The Barista: A Sustainable Profession in the Making

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by Anne Nylander, SCAA

The term “professional barista” simply did not exist in coffee 30 years ago. This role in the industry was built in no small part by large coffee retailers who brought the professional barista to the masses, and baristas now grace our cafes on a daily basis. Today, baristas are often seen quoted in magazines, reaching celebrity status by winning championships, blanketing social media outlets, or launching successful, high-profile businesses. Their skills have sharpened, their service has improved, and their visions may ultimately shape the future of our industry.

For professionals in the coffee industry who have witnessed the meteoric rise of the barista profession and its status within the world of specialty coffee, it may come as a surprise that baristas’ wages in America remain relatively low. According to SCAA’s forthcoming salary survey, The Baristas’ Bottom Line, American baristas report an average annual salary of just over $22,000. While this may sound like a reasonable sum to many, it is more than $28,000 under the US median income. With an average income so low among a workforce generally made of college attendees or graduates, who could otherwise be earning much higher wages, the question of how to capture that energy and maintain a positive work environment quickly becomes a pressing concern.

Before getting into the philosophical questions of improving the working life of a professional barista, it’s important to note that the challenge is real and will not be easy for many coffee operators. The simple math of running a coffee operation demands relatively low wages from employers. Why? Because the owner too needs to earn in order to support herself.

Too often, cafe startups are lured into the business under false assumptions of how revenue and margins will add up day-to-day. Jay Caragay of Spro coffee in Towsond, Maryland, notes that it’s enticing “when articles tell you that coffee shops average 230 cups per day, generating estimated annual revenue of $250,000 (or more) per year.” But when breaking down the numbers using the basic operations metric model used by most cafes, the share devoted to labor—about 30 percent or $75,000—would be very difficult to split among a staff of four employees.

As Jay walked through the math, it was only once a cafe reached $1 million per year in annual revenue that baristas could have what he considered a reasonable wage. Indeed, many larger scale retail operations set their sales target at ranges around $1 million just to consider the location “break even.” And even when cafes succeed, grow, and become sustainable businesses, the challenge of staffing a café while balancing operating costs remain. Cafes need to compete with other demands of the labor market to keep talented staff. How do cafes retain baristas despite the lures of better salaries, health insurance benefits, and even the appeal of a set weekly schedule? How can all these types of businesses strike a balance and create a fair working environment for professional baristas?

The harder question, of course, is what is fair? What can be considered a reasonable wage for a working barista? What can cafe operators do to create and maintain long-term healthy working environments that allow coffee professionals to grow and succeed? Should baristas even expect to work in that role long term, or should pursuing other roles, whether in or out of the coffee industry, be a given?

Ryan Jensen, owner of Peregrine Espresso in Washington, D.C., struggled over those questions while planning the opening of his first cafe with his wife, Jill. “We spent a lot of time discussing before we opened and continue to figure out how to best address this,” says Jensen. “As former baristas, my wife and I definitely wanted to create a company where baristas would benefit from clear expectations and transparent wages as well as the hope of opportunity and upward mobility. While our industry attracts a lot of dreamers and people wanting to do something they are passionate about, we also recognized that people need to make rent, and D.C. is not a cheap place to live.”

The Jensens created a plan and stuck with it. Baristas at their cafe are presented with a transparent pay scale and can see when and how they can achieve raises, based either on experience or merit from professional development. Full time baristas receive health insurance and two weeks paid leave per year. This straightforward approach is win-win, as Jensen sees it. Baristas follow the path laid out by Peregrine management, which in turn makes them more valuable, and justifies their increases in pay. It also incentivizes the barista to stay: “All of these opportunities combine to draw people deeper into the coffee world and, as we all know, it doesn’t take much to create an insatiable appetite for coffee knowledge.“

Another way the Jensens planned for barista stability from the outset was planning to grow. “We knew when we began that we wanted to have multiple locations to allow for our staff to grow within the company,” says Jensen. Six years and three locations later, they now have eight salaried positions among their staff of 30 and every one of these was hired as a barista and promoted from within: “I’m proud of our managers’ ability to promote a positive staff culture for the benefit of our employees and in turn, the benefit of our customers.”

Everyman Espresso in New York City brought another approach to the New York coffee scene. “As someone who has been on the backside of a counter all of my life it’s impossible for me to separate myself from my staff and their struggles,” says Sam Penix, Everyman’s owner. “Baristas need better wages to continue to grow their skill set. In a city like New York, it’s especially difficult to survive as a full-time barista.”

For Penix, the answer came from significantly raising drink prices when they opened their second location. Everyman bravely placed a $5 latte on the menu, and was the first cafe in the city (and perhaps still is) with this shockingly high price. The decision wasn’t made lightly. Penix says, “We knew that in order to see change at our own shop, we had to move our industry to increase the price per cup of coffee. Raising prices can seem very risky, and if done flippantly, could be deadly.”

Penix seized the opportunity to target the luxury-inclined lifestyle market in this city while maintaining a resistance to fads. Ultimately, Penix notes, the justification for the price lies in an extreme focus on quality. Not only are drinks produced expertly, Penix also expects his baristas to think creatively and create new drinks that elevate and expand the customer’s idea of what coffee is. When launching the new prices, baristas were trained to justify their reasons. “Our coffees are special, we are skilled, and if you value that, then buy my coffee and support the hard work of the people who created it. You have your well-executed and presented drink because of the skilled labor of farmers, roasters, and baristas that work hard to produce quality work.”

One thing that all three owners mentioned when discussing turnover—which all reported as relatively low at their cafes—was the work environment and camaraderie among coworkers. “The rest of the stuff helps,” says Ryan Jensen about his employee benefits, “but no one wants to work somewhere where the culture isn’t positive and the staff isn’t friendly.” At Everyman, respect for employees is a pillar of the work environment. At Spro, folks new to the industry can expect to be trained to Spro’s standards, from the ground up. Sometimes, it’s these intangibles that keep the barista profession growing strong, despite the limits on direct financial gain. For some, a nurturing environment where a barista has the opportunity to develop into a true coffee professional can be the ultimate dream job.

As the term “professional barista” reaches farther into the mainstream of coffee culture in America, our industry will need to continue to define that role and its meaning; both for consumers who enjoy expertly prepared beverages, and for the talented individuals seeking a professional life in coffee. All members of the supply chain will need to consider the balance of fairness, respect, growth, and earnings among every profession along that chain. While pursuing our common goal to bring better coffee to the world, the specialty coffee industry must also continue to pursue bringing better lives to all of its creators, including the last person who brought us our most recent morning coffee.

anneAnne Nylander began her coffee career as a barista in NYC in 2006 and is currently SCAA’s membership coordinator and a WBC Certified Sensory Judge. Anne loves to make great coffee and be nice about it.