was surprised to see all the power outlets had metal plates over them. Suspecting this was a result of Ike-related water damage or some other such safety issue, I inquired when the outlets would be available again. Max (the proprietor) responded, “Never.

After getting the “never” response from Max to my question about when we would expect to get the power outlets back (assuming this was a short term fix, even if it was extremely poor timing given the current situation post-Ike), I politely stated that I needed to get some things done on occasion, along with a subtle allusion to my regularity and largesse (not only do I spend lots of money on coffee and am always careful to not take up space unless I’m buying things along the way, but I tip extremely healthy and have referred lots of new people to the establishment).  He said, “bring another battery.” I told him that wasn’t an acceptable solution (a) I don’t have another battery, and b) where am I supposed to have charged these batteries especially if I don’t have power?). His shocked response to that was, “Unacceptable? Are you fucking kidding me? Unacceptable. I can’t believe that.” I told him that especially after Ike in a time of crisis I thought he was betraying his customers’ trust. He stated that he was “tired of people abusing my space. Cafe culture is not sitting down at a coffee shop for three hours.” Really? Are you kidding me? I suppose you have never sat down in a Parisian cafe then. Incredulous and stunned to that response, I told him that I thought the defition of cafe culture was different for everyone and that one should err on the side of what your customers wanted it to be. His response? “Customers? I don’t care what customers want. What matters is what I want. I opened my own shop because of that.” I asked him if he had thought of better ways to address the problem. His very cavalier response was that he had solved the problem and wasn’t really interested in discussing the subject any further. I told him that he was curing cancer by killing cancer patients and there certainly were better ways of addressing the problem.

Way to show a little kindness, Max.

Please read Sean’s entire post (and the many comments that follow) here: Let’s Cure Disease By Killing Patients.

Sean asks his readers what they make of the situation, so I’ll give you my take:  Catalina Coffee just lost me as a customer.  The owner, Max, made it explicitly clear that he doesn’t care about his customers or what they want.  So why should you care about him or his coffee shop?

This was an excellent opportunity for Catalina Coffee to engender goodwill and trust amongst its current customers — ensuring that Catalina would always be there for them, just as they’ve always been loyal and paying customers for Catalina — and an excellent opportunity to create an entirely new customer base out of people who’d perhaps never been to Catalina before, but ended up there due to power outage happenstance.

Instead, Max Gonzalez has simply angered an entire community of people and completely alienated his customer base.  So he’s some kind of mad genius when it comes to coffee; good for him.  But treating your customers that way is no way to run a business, and that kind of behavior can really come back to bite you in the ass.  Being a coffee guru doesn’t ensure that your customers will return tomorrow; good customer service does.  You’re no Soup Nazi, Max.

Until Catalina decides to remove the giant stick from their rectum and the enormous chip from off their shoulder, might I recommend seeking out another coffee shop?  AgoraEmpire Cafe?  The Daily GrindAntidote?  Perhaps a bubble tea place or a friendly pub?  Don’t patronize a place that treats you like shit; you deserve better, Houston.

p.s.  Pardon my French, readers.  It’s been a long weekend.  😉

19 responses to “Catalina Coffee Doesn’t Care About Its Customers

  1. Well written and covered Kathleen and Sean! I have only been to Catalina once and didn’t get a warm feeling when I was there just playing on my iPhone. I wanted to go this week but not after reading about Max! Sucks.

  2. I bought my last coffee there today – I have plugged and promoted max and catalina in interviews, recommended him to my friends and was shocked and appalled twice this week by how offended he seemed to be by the natural behavior of his community trying to get by in very pressing times. Alternatives – put up a tip jar, ask for a separate contribution, there are options. All the work he and his staff put into removing access from his precious outlets will unfortunately come back to him later on – cause and effect. The karmic law of the universe is pretty absolute and at the end of it all, even though I have not had power for eight days, I have a smile on my face, a light in my heart and feel sorry for max and his sad fading beacon, Catalina.

  3. As a long time business man myself, I find his amazing lack of public relations skills stunning. At a time when he should be a hero, as his own worst enemy, Max has made himself look like a foolish heartless jester.

    Note – I am NOT saying he shouldn’t find a solution, but metal plates? After a Hurricane? Good Lord man, what was he thinking!?!?

  4. I agree with all that you and Sean have said. I hope this is just a little post-Ike frustration that will blow over. Like I said on Sean’s blog, coffee there may be great but with this kind of attitude served up on the side, coffee elsewhere is good enough.

  5. Funny, he was probably tired of tripping over your laptop cord, or maybe mad you wouldn’t give up your laptop bag’s chair to one of the new customers having to stand up.

    The guy is there to sell coffee, not supply office space to all of you whiners.

    You should have just gone in and checked your email and then made space for someone else.

  6. May I second the recommendation of Antidote? They gave away free food and deeply discounted booze the day after Ike, they are running on generator power even as we speak (and all of their plugs are uncovered), and they have the most welcoming owners and environment of any coffee shop I’ve frequented in Houston. Forget Catalina; if Max doesn’t understand the cafe culture, he’ll eventually understand what his ignorance does for business.

  7. @ Ben: I’m not one of the people who was taking up space at Catalina with my computer; I’m fortunate enough to have an office with power and internet. However, Max needed to understand that these were unique and difficult times for people — for his regular, paying customers — and he could have handled things differently. I agree that people who were camped out there all day and being rude should’ve been asked politely to pack up and make room for others. But the way that Max reacted was over the top and unnecessary, especially in light of the fact that we’d just had a major hurricane, people were in need, and they weren’t thinking clearly. A little compassion goes a long way. His actions were selfish and ignorant, and demonstrate a lot about the content of his character.

