How to take up barista-ing as a hobby?
July 27, 2006 12:16 PM   Subscribe

How can I combine my dream of being a barista with my full-time desk job?

I love coffee with a burning and passionate love, and I've always liked the idea of creating and serving fancy coffee drinks to caffeine-starved folks. Moreover, the prospect of working with real, physical food and drink seems like a refreshing counterpoint to my current computer-centric existence.

However, I'm not inclined to quit my current job in order to pursue this untried (and less well-paying) path. Is there a way I can take up barista-ing as a hobby? If I ask the local Peet's to train me and take me on as an intern for a few hours a week, will they laugh in my face? Could there be volunteer opportunities for this sort of thing? For that matter, is the job actually as enjoyable as I, in my naivete, hope it is?

I'm not really interested in setting up a home espresso system--I haven't the space nor the money, and there's only so much coffee I can drink by myself. So I'm looking for a way to serve coffee to other people, using other people's equipment.
posted by fermion to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Get a job as a barista for just one (weekend) day a week?

See if any soup kitchen in your area have this kind of equipment, and if they do, volunteer?
posted by joannemerriam at 12:18 PM on July 27, 2006

Why not just volunteer to fill in some hours at an indie coffee place in exchange for training? I'd say go with an independent outlet instead of a Peet's, since you're more likely to be able to work out a weird arrangement with a non-corporate coffee shop.
posted by Hildago at 12:19 PM on July 27, 2006

How about a part-time job? The coffee shops in my neighborhood are always looking for people to work weekend mornings. (For some reason the regular staff isn't too excited about coming in at 6 on a Saturday morning... hmmm...)
posted by peppermint22 at 12:24 PM on July 27, 2006

Well, fermion, if you had FILLED OUT YOUR PROFILE WITH YOUR LOCATION I might be able to help more, but I'll have to content myself with suggesting that you find a local coffee microroaster that has a coffee shop connected with the roasting facility. There's at least two that I know of in Portland, and you can usually find them.

Find a way to apprentice yourself to the bean-master, and learn to do the whole process on weekends and at nights... from finding beans, to roasting them, grinding and brewing them, and serving them the right way.
posted by SpecialK at 12:30 PM on July 27, 2006

Keep in mind that you're not going to find many places who want just a barista. If everything works out, you're going to spend most of your time being a cashier, cleaning tables, mopping up spilled drinks, that sort of glamorous thing.

And even then these days there's a very good chance that "being a barista" involves putting a cup under the machine and hitting a button for the coffee extraction part of the process.

Have you considered buying a good espresso machine for home and having friends over occasionally?
posted by mendel at 12:39 PM on July 27, 2006

second getting a part-time job. after graduating i got a job at a local indie coffeeshop, but they were only able to give me part-time hours. (in fact they were "only able" to give everyone part-time hours, the cheapskates). i spent a few months slinging espresso until i found a real job, and got to be very good at it. that's what i suggest you do.

and honestly, there's not that much to this. i think you're romanticizing a job which in all honesty kinda sucks after about a week or so. but you should do it, at least to get it out of your system.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 12:39 PM on July 27, 2006

You can absolutely find a part-time job and keep your day job. I worked maybe 10 hours a week on weekends at an indie place while working a full-time day job. I often said that I worked my full-time job to support my barista habit!

The easiest way to land a job is to get to know a manager and become a regular yourself. Your enjoyment of the job increases when you good place, work the same hours each week, and get to know the regular customers. I've never worked Starbucks or Peets, but at my shop, we were encouraged to invent specials and make drinks to suit our customers.

One tip: Avoid drinking the free coffee -- or at least, avoid drinking indeterminate amounts. Makes you jittery.
posted by mochapickle at 12:49 PM on July 27, 2006

Response by poster: Sorry about that, SpecialK--I'm terrible about online profiles. I'm in Los Angeles, specifically Redondo Beach or Long Beach (live in one, work in the other.) I hadn't even thought of talking to local roasters--that's an excellent idea.

