The working barista conundrum…

17 Jun

OK, I don’t think this is the first time I’ve touched on this, but, currently it’s very prominent on my mind.

The coffee industry seems to be split into a slight divide of barista folk.  There’s the old school and the new school.  By this i don’t mean the 14g=2oz of espresso vs updosed ristretto pourers.  I am referring to people who dropped other careers to pursue coffee and bring better coffee to their world.  I’m thinking of the boys at Flat White, James at Dose and the team at Monmouth as the examples of this group.  The second group is the one which I fall into. We are young-ish and have worked in coffee for the majority of our working lives, and many of us aspire to open our own coffee projects in various forms and functions.  The problem arises that the start-up of a business like a coffee shop requires a fair bit of fundamentals investment and the majority of coffee jobs are relatively low paying (another post blah blah blah), in addition, you don’t simply open up and make money.  Opening a coffee shop takes a fair while to see profit in most executions for a variety of business and sociological reasons.

So as well as providing the income for a coffee shop, the business starter ought to have enough money to keep ahead of bills at home and in the business for a good few months.

Where is this to come from? Are the coffee professionals who are willing to make long-term loans to encourage the start up of new shops? Should aspiring coffee shop owners pull 80 hour weeks to attain their goal? I don’t know, I’m having a slightly ranty, emo post just for the catharsis of it. If anyone wants to invest a few grand in a coffee shop with no guarantee of return then PLEASE let me know, otherwise…any ideas?


Personal Blog, Professional Blog…Where is the line?

18 May

Hey folks, so this is a bit of a weird blog post but I hope it will make things a bit more lively around here.

I appologise if this post seems slightly rambling but it’s more a stream of consciousness than an articulate post.

For the past few months I’ve been running coffee evenings at The Courtyard Brasserie, Olney where I work through the week in addition to my usual responsibilities, this has provided a fantastic opportunity to connect with our customers and has a small, but devoted group who regularly attend but it would be nice to widen this circle and induct more people into how good coffee can be. In addition to this I’ve been responsible for a monthly speciality coffee cafetiere’s selection and tasting notes which has built up a fine momentum in the past 15 months.

For the last few weeks and for the foreseeable future, I shall be manning the bar and responsible for the day-to-day operations at Peel&Peel in Northamptonshire on Saturdays and looking to expand from there.

I am not naive to business, nor how important promotion is, however I may have mentioned some of these things in tangentals to blog posts, and done a small amount of promotion for the first evening on here, but I’ve been very conscientious (I hope) in keeping my blog personal rather than an outlet to advertise for my personal gain.

Atleast until now…ish…I currently get a better throughput of traffic than I ever expected my blog to receive and find the temptation to promote myself from this launchpad very alluring.

I am acutely aware that a blog that only posts adverts is not a blog that attracts reader but I wonder, would the occasional mention of up coming events in this vein be appropriate for my blog and would they make you less likely to read it?

I invite your opinions, criticism and suggestions as to how much I should proceed from this point on.


Cafe Review; Tea Monkey

6 Apr

A few weeks ago I saw a new name sign appear over a long unused unit in the Milton Keynes shopping centre. I was excited to see a branding I was unfamiliar with ‘Tea Monkey’. After a little homework I discovered they were a new brand with the Milton Keynes store being the launch pad.

Tea monkey are a new shop that is launching themselves toward the coffee shop faithful and offering a huge range of teas. From english breakfast to Oolong mystere (a delicious blooming White tea).

They are located in Midsummer Place, from the outside there is a covered seating area and stands out boldly from the bank’s which are on either side of it and the high street chain clothing stores opposite.

Upon entering you are surrounded by earthy brown, lime green walls and crisp white surfaces, which is very refreshing compared to a lot of places which try to go for the homey feel by using only warm colours and also makes the shop feel very vibrant. A truly extensive menu of tea is made less intimidating by very friendly staff who seem really passionate about their tea.  The view out through the huge glass frontage is of the rest of the shopping centre but between them is a old and majestic acorn tree which makes it seem much more picturesque.

On the three visits I’ve made so far i have tried three different teas and they are all delicious. All the tea is served in beautiful glass ‘la cafetiere’ tea pots which let you watch the tea brew and in the case of the blooming teas then it really is a treat. A very nice touch is the white and green teas are served in double walled glasses and the black teas are served in porcelain cups.

Tea at Tea Monkey
Silver Needle white tea with a Malteaser Cup cake

The other thing to check out is the cakes. All the cakes are made fresh and in house. I’ve sampled their blueberry and malteaser cupcakes aswell as the house cupcake. All were light and fluffy, the chocolate ones were balanced perfectly in flavour without being so light in flavour as to be wanting but so much as to be over powering. The butter cream on them were all different but absolutely perfect. It would be a huge shame to miss out on these.

I haven’t sampled the coffee and feel it would be unfair to judge them on it as it’s not their speciality.

