30 Days of Blog - Day 19 - Barista wages

Welcome to day 19 of 30. It is a cool and rainy day here in Tokyo, and I must write today’s post quickly because I will be working at Maruyama Coffee’s new Omote-sando Single Origin store most of the day today. 

It’s a pretty cool concept, with the intention of the barista being in direct contact with the customers, helping craft their experience by utilizing their expertise and knowledge about the various coffee offerings. The idea being to not only give a unique experience, but also to create exactly the flavor profile the customer desires. I’ll know a whole lot more about how it works after today!

The idea of elevating the role of the barista leads directly into my topic for today. This one is about the role of the barista and if it can ever be a livable wage position. I was inspired to write about this because of a social media post by one of my favorite baristas, T. Ben Fischer. He spoke out about an interesting contradiction between an interview and his real life experiences in that company. I applaud his approach because not only did he speak for truth, but he was still respectful for the company that he had worked for. 

Fairly recently there has been a push to make the barista position in cafes into an equitable and livable wage. I have to believe this is largely because as an industry we have been constantly pushing for baristas to be experts with ridiculous knowledge about not only coffee preparation, but roast information, farming techniques, and seemingly everything possible relating to coffee. I spoke a bit about this before in regard to why I believe some of these expectations are leading to “pocket science”.

Let’s start today by looking at why baristas have been historically poorly paid. 

In the early 2000s and before, the position of barista in the US was a strictly entry level position. Some would work for decades and get occasional raises, but it was most likely cash tips that really made their lives livable in the long run. From the cafe owner’s point of view, we have to think about our margins and costs of operation. As I’m sure many of you know, labor is usually the number 1 cost of operation in food service industries. Coffee can be an incredibly slim margin business in the US, especially due to the consumer expectation of functional coffee at a functional (ie. low) price. 

So it has been incredibly common for an owner to hire for low wages, expect high performance, and make their business more profitable. 

Interestingly while the mission to increase barista wages has been fought, we have also been fighting for better prices for farmers and producers at origin. I think we can all agree that farmer wages are highly important for our mission. The problem though, becomes that we are now increasing our cost of goods (green/roasted coffee) AND our cost of labor, while meeting resistance to an increase in beverage price. 

When I think of it in those terms it is no wonder why we have failed in making barista a high profile, good paying position. 

This is why baristas move up. It’s just like I talked about in regard to competitions, as a person gains significant skill and knowledge they tend to move to new and better paying positions. 

We all need to live.

I see this as a natural movement in most industries. You don’t train a sous chef to master the entire kitchen and then expect them to work as a sous chef their entire lives. People tend to aspire to bigger and better things. 

So I don’t see this as a fault of the barista, and you shouldn’t either. I have seen too many business owners or managers who are angry at their staff for moving on, when the only one they should be blaming is themselves for not being able to create the environment and position to keep those great people on staff. 

What I do think is that we have to redefine something. 

At this point we can’t redefine “barista” because everyone uses it and it is quite well known. We likely need to create the new position title (and no, I don’t mean level 1/2/3/whatever barista), because if you create your “barista” prestige position, no matter how well thought out it is, the customer will not understand the difference between the “barista” at Starbucks and your “barista”. 

I see this like a Sommelier. Most restaurants have only a few somms working, but plenty of bartenders. You need a “master barista” (or whatever you want to call it) who is your on staff/shift expert. Then you still have your regular baristas who are less trained and less experienced. 

Perhaps it’s not a perfect solution, but that is what has come to my mind for a while.

Hope you enjoy my take on it. 

See you tomorrow,

Pete

Posted on September 22, 2017 and filed under Blog.