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George Sabados in Australia by George Sabados
Is This the End of the Barista?
Posted: December 27, 2006
Article rating: 7.8
feedback: (72) comments | read | write
Button panel of a superauto espresso machine.

For some time now, baristas have been developing an air of invincibility in their skills and profession. Most believe that, as a profession, life will just get better and better.  In fact, barista competitions unintentionally reinforce the perception that cafés (certainly decent ones) cannot go without a great barista. However, my observations in recent years have led me to conclude that this may not be the case. Changes in the industry are happening, and they are beyond the control of the barista. The question is: will baristas be immune to these changes?

Back in late 2003, I stood next to three world barista champions whilst observing a radical new device incorporated into a standard semi-automatic espresso machine. This device was engineered to replicate milk steaming and texturing to a standard equal to, if not better than, the best baristas in the world. It did not operate on the age-old Venturi principle, as did steamers of the past, but in fact stretched and swirled the milk as a barista would. And whilst I could see it needed a few minor modifications, it was good. Too good really! The four of us asked the demonstrator (who was not a barista) to steam a number of pitchers filled with milk, and each time the texture and consistency of the steamed milk left us floored. The barista champions and I looked at each other and agreed it could spell the end of the barista!

The Epiphany

In July 2005, I was privileged to be one of the first individuals to trial a new style "super automatic" espresso machine with several twists. It was price competitive to most two-group semi-automatics, with an independent boiler for steaming and independent settings for dosing, tamp pressure, and length of extraction. It was in some ways a "smart" machine, informing the operator of changes required to meet the optimum extraction. And very surprisingly, it only had one moving part, a chassis which allowed for a quick change - less than a minute! I ended up using this machine to extract espressos when evaluating my roasted coffees. It offered the most consistent extraction of the highest standard. The only skill required by the operator was knowledge of the characteristics of the machine.

In theory this machine appeared to be the ideal extraction tool, but I had to prove a hunch I had as a result of using this "super automatic." I had to prove that this machine could work well in a busy café environment without a glitch, without the need for a skilled operator, and most importantly, with the absolute acceptance of the consumer.

As luck would have it, I soon after received a call from a café client of mine looking for a solution to a problem he had. His coffee sales had begun to plateau due to an exceptionally small shop producing at maximum capacity. He wanted to increase throughput but did not even have the space for a semi-auto two group or for another barista! It was a 12-square-metre shop processing 50 kilos of espresso in a 5 day week, and he wanted more.

I suggested that he come in and look at this new super automatic, and once I ran him through the basics, he had it installed immediately. Just as well, because the next morning one of his staff members called in sick. Later that day, my client called to tell me that this machine extracted coffees better than he or his baristas could, and it was being operated by an unskilled staff member. He informed me that it took care of all the extraction needs and the semi-automatic was used to steam the milk. It added a further few kilos to his daily sales, and most importantly, it was greeted with positive interest and not one complaint! Needless to say, he bought this machine on the spot.

This super automatic espresso machine and the separate steaming device I saw in 2003 got me thinking. I reasoned that if a manufacturer caught on to the idea of combining these, then would it spell the end of the barista?

There is certainly a compelling argument for such a trend.

The Market

In mature espresso markets, the emergence of the barista to a place of prominence in the café has been a mixed blessing. No doubt, the professionalisation of this person is a good thing for consumers - they can expect better coffees. But it does come at a cost to the café owner.

At the individual level, baristas continually think they are worth more than they are paid. When individuals believe they are on top of their game, this thinking is purely human nature. For example, where espresso coffee knowledge and skills are improved (eg, competing successfully at barista competitions), individuals can develop the impression that such improvements should be met with higher pay.

Whilst I am not passing judgement here, the mindset of the barista is often formed without a true understanding of the cost structure of the business they are working in or the affordability of their demands. If the barista’s requests for higher pay are continually rejected by the café owner (usually without clear indications as to why), he or she will eventually shop around for a café that is willing to pay higher than what they are getting at the moment.

