an open letter to the management of the ugly mug

“How difficult is it to keep decaf stocked?”

That was going to be my entire post.

I went to get a cup of coffee the other day and they didn’t have any. It’s a common occurrence. They rarely have decaf. I probably wouldn’t mention it here, if not for the fact that I overheard some friends talking about the same thing last night. They, however, were considerably more upset about it. It seems that they’d called to ask whether or not they had decaf available before packing up their family and heading out. They were told that, yes, there was decaf, but, guess what?

Yup, they didn’t really have any.

And these friends of mine, who happen to work in customer service, weren’t too happy.

But, the coffee’s good when they have it, so we all forgive them.

The last two times I’ve gone in, they’ve told me that they “just ran out.” Call me crazy, but it seems to me that if it keeps selling out, it must be pretty popular. If that’s the case, it would seem to me that they’d find a way to keep it stocked. Somehow they manage to keep the regular coffee stocked, so it can’t be too difficult.

The more I think about it now, the more I think that maybe it’s on purpose. Maybe, as true coffee aficionados, they look down on decaf. Maybe asking them to pour a cup of decaf is like asking an owner of a fine wine to mix in some sugar and ice.

I was standing in line behind a guy at the brewery who ordered O’Douls (fake beer) once and I couldn’t contain my laughter. I don’t know how to reconcile it. Somehow it seems perfectly reasonable to me to laugh at someone asking for low-alcohol beer in a brewery, but I think coffee shops should carry decaf coffee as a matter of course, as though my anxiety problems are more deserving than someone else’s alcoholism.

But maybe it’s not coffee snobbery that’s keeping them from offering decaf. Maybe it’s business. Maybe they don’t want to encourage the drinking of decaf because it’s bad for the bottom line. Maybe they don’t want the business of decaf drinkers, because, on the whole, we’re not addicts. We don’t need coffee to live. The profit, I’m thinking, has to be in the real stuff, the stuff that people can’t not have. By not having decaf, they make it more likely that we’ll slip and fall off the decaf wagon with a resounding “caaa-ching”! Even if they just seduce one of us a week with their diabolical bait-and-switch, it’s got to be more valuable to them to have that one drinker of real coffee than a sporadic handful of people wanting the fake stuff.

In other Ugly Mug news, you may have heard that they closed down a little while ago to do some remodeling. And, they said, when the reopened, that they’d be smoke-free. Linette and I went in a few days ago with Clementine to get some coffee and check the place out. The changes were good, I suppose. Some of the quirkiness had been scrubbed away, but I didn’t find myself missing it all that much. They’d put down hardwood floors and a new coat of paint. And the awkward, old theater seats had been replaced with Ikea fare. It had a good, clean, open feeling, which I imagine might help them in their quest to bring good, artisan coffee to the people of SE Michigan.

For those of you who haven’t been there, they make damned good coffee. They take it really seriously. The guy who runs it, I’m told, is constantly grading his baristas on their form.

People love their coffee. And, in the past, I think people have always been willing to overlook the “we don’t need your business” attitude of the staff. People are willing to forgive a lot for a good cup of strong coffee. And it really is that good.

The current changes have people talking. I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve heard it suggested that the current clean-up and smoke-out are part of a concerted effort to find a buyer for the business, freeing the owner up so that he can do something else. As to what he’d be doing post Ugly Mug, there are a few theories. My favorite is that he’s looking to get into the Thompson Block, alongside the new venture by Andy Garris that we’ve been discussing here. I think that would be pretty cool. (It hadn’t occurred to me until just now, but maybe the owner of the Ugly Mug is just cleaning stuff up now so that he doesn’t encounter the same kind of stuff that Garris is facing right now, as he tries to enter the Depot Town ecosystem with his Elbow Room baggage.)

I don’t know what’s up at the Ugly Mug, but I do know that they treat coffee with a respect not seen elsewhere in Michigan. True, they don’t often have decaf and customer service can be an issue, but both of those facts are more than offset by the quality of the product. If you’ve never been to the Ugly Mug, it’s worth a trip to Ypsi.

