“The time has come for us to change the coffee brand that we offer and we want your input!” The email came from Myiesha Gordon in the HR Department at WNYC. Like many others, Myiesha hated the office coffee. This week on The Sporkful, we follow her as she sets up a taste test, and an office-wide coffee election. We'll find out why office coffee is so important to people, plus we'll talk to a caffeine researcher about whether it makes us better at our jobs. Then a behavioral economist weighs in about whether coffee is something companies should be spending money on.
Since that episode first aired, Myiesha traveled the world, got married (and is now Myiesha Gordon-Beales) and is working on the Greenwood Art Project in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Summer Getaway" by Stephen Clinton Sullivan
- "Mars Casino" by Leisure Birds
- "Hot Night" by Calvin Dashielle
- "Stay For The Summer" by William Van De Crommert
- "Worldly Endeavors" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
Photo by Dan Pashman.
Dan Pashman: Myiesha, can I ask you to read your email
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: OK. OK.
Dan Pashman: Into the mike please?
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: New coffee for the office. We love coffee around here. And thankfully, we get it for free all day in the office. The time has come for us to change the coffee brand that we offer and we want your input. Step 1: Go to this link and make your suggestions. The top eight suggestions will be selected for an all staff taste test. Step 2: Attend the all staff taste testing event. Step 3: Vote for your favorite coffee. Step 4: Wait anxiously for the coffee to be revealed.
Amy Pearl: Oh my God. When I saw that email, I immediately responded—not reply all, by the way. I am 45-years-old, not a child. I just responded and said, "You are the most amazing in the entire world."
Caryn: I was bouncing up and down in the seat because it's very exciting to have new delicious coffee, potentially, here for free. So I never have to leave the office again.
Katie: No matter what gets chosen, it'll definitely be better than what we have now.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters, I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. And this week we’re gonna replay for you one of my all-time favorite Sporkful episodes. We will follow one woman’s quest to get better coffee in her office, a quest that culminates in a companywide taste test:
CLIP (MYIESHA GORDON-BEALES): I really couldn't sleep last night. I was, you know, tossing and turning anticipating this day. I hope everything turns out all right.
Dan Pashman: I know many of us aren’t working in offices right now. But you remember offices, right? Or you’ve at least seen The Office? You understand petty office politics. I think those translate to Zoom just fine. And I suspect wherever you’re working, you’re still consuming plenty of caffeine. So later we’ll talk with a caffeine researcher and a behavioral economist. Do free office coffee and tea actually make us better workers? Do they make us happier in our jobs, or would most of us rather just have the cash? And, what does one expert say about my own diabolical office coffee plan?
CLIP (MARILYN CORNELLIS): There might be some individuals, who will respond quite differently and it would be probably not very safe.
Dan Pashman: So the office where this big coffee election happened is WNYC, where we used to produce The Sporkful. The process was led by a woman in HR named Myiesha Gordon. Myiesha’s the one who you heard before, who was up tossing and turning before the big taste test. This whole project was her baby. And I can tell you, when her email went out announcing that we were getting a new office coffee, people were pumped, but as I told Myiesha:
Dan Pashman: I, actually, don't mind the coffee, like I don't love it but I don't mind it. You know, I do drink it and it doesn't bother me.
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: Is it because it's free?
Dan Pashman: That's part of it.
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Yes. Free things do tend to taste better.
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: Yeah. For me, I'm like, ehhh.
Dan Pashman: I think I need to raise my at home coffee game because I do not make good coffee at home. So I actually fill up my travel mug before I leave here with the coffee and I bring it home and put it in the fridge and when I wake up in the morning, I have my ice coffee and it's day-old WNYC coffee that I drink in my house.
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: Oh my goodness. That’s an abomination.
Melissa Baltazaar: Myiesha’s like the agent of change here.
Dan Pashman: This is Melissa Baltazaar, she works with Myiesha.
