i wanna be a barista, lalala.
September 30, 2011 1:53 PM   Subscribe

I love coffee. I may apply for a part-time job at a cafe. Have you ever been a barista? Did you enjoy it?

Before I commit to the job, I'd like to know what's the daily routine of a barista; in other words, tell me what you wished you knew before you started your barista job. About me: I love coffee (making it, drinking it, perfecting my techniques, talking about it--although I am not an expert and am definitely not snobbish about it). I am a grad student who would like the extra money but I'd do it primarily to learn, practice and get involved part-time (maybe between 10-20 hours per week).

About the place: I go (2-5 times a week) to this cafe/roaster located in a small city with both local clients and lots of tourists. I like the ambiance, the people, and they know me. They do make fairly good espressos, allongés and lattés and genuinely seem to care about it. They advertise the job as a starting position that may lead to table service (I have no interest in that) but I've seen people doing only barista work for a long time. So all in all, is there anything (positive or negative) I should keep in mind if I decide to apply?
posted by ddaavviidd to Work & Money (27 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
If you would have asked me at the time, I would have said that it was kinda grueling, the pay sucked, I didn't like the customers and it was exhausting.

Now that I have an office job of course, I look back at that time, when I wasn't alienated from my product, when I got to interact with lots of different sorts of folks, when I was only responsible for making good coffee drinks, as a sort of heaven.

Like any job, it has its downsides, but being a barista is pretty fun and not that stressful (less stress than working a bar). I liked the hours (early morning, done by early afternoon). The only major warning I will say is that pretty much every time I've gotten a service job at a place where I liked being a patron, working there has really ruined the place for me.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:59 PM on September 30, 2011 [8 favorites]

I enjoyed learning how to make all the drinks. I enjoyed learning about all the different coffees and espressos. I like to think I am a coffee snob, but in reality I'd be just as happy with microwaved Folgers instant.

Things to know: Don't wear site, eschew black as well. The first stains, the second milk shows up on.

Don't start the day with an empty tip jar. People are more apt to throw cash in one that already has cash.
posted by cjorgensen at 2:10 PM on September 30, 2011

every time I've gotten a service job at a place where I liked being a patron, working there has really ruined the place for me.

Lutoslawski speaks the truth about everything but especially that.

Also, have you worked in customer/food service before? That in and of itself will be an eye-opener aside from the specifics of working around coffee. If you haven't, look around for service horror stories to brace yourself against.

Also, I wouldn't apply if you're not wiling to also do table-service eventually. As that seems to be the goal of management, you should be willing to accommodate your team of co-workers and bosses.

Other than that don't wear clothes you're not willing get coffee stains on, and be prepared to have the true coffee snobs get snippy with you. Good luck!
posted by elleyebeebeewhy at 2:18 PM on September 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

My wife worked at one a while back, and her takeaway was that many of the customers paid money not for the coffee but for the right to treat the employees like crap.
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:19 PM on September 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

I worked as a barista in an independent shop in Indianapolis from 2002-2006.

Most of the other employees kinda cared about making good coffee. I think I made the best drinks (and was tipped accordingly), but I learned everything from tons of off-hour practice and following the advice of barista champions I stalked on the interwebs.

The facts:

• I made about 8 bucks an hour + tips. If I worked the (busier) morning shift, from 5:45am - 1:30 pm, I split about $80 from the tip jar with one other coworker.

• If its an indie shop (sounds like it is) you'll spend lots of time chatting up the SAME PEOPLE EVERY DAY. You'll learn all about people's personal lives, whether you want to or not. You may love this. You may hate it. Our shop stayed in business almost entirely based on our loyal customers who came in EVERY SINGLE DAY. I knew that when Philip came in, it was about time to start washing the airpots, when Shannon came in, it was almost time to clock out, and so on.

• You're going to be spending a lot of your time washing things. A LOT.

• You'll get to pull shots and perfect your craft, and then consume the efforts of your labor, which is awesome.

• Unfortunately, while you're perfecting the perfect shot, and working on the perfect cappucinno foam, 90% of the customers are gonna be asking for frozen, sugar laden, starbucks facsimile drinks. Unless you're in a town with a strong coffee culture, or an excellent shop (like an intelligentsia), you'll have to learn to deal with this and not be a snob about it.

All in all, I loved the job. I got to be around people I liked, listen to good music, drink lots of good coffee, experiment with barista techniques I read about on coffeegeek.com and made more than adequate money for the undergrad I was.

