Coffee Shop Blues: The Trials And Tribulations Of Being A Barista

Credit: Claire Cullen

Credit: Claire Cullen

Making coffee can be the most fun job. It can also be the most mundane job. And when there are more coffee shops per square mile in Bristol than anything else, chances are you might end up working in one. Here, Claire Cullen balances the pros and cons of working as a barista.

…although I totally loathe it, begrudge it and will drag my feet most mornings on the way to work, I also (reluctantly) love it.

Tell me you’ve just secured a job in a trendy café and I’ll respond with an enthusiastic and committed, ‘Don’t do it’. That would be irrational though, and entirely unhelpful. So let’s be levelheaded here, okay!? Let’s be reasonable about what a job in hospitality can offer, and due to several years of working in various cafes, I feel I have secured enough stories to share with you.

Look, the thing is, although I totally loathe it, begrudge it and will drag my feet most mornings on the way to work, I also (reluctantly) love it. I have met some marvelous people along the way, have terrific memories and to make someone a great coffee, can actually be very rewarding.

So I figured the most objective approach to sharing my experiences of working in hospitality, would be to share with you some of my experiences in the format of a list of pros and cons. Enjoy.

Cons

1. Playlist Purgatory

Not-impressed

Some of the worst, most horrifying cover versions of songs happen in coffee shops. Fact. When you find yourself clearing tables to a dodgy, bargain-basement rendition of David Bowie’s ‘Starman’, it really makes you doubt humanity. In addition to this, you will hear that same song again, two hours later, probably while you’re re-stocking the cake fridge. It’ll make you want to punch the carrot cake until it’s carrot mush.

2. Demanding Details

Nope

‘Would you like a cherry on top?’ you ask.

To the occasional customer, your stupid smiley face and that cruddy, cheap uniform indicate you’re a mindless idiot. They are usually the ones with the extended fussy order that they’ve already anticipated you’re bound to make wrong. They are usually on their phone, like they’re way too important even to order, and you should know just by looking at them what they would like.

‘I want a regular, hazelnut, skinny latte, one shot decaf and one shot caffeinated, dry, but not too dry, extra hot, with cream – but just a small amount of cream, so please NOT too much? Oh, and chocolate sprinkles sprinkled into a portrait of my face,’ they declare at you with disdain and exasperation.

‘Would you like a cherry on top?’ you ask.

3. ‘If there is time to lean, there is time to clean…’

Exhausted

‘If there is time to lean, there is time to clean’ – an overused saying that managers like to use against you, when you’re taking 30 seconds to recuperate from that demanding customer. No way, Jose. You must enthusiastically and devotedly carry on.

4. Shining Silverware

One of my major incentives not to break any of the 10 commandments is that I imagine Hell would be polishing cutlery for the rest of eternity. I cannot express just how mind-numbing this task can be, and what is more annoying, is that I have an incessant need to do it properly, so I end up just hating myself.

5. Arrogant Authority

…the flipside to that is an arrogant twerp who micro-manages your every movement.

Do you know just how excruciatingly annoying it is when someone asks you to do something, just as you’re about to do it? – Plus, you know, that they know, you’re about to do it, but they need to reaffirm their authority, so they will tell you to do it just as you’re about to do it. Not only that, they will relish in their pathetic triumph of authority as though they have ace managerial skills, which, they do not.

Don’t get me wrong; I have experienced some delightful managers. However the flipside to that is an arrogant twerp who micro-manages your every movement.

Pros

1. Creative Coffee

Latte art is a BIG deal, there is even a world championship, and TBH, I’m not sure why there isn’t a reality show about it yet. Latte art is drawing with milk. The milk is heated using steam to a certain consistency that can then be poured onto coffee in a way that creates an image.

2. The A Team

coffee-don

At one stage, I was a member of the A Team. Not the one with Mr T but a different sort of A Team, one where we all worked just as well as the original A Team, but instead of fighting crime, we made awesome coffee.

 We were masters of customer service, supremacy of efficiency and dons at heating milk.

We were masters of customer service, supremacy of efficiency and dons at heating milk. It was a smooth operation, it was a dream…until Sam left, and then Conor disappeared, Ben went onto better things and Caitlin quit to travel. That’s the nature of being a barista: a dream team won’t last forever, but it’s hella good fun while it lasts. I’ve met some excellent humans over the years but there is nothing like it when you work with a bunch of people you get on with marvellously.

3. Hospitality? Hos-pun-tality more like.

I'm-not-too-sharp

‘Croissant your mind, you keep mopping around?’

[while holding plate] ‘Well, I’ve got a lot on my plate.’

‘I’ve got a latte work to do, and it mocha me sick.’

‘Ah, that’s rubbish [points to bin]. You sugar mentioned it earlier.’

‘I didn’t want to milk it, or stir any trouble.’

[while picking up a knife] ‘Well, sorry for not noticing, I’m not too sharp.’ ‘You should learn to espresso yourself better…’

‘Yes. I’ll drink to that.’

……need I say more?

4. You Snooze, You Lose.

Cleaning-yaya

If you learn to make the most of your time, there can never be a dull moment…

Cafés and restaurants have a vibrant atmosphere and there is always something to be done (even if that is polishing cutlery). You’re seldom bored as you’re constantly interacting with customers, colleagues and friends.

If you learn to make the most of your time, there can never be a dull moment – once I was even lucky enough to witness a live L’il Wayne impersonation, as my colleague swaggered around the kitchen wearing a mop-head.  True story. Not to mention the time, a little girl sitting having cake with her Dad, told me very proudly and triumphantly ‘I’ve got a vagina’. As her father told her to pipe down, I had to refrain from joining in with her liberation.

These are now memory gems stored in my memory palace.

5. Confidence/Learning

Perhaps not the most conventional way of learning but it did give me the skills to think on my feet and work efficiently…

At the first café I worked in, my training consisted of a neurotic Spanish senora frantically gabbling instructions at me. I would respond with a look of bafflement and she would inevitably nudge me out of the way and do it herself. So I learned by watching, and quickly realised I would get an electric shock of Spanish shriek in my ear if I did something wrong.

Perhaps not the most conventional way of learning but it did give me the skills to think on my feet and work efficiently, and despite her neuroticism I did admire her robust work ethic and determination. There are plenty of valuable skills you can gain working in hospitality, from pulling a pint or balancing plates to managing stock and customer service, which can improve your confidence and look great on a CV.

Ever worked in a coffee shop or any other job in the service industry? Got stories to tell? Let us know: @rifemag

Related Links:

‘Seven Reasons You Should Volunteer More’ by Jess Connett

‘Nine Things To Expect When You Start Working At A Supermarket’ by Sammy Jones

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