Melissa Baltazaar: I started working here in 2012 and I was charged with changing the office coffee. Alison Murphy had this in the works for years. I know that for a long time people had been dissatisfied with our coffee and so now we're like able to really do something about it.
Dan Pashman: So but this is big then, because whatever we get from this process it's what we're gonna have for a while.
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: Yeah, no pressure.
Dan Pashman: Has anyone in the office been lobbying either of you?
Melissa Baltazaar: Not yet, but we need to get that going.
Dan Pashman: A couple of days after Myiesha’s email to the staff, there were nearly a hundred different suggestions for the new coffee but some were long shots.
Person 1: My strong feeling on office coffee is that it should be replaced by Japanese canned coffee, which is delicious.
Dan Pashman: Is it sweetened?
Person 1: A lot of it is. Some is unsweetened. I just really like Japanese canned coffee.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, the setup we have is the one where you put the coffee grounds in a paper filter and you put that into a machine and it brews coffee into a carafe with a pump on top. The winner was probably gonna have to work in that system. After the submission process ended, I took the pulse of the office.
Caryn: I will drink whatever coffee my peers choose and I'll drink tons of it.
Dan Pashman: Did you know that excess caffeine can cause increase anxiety and irritability? Did that question upset you?
Caryn; It did not upset me and you're kind of a jerk.
Dan Pashman: Do you think there's any chance that the winning coffee will please everyone?
Megan: Hell no. Never. That's alright. It's a change, Dan, and we celebrate change
Dan Pashman: What's the best we can hope for here?
Megan: I think the best to hope for would be my choices.
Dan Pashman: It was time for Myiesha to select the top 8 coffees for the taste test, but it wasn’t a straight vote. The 8 finalists had to be screened to make sure to make sure they worked within the budget and that there was a vendor for them. I mean, you gotta realize, there are about 400 people who work at WNYC, so these aren’t small concerns. And Myiesha and Melissa were worried about finding eight finalists that within these parameters. Here’s Melissa.
Melissa Baltazaar: There are other variables that we're looking at. It has to be comparable with what we're currently paying and they have to be able to service our account in they way that we're being serviced now. So there's a lot of other criterias that they'll have to meet to stay on this list.
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: Yeah. Are we gonna be able to get the top requests?
Dan Pashman: Do you feel like the people, who voted in this first round, understand all of these factors.
Myiesha Gorgon: I don't they understand but I also don't think they care, necessarily.
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: Yeah, I don't think they understand like the price factor and our limitations. Yeah, I don't think they understand.
Dan Pashman: I think that one the things that is often true with they way people vote in real election is that they just want someone to tell that they're gonna get what they want.
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: I want to hear you talk to those people, put it in real terms. If I'm Worker X, I just want the best coffee. I don't care. I don't want hear any explanations, Myiesha. I just want—just make me a promise that it's all going to be perfect. What do you say to me?
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: Well, we are thankful that our employer provides free coffee for us, first of all. As with anything, we have restrictions, like we don't have an unlimited budget that will allow us to please only you. So what we want to do is have something that is beneficial for most of the people.
Dan Pashman: Well clearly, Myiesha is thoughtful, prudent, and fair. And with that kind of attitude she not gonna get elected to anything! We’ll get to the big taste test in a few minutes, but I wanted to look at all the reasons office coffee is so important to us. I know for me, when I get my caffeine buzz going, I just feel like my brain works better. But does it really? Or is that just in my head?
Marilyn Cornellis: It’s probably one of the most widely consumed psychostimulants in the world. So it acts as a psychostimulant.
Dan Pashman: This is Marilyn Cornellis, she’s a professor at Northwestern, who studies caffeine. She says it doesn’t actually give you energy. Caffeine makes you feel more energetic by blocking the part of your brain that tells you to be tired.
Marilyn Cornellis: It increases your alertness. Your mood, you feel better and if you're feeling better you just become more productive. You're focused.
Dan Pashman: So it's quite literally a performance enhancing drug?
