My job as a barista

on the job barista

We got the impression that a lot of people found the anonymous job interviews we did for Work Week interesting, so we've decided to continue them as an occasional series.

On the job with: The Barista.

This person has been working in coffee for a decade -- as a barista, shift leader, and manager. The Barista talks about dealing with a stream of caffeine-seeking people, interpreting esoteric coffee lingo, and the people who camp out all day with their laptops...

What's it like dealing with a constant stream of caffeine-seeking people?

I think it depends on what time or at what stage said caffeine seeking people are visiting. And particularly how long they've had to wait in line. Folks who visit in the morning tend to have a quiet, burning intensity where folks who visit in the evening are more laid back and easier to engage with.

What's the most common thing that people order? The weirdest? Maybe the thing they shouldn't?

Most folks usually just go for what's on brew for the day. Sometimes we will get customers who like to prove their knowledge of somewhat esoteric coffee lingo -- "con panna" (usually espresso with whipped cream) or "lungo" (espresso shot pulled long). We have an infrequent customer who likes to play Stump The Barista with terms like that -- if you don't have the terms down, you're not worthy of serving the guy, apparently.

Sometimes we will get customers who like to prove their knowledge of somewhat esoteric coffee lingo -- "con panna" or "lungo". We have an infrequent customer who likes to play Stump The Barista with terms like that...

On the other hand after a few years on the line you start to pick up some of the different industry names for things such as cortado/gibraltar, different coffee folklore and knowledge. It's kind of fun to make someone's day when you get requests for off-menu drinks and techniques. Secret club of coffee awareness.

Any job that involves dealing with a lot of people means dealing with a few, um, difficult people. What are some things that customers do that end up being annoying?

My favorite kind of experiences are dealing with folks who are very particular about their order. We have regulars who have been coming in every day for a long time, getting the same exact thing every day. It can be as easy as remembering a few details for someone and having it ready when they hit the counter, or it can be as challenging as remaking a drink or a food item because it wasn't as good as the way your co-worker makes it.

Some baristas loathe the difficult regular customers, but I see it more as a challenge to make them happy.

Coffee spots have become informal workplaces for a lot of people (including, sometimes, AOA editors) -- and sometimes they spend almost the whole day there. Any informal rules or guidelines people should be following?

This is a great question and perhaps deserves its own day or two in some sort of etiquette class in high school these days. It's most important to be courteous to the folks around you and realize how much your presence and actions can effect everyone sharing the space.

If one is going to spend a "longer than lunch" amount of time in a shop, one should try to purchase something first, sit at the smallest available space and remain aware enough to move or offer to share a table whenever the opportunity presents itself as necessary.

We see too many folks who come in with outside food, do not buy anything, wait longer than is polite to buy something or simply don't buy anything at all while taking up a bunch of space, plugging in multiple electronic devices and on and on.

We see too many folks who come in with outside food, do not buy anything, wait longer than is polite to buy something or simply don't buy anything at all while taking up a bunch of space, plugging in multiple electronic devices and on and on. It's difficult to police who has bought what and at what time when the store is busy. It feels impolite to even have to ask someone if they've bought something, even if there is no evidence of having purchased something. The worst part of it is the notion that it's OK to occupy space without buying something because you are "in here all the time" or "always buy things" -- your purchase is finite "rent" for your table space and resets itself over time and each time you visit.

On the one hand, it's often nice to have folks in seats when it's slow but it can be equally frustrating to see folks who just need a seat for 10 minutes to wolf lunch down get boxed out of tables because someone who has been sitting there all day has the entire public library catalog on the table.

What's a reasonable amount to toss in the tip jar?

Any amount you feel your barista deserves. We appreciate anything!

Over the last decade or so there seems to have been an increase in the number of coffee nerds/snobs. Good for coffee and coffee drinkers -- or are there just more posers now?

I'd like to think that the more factual information your customers know about coffee, the more intelligent and useful our interactions can be.

It seems like the most challenging part of the barista-to-customer interaction is the reality that talking about coffee is difficult. Typical coffee descriptors are terribly vague and can mean many things to different people.

It seems like the most challenging part of the barista-to-customer interaction is the reality that talking about coffee is difficult. Typical coffee descriptors are terribly vague and can mean many things to different people. One woman's "bold" or "strong" coffee can mean a million different things -- most importantly, "Do you mean caffeine or taste?" A "light roast" can have a stronger, sharper taste than a dark roast, which confounds the typical thought that light roasts taste light. Many paradoxes exist in the discussion of coffee.

In general, the more a customer knows the better.

How has working in a coffee place affected the way you view -- and drink -- coffee?

I didn't drink coffee at all before I began working in it, so I suppose I owe this work everything.

If I could change one thing it would be to dispense with the notion that baristas are unhappy and are doing the job as a stopgap between other jobs.

If you could change something about your job, what would it be?

If I could change one thing it would be to dispense with the notion that baristas are unhappy and are doing the job as a stopgap between other jobs. Coffee and service are legitimate vocations and while not every person involved is as dedicated as others, there are some very passionate coffee folks in this area just waiting to share new and great coffee with you.

Best thing about the job?

Despite what sounds like complaining in the previous questions, the customers and social aspects of the job are the best thing about being a barista.

This interview has been lightly edited.

Earlier on AOA:
+ My job as a retail clothing store manager
+ My job as a restaurant server
+ My job as a high school teacher
+ My job as an EMT
+ Do you tip at food trucks, the coffee place, counter service?

Comments

"A "light roast" can have a stronger, sharper taste than a dark roast, which confounds the typical thought that light roasts taste light."

Interesting. Can a light roast have a 'stronger' taste without being acidic? Is there a kind that has those qualities that the anonymous barrista (or someone else) would recommend?

I was a tea-only person all through college and the first few years at work, thinking I disliked the taste of all coffee. The only coffee I had tried up to that point was cheapo stuff, which (to me) tasted acidic and gross. Then, I figured out the darker roasts have a completely different taste, and now I don't go a day without a cup (although I'm no coffee snob - I don't know my espresso drinks, and I am ok with a K-Cup given it's the right kind ;)

PS: I'm glad the work week series is continuing!

This isn't a light roast, but "stronger taste without being acidic" for me is French Roast. Personal favorite supermarket brand is Peet's.

Also, it's nice to hear there are baristas who like their job. I really appreciate a well-made latte and I'm pretty sure I was awful at making them in my short-lived stint as a barista.

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