BeanScene Magazine

The great babycino debate

From the January 2012 issue.
The great babycino debate

Australia’s children are catching onto the coffee-craze in babycino form. However, not all baristas and parents are licking their lips in delight, as the innocent milk-foam drink with chocolate sprinkles draws strong reactions on the drink’s place in a café.

When Yvette DuBourdieu launched the ‘Free the Babycino’ campaign in November 2011, she received a surprisingly strong reaction from a cross-section of the coffee industry to, what seemed to be, a rather innocent initiative.

Yvette, a mother and founder of kids website Ellaslist, told The Daily Telegraph that instead of charging for a babycino, cafés should ask parents to make a gold coin donation to the Sydney Children’s Hospital. One hundred and thirty one readers posted responses, sparking a massive debate for and against the cost of a babycino. What was overlooked in the hype of the story was that Yvette was not arguing against the cost of babycinos, but simply trying to launch a month-long fundraiser campaign to help out the children’s hospital.

“I don’t think anyone understood the campaign,” Yvette tells BeanScene. “We’re not asking for cafés to spoon out babycinos forever, it’s an opt-in campaign for family friendly cafés that want to attract more business. It’s about connecting families with their local business and raising money for charity.”

Aiming to raise over $15,000, the campaign was held from December until the end of January. Participating cafés offered a free babycino when parents bought a full-priced coffee. In return, Ellaslist supplied cafés with 500 babycino cups, kids’ activity sheets and free advertising on the website. 

“The cost of a normal babycino is probably quite irrelevant in this campaign,” Yvette says. “Some people say [babycinos] are an indulgence, but they are a little treat for the kids who love them, and it gives mothers five minutes of peace.

Yvette says she’s surprised that this charity campaign managed to ignite an angry war between baristas and parents on the question of accepting and catering to kids in Australia’s cafés.
As a mother herself, Yvette is highly supportive of the café environment for families. “Café culture is really important. Post-natal depression is high among new mothers and parents enjoy going out and socialising,” Yvette says. “There should be an acceptance of children in café culture, after all, we are breeding the next generation of café lovers.”

Many cafés must agree with her, as despite the campaign’s misunderstood message, Yvette has received hundreds of phone calls from cafés wanting to support her initiative.

Caffee Cino, at the Hilton Hotel Sydney, was one such café. Manager Nicolas Ilickovic says donating babycinos is a small gesture for a month, but beyond the campaign, the babycino helps bring in revenue for the five-star hotel.  “We charge $2 for it normally, and that covers milk and productivity in terms of staff making the babycino,” he says. “All the babycinos are usually served with their families so it’s a small increase in their bill.”

There’s no industry standard when it comes to the price of a babycino, as it ranges from 50 cents all the way to $2.50. Some stores, like coffee chain Gloria Jean’s Coffees, choose to offer free babycinos in a piccolo cup, with marshmallows and toppings for an extra 10 cents. Muffin Break charges $1 for a babycino in a takeaway cup topped with chocolate and a marshmallow on the side, while Koko Black Chocolate offers the small drink accompanied by a chocolate teddy bear on a stick at $2.50. 

Others take a more flexible approach. Ben Toovey, a roaster and barista trainer from Genovese, says charges for a babycino can vary depending on the customers. “It shouldn’t have to be set in stone on a menu,” he says. “If someone came into a café and ordered food, a few coffees and a babycino, then you probably wouldn’t charge for it. Otherwise $1 for a single babycino is pretty reasonable for the customer and the barista. Even if you had to throw out some of the milk, the cost price would be 30 to 50 cents maximum.”

As to whether Ben enjoyed making babycinos in his barista days, his honest answer is no. “I love kids and I want to support that family vibe, but it can be quite frustrating when you’re in the middle of a busy rush and a mother orders a couple of babycinos,” he says. “You have to change your whole flow to make these little things that don’t really have anything to do with coffee.”

Ben says there are many baristas out there who agree with him, but good business sense means they wouldn’t let it show. “It’s about customer service and patron respect,” he says. “On the other hand, if customers are a bit demanding and throw up a stink if you even charge $1 for it, that’s not an enjoyable interaction for either the barista or customer. It’s a two-way street.”