Marilyn Cornellis: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: If I were an employer, who wanted to get more productivity from my employees, would it make sense for me to switch to a different type of coffee that had a lot more caffeine? Would that be a good move? Would I have a more productive work force?
Marilyn Cornellis: Individuals do respond differently to coffee or caffeine. So while generally, the benefits might outweigh the risks, there might be some individuals who will react to it quite differently and it would be probably not very safe.
Dan Pashman: But Maryilyn, I'm trying to do this in a way that they're not going to know that I'm slipping more caffeine in because if they know that the coffee, they may be more liable to drink less of it. And then my secret plan to increase productivity will fail.
Marilyn Cornellis: Actually, it's funny that you mention that because I'm not sure if this was published work but a colleague of mine actually did this, where they altered the caffeine quantity of the coffee that they had in the break room. And people naturally reduced their intake. If they're already feeling very stimulated, they will naturally cut back. So I'd be very interested to see if you were to do that kind of experiment in your office, I bet people will reduce the number of cups of coffee that they consume.
Dan Pashman: And Marilyn, how much coffee do you drink?
Marilyn Cornellis: I only just moved to Chicago about two years ago and prior to that I didn't consume coffee because I didn't like the taste. I like the effects of caffeine but I got caffeine from tea of Diet Coke. But I only started drinking coffee when I came to Chicago. Actually, the very first day of work I think I had my first cup. I could drink maybe two cups a day, but generally maybe one cup.
Dan Pashman: And do you find that you're more productive now?
Marilyn Cornellis: That but I also feel more social. I think that's what was interesting about coffee is that when people talk about, "You know, let's go out for a coffee," like a social event. And around here I attend a lot of research seminars and coffee is what they're always serving. So coffee it is.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, I’ll talk with a behavioral economist about whether free office coffee is something companies should actually be spending money on. And of course, the taste test. Eight coffees enter, but only one emerge victorious. Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. If you know the name James Beard, it’s probably from the James Beard Awards, right? Known as the Oscars of the food world. But who was James Beard the person? Well in last week’s show I talk with writer John Birdsall, who just published a new biography of Beard, who was America’s first TV star chef.
CLIP (JOHN BIRDSALL): He was a household personality and his popularity really kind of rachets up in 1955. A writer for the New York Times dubs him the dean of American cookery.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): All while being being deep, deep in the closet.
CLIP (JOHN BIRDSALL): Yes. At the same time that he's living this very kind of robust gay life in private, publicly, it's absolutely a secret.
Dan Pashman: This a not only a fascinating portrait of a complicated man, but also a look at the ebbs and flows of queer acceptance in America throughout a lot of the 20th century. It’s up now, I hope you’ll check it out.
Dan Pashman: Ok, back to the Great Office Coffee Election. After a lot of anticipation, and several schedule changes, the day for the big taste test arrived. Myiesha set up 7 carafes of coffee in the office cafeteria, not 8 because of the top employee submissions, only 7 made it through the vetting. There was a cup in front of each carafe where people could put their votes, and a little description of the coffee next to each one.
Dan Pashman: Number one, espresso roast, dark, pure, bold, blend with a rich full-bodied flavor. Number two: fruity notes with pleasant acidity and medium body with nutty, sweet, chocolatey notes.
Dan Pashman: I do have to say, that part of the methodology was a little suspect to me. I mean, we know from research that if you tell people a drink has certain tasting notes, they’re more likely to perceive those flavors. So I was worried that those descriptions could skew the vote. But Myiesha? She was worried about everything.
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: Um I don't know. I really couldn't sleep last night. I was, you know, tossing and turning anticipating this day. I'm anxious. I'm excited. I feel hopeful that something good, something that I like is gonna win. So I don't know. It's just–I'm a ball of nerves.
Dan Pashman: Pretty soon, the taste taste was underway.
Person 2: So I make the first batch every morning. I get in about 4:40, and about 4: 45 I'm standing in the back of our kitchen brewing the very first pot of the day, cleaning out the old stuff from like 18 hours before.
