Philz Coffee’s order-ahead app rolls out to all stores

Philz Coffee CEO Jacob Jaber is wildly enthusiastic when he explains that the company’s new order-ahead app is a revelation for the young coffee store going up against giants like Starbucks — and maybe coffee stores as a whole.

Here’s what it does: when you open it, you get a carousel of coffee choices to order ahead. You’ll have your most recent order, and some of the most popular coffee choices. You then order ahead, go in, and grab your coffee. You can customize your order on the app like you do in the store, explaining what kind of sweetness you want in it and how much cream. You’ll see a picture of the barista that’s working on your coffee.

“We’re gonna be able to customize the experience and make sure that [the customers] are able to personalize it a little bit more,” Jaber said. “You might be one of our customers that comes on the weekends, when you have time with families and friends to hang out. But on the weekdays when you’re at work, you’re gonna order via the app. It’s about customers being able to choose the experience.  We want to figure out, how do we create a multitude of experiences that serve the customer in the best possible way. These days you can get coffee from anywhere, I believe people should have Philz every single day, and it’s a delightful experience, and it’s super easy.”

Of course, it’s an order-ahead app. Order ahead apps have been around for a few years. So it’s hard to say it’s revolutionary — though it does show the person making your coffee.

Philz said today that the app is now available across all Philz locations. The app has been slowly rolling out across most of its stores as it gets that kind of beta testing that you’d expect for soft launches, but you’ll see a couple complaints in the reviews on the App Store that it’s not available yet (it’s been on the store for some time). Jaber said they built the app from the ground up, working with Work & Co to design the app. The front end of the app was developed and designed by Work & Co.

Jaber talks about how there are a staggering number of final combinations for coffee that you’ll get at Philz Coffee locations, and the goal is to boil it down to that little carousel. The goal is to try to replicate that kind of human feel that you’d find in a Philz coffee store, which raised $45 million toward the end of 2016. A lot of the Philz office sits on the top floor of a Philz coffee shop over in the Dogpatch in San Francisco. It’s clearly trying to be pretty chill and focused on the people making the coffee, and that’s what the app is trying to replicate.

Of course, there are going to be a lot of opportunities to capture more data here as customers order more and more coffee. Philz can drill down onto what are the best cups of coffee, and which ones customers tend to skip or don’t like. And they can try to figure out how to try to move that app forward and make it try to telegraph the Philz experience instead of being a kind of robotic process of ordering on the app with a few taps, walking in, and grabbing it and walking out.

As we talked more and more at that office, Jaber explained that he wanted to replicate the experience in store where you see your barista making the coffee, and maybe chat a bit about what kind of coffee you like. Indeed, you do see the face of the barista in the app, and you do get to customize your order a bit. But he didn’t seem concerned that this would take away from that experience of coming in and interfacing with normal people with just an order-ahead app.

“We’re not co-mingling experiences and diluting each one,” Jaber said. “There’s nothing changing about the Philz Experience in the store, there’s only a better mobile experience. It’s not like we’re diluting the in-store experience versus the mobile. We’re very conscious about that choice. We can probably get more efficiency, but there are different experiences.”

You might argue that an order-ahead app may be a kind of graduation moment for companies looking to scale up their business and ignite growth. And, indeed, there are probably different kinds of experiences. But at the same time, Blue Bottle for example doesn’t focus on order-ahead and instead tries to create an Apple Store-like experience in metro areas, like a kind of deconstructed vibe in Williamsburg, New York, and a very high-end feeling one over in downtown San Francisco. The later, a haven for coffee nerds, has a myriad of shops that aren’t focusing on order ahead.

Nestle late last year acquired a majority stake in Blue Bottle at a valuation north of $700 million. And, of course, there’s the efficient well-oiled machine that Starbucks has built. The argument for a different, more personal coffee chain experience has always been a simple one: if you can get one coffee shop across the street from a fraction every Starbucks, you can capture even a small slice of its $83 billion market cap. Rolling out an order ahead across all stores today — it’s been available in some, but not all — is one step toward build that desire for Philz into a kind of habit, rather than just a periodic experience during a work break.

“What matters is that each cup is made with integrity in the right way, made by a person and the experience is personal,” Jaber said. “Quality is not sacrificed in any way shape or form. We wouldn’t have done it if it was. It’s still made the same exact way. The most important thing is to make sure we deliver a great experience.”