So You Want to Work in Specialty Coffee?

By Erin Meister, Counter Culture Coffee

“When I retire, I want to open a coffee shop.”

For years, those words rankled me. As a coffee professional with a decade’s worth of experience culled from trial and error (lots of error), I found the suggestion that someone would enter into coffee as a secondary or “for-fun” career offensive. In my younger, obnoxious years, I might have responded with, “Yeah, and when I retire I’m going to go into finance.” I viewed sweat equity as the only way to break into specialty coffee, and scoffed at those on the outside looking in from so-called traditional careers, their faces pressed up against the proverbial glass of our fancy-free coffeesphere.

Now, thanks both to the wisdom of age and the whittling away of youthful hubris, I’m actually thrilled when folks want to switch gears and enter specialty coffee—excited to meet and nurture the totally green, hopeful barista, or to give advice to the longtime café manager who wants to make the leap into the wholesale world. Any entrepreneur or mid-life career changer who’s passionate enough about coffee and community to want to risk everything on opening a café has earned my respect and my assistance, even if we’ve never met. And if you’re crazy enough to want to fly around the world and ride in the back of pickup trucks down dirt roads in search of the best and most sustainable beans, I’ve got your back.

So do countless other professionals who have been there and done that.

The “rising tide” mentality of specialty coffee we always talk about isn’t just talk: It’s shown in our actions, collaborations, generosity, and, yes, to some reasonable degree, even in the challenge of our mostly friendly competition with each other. To whit, I tracked down three industry newcomers—a barista in training, a daydreaming café owner, and a hopeful green-bean buyer—and linked them up with old hands in each field (myself included) for some sage words and friendly advice.

What dreams, fears, fantasies and questions do the tenderfoots have? How can seasoned veterans such as ourselves help grow the next generation of arabica addicts, and what pearls of wisdom can we offer these recruits? Let’s see how this tide is a-risin’.

The Barista

Sean Liljequest was drawn to specialty coffee not only because of his love of drinking the stuff, but also because of what he’s noticed from watching the barista coworkers he most admires at Joe New York, where he’s worked for the past four months as a barista-in-training (BIT): “What really drew me to Joe was that their baristas seem to have a lot of knowledge and passion about the coffee they’re serving,” Sean says, explaining why he wants to be among the ranks behind the espresso machine there. “They also seem to be having a good time. It’s a job, but it’s also more than that. It’s very communal, like a big family. That mindset was really different from past chain jobs I’ve worked at.”

So true: Baristas find more than over-caffeination on their side of the counter: There’s a kind of camaraderie that comes from sharing six, eight, even ten hours a day on your feet next to someone else, sweating in the radiant heat waves from the coffee brewers and cup-warming trays. Sean wonders how long it will take for him to be considered a “master” at this task, and does he risk carpal tunnel in the process? As a line barista with many years of coffee experience, I feel qualified enough to address some of Sean’s concerns myself.

In terms of becoming a really top-notch barista, there is something very Kung Fu: The Legend Continues about learning and growing with a portafilter in hand while keeping your ego in check: After all, as Kwai Chang Caine says, “The weakness of the jackal is his arrogance, and arrogance is the downfall of anyone who subverts the truth.” The best baristas are the ones who have the patience enough to practice; the determination enough to overcome their early bumbles and mistakes; the desire to constantly explore every aspect of the coffee industry; and the humility to realize that there is always something else to learn. (Oh, and an unwavering love of coffee. That’s an absolute necessity.)

To test your skills as a barista, and to gauge your progress on the path to “master” status, I recommend keeping a watchful eye on your coworkers—especially the ones you most admire. What is it about the way they work that inspires you: Is it their speed and efficiency? Their grace under fire? Their latté art?

Witness how they interact with the coffee and the environment around them. I’ll bet one thing you notice about truly gifted baristas is how quietly they work, and how cleanly: Attention to detail comes not only with time and experience, but also with care and consideration, as well as a deep respect for place, time, and company. You’ll start to notice that the best baristas in the world don’t need to overexert themselves in order to get the job done. (This is where the carpal tunnel thing comes in.)

Remember that every single action you do as a barista needs to be repeated for hours upon hours, days upon days—not only in order to get better at it, but also because, well, it’s a job. That being the case, consider each movement and each twinge of pain individually: If it hurts the first time, if it hurts the fifth time, if it hurts after a week, you’re doing it wrong. Tamping isn’t a strongman competition, Grasshopper: Lessen the force you use and fine up the grind instead. Milk doesn’t have to be steamed beyond recognition in order to be acceptable: Be sure to actually taste for temperature occasionally as you learn. More noise does not a faster or better barista make: Don’t bang, clack, pound, or even talk any louder than you need to in order to make swift, accurate movements and decisions.

