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Coffee and Donuts

An allegorical tale by Jack William Bell

Once upon a time there was a middling sized little town. It wasn't all that big, but it had a lot of coffee drinkers. Enough in fact that the town supported several large and many smaller restaurants who thought people came in to eat their food, not realizing that most of the customers really just wanted the coffee. In actual fact the restaurant food was far too expensive and the coffee was bitter and foul tasting. But the restaurants were the only places you could get coffee in town. So the people came anyway.

This led to a situation where some people started selling coffee out of their houses and garages. Only most of them also thought they were selling food. One guy sold cinnamon rolls and coffee, another sold bagels and coffee and several others sold only the raw ingredients and the coffee making equipment so you could go home and make your own snacks and coffee. One of the groups selling the raw ingredients out of their garage came up with a recipe for pastries with fresh fruit that went great with coffee. Convinced that the pastry recipe was the ticket to success they managed to get funding and open up a little bakery that specialized in pastries with fresh fruit and coffee.

About the same time there was another guy, also working out of his home, who had been making coffee for several of the people who were selling cinnamon rolls and bagels and do-it-yourself ingredients. This guy was different from the others because coffee was the only thing he did. He was moderately successful at this, enough so, in fact, that he came to the attention of the very biggest of the big restaurants in town.

This big restaurant had noticed how the little guys selling one small thing with coffee (instead of the huge menus they were used to) were doing pretty well and had decided to make a go at it themselves. Their idea was to open a donut shop to compete directly with the bakery selling pastries with fresh fruit. Because they had noticed one of the selling points of their smaller competitors was the coffee made by the guy who only did coffee, they decided to have him make the coffee to go along with their donuts.

As fate would have it, easily available quality coffee was exactly what the town needed. Although the pastry and fresh fruit folk at the bakery did well, so did the donut shop and even the cinnamon roll and bagel vendors. Everyone did well because, with the greater availability of coffee the town began to grow. In fact it grew like crazy. Full of people who loved coffee. The only problem was that just about everyone selling the coffee were still under the mistaken impression that what people actually wanted was the food they provided.

Well, this situation went on for a while. And all the while the guy who only made coffee was quietly getting better and better at what he did and making more and more of the coffee consumed in town. In truth, he didn't make the best coffee. But he always made it good enough and he also made equipment so others could make coffee. That was partially because making coffee equipment was how he got into the business in the first place and partially because he knew that growing his business would depend upon people relying on him for all aspects of coffee.

At the same time there was another trend happening. People began going less and less to the restaurants. The bigger restaurants didn't notice at first, but the smaller restaurants began to lose so much business they were closing their doors all over the place. Also the little guys selling cinnamon rolls and bagels were folding up shop. Pretty soon, almost without anyone noticing it, the coffee business was down to the big restaurants, a few smaller restaurants, the pastry and fresh-fruit folk at the bakery and the guy who only sold coffee.

And, although they didn't want to admit it, the biggest restaurant in town found that their donut shop was making nearly as much money as the restaurant itself. In fact, because it was so easy to make donuts, they had attracted lots of competitors in the donut business, but they were still making money hand over fist. And all of the donut shops were, almost without exception, buying their coffee, and much of their coffee making equipment, from the one guy who only sold coffee.

Then something really interesting happened. The pastry and fresh fruit guys had a coffee breakthrough! They started selling pies and espresso drinks. The combination proved to be wildly popular. Suddenly artists and musicians were moving into the formerly staid little town, because they really liked the pies and espresso. It turned out to be the favorite of teachers as well, and thus many of their students became convinced that espresso was the way to go. Soon all the magazines and newspapers were singing the praises of pies and espresso. And this led to another big population growth in town.

This did not escape the attention of the guy who only sold coffee. He began to look into the possibilities of making espresso and espresso equipment himself. At first he tried to partner with the big restaurant he had been working with, but they disagreed as to how espresso should be made so he went his own way. At first the espresso he made was pretty awful. But he kept at it. Pretty soon his espresso was drinkable. And it went with donuts, while the bakery folks' espresso only went with pie. But they weren't worried because they were convinced that what people really wanted was the pie. They thought the espresso enhanced the pie and not the other way around.

In fact they were getting a little arrogant about it. They would throw parties in their bakery for themselves and their best customers where everyone would sing the praises of pie and bash anyone pedestrian enough to eat donuts. They felt they had a right to do this because they had nearly half the coffee business in town. They didn't notice that even people who preferred pies would eat donuts because they were cheaper. Nor did they care that donuts are the preferred pastry in businesses. But the coffee making guy was on top of it.