Proud Mary café in Melbourne serves babycinos for $1.50 each. Barista, Kris Wood, says that while he doesn’t believe in charging a huge price, nothing’s for free. “We’re happy to serve babycinos to paying parents, provided they can handle the café noise,” he says. “It’s all about making people happy. The more babycinos the better – load it up with chocolate, paint a chocolate face on it and add a marshmallow.”

It’s not just Australian children who have taken a liking to the babycino, other countries are offering their own version of the frothy milk drink. North Americans call it a ‘steamer’, and often serve with flavoured syrup with it and New Zealanders call it a ‘fluffy’.

Giles Hayward-Smith, a barista in the United Kingdom, says babycinos are popular in his region and large coffee chains such as Costa and Starbucks charge about £0.75 (AUD$1.50) per babycino. Giles says serving the babycino is a business proposition and his own preference of making them doesn’t really come into play. “I view it as a necessary evil for building a coffee base for families, meaning, I’m ashamed to say, more profit,” he says. Giles admits he feels a sense of dread creep over him when he sees the word ‘babycino’. However, if a customer walks away having a good experience with the best coffee he can offer, then he knows they’ll be back. “I will probably take a deep breath, smile and say ‘how many?’”

When it comes to baristas shunning the babycino, Jemma Reynolds, mother of two and founder of Little Eats website, says she speaks for the majority of mums out there. “Get over it guys, it’s a babycino, a bit of milk in a cup. We’re happy to pay for it, just don’t rip us off,” she says.

Jemma has spent countless hours scouring Melbourne’s cafés in search of the most accommodating, kid-friendly places to go and says she understands the price war against the free babycino. “You don’t spend $100 at a grocery store and then ask for a freddo frog for free,” she says. “I’m more than happy to pay for a babycino. If it’s for free that’s great, but 50 cents to $1 is reasonable, anything more than that is highway robbery.”

Jemma admits people with a hospitality background can appreciate that baristas can’t always froth the milk at the same time as making coffees, but likens babycinos to a customer ordering a coffee with soymilk. Regardless, Jemma says the tiny froth can tally up to an expensive outing. “If you put it in perspective, if you’ve got two kids, that’s already about $5 for two babycinos, then you buy yourself a coffee and it can get quite expensive – and that’s without buying any lunch.”

Seeing the market need for recommended go-to places for mothers, Jemma along with Michelle Matthews from Deck of Secrets, released a pack of 52 pocket cards of suggested Melbourne cafés with child facilities – from pram access, kids menus to high chairs and toy boxes – in other words, babycino-friendly cafés. 

In her café research, Jemma says she’s only ever come across one café that’s asked to be taken off her website because they didn’t want to be promoted as a kid-friendly facility. She says the “hipster attitude” is unnecessary. “You’re a bloody barista making coffee, you’re not a celebrity,” she says. “Why wouldn’t you want your customer to walk away happy?”

Away from the public setting, Jemma says it’s just as easy to make a babycino at home and she does so every morning for her two girls, India, 3, and Aurora, 18 months. “It’s easy, cheap and the kids love it,” she says. “No marshmallow at home though, it’s a special treat when we go out.”

While the price war on babycinos is the hot topic, collective interest from parents and baristas has expanded the babycino debate into what may be an ongoing saga. What age is too young to be serving a child a coffee influenced product? Is a babycino purely froth, or is it served with milk? Do you spell babycino with one ‘c’ or two? The list of topics that came up in the preparation of this article goes on, even the question as to why so many cafés serve babycinos in espresso cups made of China and not paper?

As for Yvette’s final thoughts on whether babycinos should remain free after the campaign has ended, she says it’s in the hands of café owners. “Cafés can of course charge what they want,” she says. “At the end of the day, toddlers don’t walk into cafés on their on, they come with a paying adult and if parents find cafés that serve up a babycino with a smile and a no-hassle approach, they’ll return.”

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