The main reason I was looking at Peet's rather than indie shops is that the indie shops near me--much as I love their funky atmosphere and elderly couches--seem to serve coffee of widely varying quality. However, this might be rectifiable if I look a bit further afield.

And yeah, I'm probably romanticizing this. But I figure it'll be a Valuable Life Experience even if it's miserable.
posted by fermion at 12:55 PM on July 27, 2006

I love coffee with a burning and passionate love, and I've always liked the idea of creating and serving fancy coffee drinks to caffeine-starved folks.

I have never understood why it is the nature of humanity to not pursue our passion. Take the risk. Pursue your passion. Quit your job, and live your dream. One of life's greatest risks is never daring to take a risk.

...just something to think about. ;-)
posted by AlliKat75 at 12:58 PM on July 27, 2006

Perhaps you could convince your frim or office mates to buy a machine for the lunch room and you would assume responsibility for running the darn thing. Set some hours. 8:00-8:30, 11:00-11:30 and again 3:00 to 3:30 or something like that.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:59 PM on July 27, 2006

Make sure you keep it as a part time job. Don't even consider opening up a coffee shop of your own. Yikes.
posted by fcain at 1:00 PM on July 27, 2006

Barista jobs are a dime a dozen and aren't nearly as romantic as you make it sound (my husband was one for a few years). You can most likely find a part time job at a coffee shop nearly anywhere.
posted by agregoli at 1:08 PM on July 27, 2006

Being a barista these days, as mendel mentions, is about 80% pushing a couple buttons, about 20% menial labor. There's very little artistry left in it any more, nor is there appreciation for places that do still have artistry in them - coffee, and the shops that sell it these days, is a commodity, like everything else.

That said, if you're still into it, go small - find the most non-corporate, local, neighborhoody place you can and pursue it there.
posted by pdb at 1:12 PM on July 27, 2006

A coworker of mine has the same burning passion for coffee, and to satisfy it, he bought a rather expensive coffee machine for work, and makes espresso for all who are willing to chip in for the coffee beans and filtered water.

Making espresso at work allows him greater flexibility. He roasts his own beans, buys different beans, and can experiment to a much greater degree.
posted by zabuni at 1:44 PM on July 27, 2006

The romantic nature of the coffee bean is why I suggested working with an actual roaster. There's a place that may or may not roast their own, Joni's Coffee Roaster Cafe, that I can remember right in Redondo Beach. (My parents live in Cypress, so I kind of know the area even if I'm not from there.) There's a great place right by Sony Studios, but I can't remember the name.

If you get a job with Peets or another 'big' shop, they'll likely use pre-ground coffee packages that are brewed inside a machine. You never see, nor handle the beans .. nor do you have the liberty to experiment with tastes and flavors, to answer customers' requests, or to see anything but the mediocre McDonald's nature of that industry.

Comparing freshly roasted coffee from a small roaster vs Starbucks is like going on a wine tour in Napa vs Franzia.
posted by SpecialK at 2:02 PM on July 27, 2006

I can relate to your question. I had always had office IT jobs and then I started to work in a juice bar. I totally loved working with food, helping people directly, being active. I think it was a great job. Some customers were jerks, many were nice. Sure, the place had to be cleaned too, but I actually did not mind that at all. I liked doing everything, it made me feel more connected to the bar, unlike my IT job where I would do things like programming the database backend for an internal application that never got used anyway. I'd say go for it as a part time job. As you say: you will likely learn very much. The worst that can happen is that you do not like it after all.
posted by davar at 2:14 PM on July 27, 2006

Wow. I guess I would have never figured anyone would have such a desire to do that job, having done it myself for a while.

To answer the question, I would look for a part-time position on the weekend at an independent shop. Look for one that takes the coffee part seriously and does not view itself too much as the cool indie-film poet sort of place (these places have bad coffee).

