Baristas, Quality and Waste

21 Jul

Most of the following waffle is heavily influenced by Eric Laurier’s Cappuccino Community papers, available, here:

Monday 14th July saw the official new opening of the Darlington Caffe Nero. Our nearest branch of Nero closed down

The new Darlington store

The new Darlington store

in March when the bookshop that housed it, also closed. Now we have a brand new one that is a shop in its own right, not hiding within another business. It’s right on the market square, a great location allowing it to have a pavement cafe as well, and it looks all new and shiny and inviting. The Official Launch involved hundreds of Nero-blue balloons all over the tables, and anxious looking new staff in trainee t-shirts nervously getting everyone to fill in customer comments cards. I was feeling mean and awkward so I got the new baristas to make me double espressos: the simplest drink in terms of content, but the hardest to make successfully. One was a pretty good attempt. The other wasn’t.

Four new staff were obviously undergoing their “week of intensive training” that they have to complete before being allowed to serve customers unsupervised. For a new store, this is quite an epic task in that all the staff need training at the same time. Stacey, the original assistant manager, was back, frantically trying to help her new flock. They had also roped in John, the manager at the Durham branch to over see things. The area manager, Kirsten, also put in an appearance although she was less concerned with the staff training. These few were in charge of getting four new staff up to speed within the first few days of opening.

Laurier’s Cappuccino Community project talks about his experiences training as a Barista in Caffe Nero back in 2002. I am intrigued to see if anything has changed much in the last five years. I also did this Nero training in June 2007, and the Shift Leader training last September as well. Unlike Laurier, I stayed at Nero for six months so I probably have a different perspective; I’ve also done similar barista training at other companies, and know that there are considerable differences in how you are trained to make the perfect coffee, depending on the company.

Laurier rightly points out that ‘barista’ is usually a low-status job, or at least that is how it is perceived by the general public. Before getting coffee-obsessed and actually trying it, I regarded Nero/Starbucks/Costa employment as “McJobs” – that is, working for a huge corporation, in a relatively unskilled, minimum wage job, few careers prospects and very quick staff turnover. As it turns out, I was right. Nero pay their baristas minimum wage, get round legal break regulations by saying you can have as many ‘refreshments’ as you want during your shift (eg: you can make yourself coffee whenever) and therefore you can be left on a ten hour shift with only a 20 minute lunch break. It is possible to progress within the company quite quickly if you’re keen and work hard, but given that shift leaders get a mere 20p extra per hour above minimum wage, most employees do not see it as an incentive. It is not a job you an ever actually live off comfortably, even if you work 40 hours a week as I was doing at first. However, when faced with very little alternative, I was relieved to find that I actually really enjoyed it.

In contrast to the social perception, the company itself tries to give the job high status. Caffe Nero prides itself on the quality of its coffee, and therefore, also on the quality of the barista’s skills. All coffee shops need to compete with each other – especially the big chains, and so in the lack of many other differences, they all promote the quality of the coffee and of the staff. Staff training is crucial for this. But, as already pointed out, as the staff turnover is very high (the average job-span of a barista in Nero is around 6 months. Apparently I am typical!) and as a result, there is a constant need for staff training.

Well trained, skilled baristas supposedly make better quality coffee. This is a fairly obvious point, but somehow it gets lost in translation. If most of the public consider barista work as a ‘McJob’ or similar, they cannot fully appreciate the skills of the barista. I’d like to know whether this affects the consumer’s perception of the quality of the actual coffee.

Not too many customers to deal with yet...

Not too many customers to deal with yet...

In actual fact, being a barista is a very skilled job. The Gaggia machines in Caffe Nero stores are all hand operated: baristas have to set the grind of the coffee, pull out the right amount of it, tamp it correctly, and time the pour of the espresso. They have to have a good knowledge of the appearance of the espresso as well, in order to recognise bad ones. For most drinks they then have to froth milk to the correct consistency and present the drink attractively and perfectly. Add to this, basic, friendly customer service skills (including the six service steps which have to be repeated for every customer, and remembering regular customer’s names and favourite orders), food preparation and service, operating the (often infuriating) EPOS til systems, completing all the daily quality checks on coffee, health and safety checks on food prep areas, storage and fridges, and sort out the cleaning rota.If you are a shift leader, you also have to cash up, reorder stock and handle deliveries, and organise and motivate your team. Speed is also a skill which has to be learned and perfected. Caffe Nero need staff who can make high quality coffees quickly and consistently. Espresso is after all, supposed to be ‘express’. The job is both physically and mentally demanding, and I would argue that the main skill utilised is the ability to work quickly under pressure and remain cheerful!

