Burnt Toast | The negative effects of ambient smells in a coffee shop

The other day I was enjoying an espresso in a coffee shop when my experience was suddenly and irrevocably ruined. This was not a case of poor service but instead of an inattentive cook. He burnt someone’s toast.

I’ll rewind slightly. The espresso I had was Squaremile’s Sweetshop blend. After letting it cool and giving it a good stir I took a few sips. It was tasting pretty good, sweet obviously, with some blackcurrant and plum notes and the typical heavy richness of Squaremile. Not my ideal espresso but certainly enjoyable. That was until the cafe was suddenly overwhelmed by the smell of burning toast.

Now that my senses were being attacked by this undesirable aroma it was like a totally different drink. I could no longer perceive much of the sweetness and instead of richness I felt it tasted of roastiness, even though it certainly wasn’t roasty. Just a few seconds before I was enjoying this coffee but the signals my nose were sending to my brain meant that my perception of the drink had changed. Despite knowing it was a good espresso I could no longer enjoy it due to the ambient aroma.

I’ve experienced this a number of times. Especially in cafes that serve a full lunch menu alongside it’s coffee offering. Unfortunately many times I’ve visited these shops it has been a disappointment to drink the coffee when sitting in, as smells from open – plan kitchens are too distracting. Drinking a flat white whilst a piece of fish is being cooked will make the milk taste off, spicy chicken being fried for a wrap will overwhelm all the subtle aromas and flavours of a filter coffee.

Likewise I recall trying to dial-in a new espresso at home in my kitchen. All was going well until my flat mate began to make dinner. After that there was no point continuing, I no longer had the most basic ability to taste the espresso. What I could taste were unlikely to be true tasting notes but instead some strange blend created from the combination of espresso on my tongue and food smells in my nose.

Maybe I’m a little over sensitive to these issues but I doubt I’m the only one affected. From these experiences I think are some points worth  worth bearing in mind for anyone working in or designing a cafe. i.e. We should avoid and eliminate all smells within the customer and barista areas. Open plan kitchens, although they look nice and save money, are a no-go in a small space unless you have some good extractor fans.

It also raises a more interesting point, with so many aromas having a strong negative effect there must surely be some that will have a positive one. I attended Sang Ho Park’s talk on sensory science a little while back and he touched on subjects similar to this. The talk focused more on colours and your emotional state but the principle is the same. I’ve not yet seen anything like it being applied to a cafe, although it has been used in some top restaurants.

Scent-Marketing, deliberately filling an entire area with a strong enjoyable aroma, is something used by many bakeries, restaurants and cosmetic shops to lure people in l and buy more of their product, but this is a sales tactic not an experience enhancer. What if instead we could match aromas to the tasting notes of a coffee? Spraying the air with some form of aromatic that can help customers detect and taste certain flavours may look strange but would be worthwhile if it were to increase enjoyment. I know I for one would find it interesting at the least.

The use of positive aromas to enhance espresso and filter drinks will be something I will hopefully be experimenting with soon. Once I have some feedback I’ll be sure to let people know the results.

In the meantime, don’t burn the bloody toast!


5 thoughts on “Burnt Toast | The negative effects of ambient smells in a coffee shop

  1. Max says:

    This exact same thing happened to me at Prufrock Coffee a few days ago, down to the beans. Drank a Sweetshop espresso, enjoyed tasting it and then somebody burnt a toast and everything was gone. 😦


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