Hope that helps.
posted by teriyaki_tornado at 2:20 PM on September 30, 2011 [5 favorites]

I liked it. When I took a cafe job, I told myself I was only going to do it for a year, and that's what I did. I found it most enjoyable when things were challenging: someone called in sick, someone ordered a crazy drink, it was Christmas and we had lines out the doors. Otherwise it could get boring.
I learned a lot about coffee, learned how to make drinks properly (my cafe owner was a stickler- we roasted our own beans, back when hardly anyone did), rose to night supervisor, got bored and quit. I started with a great manager who trained us well and did all the same crummy jobs we did, and ended up with a useless one who only liked to sit in the back and eat sample pastries from the vendors.

I'm having a hard time coming up with the bad stuff- boredom, I guess. I like hard work, don't care if it's menial. I liked making amazing espressos and cappuccinos for visitors from Europe who were surprised and delighted that we knew what we were doing. I liked getting to know customers. I liked having the cleanest espresso machine at the end of the night, and everything organized and in its place. I liked closing the store with loud music playing and everyone rushing to get everything right and out the door. I liked big tips. I liked experimenting with strange coffee concoctions and trying all the different single-origin coffees we sold. So if you can be pleased by little things and not frustrated at dumb stuff, it's a fun job. I think the worst thing about it might be that once you really know how easy it is to make a decent espresso drink and how very few places actually manage to do that, almost all other cafe experiences become very frustrating.

Oh, I got to be the lone barista for the 3-7 am shift at Burning Man back in 1998, due to my coffee experience. So that was pretty cool.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:21 PM on September 30, 2011 [6 favorites]

I liked being a barista. You will spend a lot of time cleaning things, and a lot of time talking to people. My coworkers were interesting folks, and fun to talk to. Be prepared to burn the shit out of yourself until you figure out how everything works (and sometimes you will burn yourself after you know how everything works, too). My particular demon was the steam arm of the espresso machine--I grabbed it without a rag several times (d'oh!). Don't do that!
posted by zoetrope at 2:23 PM on September 30, 2011

one more thing, nthing, what people have said above, if you've never been in a food service/retail/service position, brace yourself. Working in a coffee shop has far more to do with managing/dealing with people than it does coffee.
posted by teriyaki_tornado at 2:24 PM on September 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

I enjoyed working the espresso machine back in the day. I still get a little chuffed when I remember how the singer in my favourite band (Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen - think faux slovakian cabaret) told me that he was always happy to see me behind the counter because I was the only one who made the coffee strong enough!

Good stuff: you get to focus on the coffee. Focusing on that one task allows you to get into a real rhythm of work.

Bad stuff: You're on your feet all the time, so you'll want good shoes (I used gel inserts too) and it's good if the cafe has that rubber stuff on the floor that stops people from slipping over. You need to be organised when it's busy and be ready to be making several different coffees at the same time.

Also, you mentioned you were a grad student. I worked in a little clothing shop when I was doing my PhD, and it was AWESOME. I got to switch my brain off and I got to talk to people. In my line of study, there were days where I didn't talk to anyone and the opportunity to just connect with people at the shop really helped me keep my small-talk skills going!
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 2:27 PM on September 30, 2011

I lasted a month as a barista and I hated it by the end. Mostly because it was mind numbing and repetitive, it was sooo hard on my feet to stand all day (and I was healthy), I smelled like coffee when I left (and I loved coffee before working there but couldn't drink it for months after I quit), and wearing black every day got boring. The people I worked with were really friendly tho (but not exactly people I'd be friends with, for various reasons), so if you happen to have fun coworkers, it's not a terrible job, besides all the negative things I listed.
posted by never.was.and.never.will.be. at 2:27 PM on September 30, 2011

I love coffee but I didn't love it for a few years after working as a barista. (I also didn't love ice cream for a few years after scooping it day in and day out.) Because you're SATURATED by the scent. You smell like coffee and like milk all day and all night, and then you drink it all day, then you're like OH MY GOD I have to stop drinking so much coffee, because MY PILLOW smells like coffee, and then you do give it up mostly, and then you're tired and cranky, and then one day you're the only one on shift, running the drink pit and the register, and you've been there for like five hours, so finally you make yourself a giant monster espresso drink that everyone jokingly calls the Velvet Hammer, with like five shots and water and some half and half and sugar, and then, because you're STILL the only one working, because everyone you work with is a lazy selfish musician or actress or, even worse, "writer," and you realize you either have to literally lock up and close the store so you can go to the bathroom NOW RIGHT NOW or just go ahead and crap your pants.

Also the customers. Fuuuuck them.

