Mad Coffee Skills?
July 10, 2010 9:15 PM   Subscribe

How can I learn to be a barista? Preferably for free? Or better yet, get paid to do so?

I'm transitioning into supporting myself as a freelance writer. Because that's unrealistic at this point, and it's always good to keep your income diversified, I'd really like to pick up a gig as a barista.

All the craigslist ads I've seen for coffee shop staff here in New York have stressed that they're looking for people with at least a year of barista experience. I've stopped in at neighborhood joints, and they've asked me for a resume. Which presents sort of a problem, as I have virtually no food service experience.

Should I just suck it up and go apply at Starbucks? Take some kind of course? How do the teenagers score these kinds of jobs?
posted by Sara C. to Food & Drink (28 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
yes, starbucks or a mom and pop.

you might find that some places waive the past employment requirements based upon how much you fit the look of the place.

you could also ask if any of the places you want to work need someone to do dishes/clear tables. it'd be a good way to get trained while getting paid.
posted by nadawi at 9:19 PM on July 10, 2010

I ended up working for a licensed Starbucks in a grocery store - it's not actually owned by Starbucks. I sort of fell into it - was working temporarily as a sample lady, and they planned to move me to cashier, but I'm good with customers. It worked out. If you're having trouble finding an actual Starbucks or mom and pop to hire you, that might be a route you could try for awhile, and then reapply to a "real" coffeeshop.
posted by honeybee413 at 9:29 PM on July 10, 2010

Response by poster: It's not so much that I'm having trouble finding a Starbucks to hire me, but more that I'm silly and vain and really see myself more working at one of those funky little mom & pop places. (And, yes, I definitely look the part.)

But if Starbucks is a good option for me, I'll certainly check them out - my main concern there is that they use automatic and not hand-pulled machines, and whether I'd be getting real barista training vs. just being a glorified burger-flipper. I have plenty of options for getting a paycheck, including staying in what has been my full-time career for the last 5 years. What I want is to get the job skill of pulling espresso.
posted by Sara C. at 9:34 PM on July 10, 2010

Don't take the stated experience requirements too literally. Just be honest and see if they're willing to hire you. Go in person to cafes and ask if they're hiring.
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:37 PM on July 10, 2010

I nth Starbucks (or the Seattle's Bests in Borders / Sbux in B&N) - I learned a whole lot about foaming, drinks, temperatures - I suspect that this would be some solid experience. I learned, however, how to pull shots from a catering company that worked big events. I worked my first day, an 8-hour shift at an oncologist conference, where I pulled espresso for the entire 8 hours (it was also kind of illegal working hours). It's not quite the coffee shop scene, but the necessity of pulling a good shot teaches you quickly.
posted by quadrilaterals at 10:28 PM on July 10, 2010

Response by poster: This is all great advice, guys! I'm sure that, by hook or by crook, I'll find someone willing to give me a chance.
posted by Sara C. at 10:32 PM on July 10, 2010

hang out in one or two of the shops a lot. wait for lulls, make conversation with the baristas, chat them up about how they got their experience.
posted by nadawi at 10:38 PM on July 10, 2010

Best answer: If you really want to be a barista, now isn't the time to be picky. When I left my old job six months ago, we were getting several applications a day. We could afford to be very choosy.

Your best hope is to apply to as many as you can to get a job at whatever shop offers you work and isn't totally heinous, and then simply search for a place you like better once you've got some experience there.

Besides, those Mom & Pop coffeehouses often won't pay you as well as Starbucks, which has scheduled pay raises, and they almost certainly won't offer the same benefits. They also tend to offer fewer perks, although this is highly variable. (I worked at a shop that roasted its own, and the profit margin on our coffee was low enough that employees could not have free beans. Starbucks, which mass-produces its coffee, offers its employees more free beans than many can even use.) As much as the corporate culture and awful coffee at Starbucks makes my teeth itch, I often envied my friend who worked there.

As far as getting that first job, it might take awhile since so many are looking, but experience isn't absolute requirement. Most managers' primary concern is reliability--whether you're responsible and self-motivated. The other things, like how to make a decent drink, can be taught. You're at a disadvantage without experience, but if you can demonstrate that you have those qualities, you have a major mark in your favor. If I had to choose between someone who had years of experience but seemed sort of flakey, and someone who had no experience but I thought I could trust to show up and do their best, I would go for the second one every time.