Honestly, however, the best thing you can do for yourself as a barista is to have fun at it. Actually, that goes for every job in the industry: We are blessed to be surrounded by passionate, generous individuals at all levels in specialty coffee, and to serve customers who truly love what we are serving them. The more that you enjoy your job, the better you will get at it, and the further you will go. (Also, potentially, the farther you will go: Ever hear of a miserable and dispassionate barista being given the chance to visit a coffee farm? Didn’t think so.)

From the sound of it, Sean’s got that last part down pat: “I love everything coffee brings to the table: good people, good conversation, great social environment (no laptops, please!), the culture behind coffee and where it comes from, and getting to try phenomenal coffee every season,” he enthuses before adding, “Oh yeah, it’s super fun!”

The Coffee-Shop Owner

Stuck in a desk job and in search of a new challenge, Washington D.C. resident Greg Sensing has been having a lot of coffee-shop dreams lately. Not just about hanging out in them (though it sure beats staring at a cubicle wall), but of opening his own cafè.

“I do not have a background in coffee, but I am way past due for a career shift, and coffee is something I love and would really love to learn more about. My neighborhood really needs a good coffee shop and I have daydreamed out loud about the idea,” he says.

Though he’s unsure where to start on his specialty-coffee journey, he is wary of learning from books alone: “My impression [is that the] Coffee Shops for Dummies kind of books probably suck,” he admits. While I see the value in those kinds of books, I certainly can agree to a point. (Namely that, well, if you’re a dummy, maybe you shouldn’t open a coffee shop. But I digress.) “I am a true novice and would be very interested to hear from a real professional about steps to take to get on the coffee-business path,” he says.

Your wish, Greg, is my command: Meet Tim Noble, owner of Town Hall Coffee in Merion Station, Pennsylvania (and a forthcoming second location nearby).

“I fell in love with coffee in 1994 during my college years,” Tim says about his own start in the industry. “I also fell in love with customer service during those years, but it took almost ten years of another career before I [was] making coffee for my friends, hearing my wife say, ‘You need to start charging for that.’”

Many who harbor café fantasies but have little experience in the industry wonder whether their love of coffee alone is enough to turn someone from a dreamer into a doyen, which even Tim would likely answer, well, no: “Town Hall Coffee was conceived to chiefly do three things. First: Make money,” he says candidly, acknowledging first and foremost that any business is only as viable and sustainable as its financial health will allow. “I had an idea that Southeast PA had a glut of bad-to-middling coffee places. I knew that a simple program of trendy-good coffee and unmatched customer service—real customer service, not fast-food customer service—would win return business.”

“Secondly, I wanted to…leave the neighborhood better than when I started,” he continues, further echoing the sentiments of many café owners. “Third, I wanted to bring really great specialty coffee to the mid-Atlantic region. It continues to bring so much satisfaction to [change the minds of] people ruined on poor quality coffee. Blech!”

“You can educate yourself,” he advises Greg and any other hopeful newcomer to small-business ownership. “I interviewed—usually over lunch or drinks—every person I could who was doing coffee the way I wanted to do coffee. I owe such a debt to my friends in this industry, and I always try to live up to their example.” He is also an advocate for book learning, though maybe not of the Dummy variety: “I read the books—not just coffee, but business theory and the stories of successful people.”

Even Tim acknowledges that coffee-shop ownership won’t always be milk and honey—or milk and espresso: “You can know your weaknesses, but that isn’t a substitute for trying your best to overcome them. I’ve had moments when I’ve realized that something isn’t working, and that a change is needed: a gut-check. I’ve had moments when I’ve wanted to turn out the lights and lock the doors for a day. [But] I’ve never thought that my business wouldn’t make it. Never. Other people will do that for you all day long, so why waste your energy?”

“Wow, I feel like I’ve just been coached for the big game and can’t wait to get in there,” Greg says. He plans to tough it out in his current job until he can get some formal coffee education under his belt and wrassle some capital together, but there’s no telling what treats are in store for Washington, D.C. when he does.

 

The Green Coffee Buyer

 

Though they probably have the most coveted jobs in specialty coffee, green buyers aren’t all machete-slashing their way through jungles and shaking hands with farmers in return for sacks and sacks of exclusive, 90+ scoring coffee beans. Regardless of the reality-TV image, a good green-coffee buyer probably spends as much time on the phone and in front of a computer as he or she does in airports or walking among coffee plants. Still, the call of the green bean inspires dreams of all types: Including some from Jessica Lotak, who’s considering leaving a career in finance for one full of peaberries and plane tickets.

