Covering a coffee shop that serves coffee I dislike is often difficult. A recent “critique” I posted struck a nerve and created a litany of comments both favorable and negative. At the core of the debate was the question about whether Arizona Coffee should post negative reviews and to what extent a negative review hurts that business.

I generally approach it one of two ways:

  1. Say nothing and just post the photos. Those who care about coffee will see the photos and translate for themselves. Sometimes readers will post their own comments saying what I didn’t.
  2. Include my own comments about what is wrong with the coffee and hopefully include how it could be better.

I’ve done a bit of each over the years. It is safe to say this is the first time an unfavorable “critique” has turned into a full on debate. It is definitely not the first debate, however. Most likely it is because people really care about the coffee shop in question (that’s a good thing).

Tara from Ground Control made an interesting point. Not all baristas have the same training, skills, or desire and really great baristas aren’t easy to find and hire.

There are a lot of shops around town that are content with their product. Perhaps I miss-judged Fair Trade Cafe and judged them at a level they don’t care to play at?

Should a coffee shop be expected to produce a quality product all of the time? And to who’s standard?

Is it okay for a baker to occasionally sell bread that didn’t rise?

Arizona Coffee

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  1. Tara

    Let me just clarify. I think that all baristas should be very highly trained. But they are all not equal and we all have a few standouts that we can’t schedule for all the operating hours.

    No one should ever be content. Staff training is on-going, it has to be. So is constantly re-evaluating products and keeping up with trends.

    My point is that owners do the best they can to produce a great product and put a lot of time and effort into their shop. It is the furthest thing from easy to operate all the pieces of the whole puzzle.

    If you get constant critism on a certain drink or a certain coffee it is important to take that and re-evaluate.

    I highly encourage anyone that gets a sub-standard drink, no matter where you are, to take it back and not judge from one experience. If the second drink is bad too then there may be a problem. I speak for all owners when I say we greatly appreciate it when we are given the benefit of the doubt and the opportunty to make things right. Nobody likes bad press and it is impossible not to take it personally.

  2. While I think everybody deserves a second chance, the only way they’ll know they need to improve is if they receive constructive criticism.

    If we want Arizona’s coffee culture to develop and grow, we need to remain vigilante and truthful in our reviews.

    While I’m still not a huge fan of the coffee the shop in question serves (nor the ambiance of the venue), I have seen significant improvements since they’ve opened, some of which have been spurred by negative reviews.

  3. Let’s see, your website, your rules. You’ve been really great about following your own rules of etiquette on your own site, where, in truth, you can do or say damn near anything you like.
    There are folk that come here that know your high standards, and trust your judgment. You are not singling out any coffee shop for criticism or attacks, you are simply reporting what you felt about the coffee that you happened to get.
    You are not the issue here, Chris, it’s those that complained that you reported what you thought honestly.
    The suggestion that your ‘bad-review’ could damage a shops reputation has gotten cart and horse reversed. The bad review is a result of inadequate quality control to insure that it doesn’t happen. And if a shop owner isn’t aware of issues, they never get addressed.
    A few of the folk that criticised your criticism were trolling. If trolling is seen to work, trust me, there will be more.
    Your honest opinion is the only thing that we can really ask of you. For the sake of those that value it, don’t let the illigitemii corborundum, brother.

  4. Gonz

    I feel that it’s not really a question of negative reviews or positive ones, more so the content of a negative review. Negative reviews are needed and should be valued because they should contain criticisms’ that are constructive.

  5. Vince

    I believe a coffee shop should be producing a constant level of quality. If they hire a bad barista then that is bad on the coffee shop.

    Also, I think avoiding negative reviews is a bad thing mainly because censorship is no bueno.

  6. The easiest way to monitor quality is to only ever have one person that is allowed to touch the machine at any given time. This:

    a.) Creates a sense of ownership over the product from the baristas end.

    b.) allows mgnt. or owners to take corrective action if there is a complaint. (You know thats from 7-2 john Doe was on the bar and he made a bad cap for Chris…We can figure out what went wrong and how to correct it.)

    It does a disservice to the customer and the barista if someone isn’t corrected about their bedbugs. How is someone ever going to fix a soap sudsy/clumpy Cap if no one calls them on it? May sound extreme but if someone doesn’t care, they have no business around a ‘spro machine.