A few other things to point out, the shop is very spacious and not over-furnished, a nice touch compared to some places which try to cram in as much seating as possible. The staff are friendly, helpful and seem to care about what they’re doing and check to make sure everyone is happy.  I over-heard that the weekend was very busy and the service slowed down while they found their feet but lessons were learned, after all it was their first weekend, but if you are to visit on the weekend perhaps it would be worth preparing to wait for a little while.  On the far wall are a row of iPads with internet connection which are free to use, this is a lovely touch!

All in all it’s a very refreshing shop to visit.  Gorgeous teas with beautiful cup cakes and friendly staff.  It’s very nice to have something unique in Milton Keynes Centre and gives me a reason to go there.

4 Month and 5 Day Audit (Because quarterlies are so passé)

5 Apr

At the start of the year I set myself a few goals for 2011 and I felt a need to audit myself on them to see how I’m doing and where I’m falling behind.  So without much further ado (I always wanted to say that);


1) Try as much coffee as possible.

Though it’s hard to measure such a goal in real terms I’ve definitely had a good crack at this one, a few favourites for the year for me thus far are Rwanda Musasa, Peruvian Verde Cusco, Bolivia San Ignacio and Ethiopian Ogawa.  I’m looking forward to seeing a few old favourites returning in 2011 to see how they’ve changed aswell.

2) Work towards my own operation or work in/with people with a similar goal.

Currently I’m in the same position I was 3 months ago, however as I’m still presenting the cafetieres and writing tasting note sheets for them aswell as running a monthly coffee evening I feel my goals are becoming more formed, I’m learning a great deal about the palettes of other people and learning how to present things better.  I’m hopeful that these skills will pay off when I take the plunge.

3) Share great coffee with more people and continue helping to educate consumers about what is possible.

(I’m starting to realise my goals have a bit of redundancy in them.)

The combination of the coffee evenings and the monthly cafetiere is helping me attain this and a great deal of the customers are looking to learn more and engage with myself and the coffee.  When a customer nails a descriptor that I haven’t mentioned or nods toward a preference of an origin country I feel immensely proud and impressed.  Due to the positive feed back I’ve received I feel more willing to go for coffees that are a bit more ‘out there’ and I have generally been rewarded.  One thing I’ve learnt in the last few months is not to ever under-estimate your audience.

4) Give the UKBC my all.

I feel I did.   I intend to give  my UKBC 2011 experience a full write up very shortly but in the mean time I would just like to confirm I’m happy with my position and offer my congratulations to John Gordon who’s ingenuity this year left me awe-struck.

5) (Not specifically 2011 but within a longer time frame) Visit a producing farm, and possibly participate in the harvest.

Unfortunately this goal remains purely speculative for the time being but it remains one I aim to achieve.

6) Blog more!


Actually I think I’m going to reassess this goal and retcon it to ‘Blog more productively’.  I’ve got a few blog posts in the draft stages but I don’t feel they are worth submitting for a variety of reasons and I would certainly rather publish content that is productive in some manner, either in generating thought/debate or at the very least expressing myself in a concise and definite way.

Service in Coffee

19 Feb

An anonymous barista (I assume) recently posted a listing on London Coffee Jobs calling out London’s speciality coffee shop owners to pay a better wage to their baristas (It had since been removed).

Of that particular argument I will distance myself from as I don’t work in the city. But I do feel the sentiment.

The argument was put forth against that London’s baristas are, in some cases, lacking the skill of good customer service and that if wages are to rise then so too does the quality of service that is provided.

And so rises the question of what constitutes top service in a coffee shop?

I’ve spent some time mulling this as it’s something I do but have never properly analysed.

I think the problem stems, in part from the perception that a barista is a short term job or a school leavers job, which it is, at least some what. Outside of a very tight circle, a lot of baristas are indifferent about every aspect of their job and so the public expectation is lowered and people will, as a general rule do the minimum they can to get by. So enter the rock star/ hipster baristas. I really dislike using the term, so I want to clarify my meaning by saying the barista whom is driven entirely by ego and is in coffee because it’s ‘uncool’. Not all hipsters and hipster baristas and not all hipster barista are hipsters. These are the group that seem to fuel the negative stereotype and cast the industry in a poor light.

Service expectations change from location to location, in a diner type restaurant I expect friendly service perhaps a brief bit of shooting the breeze if the server isn’t busy and being made to feel very much at ease.  In a more typical restaurant the expectation is different, it’s more formal, the focus is on the food and your company.  So I think the question you have to ask is where do you place your coffee shop on that spectrum, if at all.  Again we need to remind ourselves we are our own industry and shouldn’t follow other areas of the industry blindly.

Service should never be pretentious nor rude. If a customer were to ask for vanilla syrup then the correct response is to apologise for not having what they request and politely explain the reasoning for not doing so. Scoffing should never happen, not only is it outrageously rude and arrogant, you also rob the chance of converting someone to enjoying their coffee as it’s own delicacy and most likely of a future customer, not to mention the people they may discourage from visiting you.