The guy who only did coffee began to partner closely with the people who made donut equipment. And between them they began to take over the coffee market from the inside. Neither of them sold coffee and donuts together, instead they prospered by each focusing on what they did best and letting the donut shops handle the customer sales. And the guy who only did coffee made deals with the donut shops which made it difficult for them to sell any other kind of coffee than his. They went along both because he was pretty much the only game in town if they wanted to sell espresso with their donuts and because they were doing darn well with the status quo anyway. As time went by the guy who only did coffee started to control more than eighty percent of the coffee business in town.

Now this hurt a few people. The restaurants continued to go out of business, with a few exceptions, and the folks at the bakery took a big hit on their pie business. Unfortunately their bad attitude brought them little sympathy; after all, no one enjoys being called a philistine because he likes donuts. Still, more than a few coffee drinkers began to think the guy who did only coffee was evil in some way. Even some of the ones who drank his coffee. Why they felt this way might have been envy and might have been because the coffee guy made such hard-nosed deals. Your guess is as good as mine is, but we can be certain the coffee guy never thought of himself in that way.

Still, the coffee business is always changing. It wasn't long before a new factor arose. You see many of the mid-sized restaurants had always provided phones at the tables so that the people who drank coffee could talk to each other. As time went by the donut shops and the bakery added phones as well. Then some bright students came up with a way to add cable television to the phones. Now people could talk to each other and watch television while they drank their espresso. They loved it. And new companies arose with the express purpose of supplying telephones and televisions. Others came along to string the phone lines and cables. It was a whole new kind of business and it was very successful, even though it depended on coffee just as much as the food sales had.

In fact one of the surviving smaller restaurants came up with a new flavor of coffee that they said would improve watching television and talking on telephones. They made wild claims about that coffee. They claimed it was a kind of 'meta-coffee' that could be used in the place of every kind of coffee that ever existed. They claimed their special blend was essential to the telephone and television business. If you listened close it almost seemed like they were also claiming it would unstop sinks, clean floors and remove warts! And enough people fell for this marketing spiel that this flavor of coffee became the favorite in several circles of coffee drinkers.

Well, the guy who only made coffee was still on top of things. If people wanted televisions and telephones he would do televisions and telephones. He would help to string the cables and phone lines. If they wanted the special blend from the small restaurant he would make a deal with that restaurant to get the secret recipe and provide it himself. After all, he knew that he had gotten where he was in the coffee business by finding out what worked and then providing it through hard-nosed deals with his partners, not by telling people they had no class if they didn't like his coffee.

Unfortunately for the guy who only did coffee his success began to lead to many troubles. You see, for a long time the biggest maker of televisions had thought of themselves as perhaps really being a new type of coffee company. They figured they could take out the coffee guy because televisions would replace coffee eventually, but it really made them mad when the coffee guy turned the tables on them by building televisions right into his coffee making equipment and then selling that equipment at the same price. So they complained loudly to the government.

So did the restaurant with the special blend of coffee. They didn't like the way the coffee guy changed their recipe slightly so that it worked best with his coffee equipment. And, of course, the bakery had been complaining for a long time as well, they had even tried to sue the coffee guy at one point by claiming his espresso looked and tasted too much like their espresso. Lots of smaller companies chimed in who thought the coffee guy had gotten too big for his britches or who had suffered from one of his hard-nosed business deals.

And eventually the government did pay attention. Even though they didn't really understand the coffee business, they began to suspect the guy who only sold coffee had a monopoly. So they took the coffee guy to court and held hearings and beat him over the head a little in public. I can't tell you how it turned out because those hearings are still going on. What I can tell you is that the one thing everybody who drank coffee or had anything to do with selling coffee feared most was government regulation of coffee. But it is beginning to look like this may be the final reaction of the government. It might be that everyone will lose…

But that isn't the real moral of this story. The real moral is simple; what has mattered to the people drinking coffee all along is not what food came with it or even the telephones and televisions. No, what matters is the coffee itself. People want a consistent cup of coffee with a good flavor, whether it comes out of a percolator, a drip unit or an espresso machine. Whether they drink it while watching television or while doing their taxes. And the real secret of success for the guy who made only coffee is that he understood that. Oh, there was some luck too. And the hard-nosed business deals didn't hurt. But knowing that coffee is what is important was the key.

In fact the coffee guy even made it his corporate motto. You can see it today if you like, just go out to the place where he makes his coffee and coffee equipment and go to building 16. Near the entrance to that building is a fountain, and in front of that fountain the motto is set right into the concrete in big brass letters. It reads "A pastry in every office and every home and people drinking our coffee with it."

Copyright 1998 Jack William Bell

Last Changed 12/20/1998


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