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  1. Posted April 29, 2008 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    My guess about the decaf is similar to the way we do things. We usually don’t brew a pot of decaf in the mornings because we end up throwing all of it away. We usually wait till closer to the lunch rush, and if someone asks for it, we can immediately brew a pot which takes about 4 minutes, or we will often suggest a decaf americano. In the evening we keep decaf brewed because we have a lot more demand for it. We used to always brew decaf first thing in the morning, and I noticed that we were spending more than double for the coffee than we were making from the sales. That means we were probably dumping out more than 90% of it.

  2. mark
    Posted April 29, 2008 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

    It’s nice of you, Jim, to jump in and lend a hand to your fellow businessperson, but that’s not it. They brew everything by the cup. When they say that don’t have any decaf it’s not that they don’t have any made. It’s that they don’t have any beans.

  3. mark
    Posted April 29, 2008 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    And when I said they made the best coffee in town, Jim, I didn’t mean it as a slight to either you or Peter. Each of our local coffee shops is good in it’s own way. I like Luwak for sandwiches, ice cream and coffee with the family. And, I like the Ugly Mug for serious, thick, strong coffee. It’s good to have so many options within walking distance.

  4. Posted April 29, 2008 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    Don’t worry I didn’t feel slighted at all. I have met Zack a few times, and I respect him a great deal. His knowledge of coffee exceeds mine by quite a bit, and I think he does a great job with both his roasting and making great coffee. Personally I prefer a stronger cup of coffee too, but my customer base is a little different than the ugly mugs, so we serve a little bit milder brew. I also think Peter does a great job downtown, and we each have things to offer that differ both in atmosphere and in menus.

  5. Posted April 29, 2008 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    I love coffee. I haven’t been in the Ugly in a long time. I have to go back.

  6. egpenet
    Posted April 29, 2008 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

    Every time I see an Ikea table and chair set, I get a fraving for Swedish Meatballs and sugar cookies.

    I like ugly mugs, too. I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours, John. And we can irder the decaf just to watch them squirm.

  7. Posted April 29, 2008 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    I don’t drink decaf, but marlena does. My mug is uglier than yours, Ed. But at least we both have good looking wives.

  8. EL
    Posted April 29, 2008 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

    If I recall from the description by both Matt at the Corner and Zack from Ugly Mug during the unveiling, I don’t think there’s much if any caffeine in the Espresso Love that Matt and the other brewers are making at the Corner. I don’t believe that the beans used in the Espresso Love Breakfast Stout are decaffinated beans, however. But still, why not put that in your coffee mug and drink it? I can’t recall if you were at the unveiling and if you liked the Espresso Love. Wait. Maybe that was you I heard on the other side of the brewery; weren’t you the one heckling the shit out of some poor guy, calling him a “baby alcohol sipper” and a “No ABV pussy”? That was you, wasn’t it? And then, didn’t you grab your crotch after shoving him down on the front steps and say, “Let’s get drunk, bitch!”

    I thought so.

  9. KP
    Posted April 30, 2008 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    I love the Ugly Mug. LOVE LOVE LOVE it. I have not been very welcome there with my children in the past–being met with eyerolls and jokes about having signs that say “No kids allowed” so I haven’t been in a while. Perhaps the smoke-free-ness means they like families now?

  10. Andy C
    Posted April 30, 2008 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    I won’t list every thing I hated about the Ugly Mug. In the last year the serve has been great and the coffee always perfect. I look forward to checking out the new decor, especially the new seating. The movie seats sucked! I love the atmosphere there but hated the smoke. That’s a good change. I hope it’s not too cleaned up.

    I do tend to go to the Luwak, mainly because it’s faster and I can tie my dogs to the bench out front. Plus they give me water for the dogs in the summer. If the Ugly Mug has a bench out front I’d go there more often too.

