Important or Self-Important: The Role and Influence of a Barista

By Tracy Ging with significant contribution by James Hoffmann

After the World Barista Championship (WBC) this year in London, I got to be a fly on the wall and listen in on a conversation between Oliver Strand, a columnist for The New York Times, and the six WBC finalists. It was a casual yet deeply interesting chat because the baristas were right about so many things. For one, they absolutely recognized the importance of education, citing the growing number of coffee drinkers who want to know details of where coffee comes from, how it’s grown, and about the science and nuance of flavor. The baristas were also very realistic about the many consumers who don’t care at all and just want hot liquid served fast. Their insights were profound and practical, each demonstrating that they not only possess skill and knowledge, but the ability to orchestrate an experience—meeting each customer at their particular level of awareness and gently leading them toward the broader possibilities. If we just had 50,000 more people like these six, specialty coffee would undoubtedly be on a whole new trajectory.

Having highly educated, well-trained, and genuinely inspired baristas is the goal and an important strategic consideration for the specialty coffee industry, but it’s an objective the industry will have to work very hard at reaching. Because, as James Hoffmann of Square Mile Coffee Roasters says, we may have put the cart before the horse on this one.

“I think the barista holds an incredibly important role, but one that we misjudged the balance of because their role is twofold,” Hoffmann says by way of explanation. “One aspect is to prepare coffee and to translate the hard work of everyone else in the chain into an enjoyable and valuable experience. This is about skill, practice and understanding of preparation techniques. But, the other role of a barista is as a salesperson, consultant, host, and curator of experience. That is about customer service.”

Customer service is certainly an area where specialty coffee can improve. The snarky barista has become cliché, but as with most stereotypes, there is some truth behind its existence. Yet that reputation isn’t entirely attributable to baristas. Hoffmann noted that much of the flak baristas have taken has not been wholly theirs, since menus, ambiance and price contributes to a person’s impression of specialty coffee as well. He acknowledges that, “while coffee is being prepared at a higher standard than ever before, more cynicism, disappointment and anger is also being directed at our industry and that comes down to a customer service failure.” Hoffmann believes part of this failure results from the industry which, consciously or not, sent the message that pouring complex latte art makes you more valuable as a barista than being sympathetic and aware in conversations with customers.

While competitions may be partially to blame for over-emphasizing one aspect of the baristas role to the exclusion of the other, that is a minor point in comparison to the overwhelmingly positive role baristas have played in generating interest and excitement for the profession, as well as with driving trends.

“Barista competitions have had a bigger impact on coffee than I would have initially expected,” Hoffmann muses. “The winning routine, on a national and global level, certainly reorganizes priorities. Of late it seems the details of a coffee’s preparation—from its harvest date, altitude or post-harvest process—have been in focus.” Of course, the real challenge then is to translate that back to the customer base. In that regard, there is a lot of opportunity for specialty coffee to pick up where the competitions leave off.

It is that intersection—between driving trends and being in a position to translate them—which has exalted the role of the barista in the industry’s eyes. It’s interesting that Starbucks even goes as far as choosing very specific language in reference to their Seattle office—using support center versus headquarters or some other more common term. That choice is a direct reflection of value, of the idea that baristas are central to the business and everything else is built up around them. SCAA reflects a similar priority, choosing to “promote the barista as the focal point for consumer exchange” as a strategic theme.

Yet real business issues stand in between our ideals and our practices. No matter how much we value baristas, how many trophies we award, or how carefully language is crafted, for many, being a barista is a temporary gig. We recognize their importance, but have failed to create a profession. Wages, health care, training and retention are all issues to be grappled with and addressed before baristas can take their rightful place in the spotlight of specialty coffee.

Hoffmann has already pointed out that the natural next step is a focus on customer service, but that is really a step subsequent to better science and more education. He suggests a renewed focus on understanding through tasting, explaining “we aren’t particularly good at looking at where we’re falling down. The bad or disappointing cups of coffee I’ve had have little to do with temperature stability, or burr configuration, or pressure profiles misused, or a lack of symmetry in a rosetta. I get bad cups because either the barista is disconnected from what they prepare—i.e. they don’t know how it tastes/should taste—or they are more focused on producing an espresso that looks a certain way, instead of directing that level of attention to the customer and what information would aid their experience.”

Clearly, the responsibility of customer service doesn’t solely rest on the shoulders of baristas. The problem with baristas being central to a strategy is that the strategy is only partially defined. Success does not begin and end with the barista, but is achieved through a series of coordinated steps. The reality is that the role of the barista is exceptionally important and if the customer experience wasn’t motive enough, it is worth considering other ways in which baristas are influencing and shaping the industry. They are its product testers, market researchers, brand enthusiasts, harshest critics, and critical-mass-makers. As Hoffmann asserts, each generation defines a new baseline for quality based on their own experiences, so we’ll see an increasing number of people who refuse to compromise in areas that were a little grey before—be it equipment quality, freshness, or base levels of traceability. Yet to a large degree, that dialogue isn’t open, at least not as fully as it could be. Despite their connection with customers, potential influence on quality, and their stated importance, baristas are not integrated into the strategic process. One very simple way to overcome that disparity is to include them in the conversation, which we shall do this year at Symposium in a presentation and small group discussion on “Engaged Baristas, Engaged Consumers,” lead by James along with several other prominent baristas.

With more than 15 years of marketing experience, Tracy Ging has spent the bulk of her career in the coffee industry, where she has worked on both sides of the supply-chain, developing a deep understanding of the market and the trends driving it. Tracy currently serves as Deputy Executive Director of SCAA.