Over the Counter: The History and Future of the Barista-Customer Relationship

This article was written as a collaboration between long-time baristas and coffee professionals Lorenzo Perkins and Michael Harwood. This informal interview covers their views of where we are in coffee retail history, perceptions of a barista, identifying and tackling challenges that exist for baristas in connecting with consumers and promoting specialty coffee, as well as what the industry is doing right and where we are headed.

Michael Harwood: The year is 1993. Grunge reaches its zenith, Congress ratifies NAFTA, and despite the youth of the specialty coffee industry, the Big Green Mermaid already operates around two-hundred espresso-serving, European-styled cafés across the United States. Locally owned cafés pop up with increasing regularity as well, introducing millions of Americans to espresso drinks and something called a “barista”. Borrowed Italian words like cappuccino and macchiato do not flow trippingly from the Stateside tongue, complicating matters for a public used to drip-filtered, “American” coffee. Thankfully, the worker we’ve come to know as a barista has been there to greet and guide the coffee-consuming public through this evolution. As café and barista cultures continue to grow in the US, they also grow up. Education and community-building through the Specialty Coffee Association of America, the Barista Guild of America, and local communities have taken a leading role in shaping the US specialty coffee industry.

Though the industry has undergone tremendous expansion in the intervening twenty years, it continues to need refinement. There are still many people who haven’t the faintest idea what a barista is or does. There are many more who assume based on context and previous experiences that baristas are button-pushers, hipsters, slackers, aloof, condescending, caffeine-crazed, or just working in coffee until they can find something better. These opinions are a natural response to an industry that has radically transformed over the past twenty years, leading to confusion and discomfort in the cafe setting. To challenge these negative stereotypes and help allay customer anxiety, Barista, Coffee Education, and Wholesale Representative Camila Ramos of Panther Coffee, Miami, FL, notes that an ideal barista should be, “An individual with basic knowledge of coffee as it is related to origin, varietal, processing, roasting, handling, brewing and espresso extraction, who is committed to producing consistent, high quality drink, capable of providing graceful hospitality and maintaining a clean work environment all under high volume scenarios.” By participating in the BGA Certification program and being subjected to an increasingly high training standard at cafés around the country, baristas are out to change public perception for the better. But what are some of the challenges that exist for baristas in connecting with consumers and promoting specialty coffee?

Lorenzo Perkins: For most people, coffee is more of a habit than an experience. Every morning people across the globe begin their morning coffee ritual, and therein lies the challenge. Very few people enjoy change, yet that is what baristas in specialty coffee shops are asking customers to do the first time they walk through the door. It can be difficult to engage the average consumer in a well-meaning attempt to showcase what is different or unique about their coffee when they arrive in a half-awake state and in a rush to get to work. The average consumer is also bringing their own preconceived notions of what coffee is, or should be. There also exists a bevy of half-truths that get distorted even more by well-meaning journalists, coffee roasters, and baristas themselves, passing on half-remembered facts based on pseudoscience. The lack of quality information available and readily consumable for the public to digest is a stumbling block for us as an industry. Steph Caronna, the Retail Manager at La Farm Bakery in Cary, NC, says simply, “We have a vast amount of knowledge in our heads and sometimes we just want to spit it out at them to help them understand, but we have to come from their perspective to really know what amount of information they can handle.”

Aside from customers’ ability (or inability) to engage, the baristas also face a difficult task: balancing a quality experience and service with speed. Jamie Cunningham, Director of Brewing and Education at Bongo Java Roasting Company in Nashville, TN, says, “In my experience, the biggest challenge from my side of the counter is volume. Our shops are extremely busy. Taking more than a minute or two to engage customers […] with fifty people standing in queue is a challenge, and at times, almost impossible.” Many customers don’t want a story, they simply want their coffee. The ability to distinguish between those who do want the story and those who don’t can often be a barista’s best ally on the retail front.

The other looming challenge that we face is our ability to consistently deliver the flavor experience we say we are selling. Maintaining quality standards, in busy times and slow, and remaining consistent from day-to-day and barista-to-barista is something that cafés need to come to terms with. An inattentive barista can, in a matter of seconds, destroy what could have been an otherwise amazing coffee. This is a fact that most are well aware of, but that few have taken steps to fix. Distracted management or ownership, overworked baristas, and inadequate training programs take a toll on our ability to consistently deliver the promise that we make to customers for a better coffee.

MH: The first step is identifying the challenges that exist, and the second is to improve customer perceptions and overcome service-related hurdles. Jamie hits the nail on the head when he says, “In my mind, the best way to change the way people view baristas and specialty coffee is through service. Specialty coffee will be treated like the craft it is when coffee professionals earn the respect of the consumer by serving excellent products excellently. We must have both excellent products and excellent service. One without the other will not generate the kind of recognition we want as an industry.” But what does that excellence look like?