  11. brent
    Posted April 30, 2008 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Always liked the Ugly Mug, especially since it’s only one block from home, but couldn’t stand the smoke. It usually doesn’t bother me, but the smell always struck me as being more like a bar at midnight, than a coffeeshop at noon. The smoke free is a major plus in my book, can’t wait to see the interior changes as well.

  12. egpenet
    Posted April 30, 2008 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    I already smoke outside of my own home. And I buy the best coffee beans in the world from Porto Rico coffee in NYC via mailorder and grind those bastards into dust myself.

    Been there, done that.

    The U. Mug service sucks. The staff is numb. The pasteries are stale, if available. And with the changes announced here, I doubt if anyone is left there that I know … they all smoked.

    If I wanted to sit in Ikea seats, which remind me of kindergarden furniture, I’ll go there or break into a Montessori school. Or I’d drive to Ikea on Ford Road by myself and enjoy some canned the kippered herring and schnitzles or sugar cookies, then come back home.

    What I liked about the prior Mug was its totally funky attitude. It was never gross, but it was two or three cuts down from the Jefferson Street Market atmospheree in Ann Arbor … but I really liked it. When it changed owners, the staff changed, became surley (maybe their piercings hurt more), but also rude, which made MY sinuses clog.

    Their coffee helped with that … allowed me to breathe. Cigarette smoke agreed with that, too, since I smoke.

    With all these changes … I’ll stay home, I guess. UGLY Mug … cross it off my list.

  13. Posted May 1, 2008 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    I *LOVE* the Ugly Mug. Their coffee is outstanding, their Mexican Latte is the bomb, and they’ve been nothing, but nice to me. I know people have complained about the service, but I just haven’t experienced the same thing. I know my expectations aren’t low, either.

    I *HATED* the smoke. Hated it! I have to think that their new smoking policy (smoking *is* allowed on the heated patio outside) will bring in new customers who couldn’t get past the stench and suffocation.

    Now, if they’d only get some VEGAN baked goods, I’d be set. Please Ugly, get me something I can actually eat, and I’ll give you more money!

  14. Andy C
    Posted May 1, 2008 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Amen to the vegan thing!

    Vegan cream cheese at least. Then I can stop there for breakfast.

  15. Posted May 3, 2008 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    Vegan baked goods would be great (especially Jennifer’s vegan baked goods!!)!

    Vegan cream cheese would be a nice start. Easy to get at the co-op…

  16. Posted May 3, 2008 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    Where do you get Jennifer’s vegan baked goods? I have had several requests at my place for vegan muffins and such, but I don’t have a source that carries them.

  17. egpenet
    Posted May 3, 2008 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    OK, OK, OK … what are vegan baked goods … a whole grain pita? … a flax seed bagel? … a butterless torte floating in soy juice?


  18. Posted May 6, 2008 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    I’m at the Ugly now. They have Alternative Baking Co. cookies. All vegan. And they taste good, too. Just FYI everyone.


  19. mark
    Posted May 6, 2008 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    Ask if they have decaf.

  20. zak
    Posted May 9, 2008 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    …..well, against all better advice, i suppose i’m about to legitimatize the local gossip column by publicly defending my business….kinda.
    we were indeed out of decaf that fateful morning when a local businessman, (who’s name and business is obviously being withheld), called in to see if he could stop by and pick up a bag. for this i personally apologize to all offended, there was a miscommunication over the phone and again, i apologize. apparently the scene that morning was pretty gruesome and i do find it unfortunate that said patron was not able to restrain himself from berating our 19 year old barista long enough for the shift manager to hand him the coupon for a few free bags of decaf once we received our new order from our grower. i understand completely that this must have been a frustrating incident for said customer and once again- huge apologies all around. i do not understand, however, this reaction coming from a local business man who, as mark pointed out, is all about customer service. maybe he had a bad morning already and this quirky little tattooed barista just had the pleasure of being the last straw. i suppose it’s irrelevant and one last time- i am very sorry about the way the whole thing went down, i wish i had been there.
    next, if anyone is interested-
    our elusive decaf coffee is a natural mountain water processed brazil from a specific farm in the sul de minas region. mountain water process is a new thing and it means a) it’s new, hard to find, and is not always available. b) it’s not decaffeinated by some weird chemical process or by boiling water or anything that would dramatically change the taste of the cup. c) it is the only decaf process that won’t give you cancer faster than licking the old smoke eater filters at the mug.
    soon we should have it in year round, until then we’ll try to have it in as much as possible but it all depends on our grower. and yes, we do have it in right now.