Dan Pashman: What is the office coffee mean to you? Like, why is it important to you?
Person 3: It means everything. I mean, honestly, if I can a little bit of wake up in the morning than our morning programming is just—it's just gonna suffer. Our morning host is gonna say something that I wrote, that's gonna be horrible. And I'm gonna blame it on the coffee.
Dan Pashman: But so, if we get new and improved coffee, now you're gonna have no excuses.
Dan Pashman: Theo, what are your thoughts?
Theo: I don't like this one.
Dan Pashman: Number two?
Theo: Yeah, Skye said he really liked it.
Dan Pashman: Hmm. See but you can't trust what people are gonna tell you.
Theo: It's too acidic.
Dan Pashman: Too acidic.
Theo: And it's too light.
Person 4: You know, I like good coffee but I don't mind bad coffee. I think it helps you be more resilient in life.
Dan Pashman: What'd you vote for?
Person 4: I think I voted for number one.
Person 5: One is disgusting. I can't believe anybody voted for it. Look at these. Look at how many that are in here. What is going on? This has got to be mistake.
Person 6: No, that can't be...
Person 5: You people are masochists.
Person 6: Why do they do this? Do coffee need to be bitter in order to work?
Person 5: I don't know.
Person 6: I disagree.
Person 7: It's fine. We're still.
Person 4: They associate with childhood trauma and...
Person 6: Yes..
Person 5: They just need to be...
Person 6: Let's just stuff the bag. Come one, number 4. Number 4. Number 4. Number 4.
Dan Pashman: Alright, I got to try some more coffee.
Dan Pashman: Hey Anna, how are you doing?
Anna: Hi, is this live coverage?
Dan Pashman: Yeah, Sporkful team coverage.
Anna: Awesome, I love coffee and I do also believe in free coffee. So I rely on the office coffee. It's a part of my daily life. So this is really important. This is a really important day.
Dan Pashman: Why? What do you think it is that makes office coffee so important?
Anna: Well, I think sometimes when I drink the current office coffee, I think I don't have enough self-respect. And this is part of my daily routine cause it's just not—it's pretty weak. It's just not that great. But the other thing that's important about office coffee is it's what you offer guests and so when you have to offer coffee to guests with the caveat, "It's really not that great of coffee but if you really need some, we have some." So if it's like, you know, if we get an improvement on the office coffee, I think it's just gonna just—it'll improve my everyday morning and also make me feel like a hospitable radio host.
Greg: I'm with Freakonomics Radio, so I think about this stuff a lot. But it's interesting to think like you utility maximizing what would make us most happy, theoretically, would for them to just give us money cause the coffee is a form of compensation. So this is an in kind compensation that they're providing us to us. That's interesting.
Dan Pashman: Well, I would suspect that most of people, if they went out to buy cups of coffee it would cost more per person.
Greg: Right. So there's an economy of scale, here.
Dan Pashman: But what they could do is they could—because some people don't drink any coffee. Some people drink tea. So it is a little bit unfair.
Greg: It is unfair. It's a redistribution of wealth for non-coffee drinkers to coffee drinkers. If they weren't giving it to me here, I would have to go all the way downstairs, nine floors, like there's lost productivity. It's an interesting argument. I dont know. But I think I'm definitely on the side of free coffee and also number two because it has fruity notes and it is really nice.
Dan Pashman: For my vote, I was torn between number five and number six. In the end I went with six. It was described as rich, long lasting and bold. And in just a minute we’ll have the big reveal, and the reaction. But I wanted to get more into some of those questions of economics. We heard earlier that coffee does make us more productive in terms of what it does to our brains. But what about the psychology of free office coffee? Does it make us like our jobs more and in turn work harder?
Ian Larkin: If you're talking about the same worker and her to work harder, I'm not sure that offering coffee is actually gonna have a long term effect.