Sneak a peek over the bar to see what sort of equipment they're using. Are they carefully tamping down the coffee themselves, and frothing the milk themselves, or is it all automated? If they are using a manual machine, with an arm you pull down to extract the coffee, work there, but I have never seen these places outside of Italy, so you will likely have to settle for some level of automation. You can still learn a lot. You should also examine the various drinks to make sure they are doing them correctly and carefully rather than just slopping stuff together.

I have had three coffee-related jobs when I was in high school and college: one at an independent shop, one at Starbucks, and one at a coffee cart. The closest to fun, and the one where I learned the most and made the best coffee, was the independent shop. Eventually they let me select and order their beans, and I used a great old Gaggia machine and learned how it worked. Still, the job was mostly boring.

The coffee cart was horrible. I mostly served hazelnut-flavored coffee to business school students. To this day I cannot stand the smell of hazelnut.

Starbucks was hell on earth, mostly. I was working there as a second full-time job because my other job was an internship. At the time, this Starbucks was either the busiest or second-busiest in the US, and we were often slammed. I did learn to turn out espresso drinks very very quickly (and I learned the now-defunct cup code system, which is kind of nice), but at times they would make you work the register or, God forbid, the Frappucino station, resulting in a general misanthropy and arms covered in sticky sweet Frappucino mix. I always smelled strongly of espresso and gained a couple of scars on my hands.

So, if you decide to do this, go with the indepedent place, or just take a course, I would say. Starbucks, and likely any other big chain, seeks to automate their processes as much as possible, both for efficiency and to ensure uniformity of product (are their machines now fully automatic?). Your training will reflect this.
posted by lackutrol at 3:24 PM on July 27, 2006

Oh, and will a chain-shop worker laugh in your face if you suggest an intenship? Yes. A bitter, over-roasted, over-extracted laugh.
posted by lackutrol at 3:30 PM on July 27, 2006

Response by poster: Just to clarify, the reason I mentioned Peet's is that, despite its chain-store nature, it seems to take a great deal of genuine care with its coffee, tries to do things in the "traditional" way rather than the button-pushing pre-packaged way, et cetera. I've been to some of the educational coffee tastings they hold, and the people working there really seem to love coffee and know their stuff. They spend a lot of time trying to educate their customers about good coffee and how to brew a better cup.
posted by fermion at 3:38 PM on July 27, 2006

Wherever you go looking for a job, tell them you're looking for a few shifts to save some extra money rather than talking about internships and a love of coffee. Either way you will spend time clearing tables and polishing spoons (rinse with the hottest, cleanest water possible and dry with the driest tea towel possible; on busy days finding the best place to dry tea towels quickly really can make a difference), but you will get rather fewer people giving you funny looks and giggling behind your back.

I have a BSc. I have a day job. Tomorrow I'm going back to do a shift I don't really need at the place I used to work, because I can still froth milk and wash dishes better than someone who used to be my boss, and because despite the frequent annoyingness of customers at this time of year, it really can be fun. And I don't even like coffee.
posted by Lebannen at 4:02 PM on July 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Some churches have been doing "coffeehouse ministries" in order to bring in the unchurched. You might be able to get some volunteer experience that way. The person who suggested a soup kitchen, on the other hand . . . maybe a soup kitchen in the Hamptons would serve espresso.
posted by rikschell at 5:47 PM on July 27, 2006

I seem to recall having Peet's once or twice (it's mainly a West Coast thing, right?), and I think I liked it OK, so I'm not knocking it. It's just that any chain will have a certain degree of standardization and the "right" way, sacrificing a bit of experimentation and basic knowledge about how stuff works.
posted by lackutrol at 6:36 PM on July 27, 2006

I was a barista at Starbucks for 18 months, using the manual La Marzocco machine. It was a lower traffic store, which made it pleasant in the afternoons when there would be 20 minute gaps of no customers.

Big chain or small shop, they usually need some BS products to keep profit margins decent. I mean, it's just coffee otherwise. And not everyone likes "bitter espresso".