  8. i am shocked by all of this. i frequent catalina quite a bit (sometime more than once a day as it seems to be a great meetup spot) and max has always been very friendly and wonderful. there are 2 sides to every story and i’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt and hear his side first before writing catalina off forever.

  9. I can’t decide which is more repugnant. Max’s evident failure to capitalize on a customer retention opportunity with a simple act of human kindness; or you bunch of whiners’ entitlement mentality. Couldn’t check your precious email? poor baby, probably missed an important OMG! moment . Couldn’t pay your bills online? Ever hear of auto-debit? Plan ahead, nimrod. Couldn’t file your change of address? Ever stop to think your mail might be a little late anyway after a catstrophic weather event? Max may or may not have had legitimate reasons for denying use of his outlets, but the fact remains that they are HIS outlets. They do not belong to you bunch of latte swilling socialists-in-training. Want Parisian style cafe culture? Move your lazy ass to Paris.

  10. I find the kind of behavior reported here unconscionable. That being said, before I make a final judgment, I would like to hear Max’s side of the story. I really enjoy going to Catalina and their high quality coffee and would not like to throw out the “grounds” with the hot water.

  11. Proving the old axiom: An ounce of boorish behavior carries sufficient heft to topple a ton of good memories.

    While I’d be interested to hear the story, there are too many stories of companies going out of their way (often without regards to cost) to help those affected by the storm that stories like these are disturbing.

  12. Everyone on this thread should read Max’s reply on Sean’s post: http://www.seanstoner.com/blog/2008/09/20/catalina-coffee-lets-cure-disease-by-killing-patients/

    This whole thing is an excellent illustration of the problem with hype: people are quick to judge with only one side of the story and no other context.

  13. Well, my favorite place to go is Fioza. I’ve never been to Catalina’s, but I know Max, and he is usually a cool, calm, and collective guy. You may have caught him on an off week considering he may have lost those close to him, or even personal belongings (i.e house, car, etc.). Now, I’m not saying I condone the verbage used, nor the sense of hostility given to a customer (if truly the case…I was not there, nor know the details to the events). By the way, sorry if I am late in posting about this. 😦

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  15. I’ve stopped in at Catalina coffee before, to have a drink and a quick game of Go-Fish with my five year old. I park, walk in, and am greeted by all of the tables filled with guys looking at their laptops, an empty cup of coffee on their table.

    You want to talk about rude? How about taking up all of this business’ space with your $50 an hour contract job? How are other customers supposed to feel, awkwardly trying to navigate around you while you are so absorbed in your work you don’t even look up to see that you’re taking all the seating?

    I gave up. After finding the place full of laptop loafers twice, I don’t think I’ve been back in six months.

    I don’t think cussing at customers is a great way to explain the situation, but Sean Stoner’s sense of entitlement and total lack of understanding at how fed up Max might be with his entire retail space being taken up by loafers with laptops is a huge giveaway that he doesn’t understand how people like him have hurt Max’s business.

    I’m going to give this blog post and it’s “doesn’t care about customers” a huge thumbs down. It seems like Max does care about his customers and now that I know I won’t have to stare forlornly at “oblivious bluetooth guy” so he’ll give up the table he’s been hogging (having purchased a $4 latte three hours before) so my son and I have a place to sit, I’ll be going back!

    Thanks, Justine

  16. I should have read the comments at Sean Stoner’s site before posting here. Looks like this is old news. Ah, well. Looks like Max isn’t the hard-ass he was portrayed to be. There is still wi-fi and electrical access at Catalina. I do hope that anyone reading my above comment will try to have a little more courtesy about how long they use tables while working on their laptops.

    Sean said

    Ladies and Gentlemen,

    As far as I’m concerned, this issue is closed and some of the comments are beginning to have diminishing returns.

    The whole situation was a basic misunderstanding that was blown out of proportion due to lots of stress caused by extenuating circumstances. We’re all human. Max, in a very lucid and clear response, articulated his community service post-Ike and sincerely apologized to those who became frustrated due to these circumstances. If I haven’t been clear enough, let me also explicitly personally apologize to Max and all the other patrons and employees at Catalina for my outburst. It was not intended to have the outcome it did for certain. I don’t think either of us would have made the comments we would have made had it not been for the craziness that ensued after Ike. And to put a fine point on it, had I been at Starbucks or any other coffee shop in town and the power outlets were covered up, I would have quietly left and gone elsewhere. That I got a little bent out of shape speaks to my loyalty to the establishment; I felt personally betrayed for a moment, yet again in hindsight it was merely the circumstances that caused our tete-a-tete and overreactions. I don’t think I’m over-stepping my bounds if I were to say things are cool between me and Catalina and I will continue to be a loyal patron and I hope you will too (if not already). As they say, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

    Thanks,
    Justine

  17. funny how you plug empire cafe as the place to go besides catalina but empire cafe refuses to get free wi-fi because they don’t want people to camp out on their laptops. you do know that cords stretched out everywhere is a liability. also, max is only human. he was stressed just like everyone else. he may have not had electricity at his home or been able to take a hot shower or was stuck eating cold canned ravioli like the rest of us but he is expected to be happy and cheery during a natural disaster.

  18. So, are the metal plates gone. I was one an early customer of the establishment, and promoted it widely there after, until the outlet covers went on. I have not been back sense.

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