Dan Pashman: This is Ian Larkin, he’s a behavioral economist at UCLA.
Ian Larkin: There's a lot of research that shows that good workers just work to the best of their abilities anyway. My sense is it's not about productivity. It's more about attracting and retaining good workers that are already likely to be the type who work hard. Everybody likes to work in a supportive work place where they feel valued andI think coffee can help contribute to that.
Dan Pashman: So these perks are less about motivating people, more about getting and keeping the best people. And at many tech companies, it’s gone way beyond free coffee. Google has a whole Indian restaurant at their headquarters. Facebook has 11 restaurants at theirs. And the food at most of these places is free or heavily subsidized.
Ian Larkin: They use these luncheons as a way to stand out above and beyond other companies, tech companies in Silicon Valley, when they're trying to recruit workers. And I think it's really effective because it underscores what a fantastic work environment these companies have. But as other companies start to copy you, it can quickly become something that just becomes expected and it doesn't really affect anybodies decision anymore. And so you just added additional costs. It works until everyone starts doing it, then it’s expected.
Dan Pashman: Ian says with office coffee, it’s similar. As employees come to expect it, it has less value to us. But he says, even if it doesn't make us work harder, coffee and snacks can make us work smarter.
Ian Larkin: People that, for example, are more full, feel more full and satisfied, had just eaten a really satisfying mea, tend to take fewer risks and actually have a longer term outlook. People that are feeling hungry or people that are feeling tired are more prone to decision making biases, such as seeking risk or making decisions that are focused on the very short term. So I can certainly believe that coffee, because of it's caffeine intake, causes people to make better decisions just because they are more awake.
Dan Pashman: I asked Ian the question that Greg from Freakonomics posed. Would we just be happier with the cash instead of the free coffee? Ian says if you polled people, most would say they’d prefer the cash. But…
Ian Larkin: There's a whole host of research that shows that when it comes to these small incremental nudges, like awards or coffee or the food, we tend to under estimate how much we really value it.
Dan Pashman: Now it's the moment you’ve been waiting for. A few days after the taste test, we gathered again in the cafeteria. The president and CEO of New York Public Radio, Laura Walker, made the announcement.
Laura Walker: So the winner is Brooklyn Roasting Company's Mexican Chiapas Roast.
[CHEERS AND APPLAUSE]
Laura Walker: From Oaxaca, Mexico. Characteristics, this is how they describe it, smoke, peach, sandalwood, pecan, honey. I think we should all enjoy it, live with it, and celebrate the fact that we did get this done and we have a great improvement. So thank you Myiesha.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, a big hand for Myiesha.
Dan Pashman: So Myiesha, here we are. We have a winner.
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: Yes, finally. We're here.
Dan Pashman: How are you feeling?
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: I feel so—I know I said I felt relieved the other day but I really feel relieved now.
Dan Pashman: Well but it's an interesting thing in political campaigns, they often talk about how running a campaign is very different than governing.
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: You know, we now have a coffee elect at WNYC.
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: Yup.
Dan Pashman: But it has not yet been inaugurated.
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: Exactly.
Dan Pashman: You need to put in a Transition team in place.
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: Oh my gosh.
Dan Pashman: And now you gotta deliver on all this hope and change you promised.
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: Oh no. You have no idea the anxiety, the overwhelming anxiety that I just sensed right now. Because you're right, we have to put it in place but I don't think it's gonna be a ceremonious thing, like we'll just switch it off next week.
Dan Pashman: Wow.
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: So this inauguration day is coming.
Myiesha Gordon: Yes, it is. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: You know right after the inauguration, there's gonna be a certain amount or sort of political goodwill that you will have built up.
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Like everyone will just be excited for a new cup of coffee.
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: Yeah. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: But you know, that burns out eventually.
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: And down the road, people are gonna start to say, "It wasn't as great as we thought it was gonna be."
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: Right. Right. Right.
Dan Pashman: Are you concerned with that and how do you plan to deal with that?