This continual cycle of upward pressure to wage costs over time reaches a point of un-affordability for café owners. Why? Because most café owners are reluctant to raise the retail price of their coffees! The sad reality is that most café owners continually watch their competitors pricing and refuse to raise prices unless their competitors do it first. What they fail to realise is that their competitors watch their prices in the same way. Very few café owners are willing to lead the way for fear of losing a percentage of their customer base and this situation becomes a "stand-off."

Ridiculously in Australia, retail prices of coffees have moved up very little in the last few years, whilst overheads to the business have doubled in most cases.  For most cafés, net profits have fallen to levels below that of many passive investments (ie, the benchmark average net profit for a café in Australia is now 4%).  This means that an average café with $600,000 in annual sales clears an average of $24,000 profit - not nearly enough for all that hard work and capital investment.

Admittedly, the better cafés operate above this average. But anyone wanting to raise the standard of their café from 4% net profit or less would not be able to afford a reasonable barista at  $30,000 a year. And for many chains carrying additional costs such as royalties, franchise fees, managers, etc, this is less of a possibility.

Even if a café owner "bites the bullet" and is prepared to pay for a barista, there is little guarantee that this person will be good enough to create a consistently high quality coffee every single time. Most café owners lack the skills to adequately scrutinise the effectiveness and skills of a barista because they lack the knowledge required to do so. I guess that is one reason why they hover on the average net profit mark in the first place. Most café owners look to reduce costs to the business, not to enhance them.  

In the end, this process affects nearly all café owners and makes them amenable to trying anything which can cut costs whilst at the same time maintaining or exceeding existing standards. And whilst the upper end of the boutique cafés will stick it out with baristas - for the theatre, the marketing, the romance - the bulk of café owners in a very mature 100% espresso market will explore anything and everything to reduce the inconsistency of temperament and quality and the ever-growing expense of the barista.

The Machine

Manufacturers are waking up to this "gap" in the café market. Espresso machine manufacturers are continually exploring market conditions in their drive to grow sales. They are always on the lookout for ways to beat their opposition, both in terms of range of equipment being offered and by catering to the varied needs of all sectors of the coffee market - from the individual café to the large chains. Whilst large chains have always blindingly focused on cost savings, the downward spiral of net profits for individual café owners has turned their focus that way too, making it opportune for manufacturers to deliver on equipment that can satisfy.  In many ways, catering to this focus is an easier sell than arguing ways to grow sales.

In the last few years, many manufacturers have been busy developing low-cost machines that can replace a skilled operator. In the early days, automatic machines were often expensive, complicated, broke down often, and ultimately produced a less than quality espresso coffee. And the milk was heated and frothed to the consistency of meringue - not the most acceptable standard.

Traditionally, the early up-takers of super automatic espresso machines were large chains or establishments, most of whom said that they introduced these machines to create a standard amongst a great number of stores. On this point they are right. A standard is guaranteed, but for most espresso drinkers, the standard is often less than what the market expects. In terms of convenience, quick service, and standardization, the super autos did the job admirably.

But the real kicker for franchise groups is that super autos are a cost-saving device in the long run. They do not require staff to be trained to be skilled baristas, and the chain can employ far fewer trainers. Standards can be set by a standard issue training manual and easily adhered to. And in the chase for the cheap labour market, any unskilled labourer can be turned into a coffee maker. These cost savings in the long run more than compensate for the higher up-front purchase cost.

Despite the emergence of the new range of smarter automatics, many chains continue to use these machines purely for consistency, regardless of the quality they produce. Often, retail chains do deals based on the best package deals suppliers can provide, rather than investigating in minute detail all the latest machinery in the market place, the pros and cons of each automatic machine, finally going with the type that can deliver the latest "technology to quality" into the cup. To date, the spread of super autos into other sectors of the coffee market has been slow due to the inability of these "older style" machines to replicate the standard of a skilled barista.

From what I have observed though, that inability is clearly in the past. I have seen machines which can replicate a highly skilled barista. Machines which do not ask for more money, do not take a break, and are not inconsistent any day of the week, and do deliver on quality at a very high level!

