A Barista Code of Conduct? Huh?
Let's get this out of the way first: Why exactly do baristas need a code of conduct?
As a barista/owner, and as a member of the Barista Guild of America Executive Council, I spend a lot of time thinking and talking to people about the future of the "barista." I mean one of the integral parts of "The Third Wave" is elevating the position of "The Barista" from being a fairly low-wage, low-respected, glorified "Person Behind the Counter" (the venerable PBTC), to a recognized culinary craftswoman or craftsman. Developing the barista arts across the country and around the world will require pushing-the-bar ever higher for years to come.
"With great power comes great responsibility."
We can't expect for coffeebar owners, customers, and the general public to recognize our espresso-making prowess with higher salaries, benefits, and respect, if we carry ourselves in an unprofessional way. There have frankly been a lot of stories out there, floating around the barista community. Stories of baristas walking into shops and demanding to be allowed to go behind the counter and "teach 'em a few things." Stories of people bad-mouthing other coffee companies. Generally, a lot of negative commentary all around.
For every great thing that happens to our barista community, such as the awesome fellowship the 2005 SCAA Conference turned out to be for the baristas in attendance... there are baristas out there that through their bad behavior chip away at the foundation that many are working so hard to build.
Please understand that this is not finger pointing, nor is it meant to address any particular past incident. This is about moving forward. For The Third Wave to become reality, we need every possible barista to help elevate and promote coffee quality effectively. "Effectively" does not mean "by any means necessary," and more often than not, something that seems from your perspective to be under the best of intentions, is perceived quite differently by many others.
Please know that this is a work in progress. Like in all things coffee-related, it's gonna take a collective effort to put together a list, a "code of conduct" that baristas can agree with, but let's call this a start. Please be free with your feedback, and with your ideas about what should be added to this list. Hopefully, this won't need to be too long a list though, eh?
I'll start out with one that I was guilty of recently:
Rule 1: Don't besmirch other coffee companies or baristas.
I'll share my story. I was on another discussion board (not coffee-focused) just a few months ago, and someone recommended that I go to a particular roaster/retailer for barista training. I immediately took offense at this, especially thinking back to just a year prior, when I was in one of this same roaster/retailer's shops and saw (and consumed) what was an utter lack of barista training. On that discussion board, I responded with something like, "Well, to be honest, that company doesn't really get much respect within the specialty coffee industry."
What followed frankly caught me off guard. I was lambasted as being a shill for my business and told that I was being very offensive because this roaster is very successful and has a great reputation in its chosen market. A conversation with one of the people active in that discussion board further drove the point home: In a public forum, I insulted not only the roaster in question, but everyone who buys and loves their coffee.
At the time, I was puzzled. EVERYONE on the Internet talks crap about everything, don't they? Isn't part of the discussion always gonna be criticism and critique?
Perhaps. But not among professionals.
1 To stain; sully: a reputation that was besmirched by slander.
2 To make dirty; soil.
I've learned my lesson. Frankly, I never thought of myself as having such standing in the culinary or coffee community that anyone would care what I wrote on some discussion board out there in cyberspace. Either way, I was wrong.
Don't besmirch other coffee companies or other baristas. It is simply unprofessional. It only serves to cause divisiveness in our coffee community, when what we need is unity. If someone in earshot happens to love that coffee you just said sucks, it either makes them feel dumb, or it makes YOU look dumb. Don't ever assume that your words won't ever hurt the coffee company in question.
And before you go asking about exceptions to the rule, yes, that goes for the big multinational chains too.
So what CAN you say? You can certainly talk about what you've been taught, or what you've read, or what your opinions about coffee are. We're intelligent people, right? We know how to be diplomatic about how we say things. Baristas, never forget your role as a "coffee ambassador." You know already that you know much more about coffee than the average person, and the same thing that makes your statements about good espresso have weight in the general public is the same thing that makes your statements about "how much the roaster down the street sucks" damaging.
Wield your portafilter with care. If not, you might hurt someone... especially yourself. That's a good segue into the next one...
Rule 2: The world is not your espresso bar. Respect others' spaces.