In Caffe Nero, I found that the baristas require an intense knowledge of the Gaggia machine; there seems to be more emphasis on this than on the actual coffee going in to it. This is because Caffe Nero only serve its own blend of coffee, and only offer espresso-based coffee drinks. There is no variety of coffee beans to contend with and only one method of preparation. The machine has to be correctly calibrated; checked and tweaked twice a day. After a while, you begin to learn to intricacies of it, and the machine’s “personality”. The second group head on the right at the Durham branch always poured slightly faster than it should. The grinder at the original Darlington store wobbled its way out of line if it got busy and over-used and the grind had to be reset half way through the day as a result. One of the handles got loose and baristas had to avoid losing it into the bin when tapping out the used coffee. When you spend eight or nine hours a day, bashing out several hundred drinks from this thing, you do get finely attuned it its mood swings. The machine requires far more gentle encouragement and friendly treatment than the customers ever did.

That is not to say, however, that Nero baristas do not engage with the coffee at all. In fact, there is a constant need to check the espressos being made. Each one is checked visually – if it looks right, it can be served. It has to be about 30ml, with a thick ‘hazelnut’ coloured crema on top that shouldn’t disappear too quickly. After a while, (ie: with practice) you just know that it’s right. You acquire the skill and the knowledge of the required quality. Visual quality checks are the only pragmatic form of checks – baristas cannot obviously taste each one, and probably wouldn’t want to. Caffe Nero ask on employee application forms whether or not the applicant drinks coffee. In my experience, a lot of the employees there did not like the stuff at all and refused to drink it. However, Nero do encourage you to sample. I still believe that knowing what the coffee you are making actually tastes like goes a long way to improving the quality of the coffee in the long run.

Unfortunately, the only way to really learn barista skills is through practice. This is obviously problematic because you cannot ‘practice’ on paying customers. If you spoil a customers drink, they simply won’t pay, and it will get wasted. Alternatively, if you practice making coffees before the customers arrive, or during quiet periods, unless the barista drinks all her attempts herself, all her practice will inevitably lead to waste. The saving grace is often the trainee t-shirt. Trainee baristas are given maroon coloured t-shirts with “TRAINEE” in big letters. This acts as a warning to the customer, and can be used as a multi-purpose excuse for mistakes, a conspicuous sign meaning “Don’t blame me, I’ve only just started!”. I, like many others, tried to retain my red t-shirt for as long as possible as a sort of safety net. Caffe Nero have a policy of ‘No crema, no serva!’ – meaning, if the espresso is made badly, with no crema on top, you have to chuck it away and start again. As Laurier pointed out, this tends to worry trainees, who think that redoing the espresso will annoy the customer and slow things up. Caffe Nero maintain that it actually impresses the customer, and shows that the barista really cares about the quality of the coffee. Again, I intend to find out from customers if this actually works.

There is a little wiggle-room in espresso service, even within Caffe Nero with all its rigorous checks. Baristas are encouraged to judge the customer depending on what they order. It is a fair assumption that people who order single espressos or even ristrettos probably care more about the coffee than people coming in asking for flavoured, single-shot lattes. As such, the barista can put more care and effort into making the espresso, possibly more so than for the latte drinkers. A labour saving device which quality-controls never usually admit to.

John explains that Yes, it is dead hard!

John explains that Yes, it is dead hard!

All this is a lot to take in. Laurier admits to feeling overwhelmed by his own barista training. I heard one of the new recruits at the Darlington Nero wailing

“It’s dead hard! Especially when everyone is new. There’s so little time to get it right!”

It is a highly skilled, difficult job, and one which has to be learned very quickly in a high pressure environment. However, the emphasis on training and skills adds value to the end product – high quality coffee inevitably requires knowledge and skills and also, unavoidably produces waste.


Posted by on July 21, 2008 in Uncategorized


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2 responses to “Baristas, Quality and Waste

  1. Ex Nero Staff

    November 23, 2012 at 12:58 am

    I worked for Caffe Nero it was the most crappest job ever they pay is crap, they treat staff like crap and they are money/sales focused, while preaching they are the nero family b****cks

    • drcoffee

      February 26, 2013 at 3:07 pm

      Very succinctly and eloquently put! 🙂


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