Seeking Baristas: A Call to Action for the Coffee Service Professional

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by Colin Whitcomb, Madcap Coffee

Recently, much has been said and written about the evolution of specialty coffee’s retail side. Oftentimes the cry to disrupt current models has centered on an argument that diversity in an increasingly competitive retail environment is the key to discovering new modes that will carry us forward. These arguments in favor of “the coffee experience” have focused on service models, menus, and cafe layout—the environment in which we serve our coffee.

The feeling seems to be that we must act different, look different, tell different stories—especially in a world where the accoutrements, modes of service, and other signifiers of quality coffee are increasingly aped by those constructing new cafe environments, without understanding the intentions behind them. Not only do we face risk from better organized, yet less authentic, imitators but also from the rising rents and minimum wages which are concomitant with the new urban America of which specialty cafes are a fixture.

But the call for adaptive models and intentional design begs the question—where are the adaptive baristas with the foundation of education and service to execute these cafes? Although diversification in cafe models may appear necessary to some, others (baristas included) seem to regard it as risky. The cafe-first model is proven.

An example of the diversification of models is evident in a legion of hybrid cafes. In a need to generate additional revenue, two like-minded individuals or products come together in the hope of adding up to more than the sum of their parts. In the past, it’s been done by the people who love coffee and bikes, etc., and sometimes they do both well—but usually you go there for something else and they have nondescript coffee in a dirty pot brewed two hours ago. However, more and more, you may find insanely tasty coffee in restaurants, bike stores, record stores, haberdasheries, bakeries—and they’re not phoning it in.

seeking3Historically it’s often been the case that we whine about these places, the environments serving specialty coffee yet which are not cafes. “Why don’t they ever listen to their roaster?” we ask. Or, “Why doesn’t their roaster support them?” Or, “Why don’t they just hire a barista?”

I agree they should be hiring baristas. And many are, or using baristas as consultants, or even partnering with baristas to found a business. So now I can browse LPs while sipping on single origin espresso, and it’s delicious. Or, I may get the best espresso in the city at a place that sells bread by the pound.

Those interested in serving quality coffee in their establishments frequently approach us to provide wholesale roasted coffee. Of the dozens of accounts who approached us in the last year in Washington, D.C., only one was a coffee-first specialty cafe. The rest were concepts that focused on food, or crossed over into some other area. Yet every single place could and often did benefit from the services of a full-time barista to manage the coffee component of these concepts.

The need for competent, professional, self-motivated baristas has never been higher, yet the pool of willing or able baristas to fit the role has never seemed smaller. Yes, we’re gaining more baristas than ever, but are they actually getting the knowledge needed to create compelling coffee experiences? Because great coffee doesn’t just happen; it requires knowledge and consideration of every aspect of the environment.

Where are they? At every latte art throwdown that I go to, I overhear some erroneous coffee fact repeated; conflating correlation for causation or revealing some basic misunderstanding of the fundamentals of brewing. I was recently told by a barista that their company “precision roasts,” which is one of those statements that started in a good place, and engenders respect for skill of craft in a general way, but which is also so vague as to be devoid of real meaning.

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Unfortunately, education from all but a few roasters does not prepare a barista to consider the entire environment. By comparison, the curriculum from SCAA is broad and deep. Furthermore, a diverse student and teacher base allows for multiple viewpoints and ample networking opportunities. In many ways, it’s an ideal incubator for self-motivated professional baristas. The educational opportunities have expanded greatly over the last three years. Barista Camp led the way, but SCAA Certified Labs stand poised to provide wide and enduring access to this education.

Yes, baristas have come a long way. As the industry has grown, so has space for professional baristas to redefine ourselves. We have efficacy, and as we must journey, let us do so with a better map. I call for baristas to widen the range of environments in which they want to work. For baristas to seek a thorough education that will serve them in an array of environments. For rigor. For testing which gives meaningful results. To learn to talk about growing, roasting and brewing in a way that communicates our values.

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Go to the restaurants, the restaurant groups, the record store, bike store, bookstore, bakery/cafe. Go and design integral coffee experiences, hire, train baristas, and serve amazing coffee. But go and do it well. Educate yourself to communicate clearly, to be great business partners, or the managers you needed when you first started in coffee.

We don’t need more cafes, we need more baristas in every place that serves specialty coffee. But if we want the coffee experience to be as moving as it has been in the best specialty cafes, we must accept the challenge and prepare ourselves to meet it.

colinColin Whitcomb works in Washington, DC with Madcap Coffee as head of training. He began working as a barista in 2006, and since 2008 has worked over 10,000 hours as a trainer. Colin currently serves as secretary of the Barista Guild of America (BGA) Executive Council.