What is working as a barista really like?
If you have a regular coffee shop that you visit or order from, you probably know the staff well. You know who is going to be serving you on the weekday mornings versus the barista that is going to be serving you on the weekend.
They ask you “how is it going?” and a small pleasantry follows before you are out the door with your coffee beans and your favorite drink to keep you going. However, have you ever stopped to think what it is like to work at a coffee shop?
I have worked as master barista for nearly a decade, and I am here to let you in on 7 secrets of what it is like to work as a barista.
The hours are not as bad as you think.
Big coffee chains are notorious for opening early. Like, really early. When I started at Starbucks I was up at 3am and taking the night bus in order to get to my opening shift at 4:30am. However, specialty coffee shops are a lot different.
Opening the coffee shop entails a lot of checking off lists. Most specialty coffee shops open early, but “early” for the specialty coffee shop is anywhere from 6am to as late as 8am. Being a barista requires you to be a morning person because when you get in you must manage all the opening tasks as well as be ready to engage customers as soon as you unlock the doors.
Closing the coffee shop is also not as bad as you think. Unlike restaurants and bars, baristas are out of work latest at 9pm. Compare that to the latter where servers, chefs, and bartenders are out anywhere from midnight to 3am. While it is not a 9 to 5 job, being a barista is by far the closest service industry job closest to the hours of an office job.
Baristas are different than coffee roastery staff.
When you visit a coffee shop, it may or may not have its own coffee roastery. In San Rafael, our Weaver’s Coffee & Tea Cafe is the storefront and directly behind our cafe is Wild Card Roasters, our roastery. Customers drink coffee at a shop, but a coffee roastery is where the coffee you drink manufactured and then shipped to the coffee shops. Coffee shops and coffee roastery's operate differently.
While the baristas are all familiar with the coffee roastery and what happens, they often do not go back and forth between coffee roastery and coffee shop. Being a barista means you are talking to customers, making drinks, and representing the brand. Barista's responsibilities entail serving beautiful drinks, helping customers pick out a coffee bean of their preference, and giving amazing customer service.
Coffee roastery staff (including the roaster) are in charge of roasting the coffee, quality control, packing the coffee and tea, as well as packing and shipping online and wholesale orders. They generally only interact with each other and do not have to worry about the customer interface. Someone might visit a coffee shop every day, but a coffee roastery staff would have no idea who that “regular” is and what they order. Roastery staff might know how to pull an excellent espresso on the machine, but in general they leave the drink-making to the barista.
Roastery staff members might never step foot into the café if they are busy prepping the green coffee beans for that day's coffee roast, which can be up to two tons per day. Busy days we roast and ship four tons with Renee working magic in the offices, directing managers and crews, and John combing his incredible super powers as magician and mad scientist at the Probat coffee roaster. The truth is, everyone smells like coffee at the end of the day. Our staff then packs the roasted coffee beans into one-pound coffee bags, five-pound coffee bags and then places the bags on a shelf for the shipping crew to immediately pull the fresh coffees, box them up and ship them out the door to e-commerce customers and wholesale customers.
You get a lot of free samples
When I say a lot, I mean a lot.
In a cities like San Francisco and San Rafael, there is a constant stream of new vendors looking to sell products and increase their business. Most vendors drop off food and drink samples for the staff to taste. Sometimes the coffee shop is simply looking to replace a product and therefore will request samples from different companies in order to do taste tests with staff and customers.
From pastries, to energy bars, to kombucha, samples are a fun perk that no one mentions.
While a new product might taste amazing, it is on upper management to decide whether the product will be introduced in the shop. Upper management has to ask questions like:
- Do we have customers asking for this?
- What is the cost of the product and what is the threshold of price people are willing to pay for it?
- Will this replace something we already carry?
- You become a master multitasker
Being a good barista means you are customer oriented as well as task oriented.
There is more going on than you think. We need to make sure coffee is brewed, hot, and fresh, need to make specialty drinks (a multi-tasked task itself), find the flow working with our coworkers, keep the dishes clean, manage payments, and make sure all surfaces are cleaned and wiped down all while listening to customers to make sure they are satisfied.
This all has to happen while we balance our own needs. Contrary to popular belief, we are not machines and need to drink water, use the restroom, and sit down every few hours.
You drink less coffee.
When you start as a barista, free coffee is the first perk you learn. You can tell a barista is new when they are wired all the time.
When baristas mature and gain shop tenure, they gradually drink less coffee. You learn to not take the product for granted and that you benefit more from drinking water than coffee. Instead of being stressed out or over-hyper, we are looking to chill out and make it through our shift peacefully. We also learn that the coffee you poured yourself is most likely going to get cold as you manage all the other tasks that need to happen. We also understand our coffee of the day should be treated as something special and get full enjoyment out of which looks like drinking a coffee on our break or the end of our shift.
Sometimes, a barista will stop drinking coffee altogether and switch to like tea, chai, hot chocolate, matcha, or kombucha.
Tired of coffee, a barista might become more familiar with tea and become masters in understanding the differences of various teas; black, green, white, oolong, and tisanes.
You govern the culture.
When we think of a coffee shop, we talk about the people inside it working and all too familiar is the image of a barista with a really bad attitude. A coffee shop might have amazing coffee, but if the staff is rude or pretentious, it is likely not going to succeed.
Barista's need to understand and govern the culture. The way we dress, the music we turn on in the shop, whether we seem relaxed or on edge, how clean we keep the shop (pro-tip: if you want to teach people to be clean freaks, put them in a coffee shop with all white counters like Renee did in our San Francisco Cafe), and how nice we are to customers all have an impact on the culture. Marketing helps drive people into the store, but a barista’s job is to build a long-lasting, supportive, and safe culture that helps retain the customer base. Our brand mantra is; quality, consistency and kindness, which is a concise way to covey who we are and what we do.
We get tired of people.
We have to be “on” from the moment we open the doors until we leave.
Unlike retail or restaurants, our customer interaction time is a lot shorter and more frequent. We must deal with the constant stream of new faces and short transactions. We often ask “how are you doing” with a smile on our face only to get a short response and a coffee order with no response. When it is slower, we are known for being “therapists” to customers looking to rant or talk about what is going on in their lives. While most people are friendly and understanding, every day we encounter at least one person who is looking to take their bad attitude out on us.
The emotional labor of this job can be taxing over time. Tipping your barista or genuinely asking them questions and participating in active listening can make a barista’s day and keep the barista engaged.
It is physically hard.
Besides the emotional labor, it is a physically hard job.
Standing on your feet for 8 hours can be uncomfortable, even with the correct shoes. You also have to crouch in weird positions or lift heavy things when deliveries come in.
There is also repeated stress injuries that happen once you have been a barista long enough. Routine repetitive motions can put strain on muscles and eventually cause injury. “Barista shoulder” is the term for the pain in your shoulder you get from tamping espresso again and again. Baristas suffer wrist injuries from the motion of removing the port-a-filter and re-locking it into place when repeated consistently over years.
I encourage all barista's to learn very basic stretches and do them after the shift. Also learn to understand your body. If you start to feel pain, take time off, ask to do something else (like be transferred to the roastery), or maybe understand it is time to look for a job that is more suitable for your body.