Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Coffee is essential to this select group

By Dick Hirsch

During those formative years when I was of the age during which people typically begin considering career options, I never thought of what life would be like as a barista.

The truth is that at that time, I had absolutely no idea what a barista did. I had never even heard of a barista. If you had asked that I guess the meaning, based on linguistics, I probably would have guessed it related to a Spanish lawyer, derived from the same root as the the English word “barrister.”

I would have been very wrong, of course. It was not until very recently that I learned what a barista is and what a barista does, and by then, of course, it was too late for me to consider any career change. Quite by accident I discovered that a barista is a person who makes coffee.

Had I been a true coffee aficionado I would have known that years ago, when coffee seized a new and prominent position in the lives of so many people. But, no, since coffee has always been just another commodity to me, I never had any involvement with a barista. Then one day I was walking past a Starbucks branch. There was a line of people waiting for service, but I believed my mission---information gathering---was much more important than theirs---ordering some version of coffee.

“Excuse me,” I said to the nearest young woman behind the counter, “what do they call your job?”

She looked at me as if I might have just wandered away from a secure facility, but, thank goodness, she didn’t call for help to have me ejected. Instead, she replied, proudly:

“I’m a barista.”

I suspect Starbucks is one of the primary places where most baristas are at work since there are so many opportunities. At last count there were over 10,600 company owned and licensed stores in the US plus another 4,300 abroad. My visits to places like that have been relatively few for two reasons: First, coffee isn’t an important factor in my life and, finally, I am too careful (some might say too cheap) to pay the prices they have established. However, at those prices, all the baristas must be doing very well. They are the key players at each store in a multibillion dollar business, so they should all be living well and driving fancy cars.

This is true all over the world. I was just talking about China with a woman whose attorney son lives in Beijing. She said one of the busiest places in that huge megalopolis is a particular Starbucks, a huge facility favored by both locals and tourists. The Chinese, she said, traditionally tea drinkers, have been seduced by the lure of US coffee and don’t seem to object to paying a high price for the privilege of drinking a latte, espresso, or cappuccino.

With all that in mind, and realizing there are countless local and national wannabes who are in the business of attempting to emulate the great success of Starbucks, we must raise this occupational question: Has becoming a barista become a popular goal among young job seekers? Before you answer, you should know that the specialty has progressed to the point where there are several barista magazines, a US Barista Championship competition, a World Competition, and the American Barista & Coffee School in Portland, Oregon, known in the trade as ABC, where an aspiring barista can learn the skills necessary for coffee-brewing excellence. The tuition is $2,225 for the four day course.

The folks who brewed the coffee I drank during my years as a four cup a day regular never had the benefit of such intense professional training. I can still remember the original Harry, who founded and worked both breakfast and lunch at the luncheonette of the same name, dumping the old coffee grounds into a trash can behind the counter. He then added a new portion of coffee and ceremoniously poured a large kettle of boiling water into the urn. He occasionally permitted others to handle the task, but, as the boss and coffee expert, he preferred to do it himself.

Harry always claimed he never made any money on the coffee, explaining that his profit was on the food. The coffee was a mere convenience, he insisted. He knew how to brew the coffee but he didn’t know how to merchandise it. He was born to soon.



Post a Comment

<< Home