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Breaking into the Coffee Industry

Five Senses CoffeeAndrew Easthope 3 February 2016

One of the most common questions we receive at the Barista Academy from potential baristas is “How do I find my first barista role?” and equally common is the follow-up question “All the advertised barista roles require some experience; how do I get the experience if I can’t find a job to provide that experience?!”

Both of those are fair questions for anyone looking to get a leg up in coffee. Although a huge number of well-established cafes need baristas (often desperately), they’re usually looking for someone who already has enough experience to work the tools and produce great coffee, to help keep that part of their business afloat. As such, most advertised barista roles on sites such as scoutjobs.com.au or coffeejobs.com come with the caveats -must have X years working in a high volume/quality focused environments (or similar).

No wonder it seems so difficult to find work! If you need to bring skills to earn one of those roles, but you need a role to get the skills, what is a budding barista to do?

Fortunately, everyone who works in coffee got their start somewhere, so you know it isn’t impossible. If you ask people who are already working in coffee, you’ll start to get a sense of how many different pathways to the espresso machine there are. I’ve gone ahead and approached a few great individuals in the coffee industry who are at different stages of their journey in to coffee, to help put together a quick start guide for those looking to get their first steps in coffee — if this is you, read on for some insider tips!

Path 1: The Sidestep

What follows is my go-to advice for almost anyone who’d like to start working with coffee.

It might not possible or appealing to everyone, but most often, opportunities pop up in cafes when someone who is not a barista (floor staff, kitchen hand, juice/tea-making person etc) shows a few excellent character attributes that have good crossover for barista work. So, find a place where you want to make coffee and work there in any capacity possible… but keep your eye on the prize. Get to know the baristas, express your desire to learn more and ask if there’s any on the job training to help build towards that goal. One day, the regular barista is going to call in sick and that’s when you can grasp your opportunity to jump on the tools!

This path requires you to demonstrate that you’re a valuable employee — efficient, constructive and eager to pick up more responsibility. Make sure to voice your desire to dive further into coffee up front and then dive into accomplishing your other responsibilities. As the old saying goes, ask and ye shall receive!

Key Steps

  • Research a good potential café, ideally one that offers on the job training, and apply for any going role — the closer to the machine the better!
  • Let the powers that be know of your desire to up your barista experience.
  • Take any opportunities to jump on the machine and learn.

Path 2: The mentor

Finding a mentor to get you started with coffee isn’t as hard as you might think and its how lots of baristas find their start. The coffee industry is crammed with passionate individuals who are looking to share their skills when the situation and the right person presents themselves.

It takes a few key ingredients to get the mentor-mentored party started. Firstly, you need to demonstrate that you’d be a great person to mentor. You will need to demonstrate a great attitude, be humble, show a hunger for learning and a great work ethic. Don’t hold back on showing your passion for coffee either! Secondly, as outlined in Path 1, you need to be in a situation where you can be mentored! You need to be around opportunities to take opportunities.

Sandy Guo

I spoke to Sandy Guo, head barista at the bustling specialty coffee haven Tukk and Co, about how he got his first steps in to working as a full time barista. Sandy’s career is littered with great accomplishments including placing 2nd in the Victorian Brewer’s cup in 2015, but his real passion for coffee was sparked when he worked as a supervisor for the prestigious Vue De Monde group. Sandy worked closely with Mary Zhu, who at that time headed up coffee for the Vue De Monde airport operation.

Mary’s passion for coffee was pivotal for Sandy’s development. Sandy already had an interest in latte art and general coffee making, but Mary really opened Sandy’s eyes up to the wider world of coffee as she shared “some wider parts of coffee like origin, variety, processing and practical coffee making skills.”

Mary’s enthusiasm and investment in Sandy was enough to prepare Sandy for his next steps. After moving to Café Vue in the city, Sandy snapped up an opportunity to move from supervisor to full time barista.

The rest is history; after Sandy’s first foray in to coffee working with Mary, his opportunities grew immensely. He went on to work as head barista at mainstay 3 Bags Full and is now the head of coffee at the always delicious Tukk and Co. But it all started with Sandy’s interest in coffee and a great mentor to fuel his interest!