  7. I’m going to agree with Tom here….I’ve personally had some attacks and I’ve had people attack baristas that I helped trained and its done nothing but make them better baristi…..Those that have worked with me or for me that are still doing the trade know this, they are much better at what they do now for taking the criticism early on, no matter how much of a discomfort it was. Bottom line…as Tara stated, you actually have to have someone that truly wants to learn the skill, secondly you have to instill to them…..and I quote a friend of mine on this “Its a privilege to be on the spro machine, so dont take advantage of it when your one”

  8. Eddie

    I would handle Chris’s “comments” like any other customers and look to alleviate the problem, except you never gave Fair Trade a chance to do so. It was irresponsible of Chris to NOT take his drink back to the Batista and have them make a new one. There are any number of factors that could have impacted the quality of the drink in that moment. As the owner of the blog you are entitled to your opinion but you should realize that your review was extremely unfair. You assume that there is some universal standard to which all coffee shops subscribe but you never bothered to tell the barista that you liked your milk steamed to 130 and super frothy or your shots pulled Ristretto.

    As the “most popular site about coffee in Arizona” you need to establish the basis for your review so that others understand how to take your opinion. I can tell you that based on your “review” (if you can call one sentence a review) of your cappuccino, my dad would have loved it.

  9. Chris you hit a nerve, you have started a very important exchange of ideas. Reviews are extremely important because if they are well intended they can drive the coffee shop that really cares to get better. I notice that usually constructed criticism is better taken when people are willing to take it and if the time is right, if a barista is in the middle of a rush or siply not having a good day, He or She may not be in a position to appreciate your criticism, so I understand why is sometimes difficult to say something on the spot or even to return a drink.
    I suggest a couple of things. If a cappuccino is not done right according to your specs tell us, the shop will tell us later what specs they’re using (they can do that even on a post). Perhaps we all should post more comments on the preparation of the greatest capp in a way of educating our fellow baristas. Some of the comments were a bit defensive of the fact that a coffee shop should not be judge so publicly but I think that we are living a new age were online reviews are part of day to day business and we should know before we open a coffee house that we are going to be reviewed. I think that most problems can be solved way early when you hire your potential employees; have them agree to train in house with your coffee recipes and specs, have in house training in all drinks and participate actively in training exercises. I see a lot of good in this and definitively will make the coffee culture in Phoenix to be better than in many other parts of the nation. I think that education can change our local coffee scene to be better than Seattle’s (I liked the comment of us not being Seattle, so coffee should not be as important). After all we can have the best coffee culture, this takes well educated consumers and well educated coffee professionals.

  10. Brandon M

    Chris, As someone already mentioned, blogging is a way of life now and businesses should be willing to accept and handle all feedback, whether face to face or online. I actually like that you have gotten away from the “patty cake” reviews… tell us how your experience really was. Too often, companies open their doors too quickly to get cash going and training becomes an after thought. Thanks for your hard work and time on this site!!

  11. jim

    Anyone else hate the word “spro” ?
    I actually find it more annoying than hearing someone say “expresso”.

    I think honesty is the best policy. Unfavorable reviews should help these places refine their product. After they fix the problem they should invite you back

  12. Brian Clemens

    As a barista here in the valley I consistently am timing my shots, watching my shots pull, checking my grind, tamp, etc. These aren’t artistic qualities that make up my job, they are a skill (a necessity) to do my job. Just as if I were a receptionist, I would be required to answer the phone pleasantly and have a decent rate of speed in typing on a keyboard.

    Taking these skills I take great pride in piecing together a customers drink in a timely manner and presenting it to them with care. If the customer is sitting at the bar or in the dining room (work at Liberty Market) I am sure to check up on them and see how it tastes. If while composing the drink, my tamp was too delicate and the shots come flying out of the portafilter (15-18 second shot), I do not serve it…NO matter if it’s going into a sugary drink if it’s a straight up espresso — that my friends is a commitment to quality. Sure, I get busy and slammed at times, but making the drink correct the first time helps me avoid serving something sub-par….and if a customer sees you throwing out shots it gives you the ability to explain why and educate them.

    I can’t agree more with Brandon M. that internet and social media are becoming essential to reviewing businesses and helping with word of mouth. I can’t tell you how many times I try something new based on a twitter review or mention.

