How a San Francisco coffee shop tricks people into liking bad coffee

There’s this coffee chain in San Francisco that’s all the rage. It’s called Philz.

As a moderate coffee snob, I’ve always found the growing popularity of this place outrageous.

I’ll drink it if I need a caffeine fix (and nothing else is available), but almost everything they produce tastes like burnt charcoal. In fact, their black coffee is so bad that it’s store policy to ask each customer if they’d like insane amounts of sugar and cream mixed in with it.

However, even though I’m a Philz coffee hater, I still think there’s plenty to learn about human psychology from the company’s success.

First, Philz has done a brilliant job of showing the customer the effort put into each order.

When you walk into a Philz Coffee, you’re routed to an employee that stands behind a counter. In front of them are three little coffee pour-over stands. They ask you what you’d like, how you’d like it, and then proceed to start making it right in front of you.

At Starbucks, everything is either pre-made and poured right when you order, or hidden behind the counter. It’s hard to see what the barista is doing. The work being done on your behalf isn’t fully visible.

The opposite is true at Philz. They take out a new coffee filter, carefully place it into the pour-over cone in front of them, and then toss a freshly ground lump of coffee in—all while you’re standing there. They then spend the next 3-4 minutes pouring (often from a comically exaggerated height) hot water over the grounds.

During this time, you can either stand and watch or wander around the store. When your coffee is ready they’ll call your name and ask you to tell them how it is.

Which brings us to the second thing they do really well: They force you to tell them that the coffee is good. 

When you walk up to get your coffee, the barista asks you: “How is it?”

In all of the times I’ve been there, I don’t think I’ve seen a single person say “it’s bad”. Every once in awhile someone will ask for more cream or sugar, but they always tell the Philz employee that “it’s great” before they leave. That’s a near-perfect cognitive dissonance and “commitment & consistency” trap.

So, in a nutshell:

• Philz shows you all of the effort they do on your behalf (see the work of Harvard’s Mike Norton to learn more about why this is so psychologically powerful)

• Philz forces you to publicly state that you like the coffee, which positively biases your perception via cognitive dissonance and Cialdini’s “commitment and consistency” principle.

Until tomorrow,


Jason Hreha