For people wanting to become ‘career baristas’ then they need to not only match the service expectations of do their utmost to supersede them and deliver outstanding service to stand out and make a reputation for themselves not only as being passionate about coffee but being passionate about their customers as well.  Any shop that does this earns many repeat visits from me and I recommend them to anyone who I know will be in the area.  This is how word of mouth works and it is still the most important promotional recommendation that anywhere can receive.

Coffee shops are unique in several aspects.  Baristas are often compared to sommeliers in that we are expected to have a keen palette and be able to describe the coffee in it’s flavours and also know it’s origin.  I think for the most part we do this well, but we’re also expected to create the beverage, which beyond pouring from a bottle into a glass, is not the role of a sommelier, but again I think for the most part we know what we’re doing here, but we’re also expected to perform the rest of the service transaction, serve (and perhaps cook) food, cakes etc. and process payment.

This is an almost unique situation, a chef is not judged on their service skills, and a waiter isn’t judged on their ability to cook. Baristas must take both roles and fulfil them admirably.

When trying to juggle all these elements it’s easier to drop the element you’re least passionate about when you’re in the middle of your rush but this is when it’s most important to keep all your balls in the air.  Taking the moment to break concentration just to smile and say ‘have a nice day’ can really stand you out and make it feel like you care, which at the end of the day, is the goal of the service role.

2011 – Make a plan…and stick to it!

1 Jan

So another year is upon us.  I’ve decided to write down my goals for 2011 in a hope that I don’t forget them and that I’ll feel some fire under my ass to stop procrastinating.

1) Try as much coffee as possible.

By no means an original idea, nor a new one for me, but I want to continue to expand my palette and my experiences of coffee and everything it can be.

2) Work towards my own operation or work in/with people with a similar goal.

As most people who have met me will know, opening a coffee shop is my ultimate goal.  unfortunately, working as a barista doesn’t raise much financial opportunity toward that goal but there are windows of opportunity, I just have to be willing to grab them and take occasional risks to achieve my dream.  This is no slight on my current employers, who run a bistro, their focus is the food and they have been very progressive and have allowed me certain ways to share great coffee with those who are looking for more than something dark and coffee flavour, namely a speciality monthly coffee and a monthly evening where I get to really geek out.

3) Share great coffee with more people and continue helping to educate consumers about what is possible.

This might sound a little pretentious but if it does it’s more due to my lack of skill with language.  In the process of sharing speciality coffee with people over the last 11 months, I have witnessed palettes become far more honed and people’s perception of coffee changed.  I did my utmost to combine easily digestible information with more in-depth points for those that would be interested.  I feel that the project is an ongoing success and I want to continue sharing these great coffees with people through 2011.

4) Give the UKBC my all.

I am entering the UK Barista Championships (UKBC) again in 2011 and I have no goal other than to do my absolute best. In retrospect I should have perhaps forgone entering in 2010 being as I was working in a new job and still getting to grips there, but this year I am much more settled, and I have a definite goal in mind for the UKBC. Further more I do not (currently) intend to put myself forth in 2012.  More on this later.

5) (Not specifically 2011 but within a longer time frame) Visit a producing farm, and possibly participate in the harvest.

I’m still incredibly nïave as to the actual conditions in which coffee is grown and harvested.  I have read what I can but I still feel that to experience it would be utterly humbling and hopefully lend me an insight into the labour that goes into the beans that I love.

6) Blog more!

I know I’ve slowed down on the blogging train of late, and it’s not due to lack of interest in the blog, nor is to to lack of things to talk about.  Some topics have been some what redundant and others have been put aside for other things but I’ve got a few more topics in my mind and I definitely intend to extrude them at some point, even if it is slightly like play-doh extruding from a clown’s head.

So, those are my goals. I have 364 days and counting to get them done.

Processing Methods Evening Write up

22 Dec

Those who have been following the blog recently will know I’ve been hosting coffee evenings at the restaurant in which I work for the past few months.

This month we did an evening that I was perhaps most excited but most worried about doing. When I first tasted a triple pack of processing methods (Square Mile’s 2009 El Salvador Finca Kilimanjaro) I was struck by just how much influence is had far before a roaster has influence and shows that growing great coffee isn’t just down to terroir and varietal but also the care put in after picking.

It also made me rethink what attributes flavours into a cup and how much is terroir, varietal or process.  This made me question things I thought I knew and pushed me to learn more, as well as help me find a level of preference within these methods.

My trepidation was spurned by my knowledge that I am a geek.  I worried that no-one else cared that or why these changes happen.

This time we presented El Salvador Finca Mauritania. A 100% Bourbon and it’s cascara.

I am very happy to have had my fears entirely alleviated and my faith that the public is ready for great coffee renewed. To have 8 people give up their Friday evening to listen to me talking about coffee and trying these things, and for them to pay to do so proves that there are people are out there, not just in London but in small towns in the middle of no-where also! All we need to do is make it available and people will be drawn to improved quality and people who create their drinks with passion.

I can’t thank the people who came to this months evening enough for their support and I am looking forward to next month’s evening.

Also a thank you to Square Mile for roasting and providing an excellent coffee to carry this example through.