The Not-So-Simple Life
Shoppers say they want fewer complications--just don't limit their choices.
By Joshua Hyatt

(FORTUNE Small Business) – I am, as people who meet me quickly conclude, the simplest of people. Plop me in front of Eight Simple Rules, and I am a happy boy. Stick me in the corner with a copy of Real Simple, FSB's sister magazine, and I can just about manage the information overload. Loyal readers will recall my consternation when I found a fancy confectioner who wants to make chocolate as complicated as wine. In the schools it is now fashionable to say that pupils have different styles of learning. My fourth-grade teacher, who was clearly ahead of her time, put me in a category she labeled "sleepy."

All of which explains why I felt an immediate affinity for Deaf Dog Coffee, a five-unit chain of shops based in Petaluma, Calif. If you want to order a 20-ounce cup of joe there, this is what they call it: the Pretty Big Cup of Coffee. Everything else is either Big or Very Big. Want a pastry? No matter which one you pick, it will cost you the same: $1.75. There are four kinds of smoothies, and each one carries a $3 pricetag. "Every simple move has been carefully calculated," says owner Ron Salisbury, 61, who looks every bit the bank vice president he used to be, except for the four earrings dangling from his left lobe. "You've got to find the line between simple and not-so-simple, and there is no easy measurement for that. It's all in the details."

That simple insight came from Salisbury's trip in 1993 to 25 espresso bars, from San Diego to Vancouver, B.C. He interviewed employees, diagrammed stores, and pored over everything from customer flow to counter shape. He was out to find, he says, "a successful formula for how I could niche myself" as a java retailer.

The answer turned out to be, well, simple. Let the Coffee Giant Who Shall Not Be Named shower complication; Salisbury would detangle. No unreadable price lists. No unpronounceable varieties of coffee beans: His dark roast is called Bark and Bite, while Sleeping Canine is the name of his decaf (natch). "We know what our customer wants," Salisbury says. He means me--or does he? Simplicity, it turns out, can be a mighty complicated strategy. I can live without a choice of medium coffee. But Salisbury's milk options--skim and 2%--don't suit me. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I like a good 3%, better known as whole milk.

And if every pastry is the same price, where is the fun of splurging on a sticky bun? Come to think of it, who wants to hang around with a bunch of caffeine addicts who are content to be treated exactly the same as one another? There is a name for that demographic, folks: nobodies.

Me, I'm somebody. At Deaf Dog's giant competitor, I can plunk down $3.68 and be just as picky as the turtlenecked, Audi-driving elite whose ranks I crave to join. Even Salisbury says that his complex-sounding caramel offering, the Dogiato, is a "good seller. There is tremendous demand for it, and I've got to compete. I am not about to leave any money on the table."

If there were a widespread revolt against complexity and preciousness, Deaf Dog's sales wouldn't have dipped to $2.3 million last year from $2.5 million in 2003. Here's what Salisbury is up against: people like me, who say we want things to be simpler. But what we mean is that we want other people's options to be limited, not our own. My idea of a simple coffee shop is one that serves only a grande latte with whole milk. And I want someone to say, like the Sean Penn character in I Am Sam--a truly simple guy--"Sir, that's an excellent choice!"