The Life Cycle of a Barista

I believe there are three main types of barista. They all have a place in the coffee world, but they also all have a different life cycle within our industry. You may also notice that they mirror different types of Cooks, Waitstaff, Bartenders, etc.

I’m fully aware that reality is not as simple as this, but I think you can mostly group the different types of baristas into these three groups:

  • The ‘Holding Pattern’ Barista: Quite often, this type of barista is a uni or high school student, who’s in it to earn the Benjamins. Waiting for their ‘real life’ to start, they might care about coffee, but depending on what is happening in their life, they can be ready to chuck in the towel at any time.
  • The ‘Salt of the Earth’ Barista: The old school is the only school. These baristas were taught decades ago and just ran with it. They’re often very good with customers, but they can be unwilling to accept the changes that constantly occur within the coffee industry.
  • The ‘Progressive’ Barista: This group loves coffee. They’re very committed to constant learning and improvement.

Each of these types of baristas have a typical amount of time that they’ll spend in the industry. But our personal attitude towards coffee does not always dictate the length of our career. Occupational health and safety, changes in our personal life and health can also greatly lengthen (or shorten) our time and position in this industry. So let’s spend a bit of time looking at just some of the many external factors that can affect a barista’s career.

Physical factors that can affect baristas

From bad wrists to sore backs, the mutterings are endless. Most don’t realise, but working on a coffee machine can be quite taxing on your body. It’s easy to do things the wrong way, especially when the motor skills utilised are quite unnatural for our bodies.

Here are a few ways to avoid the physical issues that can arise:

  • Relax that tamp and let the machine do the work for you! You can’t match 7-9 bar of pressure and even if you can, trying that all day will hurt your shoulder, wrist and/or back eventually.
  • Stand up straight. Slouching is easy to do when you have been standing for the last 6 hours, but your lower back will thank you in the long run if you make the effort to stand up straight. I once worked in a place where it was a common sight for the two of us on the machine to chuck in a quick stretch before service and between orders.
  • Buy good shoes. A solid base supports a better frame. It’s not rocket surgery.

Mental factors that can affect baristas

Our industry is fast paced, intense and emotionally draining at times. From greeter to counsellor, baristas fill a gap in our customer’s lives (whether we like it or not).

Here are a few tips to avoid the mental strain that can come with being a barista.

  • Don’t get frustrated by other’s bad moods. A customer or fellow staff member may get surly, angry or sometimes downright abusive but you know what? It is most likely nothing to do with you. If you let yourself get knocked off balance by someone else, unfortunately that bad mood can bleed onto other customers, starting a vicious cycle. So keep your own counsel and don’t take on the negativity of others.
  • Relax and breathe. Got 30 coffees on order and a line out the door? Stop. Breathe in. Look at your dockets. Breathe out…. and…… GO.  Taking 5-10 seconds out isn’t going to mean life or death, but by focussing and assessing what you need to do, you can achieve a better workflow and less likelihood of mistakes being made.
  • Don’t like it? Leave. Many of us have found ourselves in bad circumstances. No one has to tolerate abuse or unworkable situations. If you wake up dreading going to work, chances are you won’t be putting your best in when you get there, and this will affect everything and everyone you touch while you’re there. It can be hard to find a job these days but in the long run, I know that I would rather be poor and happy than earning good money but hating work.

The three types of barista

So, back to the 3 types of barista I mentioned: ‘Holding Pattern’, ‘Salt of the Earth’ and the ‘Progressive’. Each has a different career arc as they are all in it for different reasons – and there’s nothing wrong with this, as long as they are working for the right reasons.

At the end of the day, service is what it is all about. It doesn’t matter if you are serving the best coffee, using the latest extraction or brewing style: if your customer service sucks, then so will the coffee, because our mental state directly affects the customer’s perception (see Matt’s article, ‘A Sense Of Quality’). On the flip side, amazing service will often have our customers coming back time and time again, even if we aren’t the most progressive, trendy space on the block. Good service is key.

Let’s assume that service is top notch.

Obviously The Holding Pattern Barista is most likely to have the shortest time in the industry but that’s fine because we need Doctors, Teachers, Nurses and (maybe) Lawyers… They keep society running and they will become our customers! The funny thing is, this is where a lot of Salt of the Earth and Progressive baristas start.

The Salt of the Earth Barista can have a very long ‘Hospitality Half Life’. Often they are seasoned hospitality professionals who have learned many skills over the years and can consistently make good quality coffee, day in, day out. Customer service is often exemplary and these guys often have regulars they have known for years, due to the relationships they have built. Unfortunately change is not a big focus, which can lead to them being left behind, as our industry is in a constant state of flux.

Which leads us to the last type, The Progressive Barista.

Yearning for knowledge, always striving to be the best they can be, these baristas often become the rock stars of the Coffee Industry. Whether they become competitors in the many and varied barista competitions or just go to work every day to try dial in that juicy, complex shot they smashed out yesterday, The Progressive Barista loves, sleeps and breathes all things coffee!

This passion often leads them down a couple of avenues. Often they will open their own shop, spreading their love onwards and outwards to a new clientele. They may start working for a coffee roaster, training and supporting a new generation of barista’s and café owners. Some may even look at working for green bean brokers or go and get their Q Graders so they can work in QA. There are that many facets in the Coffee Industry, and whatever aspect you want to specialise in, you can do it.

The coffee industry is a funny beast – a small, highly specialised niche in the greater Hospitality Industry. Whether you’re in it for a good time, a short time or because it’s where you really want to be, there’s a spot for you as long as you care about the product you are serving and the customers you’re serving it to. Everything else is up to you to decide where, when, what and how long you’re going to do it for.

Dom Chicoteau
Having notched up 20 years in the hospitality industry and 8 years dedicated exclusively to coffee, Dom has a great understanding of the realities faced by our café customers. Energised by being part of the quality coffee evolution, Dom is compelled by the melting pot of ideas, theories and perspectives that are currently contributing to the vibrancy of the industry. Dom’s love of coffee is matched by his love of training and watching people grow. When he’s not examining extractions, Dom can be found slowly smoking meat, growing bonsai, playing with his dog and spinning records like a self-professed demon.
Dom Chicoteau

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