So, what do you do?

Locally sourced milk and partnerships with craft breweries are all well and good – but do your customers enjoy their visit to your café? Our irascible raconteur knows it’s crucial to focus on what’s really important. Illustration Martin Kingdom

Barely a week goes by without an invitation arriving at Bitter Barista HQ for the launch of a new shop. It usually goes something like this [please fill in the blanks]:

Dear Bitter Barista,

We’re delighted to inform you about the launch of our new coffee shop. It
is really special:

We buy coffee beans from [insert speciality roaster], and prepare espresso on [insert espresso machine] using [insert grinders here if really serious].Our milk is sourced from [insert farm] and offer [insert milk substitutes].

Our baristas have been trained by
[a well-known barista champion]. We are committed to our neighbourhood and source our breads and viennoiserie from [insert local bakery].

To show that we care, we have plants scattered around the premises.

We hope you’ll come to our launch party. There is free beer from our friends at [insert local craft brewery].

Love,

[clichéd coffee shop owner]

While grateful for the invitation, after reading it I’m none the wiser as to the shop’s specialism, the proprietor’s vision, and – most importantly – what’s in it for me, or, for that matter, any other customer.

The more astute among you will understand that establishing a viable cafe is more complicated than curating a Pinterest board. You can’t just assemble some suppliers you saw on Instagram and form an instant coffee concept. Building a business involves creating something greater than the sum of its parts. It should be an operation focused on managing outputs, not inputs. 

Proprietors need to consider all sorts of questions, such as why a customer would visit their establishment, what experience they want to deliver and what they can actually achieve, and finally that key question that drives all of hospitality: how to make people feel good about themselves. These points, and others, are far more profound and critical for success than what’s in the hopper.

Which brings us to the headline question: what is it that baristas actually do? And more fundamentally, what function does a coffee shop perform? When asked by strangers what they do for a living, many baristas – myself included – sometimes experience a twinge of embarrassment before disclosing their job title. This isn’t because we don’t like the work, but because there’s a popular misconception that working in coffee is a dead-end job. 

More perturbing, however, is the look of doom in the questioner’s face as they anticipate how to survive the deadly boring monologue on the intricacies of coffee-making that many baristas insist on serving up whenever they can. 

It’s not that it’s a dull topic, it’s the narcissism. People pay baristas to make their beverages precisely because they don’t want to do it themselves. When dining in a restaurant, I want to eat my food and enjoy the conversation, not be lectured by the chef. When baristas make a coffee, they make it for someone else. It should be a act of generosity.

There is, however, a worse possible response to the “what do you do?” question. Pity the people who have titles such as “director of first impressions” or “head of happiness” (although working in the finance department of a coffee company and having the title “bean counter” would be worth it for the pun). Taking that idea and running with it, a barista would be an “optimism-generating, soul-warming, joy-giving executive”.

In fact, I’d welcome the mandatory use of this title by baristas for a period of time. A year ought to be long enough to force our community to think more carefully about what service it actually provides. Whoever you are, the next time someone asks you what you do, please don’t be a bore. Snappy and entertaining answers are better for everyone.