This is one of my favorite pieces to try to describe what we do as espresso pros….it started out as an in-house Quality Control (QC) memo but I hope you find it useful.
Mission, Style and Artistry
The espresso pro is so many things at once, a host, an artist in a highly technical culinary art, a performer on an exotic glittering stage, counselor, listener, friend and purveyor of caffeine. People come in dim and dappled and they need their coffee. We do our magic and shazam, time to rock and roll. (The ultimate transformation by coffee has been depicted in a Gennedy Taratofsky episode of “Dexter” entitled “Coffee”.) This the first reality of the barista: seeing and greeting people that may not be ready to face the world.
Here I reveal my dinosaur leanings…after seventeen years I am very concerned to be a good, approachable host. What is the style that allows a pro to put people at ease that are shuffling along pre-coffee in the morning? It is compassionate listening that makes you approachable day after day by the widest variety of people. Many espresso bar owners advocate a high chat style in a barista with lots of intrusive personality and flattering comments. I call this the personality trap. It may increase sales for a year or so, but ultimately the chatty one moves on, and the many of her customers may go with her. Putting out a lot of chat is also difficult on the barista, seeing 400 people a day, and they will burn out. To be a long term pro, a barista must conserve energy and use it where it counts, speed and quality. Also, if you are intent on making people feel great with flattering chat, you attract people that need that. Again, my approach is old school: I believe that when they come in my door they want a cup of coffee, my customers already have a life.
(Therein lies my only issue with the barista contests. They are very good for highlighting this new profession and developing skills to create beautiful espresso coffee. And they offer a few winners a career path in barista training and consultation. But they focus so much on the barista as a sort of a star that the young winners can get a self centered attitude and come to believe the whole thing of being a pro-barista is a showcase for their talents. Perhaps points for gracious, approachable style should be awarded. A customer can feel left out of this quite easily…and ordering a cappuccino can feel like getting guitar lessons from a rock star.)
So the encounter begins with eye contact. I would like my barista to make eye contact with anyone within the door within a few moments after they have crumpled in. Human beings are an aggressive, territorial species, and this says “ welcome to my space”. A nod to say”be right with ‘ya” is all you may have time for, that’s fine, the eye contact says welcome. Once they are in it is time for…
This business is based on regular customers. And if your concept is gourmet, the customer is possessed of enough sensitivity to appreciate the difference in your espresso. A sensitive person may not want a lot of personal conversation every day before coffee so I teach my staff to try to stay away from leading questions such as “how ‘ya doing today?” (Whadda ya’ mean how am I doin’ today? I am doin’ without my coffee that’s how.) Focus the encounter right away on the customers needs, using phrases like “what can I get ‘ya?”, “coffee time?” or that reliable old standby “good morning”. Keep it simple and welcoming to be approachable every day.
Then, you listen and get it right. Repeat the order back to them, emphasize the details they have stressed such as not too hot, or vanilla but not too sweet. The number one key to speed on a bar is getting the order right the first time. To endear them to you forever memorize the drink within two visits and simply greet them with “the usual today?”. People yearn to be acknowledged and listened to in our highly paced urban cultures and this is how we honor their choice to come in…we listen. When they need to talk you will know it. And, of course we chat when a customer initiates it and we have time. We would not be in this business if we did not like people.
So first and always you are a respectful, approachable host to your establishment.
is a dance of fluid efficiency. As a performance art, making espresso is clearly a case of the form following the function. The function, of course, is to prepare the finest espresso drinks in the shortest amount of time. And because it is a culinary art, people will consume the coffee, so every action must ooze confidence. This was the quality I most admired in the Italian baristi I observed, a rock solid underlying confidence that infused their motions with almost feline grace. And moving with a silky smooth physical style mimics the beauty of the espresso oozing from the spouts, or the velvet undulations of the steamed milk forming the rosetta patterns in the cup. Smooth efficiency is also the number two key to speed on a bar. Rushing will slow you down with mistakes and creates anxiety in the customers watching your performance. At best, the performance of the barista and the culinary art being created share same flowing style. And as any serious music student knows, the key to confident performance is in the preparation.
First, set the stage. Any smooth performance begins with all the props being where they should be. Arrange your work area according to your working style. For me, milk containers should be opened in advance ( I hate wrestling with the little plastic rings, or worse, forcing open reluctant paper cartons in a slam), and arranged for easy access in your refrigerator. Syrup bottles are shiny, not sticky, and arranged in order of usage, with vanilla and almond right up front. The all-important rag hierarchy is established with a porta-filter wiping rag, counter-top rags (sanitized), steamer rag, and floor rags to act as mini-mops for small disasters. Back-up rags are one step away. Cups both porcelain and paper are clean and well stocked. Porcelain, of course are stocked on top of the espresso machine to pre-heat them. Back-up stock is one step away. Grinders should be detailed and stocked with fresh coffee, the back-up coffee within arms reach. Utensils, coffee brushes, scrubbing pads for the brass brewing surfaces, a small tool kit, band aids, pens, foam spatulas, and on and on…everything where it should be before the door is opened. Beginning to get the picture…
Good, because you are an important aspect of the picture. The espresso professional, at minimum, should present a clean appearance in grooming and clothing. Beyond that minimum, some style and flair is nice. Me, I favor dark tight fitting knits and a black or dark brown four-way apron around the waist. No chicken slaughtering, full coverage apron for me. (Yes, yes…I know that I cut my first video, Caffe Latte Art in a very purple bib-apron….ahhh…whadda ‘ya gonna do?) I like to look sharp and sassy, vaguely Euro-mutt, and always urban. For my staff I allow a wide range of personal style because I need them to be comfortable first and foremost to do a top job. But they must be clean.
