A Lesson in Humility: If you're a Barista Who Wants to Open a Coffee Shop, Prepare to be Stuck in the Middle
I haven't had much to talk about lately. Amethyst is rolling along, with it's ups and downs, and my own life, and the lives of my staff, have been marked with big life events. If I can't provide a funny anecdote, personal story, or a remotely thought-provoking post I just don't post.
Lately, in response to specialty coffee articles, I've been feeling a little torn. I feel like I live in between two very different worlds within the coffee industry.
I know this will be me repeating myself, but I don't identify as a 'business owner'. That's not part of how I see myself, even though it is a role that I play and it is how many people view me. So much of my identity is based on my ability to serve people, be it guests or my staff, I feel the most myself when I'm serving someone else.
My idea of 'service' does not entail putting up with demeaning comments or people, bending over backwards for people, or remaining silent just so someone feels like I've 'served' them; I actually see that as a disservice to my staff, my company, my guests, my fellow baristas, the coffee industry as a whole, and to the world at large (to get really dramatic). My idea of service means going out of my way to do something nice for people when they are in my space, making everyone feel welcome and safe, and calling people out when they do something disrespectful, even if it was unintentional (easier said than done). I could get lost in this subject all day, so I'll move on before I go down the rabbit hole.
Business owners are not seen as 'service workers', though that is still the area that I see myself working in. I am first and foremost a barista, I'm just a barista that has to do a lot of paperwork and deal with way more bullshit. I know it's a privilege to miss working on the floor, so I'm trying not to belabor that point, but I do miss it. Don't get me wrong, I still work on the floor, just not nearly as often as I used to because when i work on the floor more than 5 days/week I end up putting everything else off. I am currently 3 months behind on our books (which is actually fine, it just stresses me out), and yesterday I ran from meeting to meeting to meeting for 10 hours. Amethyst's manager likened it to the episode of Parks and Rec where April schedules all of Ron Swanson's meetings for March 31st, not realizing that March 31st actually existed and Ron had 94 meetings in one day. The difference in my situation was that I was both April and Ron, so therefore had no one to blame but myself. It's okay, these days happen.
Due to my 'new' job, new responsibilities, and new insight into how coffee shops are truly run and function on the back end, I no longer feel the same empathy I used to feel for baristas. I hate to say that, but it's true. I read articles about unfair/unjust coffee shop owners and it makes my blood boil because it's not hard to value and respect your staff. Then, I read comments from baristas about how they need more and more and more, and my blood boils again! That's a new thing for me, and it was pretty surprising the first couple times it happened. I don't feel as connected as I used to to the baristas who I consider my professional peers, but I also often don't feel connected to other coffee shop owners because I often don't respect the choices they make. Those are general statements, and of course I respect and look up to many people in the coffee industry, regardless of what their current job or chosen profession is.
When I read about 'super-autos' (great article about them here ) I feel conflicted. Part of my job is constantly looking at our bottom line so I can save a couple bucks to throw back at my employees and myself. Yes, myself. I make less money than my staff. That's not a point of pride, it's a fact. I know many coffee shop owners that make less than their staff (these companies are small, equal to or less than 3 shops doing likely equal to or less than 1.5million/year in sales as an estimation). These articles talk about coffee shop owners who want to, in a nutshell, automate, not pay livable wages to fix their bottom line, cut wages, and put baristas out of jobs, all to make more money. To be honest, I see that from both sides. I think that coffee shops are chronically overstaffed and it's okay to have more competition among baristas for jobs. There are a good many baristas now who are highly skilled both in the technical aspects of coffee and the service aspects of coffee. There are many baristas who have competed and dedicated themselves to being the best coffee professional that they can be. The problem becomes discriminatory hiring and poor hiring practices that will put certain demographics of baristas out of jobs and not others. I don't know how exactly to fix that except for holding employers accountable and for calling them out when their practices are unfair or unjust.
