Sunday, September 25, 2005

Give it your best shot: Barista work entails more than pouring cup of joe

By Liz Garone
Special to Bee Creative

Walk into any cafe today, and you're likely to hear phrases like "half-caf nonfat latte, double cap - no foam, and mocha - no whip" being sloshed around. Rarely uttered anymore is the once familiar refrain of "cream and sugar."

Like the specialty coffees they create, the counterpersons also have a fancy, new title: barista, which means "male or female bartender" in Italian. The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) defines it as "a master coffee maker." From powerhouse Starbucks to independent cafes, baristas work the espresso machines, cranking out drink after drink for the line of customers, which can easily extend out the door during peak hours.

Tony Serrano, 34, has been a barista for 10 years. What started as an opportunity to bring in a little pocket change as a college student quickly became a way of life for Serrano, who holds court at Yonan's Floral and Coffee Company in Turlock. A recent transplant to the valley, Serrano is quickly establishing a name for himself as one of the area's top baristas and one of only a few to practice "latte art," the act of making a café latte into a creation almost too pretty to sip. Serrano takes his profession seriously, having garnered third place in a recent national latte art competition in Las Vegas.

For many of the approximately140,000 baristas in the U.S., the main draws of the profession are a chance to escape the everyday grind and interact with a lot of different people. To make it as a barista, you have to like people and be outgoing, according to Serrano. "You meet all walks of life in a café environment. You have to remember their names, you have to remember their drinks."

The idea that all baristas are 20-something is a myth, says Matt Reed, 30, a Starbucks store manager in downtown Modesto. Baristas in his store run the gamut from one who is 16 years old to another in her mid-fifties. The "common thread" is that they are caring, understanding, and relate well to people, he says. "They need to connect to you as a human being and have an interest and some warmth."

Gretchen Peek, 42, agrees. "You have to have the ability to connect with others, because you're preparing a product that is a connection," she says. "At six or seven in the morning, you might be the first person who actually speaks to a customer. You're delivering a product that can change their mood, that can elevate their mood and give them energy."

Being "a little bit of a ham" also makes for a great barista, Peek says. "Part of it is show. People want to hear that noise, they want to see what you are doing. They want to see how you combine drinks. You're kind of on stage," she says.

Peek should know. She has been in the business 18 years and has trained, hired, and judged baristas. At a recent contest in Fresno, Peek consumed 99 sips of espresso in a 10-hour period. When she isn't guzzling the goods, she's overseeing one of her two businesses, Clayton's Restaurant and Clayton's Coffee and Tea Company, both in Modesto.

Training to become a barista often comes on the job. At Starbucks, new employees must go through training and certification, which last about eight shifts, and pass written and hands-on tests before receiving the coveted title, according to Reed.

It takes a minimum of three to four hours to train a barista, according to Serrano, who also owns Coffee King Consulting, which sells commercial espresso machines and offers consulting to new coffee businesses and would-be baristas. Peek also offers hands-on training to customers who buy the commercial espresso machines she sells. The SCAA offers classes and sells training CDs, DVDs, videos and books on its Web site (

Pay for baristas often starts at minimum wage plus tips, and the tips can really add up. A morning shift can yield $50 to $75 in tips, according to Peek. Baristas at Starbucks in Modesto start at $7.25 an hour plus tips, according to Reed.

Serrano advises anyone considering a job as a barista to learn as much as they can about the history of coffee before jumping on board. Also important is to sample the myriad coffees that are out there, Peek says. "Go out and buy some coffee. Taste some coffee. Brew them all different ways. It will give you a basic knowledge," she says.

The only way to truly know if life as a barista is right for you is to try it firsthand, according to Serrano. "Get a job at your local café and see if it fits for you," he says.

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