Non-chains with low traffic would likely be quite willing to show you how to operate their machine. I think big chains would be too busy to bother and would worry about liability of having you touch anything. Burning steam wands and all.

Peets is very good for educating their customers. Some of the best you can hope for in a chain. And their COD (coffee of the day) is not burnt tasting like starbucks.
posted by umlaut at 10:58 PM on July 27, 2006

Fermion, I work at a bookstore with a cafe, and have spent a LOT of time in the cafe lately. Far be it for me to be a dream crusher, but . . .

For that matter, is the job actually as enjoyable as I, in my naivete, hope it is?

No, no, a thousand times no. Occasionally, OCCASIONALLY, you get someone who, when you ask "would you like the medium or dark roast?" doesn't look at you funny. I've had one guy ask me "Do you decaffeinate with the Swiss water process?" and I almost fell over when he did. Many people just want "a cuppa joe". Many people just want a latte, and some of those ask you for a cappucino and complain about the amount of foam. Many want whatever frou-frou high sugar coffee flavored drinks the cafe sells. There's lots of cleaning, register, wiping counters, blending stuff, heating stuff, dealing with people who think every coffee serving place they walk into is a Starbucks. Such a small piece of the job is talking about coffee and brewing to people who know and love it, making the perfect drink for people who appreciate it, perfecting the heart in the ideal cappucino. Even if you have a bunch of coffee lovers, you can't take the time to talk to them because there's always another person to ring, another dish to wash, another table to bus, another blended Crappucino to make. To facilitate speed, there's likely to be a mostly automated espresso machine, so there goes the individuality of pulling your own shot and steaming your own milk. Any chain shop has their own selection of beans, and the people who choose them and oversee the roasting of them. As a lowly barista, you're not one of them - you just get to unpack the shipment. Are there moments of joy? Yes, but they are few and far between. Add to this the fact that you currently work at a desk job. Food service is HARD. You are on your feet all day, moving back and forth, ass deep in soapy water at times washing stuff at a highly unergonomic angle, burning yourself on coffee, the oven, the dishwasher, some espresso, whatever. It is a highly physically demanding job. Me, bitter? Oh yeah.

Still reading? Your only hope (as others have said) is to work at a very small, very local, HIGHLY independent coffeehouse. You want one where the owner knows how to work the ancient machine, where to hit it with the hammer when it clogs, and how to fix it when it breaks. You want them to keep an old peanut roaster in the back to roast their own beans. Look for a sign that says "We're not Starbucks, we don't know what a Venti is, and we don't serve anything that requires a blender." Your food choices should be the chocolate chip cookies that the owner's mom made this morning, or the cafe next door. When you walk up to the counter, look for long hair, the occasional tattoo or piercing, and a gleam in their eye when you ask what they have brewed, where it's from, and what they recommend.

Become a regular there. Show interest in the coffee. Show interest in the machine. Bus your own stuff. Tip well. Smile at the baristas. Reach the point of regularhood where the barista at the counter says "Fermion, can ya watch the counter while I run next door for a sandwich? Tell folks I'll be right back." Ask "Can you show me how you do that?" "Can I help you roast beans some time?" "Where do your favorite coffees come from?"

Wonder idly if they could maybe use the occasional hand on the weekends or something . . .

Good luck.
posted by booksherpa at 8:45 PM on July 28, 2006 [10 favorites]

In a perfect world, someone would notice booksherpa's excellent flavour and depth, and offer to ameliorate her bitterness by hand-selecting her and taking her to roast somewhere on a nice beach.
posted by Sallyfur at 1:31 PM on July 29, 2006 [2 favorites]

Sallyfur, thank you for your kind words. My inherent flavors and oils are drawn out by a fine wine and good company, I find, and the bitterness is reduced to the merest whisper, shared in good humor. If someone would like to make a Kona bean of me, I'm available to roast in Hawaii.
posted by booksherpa at 8:10 PM on July 29, 2006 [2 favorites]

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