    Tara and Steve are correct – as the customer YOU need to tell the barista, owner, etc. that the drink is not up to your standards. THIS is when you will see what type of customer service a shop has — but always remember, there are some drink “boundaries” and shops do things a little different from one another. Hopefully with your critcism, the shop/barista will improve. I gladly re-make drinks for a customer, but always am sure to ask their preferences. This allows me the opportunity to correct my skill, educate the customer, and build a relationship.

    There has been a lot of questioning of coffee shop and drink standards — where is Chris getting his standards of how drinks should be prepared? I won’t speak for Chris, but rather as a barista. There are industry-wide general “rules” or “boundaries” if you will when it comes to preparing beverages. For a cappuccino (found on scaa website):

    Visually correct cappuccino:
    All styles of cappuccinos are acceptable. A cappuccino is a beverage of ratios, producing a harmonious balance of espresso, steamed milk and frothed milk. A traditional cappuccino is a five- to six-ounce beverage (150 to 180 ml.), served in a five- to six-ounce (150 to 180 ml.) porcelain cappuccino cup with a handle and a rounded interior base.

    Consistency and persistence of foam:
    Foam should be smooth, silky and free of bubbles. Judges will evaluate under the surface with a spoon for total perception of consistency throughout the drink.

    Taste balance:
    The taste balance should be a harmonious blend of the sweetness of the milk and the espresso as a building block. The drink should not be too milky: a distinct taste of espresso should be present.

    As you can see there are more “boundaries” than there are rules and I’m happy as a barista to see that Chris is unwilling to drink a 16 ounce beverage that consists of shots, 180 degree milk (burnt), and 2 inches of dry bubbly foam – what some shops call a cappuccino.

    Great sites that I use to expand my knowledge, discuss coffee, and further my skill:

    Jim, I wasn’t going to admit it, but since I know my opinion is welcomed on this site: I hate the word “spro”. I’m almost sure it was birthed out of the West Coast…”I’m slinging some mad ‘spro, bro!” Hopefully the word ‘spro run away with the words clutch and uber to a island far away. LOL.

  13. Tom Maegdlin

    @ Jim

    Sorry. It’s just become the status ‘spro.

  14. Todd

    I look at the change in the Barista Jams/Latte Art competitions Chris and I have had the pleasure of judging over the last year or so. The quality of the drinks has improved so much it is a little frightening. Chris and I make it a point to use constructive criticism while judging to help the baristas refine their art and improve the quality of the drinks. If the last place entry from the last competition was submitted in the first competition it would have won easily. That is how much better things are. By providing honest feedback – both good and bad – it gives a shop that wants to improve its coffee if it chooses to take the criticism to heart and use it constructively. As I have said in a previous post, there are some shops that don’t care about quality and service. They just want to maintain status quo and they don’t care what others are saying about their product. The shops that do care want to hear it all – good and bad – so they can improve the good and make it better AND eliminate the bad. Everyone wins this way.

  15. I suggest talking about things that can make a drink a bad experience, but without naming names. It’s so easy for people to claim conflicts of interest when you’re both a web designer (who designs websites for coffee shops) and an event organizer, even if they’re not true.

    Also, I find that some of the places with the worst coffee serve the best tea, and vice versa. If I like a place, it annoys me to see a prominent negative review about it. I find that negative reviews that name a coffee shop kind of bum me out. On the other hand, a rant about a particular cappuccino can be entertaining. And if you don’t name names, you can be as over the top as you want to be!

  16. I for one really appreciate the honesty of your reviews, and this is really your site, so you can say whatever you want. But, I also think that a coffee shop should be given a little slack in their drink production. If you asked for a capp but got burnt milk, that doesn’t necessarily mean the shop is bad. As others have said, maybe the barista needs more training, or maybe they’re just having a bad day. In cases like this, I think it is good form to point out the problem and ask for a new drink. As Brian said, that will really point out the quality of the service.

    As a coffee lover, I can accept that sometimes drinks are subpar. When making hundreds of drinks a day, there may be a few that fall short. At a good establishment, this happens rarely and is properly corrected when pointed out by the customer. So what I’m really interested in is the long-term experience people have at a particular shop.