I liked everything else though!
posted by RJ Reynolds at 2:43 PM on September 30, 2011 [9 favorites]

Part-time. It was a lot of fun. I'm a computer scientist most days, and barista work on weekends was refreshing.
posted by krilli at 2:50 PM on September 30, 2011

I loved it! I worked at a little independent place for three years in college and I long for those days (also work in an office now). The place I worked was a really relaxed work environment--I got to put whatever I wanted on the stereo (usually classic rock), wore what I wanted, and got to snack on the all the other yummy food we sold. The customers were very cool, in my experience (but it should be mentioned that this was in Santa Barbara so it was mostly rich hippies and college kids). The place you're considering kind of sounds like my place--I went in one day to get coffee and was like, THIS PLACE IS AWESOME! (lots of cool art on the walls, good vibe) so I applied. Getting up early is hard--I always considered myself a total non-morning person but I kind of wanted to challenge myself and I totally got used to it--actually came to really like the idea of putting in 8 hours of work and being done by 1 (time FLIES in the morning, especially if you're busy).

I wouldn't recommend working at Starbucks (all the corporate rules blow) or--at the other end of the spectrum--a fancy-shmance place that takes coffee WAYYY too seriously (I worked at one of the latter for a month after college, totally out of desperation, and it was just THE WORST-THE WORST...it almost even tainted my previous experience of working in a coffee shop) If you like the vibe of this place, go for it. The place in SB was the best job I ever had.
posted by lovableiago at 3:12 PM on September 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

As folks have said, being a good barrista is as much about dealing with people as it is about preparing coffee. How much you enjoy this will depend on the kind of clientele you attract. The location of your store is very important in this regard so look around and see what is nearby and what kind of person you'd want to talk to every single day.
posted by Winnemac at 3:16 PM on September 30, 2011

I liked being a barista. The making of the drinks was like alchemy and, being a people person, I enjoyed the interaction. I have done some fast-paced kitchen work and this was more mellow, even when we were slammed. Unlike bartenders, you don't have to deal with asshole drunks and you don't have to worry about serving anybody underage. There is a lot of washing up but, since you really aren't dealing with serious food, it is pretty easy. Plus, when you are learning, you get to drink the results.
posted by Foam Pants at 3:23 PM on September 30, 2011

I really liked it. I'm kind of an introvert but I like being nice to people, and making the drinks is fun. It's the kind of job where being busy is a blessing (like cashiering, in my opinion). Going in/getting off early is great, and like someone else said, the cleaning isn't do-or-die. Free coffee in the morning, A+

It's true, though, coworkers can be kind of flakey. And both bosses I've had have been assholes, and were the reasons that I quit/turned down both jobs.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:32 PM on September 30, 2011

I worked as a barista for about a year at a large Seattle-based national chain. I really liked it. Loved the people as I'm an extrovert. Especially my co-workers - what interesting bunch! An aspiring rock-star, a middleaged recovering drug addict, a cute little teenager. It was not grueling work and there was no deep-frying or patty-flipping. Often we had great tips. If you are a people person you'll probably enjoy it. There are always evil people in customer service but there are also awesome people. The free food was great, at least the salads and sammies. Too many free goodies were not good for the weight, though.
posted by bijou243 at 3:54 PM on September 30, 2011

I worked in cafés just after high school and throughout college--1989 through about 1993. One thing I can say is that being the artsy latté and cappucino making guy is only one thing you will be doing. Most places you have to rotate, so you end up being on the register, selling beans by the pound, making the sandwiches, washing the dishes, counting the cash, all that stuff. The Rise of the Frappucino was after my time, but at one of the places I worked, they had a "mocha shake"--something every employee hated to make. One of those ice cream-coffee things. Of course, it was the most popular item. My advice is to not be a dick about stuff like that. Not everyone knows or cares that it is sacrilege to drink those things.

Good things I remember about these jobs were the forced exposure to people--now I work in an office and see the same folks every day. Back then, I saw a constant stream of regulars and new folks--some of whom were complete assholes, some who were great. Some treated me poorly for the amount of money I made, but that's life. I also learned about coffee roasting.

I remember the simple satisfaction of making a beautiful layered double cappucino in a glass mug.

And one of the major bonuses of this type of job: It is over when you leave for the day. Hoo boy.
posted by Kafkaesque at 4:13 PM on September 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I worked as a barista for a small, local coffee shop in high school and the first part of college. I miss it and have been thinking about going back to a coffee shop part time.

The Good:
Getting to know the regulars was a surprise and I still think about some of them from time to time. It was nice.