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: So I expect that. We'll deal with that when it comes. And again, at one point, I was bringing in my own coffee. So people always have that option.
Dan Pashman: That's right, people can always just go live in a cabin in the woods.
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: Exactly.
Dan Pashman: Choose not to take part in the system.
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: Yeah. Get off the grid, off the coffee grid.
Dan Pashman: So the winner, Brooklyn Roasting Company’s Mexican Chiapas Roast, which they now call their Mexico roast. That was number four, described as medium to heavy body with dark chocolate and malt tasting notes. And after the new coffee was put in, most people agreed it was a big improvement. But I was curious to see how long that goodwill would last. So months later, I took the pulse of the office again…
Person 8: Well I refused to drink it before. And now I drink it everyday.
Dan Pashman: So this has really been a positive change for you?
Person 8: It's been a huge change in my life. It's like a life upgrade.
Dan Pashman: So how much money have you saved? How much money per year would you save, do you save by getting coffee at work?
Person 8: Oh my god. Hold on.
Dan Pashman: Let's run the numbers.
Person 8: I'm doing it right now. Let's say 365, right? Is that what it is?
Dan Pashman: Yes, that's how many days are in a year.
Person 8: Okay, great great. $1095.00, because I'm here everyday.
Dan Pashman: You work...
Person 8: I never go home. I work 365 days a years. Yeah, it's kind of ridiculous.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, okay.
Person 8: The most disappointing thing since then, if this is to be the follow up interview, is that we don't have urn cleaner. So the coffee has always got a bitter residue.
Dan Pashman: I believe the technical term is gunk. It's the gunk.
Person 9: The gunk that has accumulated in these fabulous urns has started to make the coffee selection process another pointless venture and we might as well never have changed.
Person 10: I prefer cold brew coffee.
Dan Pashman: Ughh. Where in Brooklyn do you live?
Person 10: Greenpoint. I'm a cliche.
Person 11: The coffee's great and it's free and it's provided by my job, which makes me feel good about the place I work. I mean, it's been a positive change to the point where I often—when I'm like listing what I'm grateful for, as we're supposed to do, I'm like, "I'm grateful for free coffee at work," and I am.
Dan Pashman: Would you have said that with the old coffee?
Person 11: I did say that with the old coffee but at the time I didn't know that it could be so much better.
Dan Pashman: As for Myiesha, a few months after the new coffee was rolled out, she decided to leave WNYC to travel the world. On her last day, I dragged her into the studio one more time.
Dan Pashman: The coffee is like your legacy, right?
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: It is. That's sad.
Dan Pashman: Why is it sad? You should be proud.
Myiesha Gordon-Beales: No, I am proud. I am proud and I think it was an improvement. It was such a small thing but such a big thing. People really appreciated the effort that we pur into making this change and yeah, I don't mind this being my legacy.
Dan Pashman: And now we have an all new update on Myiesha. She did travel the world, she met her now husband in Denmark, moved to the UK They got married there, moved back to the U.S. and had a baby. They’re currently in Tulsa, where Myiesha is working on an art project for next year’s centennial of the Greenwood race massacre, which was the burning of a neighborhood called Black Wall Street by a group of white residents. Myiesha also reports that she’s drinking her coffee differently. She switched to a pour over method in the UK cause she couldn’t find a good coffee machine in the small town they were in. And she’s stuck with it. She says, “It’s a lot of work but it makes a better cup of coffee."
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show, what can we learn about how different immigrant groups assimilate in America, by looking at how their foods make their way into mainstream culture? We’ll discuss. While you wait for that one check out last week’s show about the life of James Beard, it’s up now. Please make sure you subscribe to our podcast in whatever app you're using, there's a subscribe or a favorite or a follow button. You can click it right now, then you won't miss future episodes. Thanks. Finally, please follow me on Instagram. I'll post fun stuff, stories, pictures, videos, things that I'm doing and eating and not eating. On Instagram I am @TheSporkful.