/former assistant manager at a mom & pop
//did some of the hiring
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:01 PM on July 10, 2010

I think the bigger problem is, New York is not a coffee town. Oh, I know I will likely suffer the fire of a thousand angry suns for writing that, but it's true, dammit. New Yorkers are happy with Starbucks on one end and Dunkin Donuts on the other. The supreme irony is that in every other way the city holds the breakfast crown: lox? bagels?! But coffee? Crap. I remember once walking two aves and, like 10 blocks on the upper east looking for a decent fucking coffee shop, and had to settle for a goddamned over-roasted Starbucks.

You want to master the pull, you have to get out of New York and move to Portland (either one) or Seattle.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:50 AM on July 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

You want to master the pull, you have to get out of New York and move to Portland (either one) or Seattle.

But that was the UES! You want great coffee, you need to go to where the coffee snobs are (that is, downtown and Brooklyn). I can personally vouch for the awesomeness of Bluebird Café, for one.

Counter Culture Coffee, who supplies Bluebird and a lot of the other fancypants shops, runs a coffee training center in NYC with courses such as "Intermediate Espresso," "Milk Chemistry," and "Comparative Cupping." It's for serious coffee, and that training may get you an in to coffee shops that would probably see Starbucks on your resume and throw it out immediately. Not free, but maybe worth it depending on your aims, and they are definitely legit, as CCC is one of the "Big 3" along with Stumptown and Intelligentsia. The courses are designed for their wholesale customers (read: shops that use CCC beans) but are open to the public too.
posted by The Michael The at 4:56 AM on July 11, 2010 [4 favorites]

Kutsuwamushi brings up several good points about the advantages of working for a starbuks. (Lord, the 17 year old me is dying of shame that I have good things to say about them).

HOWEVER, if you still are hoping to pursue a mom and pop store, here's an anecdote. When I was living in New York I had a boyfriend that was unemployed when he moved to the city. There was a coffee shop he really dug and decided he wanted to work there, but like you he had zero experience as a barista. So he went to the store daily. He'd occasionally bring anyone working there some muffins he made or whatever.He got to know all the employees, and they got to understand that he was a) looking for work and b) a cool guy. Eventually they trained and hired him, and he worked there for years. He learned to make some damn good espresso drinks.

Here are some perks to a mom and pop: This cafe dealt with a fair amount of crazy or semi-violent people. If someone was an ass to an employee, the managers and owners were fine with baristas banning people or kicking people out.

Here is where the benefits/pay issue comes into play at a smaller place: Yes, they had no benefits or regular raises. However, they were paid half of their paycheck in cash, under the table. This was seen as a benefit to many of the employees, and in a place like New York is semi-common in practice.

YMMV, etc.
posted by piratebowling at 6:24 AM on July 11, 2010

I've worked both at Starbucks and a Mom & Pop coffee place—they each have their perks and downsides.

But Sbux will hire you green as long as you're reliable and really super extra duper personable. Then they'll train you on their automatic machines which, if you're paying attention to how they work, can teach you all about how espresso drinks are made. The same concepts as a manual machine are there, but instead of unscrewing a handle to produce steam, you press a button. Instead of grinding beans into a portafilter and tamping them, the machine puts the shot together for you. But you still learn important bits like how long it should take to pull a shot, the right temperatures for milk, how to foam properly, how to pour certain drinks, etc.

