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Barista as a Career

Working in coffee as a barista has a certain romance to it.  Crafting drinks, getting to know regulars and hanging out in a cool, hip environment certainly has its draw.  As a barista, you are the center of attention, you orchestrate the experience of the guest, and you (hopefully) do it all in a cool and relaxed manner.  To a lot of people, you have the dream job, one they daydream about while stuck in their offices and cubicles.  You love your job, but can coffee lead to a career?

In many European countries, the role of barista is held in high regard.  These are professionals who are expected to know all of the facets of their product, while being well versed in the preparation and presentation of the drinks.  It is a respected job, and it can be a career for the dedicated professional.

In the United States we often have a different view of the coffee professional.  There is a long running joke about the overeducated barista; the college grad that can’t find a job so they work in a café.  It makes a point that the barista position is perceived as a last resort; just a step above fast food.  It would appear at first glance that we don’t take the coffee professional seriously in our country.

I’d like to make the argument that although the coffee profession currently isn’t widely respected (in America), there is a shift occurring that will take hold in the coming years.

The American coffee market for decades has been fueled by the commercial profit system.  Americans know drive-through, mass-produced, industrial grade coffee.  We think of coffee as a commodity; jet fuel for our super-sized days.  Quality was nonexistent, and the only goal was keeping our eyes open while we moved through our days overworked and underappreciated.  It only makes sense that the person throwing the 40oz coffee out the window to us was not given any serious thought.

It is in the opinion of this writer that the momentum has changed in the coffee industry.  Consumers are more educated about their coffee, and they have become more conscious of quality.  A great deal of this change can be attributed to the success of some of the most respected roasters in our industry.  Over the past few decades they have grown to become household names across the country, raising the bar on the big-box coffee shops.  Although many of these pioneers have sold their brands, they laid the framework for our current appreciation of fine coffee and careful preparation.

Between the constantly improving quality of product, and a broadening customer base in the specialty coffee market, new opportunities are being made available for those working in the coffee industry.  Consumers are now willing to spend a little bit more for the specialty grade coffee, but they expect that it is made properly by a well trained and knowledgeable barista.  Enter the newly evolving coffee professional.

In the specialty coffee realm, the barista is playing a more important role than ever.  As technology advances, the barista is expected to make amazing drinks with consistency, accuracy and speed.  This takes concentration and precision.  Knowing the recipes for producing quality coffee are not simple, and adjustments often need to be made on the fly.

One of the best parts of the coffee industry is the lack of a glass ceiling.  There is a vast amount of coffee-related information publicly available, and anyone with an Internet connection can learn a tremendous amount with a little bit of research.  The playing field is now more equal than ever for anyone trying to enter the coffee profession, and advancement can more easily be achieved if initiative is taken.  Most of these roles do not require a formal education, so anyone interested can pursue them.

Beyond the role of barista, many café settings are the perfect opportunity to advance through the company, providing great opportunities for the employee and value to the company.  Cafes will need shift managers, quality control experts, logistic/scheduling managers, and in some cases importers, cuppers, roasters and research and development people.

With advanced support roles like these improving the quality of the product and experience, revenues in the industry have the possibility of increasing as well.  The truth may be that success in the field is entirely dependent on the individual, and the path that they choose to excel in.  The role of barista may no longer be a dead-end street, as long as both the café and barista are interested in long-term improvement of the coffee, café, and the staff.