With communication of ideas and sharing of knowledge being as quick as it is these days, it won't be long before all manufacturers are on to copying, integrating, or developing their own barista replacement machines. And in order to sell these, you can bet your life that one of the key marketing strategies will be to inform the café owner exactly who is expendable!

The Barista

Most baristas I have spoken to about the possible emergence of this trend simply poo-poo the idea. The common reply is that a café will always require a barista to stamp it with an air of authenticity and quality. I am not so sure, simply because I believe the end consumer drives the market, not the barista.

Pianists who once played at theatres in the days of silent movies dismissed the idea of talking movies, claimed them to be a fad, and assumed their profession would never die. Where are they now? By the same token, where are the bus conductors who had their profession erased by automatic ticketing machines?  There are oodles of historical examples where technology not only replaced a profession but did a better job at it. Every market is continually assailed by innovations that offer not only sizable cost savings but also many tangible benefits.

New age and smarter automatic machines that match or exceed the skills of a barista would find legitimacy in the marketplace quite quickly if the consumer immediately saw that they do produce a better quality, more consistent, and faster coffee. And if a café owner adds into the mix a personable (but low skilled) operator who is taught a little about the coffee and how to pour the milk, what then?

It is my belief that what the bulk of consumers want out of a café is a consistently good cup of coffee with quick service and a degree of personality. Particularly in the mornings, these consumers are in a rush and do not care for the artistic nature and commitment of the barista. They care about the quality in the cup and the speed in which they get it. A good cup of espresso-based coffee everywhere will always beat a great cup of coffee in the odd few places every single time! And if the bulk of consumers really did care about the barista behind the machine, then what about drive throughs? They simply would not be viable because most customers do not even know or can see if there is a barista on the espresso machine or not.  

Again, if machines can match or exceed the quality level and consistency of a skilled barista, I doubt the bulk of consumers would care about the barista. Often, we in the coffee industry like to think that we know the customers wants and needs. My experience of several marketing focus groups has told me otherwise. They want good coffee over and above wanting a skilled barista. The fact that these are synonymous for the time being may be a cause for false bravado amongst baristas.

On a financial front, café owners incorporating smarter machines should see an improvement in quality in the cup and a saving of up to 50% in salary costs!  This is a compelling argument for all café owners.

The Future

Of course, history is also littered with professions which have managed to re-invent themselves.

The more profitable end of the café spectrum may choose to continue with the skilled barista in order to retain a visible and tangible point of difference to those businesses which become "automated." It could be that a fraction of baristas will be projected into new fields, such as the equivalent of a sommelier for coffee or the world-travelled barista as spokesperson for a more sustainable future.  Or, it may just happen that these new innovations in technology will work hand in hand with the barista, allowing them to increase throughput, thereby justifying their position within the café more so.

I do not have a crystal ball into the future. I don't think anyone can claim with absolute certainty what impact the advancement of technology will have on the barista. It is like standing in a fog in the middle of the road and seeing the glare of oncoming lights from what sounds like a car. Although it may appear certain you are about to get hit, the fog leaves you with a degree of uncertainty. It may be that the car collides with you; it may be that it veers away, or the wheels may fall off and it grinds to a halt completely. Whatever the outcome, there is a statistical chance it will collide. For me, if there is a remote chance this can happen, then I would make plans to protect myself.

George Sabados is an ex-barista, now a successful franchise, café business, and retail consultant as well as roaster trainer to the coffee industry. He is the former Executive Officer of the Australasian Specialty Coffee Association, and former Director of Barista College of Australia. He has judged at a number of WBCs and national barista competitions around the world. An experienced coffee cupper, seminar leader, presenter, and most recently MC of the occasional WBC, George has published numerous articles on a wide range of espresso coffee related issues and perhaps is best known for creating the volume dosing debate! He can be contacted at gsabo@bigpond.com.

Article rating: 7.8
Posted: December 27, 2006
feedback: (72) comments | read | write
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