I want to pay my people more (according to Denver, our hourly pay without tips is above the livable wage, but there is always room for more) but there's not money for that. I want to offer benefits, but there's not money for that. We're 2.5 years old and we're still paying off some things from our build out. Coffee margins are slim, waste is high (milk drinks bleed money), and often baristas don't take the time to really consider these things when it comes to talking about raises, benefits, and other things that cost money.
Unionizing also gets me in a tizzy. Of course I want baristas to have more rights and power, that's where my heart lies. However, you can't demand something that flat out isn't possible. Amethyst could take a $40k loan, provide health insurance for a year for the whole staff, and then have a really loyal group of 5 baristas (myself included) who are all out of a job because the company went under. My staff could easily shut down Amethyst if they so choose. They could unionize and lobby for more money, I would have to pay it, and again the company would fold. I would be out of a job, and I would owe so much money on our lease that I would spend the rest of my life paying it back. In a very real way, my staff has the ability to ruin my life.
On the other hand, coffee companies should pay better, offer benefits when possible, and treat their employees better overall. If they're bigger and have more money their staff should unionize and lobby for higher wages (after looking at the company's likely public income statements) benefits, fair and just treatment, etc.. None of that is unreasonable or unwarranted.
There's this talk of 'rising profit margins', but even if profit margins are rising, they weren't that great to begin with so I'm not sure that's a totally valid argument. Of course every cent counts, but with rents the way they are in these metropolitan areas, there's a lot of costs to weigh. That sounds like a cop out, but it's real. I want to expand Amethyst, but that will halt raises for a bit. However, in the long run it will provide more opportunity. I rarely see baristas stick around for the long term, though it's becoming more prevalent as 'barista' becomes more of a profession. It is the job of both the employer and the employee to make sure that 'barista' maintains and continues to grow as a 'profession' and doesn't get stuck and regress into a 'job'. It requires work from everyone.
I don't know what the answer is to any of this. I understand and have been that barista that feels at odds with their employer, but as an employer I've also had a barista file unemployment after fair and just termination before I even issued their last paycheck. Not only might I have to work all of their hours, but I might have to pay them for said hours, therefore not paying myself for that work. Even then, most of you will read that and emotionally side with my employee. That's okay and understandable, but as someone who has taken second or third jobs to keep their staff through slow times, who stands by their staff in problematic situations with regulars, and as an employer who seeks to find any way possible to pay their staff more, provide a consistent and dependable schedule, and who still has someone be vengeful and set out to fuck me over, I have much less empathy and sympathy than I used to.
Let's be honest, being a barista isn't for everyone and I've had a handful of interviews where I've told people it's probably time for them to get out of coffee. I don't mean that with disrespect, but people still have the wrong idea of what being a barista is. It's hip and cool, but ultimately grueling and tiring, like all service industry work. This isn't an easy industry; you have to want it beyond reason. You have to love it beyond reason and be willing to do the work in order for us to progress together, and not as two separate fronts (employee vs employer). I'm sure there will always be tense moments between those two 'sides', but if we could move forward as a more unified front, that makes more sense to me than moving forward as two opposing teams. Again, that's easier said than done and it requires the privileged people who hold the power (employers) to level the playing field and stop their bullshit practices so that employees can flourish. It also requires patience and understanding from employees about what is feasible and available to them based on sales and profits, what is not, and what will come in the future if all goes well. There's always that caveat, though, 'if all goes well' or 'if all goes as planned'. No one can ever know what will happen. No employer can open a location and guarantee that something crazy won't happen and the business will go under. Maybe someone sues for the coffee being too hot. Maybe someone slips on ice on the property and sues. Maybe the landlord sells the building and the rent skyrockets and there's nothing to be done. We're not in a stable industry. We work with a crop; with a plant. We work with landlords who don't often care what happens, they just care if they get their money, and then when employers are panicking about paying rent to a relentless landlord they are also dealing with a staff that is unionizing and demanding more money. Guess who's caught in the middle? The employer.
I could go back and forth on this all day, but I don't know why I would. I want to see the coffee industry progressing as a unified front. That means everything and everyone has to be better. Baristas have to be better, coffee shop owners have to be better, roasters have to be better; frankly it's exhausting, but it seems to be the reality.