We've all experienced it. You walk into a coffeebar somewhere, in the hopes of finding at the most, someone knowledgeable to talk coffee with... at the least, a decent shot of espresso. You look behind the cashier at the espresso machine, and to your horror, you see a nice three-group, with all of the portafilters sitting cold (*gasp!*) on the drip tray, the dosing chamber on the grinder full of espresso grounds, and no tamper in sight... other than the one attached to the aforementioned dosing chamber. You see a bag of espresso on the counter. "Hmmm, I know that roaster, and they roast a pretty nice espresso!"
"What do you do? What... do... you... do?"
Well, it just happens that you have a 58mm tamper in your back pocket, and thoughts rush through your mind. "What can I do or say that will get them to let me behind the counter so I can show them how REAL espresso is made?"
No matter how pure your intentions are, this is NOT the time or place for a lesson on espresso. Believe it or not, even the most unskilled of baristas still have a sense of pride in what they do. Just as you don't want some stranger on the street telling you how you should drive your car, or how you should parent your child, you should NOT start looking for an "in;" a way to get in there to show them a thingger-two.
If you see someone you just met who is clearly making bad decisions in their personal life, and you want to help them change for the better, what's the best thing to do? Not go up to them and say, "Can I tell you how you can live your life better?" The best way is, like it or not, to establish a long-term relationship with that person... demonstrate that you care so much that you want to be friends for the long-run. After you've invested some of yourself in that person, THEN maybe you'll have earned an opportunity to make a difference in their life.
Similarly, if you're walking in off the street into some random coffeebar, you're a nobody. You don't care about them, and they don't care about you. For you to think that you can then impart upon them your knowledge and wisdom about coffee and what they're doing wrong on their espresso machine is pure arrogance. If you REALLY wanna help them, establish a real relationship with them. Ease into things. THEN, after they've gotten to know you and you them, THEN not only will it be more appropriate to "show them the light," they'll actually be receptive to your input.
So if you're in a shop that you know you'll probably never return to, and you're really eager to whip out your Barista Guild of America membership card and tell them, "Ya know, this card certifies me to be able to tell you that you should really adjust your grinder," DON'T DO IT. All you're gonna do is piss people off. It's not nice, and again, it's unprofessional.
Rule 3: You're not as smart as you think you are. Don't make an ass of yourself with your "coffee knowledge."
How many species of coffee bean are there?
Ambassadors for, and students of coffee. That's what we are. Ambassadors. NOT "evangelists," though sometimes there's some evangelizing to do. NOT "experts," because not one of us knows enough to create a coffee bean from scratch.
An authorized messenger or representative.
An unofficial representative: ambassadors of goodwill.
No coffee bean I've ever met has authorized any of us fools to represent it. So "unofficial representative" it is. "Students" is self-explanatory, right?
It's important that we're very careful about how we go around presenting the knowledge that we purport to have. I mean, any barista who has been around for any amount of time can think of something that you used to think you knew about coffee, but later found the opposite to be true.
We're all learning, and we're sharing with the general public and other baristas what we've learned thus far. While there are certain absolute truths in coffee, we need to approach it with respect and care. Someone once shared with me some great advice on studying the Bible. When you read it, read it from below. The Bible isn't something to be conquered. If you read it while "looking down" on it, you'll find yourself missing a lot of what's there. Read it from below. You'll learn a lot more.
No matter what your religion (or lack thereof) might be, I think you understand the point. We all have much to learn about coffee, and walking around like it's something that you've got whipped will only serve to undermine the real pursuit of excellence.
Be humble in your own pursuit of excellence in the cup, and when you talk about coffee and espresso and barista techniques, be careful what you deem 'this is how it's done,' because more often than not, it's more that "this is how you THINK it should be done," or just how you were taught.
From what I've been told by people who have spent time with him, 2004 World Barista Champion Tim Wendelboe, on top of being a world champion, is one of the most open-minded people when it comes to espresso. Give him any espresso machine, any grinder, and any coffee, and he'll do his best with it without complaints. In that way, he's been, and will continue to be, a great spokesperson (and ambassador) for coffee.
Too many baristas take every opportunity possible to show off what they think they know about coffee and espresso.