    Chris, if you go to a shop and have a bad experience, I think it’s perfectly fair for you to write up your honest opinion. I’ll still look at the comments others write to see if your bad experience was unusual or the norm. If I see that others have been happy with their drinks, I’ll definitely give the place a try. I think that’s really the power of social media in action…your site brings the community together to exchange opinions and highlight the establishments that truly shine.

  17. Jaime Aguila

    I really enjoy your blog because it seems with have similar taste in coffee; meaning that I have yet to disagree with one of your reviews. I have three regular coffee shops and two of them I discovered through your blog. Thanks Jaime

  18. Uhm, I think it’s high time that people that have issue with what Chris may or may not have written quote the exact verbiage that they are so upset about. Reading the review, I’m hard-pressed to find out what all the scrum is about. Truth, he wasn’t flattering., Truth, he suggested that the milk was burnt and over-hot.
    Truth, the job of quality control is not his. It is the person whose getting paid for controlling quality. Yeah, it may have been a nice thing for Chris to do to return to the barista and suggest possible changes, but since the tend not to be taken any better by the person behind the counter than the friends of the owner on a blog somewhere, I kinda understand why he didn’t. The best response one can hope for nowadays is that the PBTC just look at you wierdly and suggest that you dont kwo what you’re talking about, ’cause he is a ‘barista, and he makes these all day long. It tends to be an exercise in futility.
    As one comment put it, “who died and made you god”…
    And some of you still wonder why he just took his over-hot bland drink and slunk quietly away, and told the rest of us that his experience wasn’t so good?
    @ Brian
    I’d rather get an example from the SCAE. If you’ve been on those sites that you cited, you’ve already heard my rants about the lack of a decent set of standards, adn teh SCAA’s ‘A cappuccino is really whatever you want it to be’ is about the greatest example of ‘Starbucksian’ terminology dictating the rules that I’ve ever seen.
    @ Ben
    Some of the issue here is that we depend, to a degree, on Chris to tell us what is good and what isn’t. Without naming names, a review is simply journalistic wanking. It’s a dog-eat-dog coffee world. If you can’t pee in the tall grass, stay on the porch and bark.
    @ jim
    ‘Spro is a verbal and written contraction for the word espresso, an cappu is the same for cappuccino. You’ll like it a bit more when you’re writing or saying it obsessively three or four hundred times a day. DAMHIKIJK ; >

  19. TOK

    To answer your question, yes. As long as your pricing doesn’t flucuate, neither should your quality. Yes, I know all the variables people in the f&b industry have to deal with, and no, I don’t buy the argument that not all baristas are the same, yadda, yadda…if you have a few standout baristas, you also have some on staff who will charge me full price for a less-than-perfect order. This is your problem, not mine…don’t make it mine.

    I order a “perfectly made cappuccino”. If the barista is smart, he/she will ask me to define it further (very smart thing to do if you’re living on tips). Either way, doing so puts the barista on notice that I know what I’m talking about…hand me a latte and it’s coming back to you.

    As a consumer, I’m no longer buying the argument that “training is expensive/quality people are hard to get”. You’re in a premium business…I expect you to give me a premium product every single time.

  20. “There are a lot of shops around town that are content with their product. Perhaps I miss-judged Fair Trade Cafe and judged them at a level they don’t care to play at?”

    I tend to chime in in support of the underdogs — the coffee shops that have something great going for them other than the coffee. I’ve praised Counter Culture and Three Roots for atmosphere. Hours are a big deal to me. Running with this idea, there’s Trunk Space that’s primarily a performance and art venue but also has coffee. When there isn’t a show, it’s a hang out space. This is good for the local art scene. In this case, saying that the coffee is “not bad” is a large compliment in my book — you’ve got a hip space with great acts and not bad coffee. Huge win. Scottsdale Mustang library dabbled with a coffee cart in the foyer. The coffee was just okay, but, again, I saw this as a really spiffy deal. After that last thread, it struck me that I haven’t seen any independent book stores serving espresso drinks here. In a recent trip to Moab, I hit two and I seem to recall seeing others. At one of them, I got a nice cylindrical, generic ceramic mug and I walked around as happy as a child looking at books and sipping my perfectly passable latte. And they wanted just $3 for it, which doesn’t make any pretense that it’s supposed to be fantastic. I’d love to see some of this here in Phoenix.