Ben Greer

Next, I sat down with a barista just starting out on their path, Ben Greer. Ben had no real exposure to coffee in his past career working as a sales representative for a retail/fashion outlet, but he’s always had an interest in it. “There is so much more to the industry, it’s very complex.” said Ben, as we chatted about the wider coffee industry during his most recent training. “There’s more to the production of coffee than just what you see, more than meets the eye.”

Ben’s first real first steps towards coffee came through his good friend Sam, who is one of the driving forces and proprietors behind the bustling cafes Piccolo and Mister Zen. Sam was looking to take on a new staff member with a strong interest in coffee — seeing the opportunity, Ben dove in head first. Through a combination of training with us at Five Senses and some strong mentoring on the tools at Mister Zen, his skills have come along quickly.

However, what really made the opportunity viable for Ben was the existing relationship with Sam combined with his demonstrated work ethic and potential. “Sam knew I had a taste for coffee, he knew my work ethic and background, and that I was a hard worker that achieved goals. He needed someone he could trust.”

Juliana Nobre

My final chat was with Juliana Nobre, co-owner and barista at Pixel Coffee Brewers in Leederville, Perth. Her first exposure to coffee came from working with a catering company 9 years ago, where coffee was served but the quality wasn’t great. Working long nights soon grew tiresome, and Juliana decided to take a TAFE based coffee course to improve her skills and potentially find work in the daytime hours, in a cafe.

It was at the TAFE course that Juliana met instructor Jen Murray, her current business partner at Pixel Coffee Brewers, who at that time was also working as the head trainer at the Five Senses Barista Academy. Jen must have seen her potential — shortly after the initial training, Juliana found herself in another class with Jen but this time at our Academy. The coffee was tasting amazing and the training was spot on; Juliana was hooked.

Juliana then spent a year working for a coffee chain, but was left wondering why the things she’d learned in training weren’t being utilised. The coffee they were making and drinking just wasn’t as good. Hungry for answers she set out to develop her own knowledge and “learn about specialty coffee” by spending time at some of the original legends of the Perth coffee scene, Epic Espresso and Velvet Espresso. Here’s what she was looking for!

After heading back to the Academy for more advanced training, Jen helped Juliana find her first job in a specialty café at Spring Espresso and eventually Juliana moved on to Hush. The rest is a blur of big steps and career highlights. Juliana began to compete, attended the Cup of Excellence competition, became a Q Grader, secured a position as a trainer at Five Senses, won the WA State Barista competition (twice) and eventually worked for Five Senses full time as a well-regarded Account Manager.

These days as a café operator, Juliana doesn’t forget her roots and just how valuable it is to have someone help you find opportunities. Jen played a pivotal role, as many mentors do, in helping Juliana find the right steps, fuelling her interest and growing her skillset. I asked Juliana how her experience in being developed by Jen affect the way she handles her staff at Pixel. “We always try to remain open and encouraging.” was her response. Currently, Pixel is funding their talented latte art whiz protégé Andy to compete in the latte art competition.

Key Steps

  • As in Path 1, you need to be in the right place to take on opportunities at the right time. Research some possible mentors and reach out to them or attend industry events to try and meet those who might be willing to help out.
  • Cultivate a strong work ethic, continual learning and your passion for coffee — these attributes with an open mind will provide a solid ground for a mentor to work with.
  • Pursue a barista job as soon as you feel comfortable — as with Path 1, sometimes this will be an entry level role but stick with it if it allows you to develop your skills.

Path 3: Self Driven

This path involves the seemingly impossible (at first); develop your own skillset to the point where can successfully complete trial shifts and win barista roles, without any prior café experience. It’s a challenge, but it is possible!

It may come as a surprise that simply attending a barista training and gaining a certificate does not then make you an employable barista. Though training is always regarded as a positive, what really makes you employable as a barista is possessing a demonstrateable skillset of espresso production, milk steaming, workflow, coffee knowledge and milk pouring skills. If you can pour latte art, you’re even further ahead! So, if you can build those skillsets to the point where you’re on par with a working café barista, then you begin to open up opportunities to jump straight in to barista roles.

