Being a barista is difficult. Learning the ropes and then growing a sense of confidence within your role comes over time, as you work through various challenges, develop your skills and better understand coffee and the cafe environment. In my 20+ years working in cafes, I have learned quite a few tricks of the trade.
Through both personal experience and observation, I have discovered a number of top industry best practices, which I will be sharing here. I believe that these pieces of advice will help you to truly thrive in your position as a barista, and that they will likewise set you up for success in any other role you choose to take on in the specialty coffee industry.
1. Set goals
What is it that you want to get from this experience of being a barista? What is your goal and what do you want to get out of being a part of this industry? Ultimately, it is up to you to guide your own career.
So, I believe you should set yourself a number of personal, professional goals. I would recommend that you have two or three goals within each of these categories:
You can work on this list of goals throughout your day-to-day employment. If you are making progress with at least one of these goals, then you’ve got a positive thought to cling on to when it (inevitably) hits the fan at the end of a long shift.
By thinking this way, you will know that each day you are making progress with something meaningful. Hold onto these goals with an open hand though – you can change the direction of your career at any time.
2. Craft a long-game mindset
You must pre-plan the type of mindset you will bring to work, or someone else will.
A good place to start is to embrace the long game. This involves being honest with yourself, and isolating any areas where you expect yourself to fail.
Rather than trying to alleviate it, lean into that feeling of awkwardness. If you are weak in an area, it’s far easier short-term to favour where you are strong. However, this attitude brings on atrophy. You need to be balanced and practice these weaker points. This self-discipline comes from a mindset of approaching this as a long-game.
Who you are is based on lots of small decisions over time. The matter of who you become works in exactly the same way.
3. Everything is a lesson
Every experience you have teaches you something that will serve you later on. So, you must absorb what's around you and be curious about what it is teaching you.
It's not the end of the world if you make a mistake but if you let yourself blow it out of proportion, it may be the end of your professional world. It takes more energy to get mad than it would to simply observe what happened, and quickly but stoically fix it. Then, let this experience adjust your actions ready for the next time.
If your only concern is your embarrassment, or being perfect in the moment, you won’t learn from that mistake and you may miss out on a lesson that will make you more resilient. So have faith in your brain’s ability to learn, absorb these lessons and prepare yourself ahead of time. Adjust your mindset to view things through that lens.
4. Work with urgency and focus
Working on the bar, we can easily get distracted by all of the different curiosities, industry events, coffee culture, and other peripheral things. You have to remember that everything external should be subservient to the main responsibilities you have on the bar.
Curiosity becomes a distraction when it takes precedence over what you should be doing. Latte art, for example, is great, but it is also one of the biggest distractions for new baristas. Our best energy and focus should be spent on the crux of our job, and the tasks our boss hired us to do. We should be zeroed in on serving guests, and representing both the cafe and the coffee well on every shift. As you grow, you will gain more freedom to explore what you are curious about.
5. Give yourself grace
I cannot overstate the importance of practising patience and grace toward yourself and others.
Do not proclaim some kind of pessimistic final judgment on yourself or your career at any point. A big temptation, which too many of us give in to, is engaging in negative self-talk. This creates a reality that will define you for years to come, if you let it. A self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will.
You are not stupid, clumsy, inept, or useless. You are learning, dedicated, growing and we are all a little imperfect – so is the coffee you serve and the people you work with. Don’t let a lack of patience and grace halt your growth and progress, or cause you to plateau.
The sooner you can extend grace to yourself, the sooner you can give this grace to others. You will not only end up a better professional, but a better person too.
6. Serve the customers for better reasons
We tend to look for validation in the eye of the customer, but often we are searching in vain. Most of the time, the customer is rather ambivalent to our service, no matter how good it is.
Service is taxing both physically and emotionally, and the customers may love, hate, or be neutral towards you, so you cannot base your motivations for service on their actions or reactions. We need to be doing this job first and foremost for our own reasons and our own high standards.
We must be prepared for rude people, sweet people, and indifferent people. No matter who we get in the cafe, they are not the final word on you or your career.
In the end, we should always aspire to make someone feel better when they leave us than when they first came in, but this cannot be your only goal.
7. Fix it and apologize later
As we have said, mistakes happen. But there is nothing like a mistake made in a rush! When you make a mistake take responsibility and fix it quickly, then move on and apologize later when the rush is done. More than anything, your more veteran co-workers just want to get things back on track. I have seen too many new baristas make a big song and dance about a mistake they made to the more seasoned people – that can come later.
Yes, people will be annoyed with you, and that’s fine (it’s not personal). Instead of dwelling on this, throw yourself into fixing the problem, gaining clarity where needed, moving on and then apologizing when things are calm. This will build rapport.
8. Be mindful of the space and your wake
Knowing where to stand and what to do is critical. When you start at a new cafe, observe how and where people move during the shift, then get to know your station inside and out.
You are going to be in the way at first. That is normal. Eventually though, as you study, observe, and learn, you will become more comfortable. You can then predict what needs to be done, assist others with their tasks, and add momentum to the shift, rather than slowing it down.
You must also be aware of how you impact the space. Be conscious of the other people around you.
9. Pursue accountability and feedback
We need feedback in order to grow and do better. If you work for a cafe where you get a lot of good solid feedback from engaged managers and owners, then you can count yourself as one of the lucky ones! Most baristas will need to pursue feedback and accountability from their bosses in order for it to happen. This is usually just due to your boss being a bit shy or insecure within their role as a leader.
By pursuing accountability with them and initiating meetings and feedback sessions, you will be setting yourself up for success. What’s more, you may also be helping your leaders be better bosses to future baristas.
Another way to pursue accountability is to ask your coworkers to give you feedback, or give them permission to speak frankly about any areas that you need to improve on. Ultimately, we want to pursue accountability and feedback because without it, we cannot fully ascertain how to improve.
10. Prioritize self-care and wellness
I survived my early years as a barista on large quantities of espresso and pastries, and small quantities of sleep and water. Needless to say, my body eventually did not let me get away with that. It started to impact my mind, and that in turn impacted my work.
More importantly though, how well we take care of ourselves not only impacts the work we do, but our actual lives too. We spend a lot of time at the shop, and we owe it to ourselves to value self-care, in the face of what is already a very taxing job.
I would encourage you to explore healthy meal planning for your shifts, hydrating like crazy, exercising (even if you are tired from work), taking vitamins and supplements, and creating space before and after the shift for silence or meditation.
There are many ways to care for your body and mind. Unfortunately, we tend to only think of these things when there is an immediate problem, created after years of build-up. Just like an espresso machine needs regular preventative maintenance, if we want to thrive in this career, we also need to take care of our health regularly.
For your ongoing work in the coffee industry, I hope these top 10 tips help you to create a solid foundation and give you a leg up as you build your career. Our ability to thrive as baristas and coffee professionals depends on how mindful and purposeful we are in pursuit of it.
Start by taking just one of these tips and applying it to your shifts. Make it a habit, then you can move on to another. Over time, you will be amazed at how far you and your career have come.