Because it is a culinary art polished professionalism is the best style. This can be reflected in each motion a barista makes, packing, steaming, and pouring. One of my five-year baristi, Kasey, displays his artistry from the moment he picks up the packer. He has a flourish when he a picks up the packer to address the coffee. He sweeps it off the counter and the packing head sort of does a little circular motion on the way to the porta-filter, which he repeats after tapping. The circular embellishment is not dramatic and large, it is smooth and subtle, having developed naturally over thousands of shots. You have to be watching to notice…beautiful. It is his signature as a very experienced culinary artist.
Free pouring caffe latte art is the grand finale in this two minute dance. Even after sixteen years of watching these patterns ooze forth from our steam pitchers I still find them mesmerizing, and so do our customers. It is a classic finish that will stand the test of time. The beauty of the free poured patterns is that they are a natural extension of the behavior of the two liquids, espresso and steamed milk, combining. The sensuous, flowing form of the rosetta pattern echoes the viscous beauty of the espresso pour itself. They are silky foams doing what they want to do. The velvet beauty of the rosette is accomplished with an effortless flick of the wrist, and is never labored or time consuming. Again, it is the form following the function that is the mark of the professional.
For heavier foam, such as we prepare for cappuccino and espresso macchiato, the heart shape is my favorite to pour. The master of these patterns is Luigi Lupi. He is a very talented Italian barman, working in Verona Italy, that has decided to share his artistry with the world through a video entitled “Decorated Cappuccinos”.
There is another school of latte and cappuccino art that employs a scribe-like tool to draw the foam into beautiful patterns reminiscent of the swirls employed by French pastry chefs. Although these cappuccini are beautiful, laboring over the customers coffee with a tool just will not do on an espresso bar. For me personally, I would not appreciate a barista bending over my cappuccino and tooling it. These beautiful patterns would work well in a classy restaurant where the waiter simply appears from the kitchen with the artistic cappuccino. There is a master in Australia, George Sabados, sharing his knowledge of these creations in a video entitled “Coffee Making Skills”.
Counselor, Listener, Friend
Over the years I have had a number of strange encounters between baristi and my customers. I will never forget a strapping young man that worked in construction and bristled with masculine energy and coiled muscles, walking in to complain about rudeness he felt he had received at my sidewalk bar down the street. He had been coming for years and as he began to talk about his encounter his lower lip began trembling, his face grew red, and he began to cry. In his mind, he had been betrayed by a friend.
I have seen repeats of this scenario many times in sixteen years. There is something about making coffee for someone every day that transcends commerce. Perhaps it is our compassionate listening style that slips us past people’s urban defenses. But, people will bond with a good barista. This vulnerability on the part of regular customers requires compassion and kindness on the part of the barista.
However, when you see hundreds of people a day a pro barista might run into a few that are not worthy of kindness. For us the customer is always right, and if this does not prove to be the case, the customer is gone. I empower my staff to “eighty-six” abusive customers telling them that in my absence the barista on duty is the host of this espresso bar. In my sixteen years this has led to one or two instances of a customer being asked to seek coffee elsewhere. My people are professional baristi and are given my respect when they don the apron. Trust is the only way to manage people with the sensitivity and intelligence to produce espresso on our level, and knowing they have my trust relaxes them and fosters the confidence that is the basis of the whole bar persona.
If a pattern of customer vs.barista squabbles develops then of course the barista is gone.
Clearly we have a new profession. To learn the intricacies of espresso preparation requires years of experience. We have shown the pro-barista to be a culinary artist and performance artist at the same time. This begs the question of salary-how can we espresso bar owners ever pay them enough to keep the good ones in the job? There is a limit to the posted price for espresso drinks. Artistic coffee can go as high as 20% over the corporate chains, maximum. Even charging that much is risky. Fortunately, espresso lovers are very appreciative of the artistic work that we do-they pay my people directly.
The answer lies in bar design to encourage tipping.
If you have ever seen the crowd in Lance Burton’s magic shop in Vegas after his act you will see an amazing sight. Normally sane people are just tripping over themselves to buy 5 cent “Coin Vanishing” gimmicks for $10 each. It proves that if you amaze and inspire people their wallets just fall open. The same is true for the espresso performance. So place the cashier adjacent to the final pouring area. A customer is paying as the drink is flowing into the cup, saying “Oh my god…that’s so beautiful I hate to drink it” and stuffing bills into the tip jar.