So really, even though you're not getting the deep-down coffee-snob training you'd get fumbling around a classic espresso machine when you're at Sbux, you're still getting that basic education and experience that will come in handy later when the cool cafe finally loses one of their baristas to dred overload or lung cancer. Plus, yeah, the benefits are pretty darn good (the tip system is fair, 1lb. coffee/week, free drinks on shift, and health/dental if you work 20hr/week).
posted by carsonb at 7:00 AM on July 11, 2010

Also, one huge benefit of applying to Starbucks is that they're networked with their other stores. So the five you apply to don't have openings, but the next five down the road might be hiring and you can ask the managers to pass your app on, especially if they seem interested but don't have openings.
posted by carsonb at 7:04 AM on July 11, 2010

I totally get the pride thing, but let me reiterate what carsonb says above: Starbucks will not only hire you green, they will give you health benefits, even if you don't work full time. You gotta give that some consideration. Also, I live in the suburbs of Seattle -- even out there, there are something like 15 different places to get a latte in a 2-mile radius -- and while one independent funky place makes the BEST latte by a very wide margin, Starbucks beats out all the others cold. They train to a pretty rigorous standard; a lot of places exceed it, but even more don't.
posted by KathrynT at 7:30 AM on July 11, 2010

I can't make a link (on a phone), but another place to Google is Intelligentsia Coffee. They offer inexpensive barista courses in NYC.
posted by xo at 7:37 AM on July 11, 2010

Yep, it's worth repeating (again): I got my Sbux job after being laid off—their part-time health benefits were a huge factor in overcoming the 'pride thing'. Also, not only were they hiring in a downturn, they were eager to 'track' partners into management postions, both in-store and above.
posted by carsonb at 7:45 AM on July 11, 2010

Response by poster: I think the bigger problem is, New York is not a coffee town.

Actually, the bigger problem is that New York is in the process of becoming a coffee town. I live in Brooklyn, and we're in the middle of a coffee revolution. Every mom & pop cafe is trying to style themselves as super serious about great coffee - hence, I'm pretty sure, the somewhat ridiculous standards about wanting baristas with years of experience. It's not enough anymore to get a college kid behind the bar and put up a menu with a bunch of words ending in 'cino. You've got to roast your own self-sourced beans, do Australian espresso drinks in addition to Italian, bring in a clover machine, etc etc etc.

Though you've hit upon something, here - part of the reason I want to pick up a little coffee experience is that I see myself moving to somewhere like Portland in a year or so and figure it could be a good skillset to have up my sleeve.
posted by Sara C. at 8:57 AM on July 11, 2010

FWIW Starbucks owns Coffee Equipment Co, which makes Clover. I was trained on one at a flagship Sbux near my store.
posted by carsonb at 9:26 AM on July 11, 2010

Response by poster: Yeah, they bought the company last year. I've heard rumors that they are planning to wrest that particular tech out of the hands of the indie places and turn it into a S-bux thing. No idea whether that's true, or whether they just like squeezing $$$ out of the mom & pops however they can.
posted by Sara C. at 9:30 AM on July 11, 2010

I asked about that specifically when I had the opportunity, and the word is that Howard Schultz liked the product so much that he was pretty much forced by his ethos to acquire the tech. Like, if this is the best cup of coffee currently possible, Sbux must be serving it. Then I asked about all the other places that already had them and they said there was pretty much nothing they could do about that except keep selling the machines.
posted by carsonb at 9:54 AM on July 11, 2010

The vast majority of "Mom and Pop" coffee houses are shit and don't even know what a Clover is. They almost invariably have filthy, unmaintained old tanks for espresso machines that they got third-hand and have no idea how to use. See that built-up crud on the steam wand of that 30-year-old La Pavoni? That's a clue as to what the espresso (and, God help us, the "cappuccino") is going to taste like. "Mom and Pop" is where they pre-grind the espresso a pound at a time and don't know what a tamper is.

These are places to learn how to toast a bagel and how to work a cash register. They are NOT the places to learn about being a barista.

AND NEITHER IS STARBUCKS. Superautos at Sbux have destroyed the barista culture there. I have many friends in the indie/third wave scene here (Calgary, which has a third-wave coffee scene on par with Portland/Vancouver et al) and they--some of them--have started to ditch the applications they get from Starbucks employees because they have to unlearn EVERYTHING. They are more interested in people who bring a passion for coffee (and customer service) whom they can train. At Phil & Sebastian they start from scratch and it takes months for somebody to acquire barista status in one of their shops. Any decent caffe (beariing in mind that the vast majority are far from decent) will have an in-house training program.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 10:23 AM on July 11, 2010

Best answer: The Michael is correct - you need real training, and many high end shops would rather have someone completely novice with NO bad habits acquired through Starbucks (I heard this was the case when Intelligentsia was hiring for a new shop; they pulled in several new people with no coffee experience whatsoever, on purpose). That said, there are enough people out there with real barista skills for the small number of shops that really want them, so you've got an uphill battle if you're aiming for high-end coffee starting from zero.

