The term “specialty coffee” was first coined by Erna Knutsen, also known as the godmother of specialty coffee, in 1974. The Specialty Coffee Association of America was then established in 1982. So by no means is it a new industry. But I can sense the passion in the air, ever so fresh, amongst the baristas who we have the most access to.
There are fantastic initiatives taking place in Dubai and a few individuals are really pushing their limits to bring the best education possible for consumers and professionals working in the industry to take their coffee literacy to the next level.
I have been focused on farmers this past couple of months, interviewing and writing about them — the latest published on FLTR Magazine. I believe baristas are not only overlooked but oftentimes overworked, and can be put in the same boat as coffee farmers. I think it’s time we start paying attention to our friends behind the bar and helping out in little ways.
“The two ends of the coffee spectrum that get ripped off the most are farmers and baristas,” Cole McBride, 2018 US Barista Champion, commented in this Vice article.
Brewing Gadgets, the leading supplier of coffee brewing equipment and machines, launched an initiative a few months ago. It’s called the Barista of the Month. There are no prerequisites to participate and involves the power of the community i.e. you. Simply tag your favorite barista and the winner receives a cash voucher.
This is the kind of recognition and support the two stakeholders of this industry need, the farmer and the barista. Both the roles are stressful, long hours of hard work, and the low pay does not add any sunshine to the already gloomy weather. Barista roles are plagued with no growth or training, and the added stress that comes with the job profile can affect their well being and mental space. The monthly wage aside, they are also reliant upon social prestige.
As consumers, our first point of contact are baristas. I look forward to a well-prepared cup of coffee, but more than that, I look forward to a good conversation. I want to know what their story is, how they brew their coffee and whether I can learn something from them. They can make or break an experience, adding to the holistic vibe of the coffee shop.
I would label them as the connoisseurs of this industry and spokesperson for the farmer. There’s a small percentage of consumers like me who consider them as consultants and often treat them as true masters in the art of brewing coffee.
A lot of work is being done to support baristas in need and make a positive social impact. I’m Not A Barista is a not-for-profit organization and their mission is to celebrate the coffee community by empowering baristas to reach their fullest potential.
The #TIPABARISTA campaign, launched last year, is a funding program that enables the barista to apply for this funding, share their story with the world, and enable donors to see the impact they are currently making.
I’m Not A Barista Podcast focuses on the stories of baristas around the world. Every episode highlights a barista’s journey, their struggles and achievements. Supporting the barista community is Micky’s (founder of I’m Not A Barista) end goal.
Another program making all the difference to the coffee worker is Go Fund Bean. Their mission is to support, uplift and defend the hourly coffee worker. Initiated during the start of COVID-19, they were in a unique position to help baristas as the pandemic worsened, claiming businesses and jobs along with lives. Along with funding grants for the hourly coffee workers, mental healthcare support and professional development courses on coffee is also provided.
Individuals enter the specialty coffee industry as baristas, work for a few years, double down on expanding their skillset and move to roast coffee, become green buyers, or take up business development roles. There are substantial growth in the latter roles, but not when you want to remain a barista. Is it regarded as a stagnation point, then?
Why has it become common for baristas to work short periods and then move to other cafes in search of microscopic increments and other basic benefits? This is a trend I see talking to many baristas across the UAE.
We are often fed a narrative that us as consumers need to pay more for a cup of coffee to ensure the farmers are paid more. I support this. But, what about baristas? Would you pay more for coffee to ensure baristas get a decent wage? Winn Deburlo, owner of Amethyst Coffee Co., did exactly that according to this article in The Guardian. Deburlo increased the prices by roughly 25% to provide a living wage for his employees.
Lets put some numbers into perspective. The average pay for a barista in the UAE is AED 2,545 per month according to Indeed. I’d prefer using median than average since it is less affected by outliers and is not sensitive to abnormally low or high values in a given dataset. However, this should give you an idea of how low the salaries are. It’s not sustainable given the long working hours and skillset required to perform the job in the first place.
Cafe owners need to actively start charting goals that align with their business and staff. This can foster a sense of loyalty within the employees. Businesses like Joe Coffee set up GoFundMe campaigns to help their employees find other jobs during COVID when they had no choice but to let their staff go.
Jonathan Rubinistein explains to Fifth Wave Podcast that they couldn’t do anything for their business but chose to help their staff instead. This invoked empathy and loyalty of a different caliber. 100 out of 250 employees who had left are now back to work for Joe Coffee post lockdown.
What owners also don’t realize is when they hire staff by paying less, this “short term saving” will only hurt the business in the long term. They will find their staff leaving in no time when they come across better opportunities. Additional costs like work visas and training can be tracked on a P&L statement but how do you justify the additional time spent on these activities which can be avoided from the very beginning.
The time to find new baristas and to train them can significantly impact the operations of a business. Bottom line, the customers will start to notice if the quality has dropped or drinks are taking longer to reach them.
Investing in the pay package is not the only solution, upskilling and training can be an option. It is not sustainable to increase everybody’s pay but individually rewarding employees for being the most valuable asset to the business sets a prime example to the rest of the team.
As we reach towards the end of this article, I had to seek another opinion of an individual who worked as a barista and what it took for her to transition into another role. I have featured Kim Co Daluz before on The Coffee Story, and we asked her what it takes to step out of a barista role:
There are a lot of things to consider, but will ultimately boil down to how passionate a barista is about their future in this industry. Most of the people I know say they are happy in what they are currently doing, but for others it takes years to really know where they are headed. For the latter that feel stagnation and want to transition to another role, there are two things you can do:
First, its the community.
Surround yourself with people that share your passion. Network, build relationships and connect with individuals who are aiming for higher goals. There are opportunities always available and when you are connected to the right people, the chances work in your favor. It’s the connection that creates a window for your growth.
Second, don’t lose the passion.
Rest, respite and refresh if things get out-of-hand. Let your passion drive you, and remain hungry to learn new things. The best way to learn is by learning from the ones who have already mastered the art.
There are some open ended questions I have asked in this article. I am asking them because I don’t see many asking the same. Baristas don’t have to suffer in silence so I’ll ask on their behalf. And if you think I am not asking the right questions, then I want you to comment below.
Are we commodifying our baristas just like coffee? Are we being hypocritical when we require and ask for high skilled baristas to brew excellent coffee, yet reimburse them as unskilled, low wage, and dare I say, expendable work force?