Take a look at the USBC/WBC scoresheets. Out of a possible 1200 points, 48 points are wholly related to what the barista has to say during their presentation. 1032 points are awarded for how the barista prepares and serves their drinks, and the quality therein (the remaining 120 are for 'Total Impression'). So in competition, what you do is 20 times more significant than what you say. I think that's a good guideline for baristas to follow every day, don't you think?
And to go back to my little question above: How many species of coffee bean are there? Easy question, easy answer... the answer is two, right? Arabica and robusta? WRONG. The answer is three. Look it up. See? Don't know as much as you thought you did perhaps?
Rule 4: It's not about you, it's about the customer.
One more scenario for you. An order comes in: 16 ounce double-shot latte with skim milk. So away you go with your masterful hands, grinding, dosing, leveling, tamping and you lock the portafilter into the machine and hit the brew button with skill and aplomb. You grab the steaming pitcher and stretch-and-roll... textbook. White chrome, baby. You think to yourself, "Double rosetta... each with exactly 12 leaves a side." You pour the most beautiful, symmetrical, double-rosetta of your life. You carefully set it on the bar and announce with pride, "16 ounce double-shot latte... skim milk!" You see the customer approach, and you can feel your chest swell as your adoring patron will soon cast their eyes on the masterful creation you just bestowed upon them when...
"Umm... is this decaf? Cuz I wanted decaf."
What happens next will separate the professionals from the primadonnas. The primadonna will immediately argue with the customer, or at the least, turn around in an audible and visible huff, clearly annoyed that he or she had to expend any artistic energy on such a savage.
Baristas, it's not about you, it's about the customer. Recently, someone proposed that we look ahead to the Fourth Wave, saying that their hypothetical "Fourth Wave" is when the consumer-base learns to recognize and appreciate the Third Wave and its endeavors. I vehemently disagree. The Third Wave is NOTHING without its customers! In fact, it's all about the customer.
Let's let bad attitudes and primadonna-stuff die with the Second Wave. If a customer comes up and has a problem with their drink, be it too hot, too cold, not enough vanilla, too much mocha, not enough whipped cream, or not enough foam... the professional thing to do is to apologize and remake the drink for them. People nowadays blow off the old adage, "The customer is always right," because it's obviously not literally true. The customer is often wrong! They DIDN'T say DECAF!!!
However, the saying is pointing to a simple fact in a customer-service setting: it's about the customer. If their needs aren't met, your business' needs aren't met. In fact, other than the obvious things that might be grounds for immediate dismissal at my shop here in Washington DC, such as stealing, etc., I have a well-known rule: when a customer brings their drink back to the bar and needs their drink re-made, if the barista shows any "attitude," they're fired. There is NO room for stuff like that.
So again, what CAN you do then? Treat your customers as you would the judges in a barista competition. You DO want their approval, like it or not. If they don't like their drink and their experience, then they won't want to be a paying customer anymore, and no paying customers... no pay. No pay? No job. It's okay to take pride in your work, but think of it this way, if the customer doesn't enjoy their drink, you can't be proud of it. Your job is to provide the best coffee and espresso experience possible, and if it takes three tries and three 16-ounce lattes of varying temperatures to accomplish that, then isn't that a small price to pay for perfection?
The Code as a work in progress
So there we have four things that every barista should keep in mind as she or he seeks to be an asset to The Third Wave, and there will be more to come. I encourage you to seriously consider each of these, and think about what place they might have in your barista career.
I am very proud to call myself a barista, and a "Third Wave Barista" at that (yes, in that case, you can capitalize). However, nobody said that it was gonna be an easy journey, and nothing that's important ever happens by people being undisciplined. Raising the bar means much more than just how our hands operate the espresso machine. It's about providing the best espresso and coffee experience possible. The coffee is the centerpiece, but serve it with a side of unprofessionalism, and the total experience is ruined.
We'll continue this list in a future article, so please add your comments to the discussion. We're all in this together, right? Again, feel free to give your feedback, but please... be gentle. My feelings can get hurt too.
Nicholas Cho is the owner of murky coffee in Washington, DC, a Director of the Barista Guild of America Executive Council, and is a USBC certified judge. He can be contacted at email@example.com.