You can boost your odds by starting a real home training program. Go to Sweet Marias and start roasting beans at home. Get yourself a Pavoni or basic Gaggia and start pulling your own shots. Read Home-Barista. I would be super impressed if I were hiring and someone could tell me about how they taught themselves cupping and blending. That's not going to prepare you for the volume aspect of a commercial place, but it will help you get started.

I've been home roasting for over a year and I would bet my life savings that I know more about coffee than someone who has been working in a Starbucks for a year.
posted by slow graffiti at 10:30 AM on July 11, 2010

Response by poster: So should I just bide my time and wait until I hear about a new "third wave" joint opening nearby (and they seem to be popping up in droves here in Brooklyn)? Keep f5-ing craigslist looking for that perfect ad? Apply everywhere? Give up until my at-home barista skills move beyond "grind beans" and "use french press"? Show up in Portland or Asheville or wherever, green, and expect to find a barista job?
posted by Sara C. at 11:14 AM on July 11, 2010

This wouldn't be so hard if you didn't live in NYC. The city is saturated with moonlighting writers, actors, etc who need flexible jobs and loathe office work, so there are more than enough skilled baristas for every adorable coffee shop in Williamsburg and the Lower East Side. I'd suggest asking people you know first - nearly everyone here has a friend who works in a coffee shop - and work personal connections. Post on facebook that you're looking for a barista job, get the word out, and be honest that you don't have professional experience. If you're just dropping off your resume at Angelica's or Grumpy's, tell the person taking the resume, especially the manager if you can get a hold of them, that while you don't have experience with espresso machines, you're a fast learner, have good people skills, and are willing to work flexible hours. Lots of places will give you the line about needing a year's experience simply to weed out people who will treat the job like a burger-flipping gig.
posted by zoomorphic at 11:41 AM on July 11, 2010

Response by poster: Re resumes. Having no food service experience, what should be on my resume? My old retail gigs from back in college? What I've actually been doing with my life in the past 5 years?

I'm coming from a career in film, which in a lot of ways makes me the ideal barista. Insane hours (including a lot of 5 and 6am calls), extreme commitment to work that is actually quite menial, people skills, reliability, and yep, the ability to make a damn fine cup of coffee. (I actually acquired the nickname "Sarabucks" on one production, for my legendary cafe au lait which the department heads would practically line up for.)

Hmm, maybe I should copy and paste that into my cover letter...
posted by Sara C. at 12:04 PM on July 11, 2010

Not a bad idea!
Sounds like you are prepared to handle rush hour at a busy shop. That's a great point in your favor.
posted by slow graffiti at 1:53 PM on July 11, 2010

If you find a really good shop, they may hire you to do non-barista work (cashier, bean sales etc.) while you train to be good enough to work the bar - especially if you can convince them that you're passionate about really good espresso drinks. Throw coffee knowledge, and a desire to learn more, into your super-professional looking cover letter and resume: real coffee geeks will be looking for evidence of your sincere interest in the product, not just the job. Be persistent, and good luck - being a barista in a quality cafe is a blast!
posted by Bergamot at 3:28 PM on July 11, 2010

Response by poster: Hey guys!

Since I am bored on the internetz and have recently posted a very different job-related question to AskMe, I thought I'd update you guys on my coffee quest since the advice in this thread was so good (and clearly given assuming I was asking in good faith).

I got a barista job at a very popular local bakery pretty much on the spot. Which is awesome, and tells me that, yep, I can definitely get this kind of work pretty much anytime I want it. Regardless of experience level.

However, while I was mulling over the job offer, I got a job offer for another gig on a movie. An offer which pays much better and is much less menial than steaming milk and pulling espresso shots. So I did the sensible thing and passed on the cafe job.

So for now I am still doing the film industry thing (hopefully only until November), with the knowledge that there is always a coffee-slinging "day job" waiting for me if I want it.
posted by Sara C. at 9:13 AM on July 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

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