Pulling shots and making drinks was the highlight of the job for me. I really took pride in it, and would love to work with a professional espresso machine again. Watching barista porn on youtube is only making it worse.

I also really liked washing the dishes. Seriously. Yes, we had to clean a lot, but it was satisfying. I would go back into the kitchen and just channel Dishwasher Pete.

Getting to know the beans. I got to try all sorts and it really opened my mind. My parents were of the "dark roasts or nothing" variety, so learning that light roasts are actually good prepared me for the current wave of roasting.

The Bad:
Customers who wanted to talk down to me for no apparent reason. This was especially bad because I was always the scruffiest (hello, stains and weird arbitrary uniform guidelines), but lots of the suburban moms would take it out on me that we didn't do blended drinks. Also, sometimes customers were a little too friendly and it got weird.

The gift wrapping. I hated it. We sold tea pots and stuff and offered gift wrapping and I sucked at it so bad. Which leads me to the next point...

Weird management. My coffee shop was family owned. One half, the roaster, was very lax on a lot of things. The other half, the business manager, was very uptight. Navigating that dynamic took work. The main thing I grew to hate was the middle managers. A couple were very easy going and just enjoyed working there. A few saw it as their proving ground and a means to step up into something bigger. They had weird expectations and didn't understand why most of us didn't take the job so seriously. Their micromanaging (such as forcing me to spend an afternoon tying bows just to prove I couldn't) ended up driving lots of people away. Take it seriously, as you should any job, but it's not life or death.
posted by kendrak at 4:42 PM on September 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

This question might be of use to you. Here's my response in that thread.
posted by booksherpa at 5:23 PM on September 30, 2011

Reading other people's responses made me want to add one thing- I was an excrutiatingly shy person before I took the job, and having to work register and greet people really helped me a lot.

The Rise of the Frappucino was after my time, but at one of the places I worked, they had a "mocha shake"--something every employee hated to make.

We had one too, called a "frappe machine". You could get a latte frappe or a mocha frappe, and we would pull a double shot, pour it into a mixing pitcher with ice cream base, add two shakes from a parmesan cheese-type shaker of finely ground beans, and the machine would blend it with ice. One of two bad customer memories I have from that time was a woman coming in when I was training someone on the register. The woman ordered a "latte", watched me walk the person through every step on the register, watched me make the entire drink (we had a low counter with the machine on the opposite wall, so customers could see the shots being loaded and pulled and then the drink assembled on the counter in front of them), and then when I slid it forward said as rudely as possible while pointing to the frappe machine, "I wanted one of those". I said, you said latte, and she said again, "one of those!" while pointing at the sign on the machine that said LATTE FRAPPE. So I made the drink: pulled a double ristretto, poured in the ice cream mix, grabbed the shaker of espresso grounds, and out of sight put in twenty-five shakes of espresso. I hope she was up for days.*

*we were a very clean shop and never messed with people's food in bad ways, though sometimes one of the other supervisors would get pissed at a customer and tell me "burn this lady's milk!" This was the one and only time I deliberately took revenge on someone for being a jerkwad.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:14 PM on September 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Aw man, I look back with extreme fondness at my cafe days. I worked in a cafe at a train station, and was there to open the store every weekday morning at 5 am. I loved the rapport I built with our regular commuters - having their order ready by the time they reached the counter, and let's be honest, people tip better when they feel that they're a "regular." I have a corporate job now, but it is my dream to own my own cafe. I am a total introvert, but coffee is an amazing common bond - you provide an invaluable service to people, providing their morning caffeine, and I was lucky enough to have customers that understood that relationship. It's pretty grueling, if you have an early morning shift especially, but I found it to be worth it.
posted by Ruki at 8:56 PM on September 30, 2011

I worked as a barista for 7 years, 4 of those at one of the best coffee shops in the world.

As a semi-introvert it was pretty hard going for a while, but I got really good at it (championship and everything). I still love coffee and the place I worked. Our customers were awesome, and we did more brewed-to-order black coffee than any other drink. I left the job to pursue something that was even more fun.

That said, on a general basis, the job pays a pittance. It helps to have a passion for it. I know Vancouver and Vermont in general has a good specialty coffee scene, but I'm not so sure about Quebec.

Being a good barista requires constant attention. You can't ever take shortcuts when you make coffee. Everything should be spot on every single time. After a time, you'll be able to do it faster, but it should still be correct every single time. Emphasize working to improve/decrease spillage (milk left in the pitcher; waste of coffee when dosing).