    I’m not saying that there’s no place for coffee snobbery. Hell, if my only option is Starbucks, I’ll order soy just so I don’t have to taste the atrocity they commit on milk. Fair Trade provides a good space for people to meet and collaborate, has a good location, moves the lines quickly (even though some of us would prefer to wait), and, of course, supports Fair Trade agriculture. However, their cappuccinos leave something to be desired and the space is spartan. No one is getting whipped. Hrm, though that would be a good space for that sort of thing.

    I contend that it’s perfectly valid for a shop to not want to contend at that level. I also think that any place that primarily offers coffee — not performance art, books, a spa, the location a famous person got shot, or unusual hours — should be judged primarily on its coffee.


  21. Hrm. Then there’s the flip side. There’s always a flip side. I’ve had really good espresso at a corporate coffee cart in a large corporate building. The lady working there took her art seriously, got good coffee, and discussed with you how you liked your drink made. Without someone working there to escort you, you’d never have her coffee. So, terrible location, terrible atmosphere, but good coffee.


  22. Todd

    I think the real crux of this whole debacle, however, is this – Michelle from FT contacted Chris to see what can be done to improve. THAT’S the spirit I think Chris is trying to encourage here at AZ-Coffee. As has been mentioned before – some shops are happy with the status ‘spro. Their drinks stink. Their training is bad and their coffee sources are draconian. They are happy with doing their own thing and not listening to their customer base. On the other hand there are some shops in Arizona that WANT this feedback. They WANT to know how to improve and, when given the chance, they WILL improve. It is this spirit that will raise the bar on espresso shops in Arizona. Someday my dream is to have people talk about the great coffee regions of this nation – Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Arizona. Yeah.

  23. hb

    Should a coffee shop be expected to produce a quality product all of the time?

    Yes, I pay the same amount every time I order a cup.

  24. Bruce

    If you call yourself a coffee shop, and your coffee is mediocre, then someone calls you on it. Don’t be surprised! I get tired of people defending mediocrity. And people writing others off who ask for more as “coffee snobs”. It’s not hard to make a good cup of coffee. You just have to try and care. As a whole Arizona we need to demand more, not less from everything from coffee to service. But instead we keep getting less for more.
    Demand less and you get less.
    Keep up the good work Chris.

  25. Brian Clemens

    Bruce for Coffee President!

  26. Luis

    In short I would agree with Bruce.
    My long story:
    I look for certain things personally in a coffee house. Some of those attributes are quality of product, quality of service and ambiance. Generally speaking, I haven’t come across any outstanding coffee places in AZ and Chris’ assessment of burnt milk etc…in my estimation could be almost any place I’ve been too.
    During my stay here in AZ I’ve certainly tempered voicing my opinion about coffee places if only because I do not want to come off as being a snob (I think there’s a difference between being a snob and acting like a stereotypical snob). Until recently I had stopped getting coffee all together from local places because they were not up to my personal standards.

    There are places I go simply to support someone local, I’ll express my opinion but unless my opinion becomes popular most businesses won’t care. Conversely, I have been to places that serve an incredible cup and have quality in mind however the ambiance is one of pretense and haughtiness. In one example, let’s say I suffer through a palatable cup of coffee for good company and a nice ambiance. In the other, the quality of coffee is what makes the ambiance tolerable. A coffeehouse is a synergy of those things.
    Bottom line in my opinion: quality of product trumps all. If you have a mediocre cup of coffee you better have something to make up for it that gets people in the door. If you’re a jerk and have bad service you better have an incredible product that merits people/consumers suffering through it.

  27. I’m having a general issue with the notion that it’s OK to have crap coffee if you have a nice place to drink it, or great bands, or hot girls making it, or whatever.
    A coffee house should be able to provide me with better coffee than I can make at my house, even if I do have equal or better kit. If I go to a specialty race car parts store, I expect them to have better pars than an Checker or AutoZone, and I expect the guys behind the counter to know stuff about the parts that they sell, how they’re applied, and what sporting regulations the do or do not comply with.
    If it’s your profession, and I can kick your butt at it, you should be pretty damned ashamed. Coffee house or Cafe, ‘coffee’ is in the name, ‘coffee’ is the rasion d’etre, and the coffee should be done well, fresh, and correctly.
    And if it isn’t, and you’re not willing to change the business you’re in, the expectation that someone may mention it in public should go without saying.
    Regardless of what other ambient vibe it has, or what kind of entertainment or perks provided, the base of a decent coffee shot should be decent coffee.
    Or don’t act surprised when we suggest that the emperor is naked.