Phase 1: Build the skills, attend training
It’s pretty obvious what’s coming next — our training is carefully constructed to build strong foundations in the skills and knowledge you’ll need to make delicious coffee in a commercial environment. If you haven’t already, check out the sweet range of courses on offer. In terms of breaking into the industry, it makes total sense; if your plan is to gain enough skills to be employable, but you don’t have any opportunities to work behind a machine or be mentored, then training is your absolute, bonafide best option to get both experience and guidance. So, get ready to get some sweet skills and prepare for some genuinely fun and valuable time at one of our great facilities.

In our training program we focus on providing practical skills to new and experienced baristas that make them more employable (or taking them to the next step in their coffee journey). For someone looking to break in to barista work, progressing through our training is a massive headstart and it often leads to great opportunities.

Of course, we’re not the only suppliers of training out in the industry there. Be sure to spend your dollars wisely, as not all training is created equal. When deciding upon what training to attend, you should consider the following factors:

  • Is the training practical in nature?
  • Will I get a chance to practice my new skills in the session?
  • Are the class sizes small enough that I get individual attention from the trainer?
  • Will this training leave me with the most applicable skillset for my target style of café — is it directed towards cafes serving awesome coffee, or average coffee?

With enough training and practice to get your practical skills ready, you’ll be nearly ready to go!

Phase 2: Educate yourself
The internet, as I often reflect, contains countless opportunities to self-educate. The advantages of having a huge database of info, opinion and streaming video means if you’re curious about a certain skillset, then there’s bound to be someone out there who’s published a blog post or video about it. You’re reading this blog right now, after all? Youtube for example is crammed with great (and not so great) latte art videos for you to analyse and learn from.

To build your knowledge, there are plenty of great sites around that contain huge bounties of information. Check out James Hoffman’s (famous) blog, the informative Perfect Daily Grind, the older but still awesome Coffee Geek page and a recent favourite of mine Socratic Coffee for starters.

It could also be worth considering picking up two of the best put together books about coffee prep out there — Scott Rao’s The Professional Barista Handbook and Everything but Espresso. These resources have a great mix of theory, practical explanations and some of the science behind barista skills.

Beyond the internet, is real life. To quote Sandy Guo on the best ways to prepare yourself for working in a cafe:

  • Understand what coffee is and what’s happening in the industry now.
  • Get a basic understanding of the difference between specialty and non-specialty coffee service.
  • Learn the terminology of coffee.

Sage advice! Visit as many cafes as you can, and talk to as many baristas as you can. Networking is a great way to find opportunities to get started.

Phase 3: Get a Trial
You will probably know when you’re ready to start looking for work. If you’re unsure, you should consult with your trainer for some guidance. Generally, they will be able to give you an idea on whether your skills are high enough to start applying for work.

After enough training and practice, there’s a certain point when things start to fall in to place and you’ll feel confident enough to drop in your resume to a café and apply for a barista role. If you’re being considered for a café role, you’ll generally be offered a trial shift. This is often a short, 3 hour stint where you’ll get to jump on the machine and make coffee for customers. Your performance and the quality of your output during that trial shift is going to be what determines whether you get the job or not.

Firstly, to be successful it’s important to look for the right kind of barista role for someone in your position. Finding barista work where you are ‘covering’ another barista for periods of the day, are a secondary barista or even working as an all-rounder with a small portion of the role being coffee, could be the best options as they will allow you to become accustomed to barista work at a more gentle pace, continuing to hone your skills. Avoid applying for roles that would place you in overly stressful circumstances. For example, taking the weekend shift in a very busy cafe when you’re very inexperienced could lead to tears — the pressure will be high and it may not end well!

Secondly, it’s important when you’re applying for barista roles to be honest about your experience. Café owners and managers are generally busy and their time is precious. It’s better to be stopped at the door because you are honest about your experience, than stopped at your trial shift because you aren’t meeting their expectations. Remember, even after training and practice you’ll still need some time to get into the groove of producing coffee in a café environment.

Key steps:

There haven’t been many times better than now to get into the specialty coffee industry. There are more and more great cafes opening, with passionate owners aiming to serve out delicious coffees all across Australia (and the world). This growth creates a fertile environment for aspiring coffee obsessives to find openings and continue their coffee exploration. There are lots of paths you can take on this journey and I hope that the advice above has helped sketch out some next steps. Good luck and have fun!

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