From the other side of the bar…

25 May

I’ve been thinking recently about how a barista may be perceived from the other side of the bar.  The role of a barista is unique in a few ways.  Unlike a bar-tender, they actually have an influence in the final product beyond presentation.  I would say it is fairer to consider a barista to be more akin to a chef than to that of a bar-tender or cashier.

I feel the perception, at least from the general public’s view-point, is that a barista is a customer service role that involves pressing a couple of extra buttons and pouring milk, so when a barista offers something different from that which the customer requests (for example, an aeropress of an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe as opposed to an Americano) there is an automatic assumption that they’re ‘upselling’ or trying to offer something with a better margin or whatever, and automatically say “No” to the offer.

This hypothesis can be backed up by the amount of people who say “No” automatically if you offer them sugar and then ask for sugar in the next beat. I’m pretty sure I could double my tips by asking if people want their change at the end of a transaction.

Is there any way to change this perception of a barista as a till operator?

I hate to point fingers but it does seem to stem from the brands, and I say this with intimate knowledge of how a brand operates and encourages it’s staff to get the highest spend per head, the onslaught of optional extras starts to sound like you’re buying a car rather than a cappuccino.

Extra syrup, crisps, biscuits, muffin, scone, cream, alloy wheels, CD changers, Parking Sensors, DVD player, extra shot  etc. with your latte today?

When a customer trusts a barista to guide them to a better experience then they may let you crack out the vac-pot but a lot of them just want what they ask for.

Which leads to a bit of traditional wisdom within retail that this breaks.  “Give the customer what they want.”  Rather than that doing this gives them something they’re likely to appreciate more but certainly not something they originally wanted.  Of course the downside to this is there are some people who will be swayed and not enjoy it, simply due to their palette not suiting the coffee or an expectation of something different (ever pick up water thinking it’s lemonade?). Then what happens? Is the trust broken? I suppose it depends on the customer.  Some will be too embarrassed to say they don’t like something if it’s served to them by someone who seems to have an authoritative knowledge and may never take that risk again.  I make a point to enquire to anyone whom I encourage to try a speciality coffee as to how they found the coffee.  And, what I believe to be important is to take on board what they tell me.  It’s very easy to discount someone not liking a coffee that you find to be particularly special as ‘not getting’ and simply ignore their critique.

A tweet from Will Corby questioned:

Would anyone say a barista tasting an espresso during trading hours, behind an espresso machine “looked unproffesional”?

To this there seems to be an industry-standard response that if anything, not tasting an espresso during trading hours would be unprofessional, this again highlights the difference between the branded shops and independent specialist shops. At the brands this can be seen as gross-misconduct and result in dismissal.  During my time at working at a branded coffee chain I had a few incidents of other managers saying that they would “have words” with me if I were on their shifts drinking a shot at the bar.  This may seem to be of little importance but I would say it is vastly important that a barista not only knows their shot is good (not simply based on pulling a shot in a certain amount of time, but the less measurable but far more important aspect of the taste) but allows the barista to speak with absolutely certainty and authority to the qualities of the coffee they’re serving.  Despite regular unofficial chastisement I would regularly taste a shot of espresso every few hours to ensure everything was working correctly.

Perhaps all this is down to interaction.  If you talk to someone who is passionate about what they do then it shows.  I gesticulate like I’m having a freaking seizure, my language and inclinations change and I think it shows I’m really nuts about what I do. I’m sure others do so in different ways but at any rate, when a customers see’s you’re passionate about what you do then, perhaps, their view of you changes.

For some people, they will never look at their barista in a different light than they will look at a checkout operator. But there is a segment of the public that love to engage with people who are passionate at what they do, and hopefully that segment will become the dominant one.  The only problem is not alienating people when they try to make that connection…but that’s for another post.

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