    let’s see what else…

    -we have some really good vegan cookies in now as jennifer added and as soon as we can figure out how to sell her amazingly delicious vegan cupcakes with out randy spaller-heath-dept-demigod saying boo, we’ll have those too, i love them.

    -i have absolutely no idea who or what an “andy garris” is.

    -we aren’t looking for a buyer in any facet as we have already decided to sell our building to our favorite company- we will however stay in the building, leasing the space from KittyWigs thus becoming PrettyKittyz, an all in one stop for all feline fashion needs.

    -the espresso love is actually very caffeinated, depending in the method used for that specific batch. from what logan has told me, they’ve changed over from cold brewing the coffee and adding it towards the end of the brewing process, to adding the actual grounds to the beer during some earlier point in the process. brewing beer is way beyond me but i would imagine the E-Love has less caffeine in it now than in it’s first few versions, but still a hefty amount.

    -jim, definitely check out alt baking co. they have great vegan cookies and they offer a full refund in any wasted product. i’ll drop a few off at luwak for you to try.

    -our piercings did hurt more, all the smokers can be found on the patio, and everyone knows the best coffee in the world comes from L.A.

    thanks for the screen space.

  21. mark
    Posted May 9, 2008 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

    Welcome to the site, Zak. And thanks for the explanation about the decaf. I appreciate it…

    And Severed Unicorn Heads trump Kitty Wigs.

    I’m just sayin’.

  22. Ol' E Cross
    Posted May 10, 2008 at 1:14 am | Permalink


    Just so you know, your market share of Severed Unicorn Heads is slipping. I was just in Gordon’s Five and Dime, and they are now carrying these.

    As your site doesn’t offer anything I can gallop around town with between my legs, I’m throwing all of my SUH business to the good folks at Gordon’s.

    (I should say, this is just one of many new products I saw at Gordon’s. So, folk who haven’t been their for a bit, should stop in.)

  23. Posted May 10, 2008 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate my friends allowing my anonymity, but I’ll come clean- it was me, James Marks from VGKids, who berated said 19 year-old barista.

    Its true, I was hard on the kids who happened to be working that morning. I was irritated that they weren’t honest, claiming I’d never called to confirm that decaf was in stock. The last thing they were was apologetic.

    I would have loved a simple apology and hell, a coupon would have gone a long way, but this is the first I’ve heard of them. They certainly weren’t being waved around that morning.

    The reason I spoke out is this: I love the Ugly Mug, and I want it to flourish. Seeing a cool, indy business consistently out of stock of an in-demand product is disheartening. I hoped that by speaking decisively, it would reach influential ears. I’ve been less vocal in the past, and nothing has changed.

    If its a difficult product to stock (for awesome, noble reasons by the sound of it), what if there was a backup decaf to stand in during the outages, “Sorry, we’re out of our premium decaf, but would this other decaf be alright?”

    Lastly, I want to give Ugly Mug credit for stocking the richest, smoothest soymilk I’ve ever had. And I think coinciding the smoke-free interior with the heaters outside was a brave, well-timed move. Full props.

  24. mark
    Posted May 11, 2008 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for outing yourself, James.

  25. Time Traveler
    Posted August 21, 2008 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    This goes back to April.

    Does anyone know what it’s all about?


  26. Cato
    Posted September 11, 2008 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Anyone know what’s up with the Ugly Mug? I went by today and they were closed. And someone was taking their sign down.

  27. Doug
    Posted September 11, 2008 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Maybe they’re just putting up a new sign. According to this blog, they recently changed logos.

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