Professionalism, Pay, and Specialty Coffee

That thing where Squarespace eats your post, which will make this easier because now I can refine the points more clearly. Thanks, bugs! 

So in the last two posts (really three) have come up that have been highly complimentary and interconnected. On Trubaca, two posts on service and the professional comparison game work on defining the role of the barista and its professional obligations. And over at Barista Hustle, the always awesome Alex Bernson tackles the topic of the tip-less cafe, and muses on the notion of how service charges can ease service environments. I encourage everyone to take a look at both presently, as I'll only be touching on them here.

The two articles on service and professionalism within the barista community point to a key issue: there are, few and far between, many professional baristas. Professionalism assumes a series of understandings as to the role and function of the barista both by employers and by the barista themselves. And yet we only ever seem to think of baristas as people who make coffee drinks and provide hospitality. At their core, a barista should be those things; they should also have a growing understanding of the agronomy and origins of coffee, the ways processing and handling affect coffee, and roasting effects, and how various brewing methods effect the flavor outcomes of those coffees. They should be able to provide effective hospitality and emotional labor. In most cases, I would say baristas should be able to troubleshoot and work on basic technical fixes to machinery used in their shops, from espresso machines, grinders, and basic brewing equipment, to dishwashers and water fixtures. For cafes with events programs or roaster-cafes who run wholesale programs, baristas act as important wholesale associates, being the first thing many prospective wholesale clients see and taste from a roaster, and should know how to segue and read those guests when they're in the shop (i.e. direct them on offerings, give out cards, etc), or promote the necessary programs to guests who might be interested or have use for those services. In a certain sense, a professional barista has to be aware of many levels within the profession of specialty coffee itself, as well as a space within the wider hospitality and business environment. 

This is a lot to ask -- it's also nothing that is paid for in most companies, cafes, or other specialty coffee environments. As it stands, most cafes and baristas depend upon tips, not base wages, to supply a fair amount of the value to a baristas wage labor. But as has been looked at in the past, tips are highly variable, seasonal, and by no means consistent; if we look at a standard 40 hour week on wages alone, the average barista comes in at 400/wk before taxes, social security, and all else are taken out. Clocking in at 20,800 annual before taxes, this is not, in the American context at least, sustainable, let alone incentive to invest in the myriad workings of the coffee profession, or being consummate hospitality employees. Short of companies with employee insurance, annual raises, or other such incentives, there's little reason for baristas to be full time employees, or not having other professions, work, or things that help pay the bills. Passion alone is not going to cover it, nor should it -- expertise and professional standards demand pay. 

This is why, in part, the notion of services charges is so interesting -- a way to boost pay without the dependency of guest whims to generate a regular stream of income for baristas. The practice, initially utilized by Euro-centric restaurants stateside like Chez Panisse to build professional standards within their staff ranks, have recently been revived in places like the Bay Area and in fine dining to remove many of the idiosyncrasies and power dynamics of tipping systems. Operating in one of two ways -- either as a flat fee per customer interaction or as a percentage of sales in total -- services charges, like VAT, are there to supply the value-added to a product (such as hospitality service). The coffee may only cost x amount on a spreadsheet, but when you calculate the costs of trained individuals making the coffee, the means of maintaining a staff of such people, a service charge makes sense as a way of ensuring quality employees. For employers and guests, it oftentimes is a boon, removing the awkward process of tip calculation from the equation. (This is not universal; many, especially American guests tend to view the service charge as subverting their right to judge on service, regardless of the fact that those judgments tend to bear on matters of race, gender, and expectations more than the service environment itself.) 

Service charges may do some good, but only under certain conditions. The individual ticket purchase either has to be high enough, or low with enough volume, to simulate or create a consistently high daily return to provision the wages consistently, or enough to assist the employer in subsidizing a standard of acceptable base pay. The charge, whether percentage wise or fixed rate, Needs to be high enough. And to that end, the onus here is still on the barista and the guest, which is the weak point to both articles in the above -- the fact that owner-operators and managers need to be in this picture. 

Much like previous writing I've done on specialty coffee, the issue of professionalism and pay are closely interlocked. And much of it has to do with how we define ourselves as an industry. This is hard because, in every conception, shops want to operate differently, be competitive within their markets, and be successful, which varies in definition. But specialty coffee, if it wants to remain distinct, must offer a value proposition that is greater than machinery or beverages; we actually need to specialize, with a particular pedagogy and practice. Much like defending and distinguishing the coffees we serve through their pricing, the staff we hire in our industry require distinguishing and defense from their mass market brethren. Much like shops that offer a $2 cup of coffee rather than the $4 cup it should be priced at because "it's what the market will bear", shops that demand the veneer of professionalism without building their businesses to pay for that, or expecting "standard going rates" to cover that degree of professionalism, aren't actually wanting it -- or worse yet, undervaluing it and essentially wanting professionalism for pennies. Investing in education, employee growth, and professional development are methods for staff retention and cutting costs on turnover as well as ensuring that the industry writ large can be differentiated from its competition.   

So where does this leave us? We need to have better structural support -- Barista Guild and SCAA would be well served to do more for business planning and modelling assistance for new shops, and maybe work, like USBG does, to help their members with legal clinics and negotiation methods for pay for individual baristas, especially those obtaining certification to give those certs some gravity more than they do now. Building more expansive training into the Barista Certification program, including basic technical training, wholesale service, and even hospitality management, would go a long way to fleshing out the definition and role of baristas and actually service the things they may actually DO on the floor of a shop. Service charges could help to raise base pay for baristas, either as a subsidy for business owners offering better overall wages, or as a tip-replacement. But none of these on their own will replace revamping the business models of cafes to encourage and promote professional standards, pay for that degree of education and staff empowerment, and generate systemic changes to the way specialty coffee is being bought, sold and made. Shop owners, baristas, and the industry need to have a compact not to demand expertise before pay, or pay without any qualified reason*. In an age where minimum wage increases are expected (and should be welcome), and we keep talking about the role of baristas in professionalizing and holding the head of the industry high, we need to remember shop OWNERS have an onus to create their own pedagogy and identity, and actually invest in their staff and their role in creating this industry. Specialty coffee is an industry, a profession, not a passion project that baristas should be expected to carry on their shoulders for pennies.    

* Short of us entering the glorious age where wage-labor is eliminated in favor of basic needs being met through the socialist dream, and baristas can pursue their careers free from material need or worry. I digress.