Cafe owners, (specifically small business, but corporate as well) must make several important decisions when opening up a new shop. Who will be the roaster, or do we roast our own, what brand of espresso machine, drip or press, what size refrigerator and freezer? These are all very expensive decisions to make, but they will all be necessary for the business. You will pay what it costs to finance, purchase, or lease these items because without them you have nothing. Many places sink a great percentage of their start-up money into designers and designs for the counters, walls, floors and outsides of the space to ensure an inviting atmosphere. The inspections and certifications finally get completed and you hire up some kids, whom you know are in a transitional period in their lives, offer the smallest wage the local workforce will accept, and open up your doors. You have just put tens of thousands of dollars of machinery in the hands of youngsters who let their last bicycle rust to crispy flakes on the back patio because after it got that first scratch, well let’s be honest, they just didn’t give a shit anymore. What the hell, they didn’t pay for the thing themselves anyway, so they have lost nothing.

Maybe this doesn’t describe exactly what type of employee you have hired, but we both know that this accounts for an overwhelming percentage of espresso technicians and persons behind the counter. Yes, there are places that put a great deal more thought into their staff, but what I describe is the unfortunate trend. This goes even for those owners who dream of a top shelf business and have envisioned a level of quality and service for their own establishment that has driven them to quit their very secure-money-making-retirement-plan jobs to enter the romanticized Sauna of self-employment. It quickly turns into a Hot-Box.

Conventional wisdom (which I have on many occasions found to be incorrect) dictates that you never have more staffers on the clock than you need to run the cafe, or else you are, as the Feng Shui tells us, letting money flow out the door. This leads owners to the time honored tradition of “learn while you earn through osmosis”. Get behind the counter, press this, dose this, squeeze, ok a little bit more, good, ring it up. It just doesn’t make good sense to run up the “payroll” with extra employees who are just training, but not serving. So the big fault here is thinking of “payroll” money in a separate and unique category from “start-up” money. You treat these two lumps in a different manor, and with a different attitude. You need the equipment, so you pay for it. You need the supplies, so you buy them. You have to have the real estate, so you lease or purchase. You need a crack team of Baristas, or you are pushing swill. There is no way around that. If you do not make the up-front investment in having the staff expertly trained, you will struggle with inconsistent product, luke warm branding and client loyalty, and an ever wavering reputation for quality or lack there of. Then you find yourself desperately trying to make cost cuts in every possible area to make the business profitable. The bread could be cheaper, the bakery is too costly, the employee discount is too big. You will be chasing the wrong dragon for the limited life of the cafe. Before you know it you have run out of financing, your spouse has left you (I have seen this time and again), and you are locking the doors for the last time. The cost of training is a start up cost that must be put into every employee and new hire.

Look at Intelligentsia; trainer, Cafe Grumpy; trainer, Vivace; trainer. Successful businesses put time and money and energy into serious training and certification. They are making this kind of investment in the same young, transitional college kids that the others are hiring, so don’t tell me it is not worth the investment.

Enough lecturing, I am sure I am preaching to the choir anyhow. My dilemma is this: my coffee boss tells me he has this grand vision for the cafe, he wants it to be all that it can be, he is aware of inconsistencies, he knows that I can turn it around. I have agree in concept, but I have no intention of under pricing myself. I spent several years negotiating contracts with clients (in another line of work) and selling myself short over and over. That era of my life is over. His financial means is now apparently not able to back him up, or he is unwilling to find the financing for it. But I can’t help but get the feeling that there are expectations now as to what I should be doing. How come I have not trained the new girl yet? Why isn’t the Barista party organized by now? Where are all these great coffee ideas we have been hearing about? How come there are not more new procedures set in place. Well, my pay check seems to indicate that I am low wage counter help.

I have been feeling more and more accountable to the poverty stricken coffee pickers and struggling farmers to do some justice to the work and effort they put into their agriculture, especially since I met Aida Batlle. I have many of the best coffees in the world pass through my hands, and it kills me to think thatI might let the roaster down by leaving it in the bag for a week before brewing it up. There are so many things that can go wrong with the bean before it gets to me, the Barista. If I get an excellent coffee, grown and picked and sorted by hand, stored and shipped with care and urgency, roasted with scientifically diagnosed precision, and brought to the peak of freshness, I might be the one to ruin it and extract it into pure shit. It is my intention always to make it as good as I can, but as I look around I constantly see 99.9% of all espresso shots come out like crap (in the shop where I work and all the others I visit, though I would like to think I am personaly hitting above 50/50).

This is my plea to cafe owners and future entrepreneurial hopefuls. For the love of God, please make the investment into your staff, because they are the front line of your business, and the last point of coffee’s long journey.

  1. like your thoughts – ever interested in training for us?

  2. I am starting a new job at the end of January for a roasting company as a client trainer and equipment tech. That’ll be my full time gig as a get out of the office cubical of a structural engineering firm (I’m no engineer myself, just working for them).

    You can send me communications to my email if you have some ideas for part time or after hours stuff.

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