Don’t disregard your café’s mise-en-place. A barista’s best efforts are pointless if a customer decides upon entering that the atmosphere, flow, menu, cleanliness, or employee appearance are lacking. We all pick up on contextual clues to help our brains prepare us for what might be coming. Baristas should be warm and welcoming, immediately forgiving, and make polite eye contact with any customer who enters the café. Learning to read how much engagement a person wants is critical to keeping them coming back. Equally as important is not being judgmental or condescending regarding a customer’s needs. Seeing people as complex individuals will guide you in deciding what your approach should be. Having a wealth of knowledge is useful in terms of practical application and providing transparency for those who want it, but not every customer will desire to hear about the average rainfall of a Sulawesi micro-region. The opportunity for education is there, just maybe not during a busy bar shift. Camila suggests, “Be inclusive of consumers regardless of their interest in specialty coffee. Strengthen programs within the coffee shop, such as regular cuppings, palate development, et cetera and open [the programs] to free public involvement. Those who want to learn will. Once people see that there is more to it than just shoving a portafilter in a grouphead, they’ll be inclined to learn more.” Excellence in preparation comes down to education and practice. Classes and certifications can be one of the best ways to improve practical skills. The SCAA and BGA are leaders in offering objective-based classes on a variety of coffee preparation subjects. The BGA’s certification program is now the standard-bearer for education and acknowledgement of barista craft across the US and around the world! Working for a café with an effective training program may also be crucial for skill development. So what are we already doing well as an industry?

LP: For one thing, we are beginning to recognize the things that we are not doing well. Anyone who has been through a 12 step program will tell you, the first step is admitting that you have a problem. In the past few years, there has been a refocusing on customer service, and on dispelling the “hipster barista” stereotype. Baristas are becoming aware of the impact they can make on the industry as a whole, and are largely stepping up to the challenge, with immense support from their respective cafés. By working towards Barista Guild certification programs, attempting to achieve more consistent quality, in short, continually learning and growing and maybe more importantly, trying to bring other cafés along with them, these are all things that we can look at and say we are on the right path. “I feel like many retailers are focusing more on welcoming customers, and providing unique experiences,” says Jason Card, a barista at Atomic Coffee in Tallahassee, FL. “We still could move further in this area, but I like where I feel it’s headed. There is a growing sense of community among specialty coffee retailers and baristas, which is positive.”

More and more baristas, cafés, roasters, importers, and producers are recognizing the problems that exist within the supply chain, and unique events like the SCAA Symposium are one way the industry is attempting to solve these problems.  SCAA programs like the Roasters Guild, CQI, and the newly established World Coffee Research are working on making green bean quality and roasted quality better and more sustainable. While most recognize that there is still a ways to go, we also see that we have come a long way and that we are implementing the strategies to keep us moving in that direction. It appears as if café owners and baristas are taking Steve Jobs’ advice to heart, “Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking…have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

MH: Knowing that our industry is already doing a great job in several aspects is very encouraging, but how do we define success as we progress? One way to frame success is the percentage specialty coffee carries of total coffee cups sold in the US. According to the SCAA, that figure is currently 37 percent. Camila sees progress in this practical fashion, but also abstractly in saying that, “Success as an industry, conceptually defined, will be when the average person views coffee as a specialty item and not as a commodity. An indicator of this might be when specialty coffee holds a majority of the market share in our global coffee economy.” This concept of the “average person” viewing coffee as specialty is intriguing, because it has huge potential positive ramifications for the barista. When more customers feel less uncertainty about their choices and more respect for both barista and coffee, good things will happen for baristas.

Another measure of success is how many baristas are certified through the BGA and other appropriate channels. What an achievement for craft and customer service it would be if all baristas had the equivalent of Level One Certification as a minimum standard! Higher wages and benefits for committed baristas would have to be included in any model of success, while a more anecdotal yardstick is how many relatively young baristas are starting successful cafés and roasteries around the country. Ultimately, success might not look that foreign to what we do now, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. As Jamie says, “The one thing that should never change is a dedication to creativity, quality and customer service.”

Lorenzo Perkins is currently serving as a member of the Barista Guild of America Executive Council. After spending nearly a decade as a production barista and in store trainer, he now produces baristas as Cuvee
Coffee’s lead educator in Austin, TX. He still makes
coffee, too. Sometimes, people like it.

Michael Harwood is Director of Quality & Education at Carrboro Coffee Roasters, as well as a workaday barista at Caffe Driade and the Open Eye Cafe, all in sunny North Carolina. Through volunteering as the Southeast Chapter Representative for the Barista Guild of America and competing in the United States Barista Championship circuit, Michael has found a family of friends who are truly inspiring. He is proudly BGA Level 2 and SCAA IDP Certified.