Never pre-grind a lot of coffee. At the fineness espresso requires, it's going to dry out noticeably in less than a minute. Never re-steam milk, as the sugars have already been coaxed out, and you can only make it taste worse.

Realize that there is a difference in milk texture for lattes and cappuccinos when you make them. Cappuccinos should have dense, thick microfoam at least an inch deep in a 5oz cup. Lattes should have much less, obviously.

There's so much more to this than I can take the time to write right now, but feel free to memail me.
posted by flippant at 3:28 AM on October 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

i "baristide" for a few years: one summer at a small chain that is now basically extinct, and much longer at a single local place.

i found that the actual coffee part of the job was unmemorable, apart from your clothes (and especially your shoes) reeking all the time, but IMO it's a good reek.

as is true of nearly all such jobs, the customers were the worst part. whatever type of coffee shop it is, they think they're sophisticated for being there, which leads to some of the unusually shabby treatment detailed in previous replies. Not all customer-oriented jobs are as prone to it as the coffee shop, but then, some are much much worse. only once did i actually have to hold back the urge to punch a customer, so there's that.

teriyaki_tornado nails it re: getting to know regulars better than you want to. i learned way-hay-HAY too much about one very sharey regular who i later learned (to my distress) that i had a family-acquaintance-type connection with. Luckily i had long since quit by the time i learned this!!! Xo

all in all, it wasn't as stressful as i feared it would be, though that may have been partly due to my (A) pleasant and (B) workaholic boss.
posted by fetamelter at 10:40 AM on October 1, 2011

Deciding to be a barista because you love making coffee is like deciding to be a geisha because you love playing the shamisen. I mean, it sure helps, but the social interaction is what your regulars are really paying you for, and it can be hard work, emotionally, to keep your game face on. I found it completely draining at first, but a couple of years of barista-ing nudged me towards extraversion, I got kind of good at it, and now I sometimes miss it.
posted by milk white peacock at 12:40 PM on October 1, 2011

I worked as a barista for nearly two years at a coffee shop in the midwest that was run like a bar (late 90's). 3 pm to 3 am, live music 5 nights a week, table service (with sandwiches), smoky as hell and filled with a mix of recovering addicts and college students. Most fun I've ever had at any job. I even hung out there on my off days.

My experience was obviously different as our primary clientele weren't the people on their way to something more important ... We were the destination.
posted by Jacob G at 1:08 PM on October 1, 2011

7-year (ex)barista here, who worked at an indie roastery and also a pilot store for a local chain.

I'll nth:
- Regulars as the majority of your day and business, good and bad. Most of them are great, interesting people, and if your shop has a rep as a craft location you'll spend lots of time educating about drinks, roasts, origins, and the craft in general. I love this part, but YMMV. Some will be the cantankerous, bitter sort, or the EVERY DAY I WANT MY GIANT COFFEE MILKSHAKE type. Fortunately these folks are less numerous. Every so often you'll develop a lasting relationship with someone who will chat with you about books, music, art, etc.
- You're on your feet all day. If your shop doesn't have them already, the cushy industrial standing mats will save your knees. Gel insoles with arch support also help.
- You will reek irreparably of coffee and whatever else goes on at your shop. Especially on roast day. Learn to love it, or not. I found it to be worst when hung over.
- I wore a black T-shirt and jeans with a black apron at the waist every day. Coffee in its many forms gets everywhere, more so than milk or other liquids.
- You'll learn how to discuss tasting with others, estimate temperature with your hands, and volume without measurement (among other things). Handy for sure.
- Management makes a huge difference in whether you hate your job. I was fortunate to work for fantastic people who loved coffee and the culture even more than I did, and who understood that hiring an early-20s architecture major meant occasional stress and some strange habits.
- Morning and day shifts are the sweet spot, because generally you get the friendly regulars who tip well, you don't have to deal with the teenage wifi campers, and you don't have to kick people out at closing or do all the end-of-day cleaning. But you will likely have to work up to the good shifts, and put in your time as a closing helper first.

flippant said it well upthread: Being a good barista requires constant attention. You can't ever take shortcuts when you make coffee. Everything should be spot on every single time. After a time, you'll be able to do it faster, but it should still be correct every single time. Emphasize working to improve/decrease spillage (milk left in the pitcher; waste of coffee when dosing).

The SEAL motto of "slow is fast, fast is slow" definitely applies here. Rushing never saves time, but thinking and breathing always do.

I never stopped loving coffee.
posted by a halcyon day at 7:28 PM on October 1, 2011

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