  28. I agree and I think that is the direction coffee is going. It wont be long before everyone is roasting and you have a choice in going to the coffee shop that most closely produces what you think is best. I think that is the fourth or even fifth wave, where everytown has 5 of 6 really good independents. The days of the intelligentsias and stumptowns are really numbered. I think they will be around, but like most companies like that, It’s only a matter of time before an employee branches out and does something on their own.

  29. Luis

    Actually, Stumptown is responsible for a handful of places starting up and having employees and/or accounts branch out: BARISTA in PDX, Ritual Roasters and Four Barrel in SFO. Stumptown used to have wholesale accounts with them and encouraged them to do there own thing. Billy Wilson (a regional barista champion) was helped by Sorenson (founder of Stumptown) to open his BARISTA place in Portland-the concept being a menu of espresso to choose from i.e. Coava, Counter Culture, Ecco and Stumptown coffees side by side.
    Sky’s the limit at this point, there are so many possibilities…

  30. The question is, will any of those guys challenge the supremacy of Stumptown? Is there a giat killer in that group? 4 Barrel I predict will because of the knowledge network they have intact, not to mention the buzz around the Slayer etc. They have a great group of guys there and I expect the apple to fall right where it should.

    BARISTA, although it being a great concept, doesn’t have the ingredients of a giant. (Billy has that store on 13th but do you think he has ambitions to have 6 or 7 of those? He doesn’t have the demand to justify it.) Do any of those guys hold the key to making Stumptown yesterdays news? I think that at this point the Stumptowns model is irrelevant. It is not attainable, or really sustainable for that matter. Yeah, I know people are going to get huffy and talk about their sourcing and direct trade (which is admirable) programs yada yada yada, but everything they do seems more and more to me like a cash grab. (EG: all their Seattle retail and roastery, and the New York store.) And when the PBR runs out, all their groupies will move on to something more obscure or niche….or both.

    I will say however for them to waltz into Seattle (the most saturated market out there) and set up three retail outfits as well as a successful roastery is pretty remarkable. On a Sunday morning, they had two guys roasting at full capacity. (You know especially Luis how many roasting outfits are in Seattle…nobody is roasting the volume they are) It speaks absolute loads about who they are as a company and frankly from a sheer operational standpoint, they might as well start printing money with how fast they are making it.

  31. Chris, I think the answer to your question regarding what type of posts Arizona Coffee should have, really can only come from you, but I’ll pose parameters that I would use to help me decide, if I were in your shoes:

    What is the purpose for your blog? Why are you here? Why are you writing? Who is your audience? What do you hope to gain?

    Normally, blogs have 1 of 2 purposes. Either, they seek to blog for business, which in most cases is a pretty obvious business (ie, the coffee roaster that blogs about coffee, with the hope that their blog generates them more coffee buying customers). Or they blog for personal pleasure. Blogs about cats, photo blogs, and hobby blogs, tend to fall into that category.

    Your blog seems to cross both lines. You are clearly passionate about coffee, yet are not personally in the coffee industry. Yet you derive some revenue (honestly, I don’t think it’s much revenue, but it probably offsets your “bar tab”) from the adverts on the blog.

    Continuing, I would ask: Is each post that I write being written to further my goal/purpose? If you think you are undermining your own goals, then you shouldn’t write the post. If you think the post furthers your goals, then definitely write the post.

    This is the beauty of ownership in a free society. As the owner, we get to set the rules and march to the beat of our own drum. As long as you think you are doing that and are happy with the result, then that’s what matters most. If other people derive a benefit from your efforts, perhaps outside your own personal goals, then great. If other people are negatively impacted by your efforts, but at the same time those efforts further your own goals, then sadly, that’s their problem, but not necessarily your problem.

    A negative review, that furthers your own goals, while at the same time hurting a single coffee shop owner, might be exactly the right thing for you to do. Or a negative review, that undermines your own goals, while at the same time hurting a single coffee shop owner, would indeed be the wrong thing to do. But really, without knowing your goals, I don’t think anyone can answer this question but you.

  32. Thanks for your thoughts, Steve. You ask some good questions.