Though Jessica is a coffee devotee and has experience working with farmers and studying agricultural sustainability—she recently published a thesis account of her research, Farming for Sustainable Food Production: A Strategic Three-Pillar Approach to Rural Community Food Security—she is not as familiar with the specialty-coffee industry specifically, and hopes to learn enough to start chasing beans for a living: “I want nothing more than to dedicate my career to the authentic fair trade of green coffee,” she says. “Like many of us out there, I long for a career that holds deep meaning to both me and those I engage with, a career that provides a sustainable economic bridge between developed and underdeveloped nations, and a career that promotes the economic, environmental, social and cultural health of our planet, our communities, our families, and our future.”

But…where does one begin?

The first step, says Gabriel Boscana, green-coffee buyer for San Francisco’s Sightglass Coffee Roasters, is to understand the impact the buying role has on the folks growing and selling the raw material. “Every decision you make as a green buyer is affecting a group of people down the line in a very significant way,” Gabe says. “The greatest reward is twofold. On one side, you are helping the local community’s economy, people, [the] traditions of the place you are buying coffee from, and inspiring their neighbors to become better and more responsible, innovative producers. And you bring these folks’ hard work back to share with customers, family, and friends. It’s sincerely a win-win. We are the stewards of their work.”

“We have to be brave when we have to, and know when to step back and walk away if it isn’t the right relationship,” he continues. “I am honest about my feedback, and honest about my expectations and honest about rewarding folks who work hard to produce wonderful coffee.”

In order to begin to realize the complex relationship between actors on the coffee-supply chain, one must also first start to understand coffee: To answer a question of Jessica’s about what skills are necessary of a green buyer, Gabe replies: “Cupping and people skills. I think a history in coffee is fine, but a history in good…communication and understanding of pricing, coffee quality, and people is even better.”

“There is so much more than just cupping coffee involved in buying,” Gabe continues, though he acknowledges the huge significance that cupping has on buying ability, as well as an understanding of harvest seasons, weather, act-of-God-related risks, and market trends. “Knowing what to look for in coffee cultivation is huge, [as is] managing multiple relationships—producer, exporter, importer, farm manager—and timing, and spreadsheets. Negotiation skills are a plus, obviously, but mostly a love of your job will be absolutely necessary. Organizational skills are a must.”

As Jessica weighs her options and wonders how to develop herself as a coffee professional with a potential future as a green buyer, she naturally wonders where best to start dropping her resumé in order to maximize her learning, experience, and exposure to coffee—and she also worries a little bit about the hours and time away from home and family.

“I think the best path is to…start as a barista and get involved with the SCAA’s events, volunteer…and just keep tasting coffees,” Gabe says. “If you plan your travels correctly, this shouldn’t affect family time. Family is extremely important to me, especially now with my beautiful wife expecting our baby in late April! I take trips that are back-to-back in the same regions; I would much rather do a three- to-four-country trip in two weeks than do four three-to-four-day trips.”

“Everything is about planning and organization,” Gabe emphasizes again. “A green coffee buyer can work remotely, but they will need a home base lab. With Skype, email, and FedEx, you can pretty much work from anywhere, but lab accessibility is key.”

Says Gabe finally about the deep dedication he has to his job: “It is a huge responsibility, but ultimately one that is worth all the blood, sweat, and tears. It is a super meaningful and impactful job. I am seriously grateful to Sightglass for entrusting me with the responsibility.”

Specialty Coffee is a growing sector of an enormous market with seemingly endless opportunities and possibilities: There are so many hands at every step of the supply chain—from growers to millers to brokers to exporters to roasters to salesmen to café owners to baristas—that as a group we will always be looking for a few good coffee people.

Passion for the product and the vision of high-quality coffee, a commitment to sustainability and responsibility, and an insatiable curiosity are the fundamental qualities uniting anyone who has found success in a coffee-based profession. If those things describe you, and if you have the wherewithal to join this often-wackadoo little tribe, I think you’ll find that we’re happy to have you, and that there will be many helping hands and friendly faces guiding you along the way.

Erin Meister (just “Meister” to everyone in specialty coffee and beyond) is a member of the customer support team of Counter Culture Coffee, as a regional representative of the wholesale specialty coffee roaster’s education program: Counter Intelligence. She has been in the specialty coffee industry for twelve years, and is also a practicing journalist with a specialty in—you guessed it—specialty coffee. She’s also an avid home cook, a voracious reader, and a runner whether or not weather permits it. She lives and works in New York City.

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