How to Develop a Coffee Training Program: Part One

SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE
DECEMBER 2016

photos by Aaron Tran

Over the course of my coffee career I’ve worked in and with a number of coffee businesses, from tiny hyper-niche coffee cocktail bars to corporate burn-and-churn coffee shops and a number of other categories in between. Now, as someone embarking on opening her own cafe, I’ve been spending the bulk of my time reflecting on my past coffee experiences and considering the culture that I want to cultivate within my shop. What impression do I want to leave on my customers? What skills and traits do I want my baristas to possess? What can I do to ensure the success and longevity of this business that I’m pouring my blood, sweat and tears (so many tears) into?

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There are a number of reasons why coffee businesses fail. Perhaps it’s because of poor money handling, or mismanagement, or a bad economy. Maybe they built their shop over a sinkhole. But what about coffee shops that open in a decent economy, with a great accountant, compassionate bosses, and erosion-free bedrock on their property? Why are they struggling? What are their customers experiencing that’s causing them to lose business?

I’m going to make a bold statement here: a lot of the complaints that we, as the managers and owners of coffee shops, receive from our customers can be prevented by creating a more intentional barista training program. Having a well-developed training program isn’t just about getting baristas making drinks, but about assuring quality and consistency to customers.

Don’t agree with me? Think about your most common customer complaints:

“The drinks are never consistent!” or “I only get a coffee when Employee X is working!” Well-trained employees create more consistent and higher-quality beverages, leading to more satisfied, repeat customers.

“The baristas can be so rude… grumpy… unhelpful…” When your employees feel confident and competent for the work that you’ve assigned them, they’ll naturally enjoy their time spent at work more. Happy baristas treat your customers well and contribute to a more positive shop morale.

“They seem to never have the same people working for very long…” You’re more likely to retain employees when you invest in their professional growth because they’ll feel appreciated and appreciative. Bonus: less employee turnover means less time spent doing new hire paperwork! Huzzah!

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Well-trained baristas are more likely to stay, give great service, and provide customers with drinks that’ll keep them coming back. I could go on, but I’ll just put it simply: if you’re serious about your shop’s success, you must be serious about your employees’ training.

Where do you even begin? First let me emphasize that you cannot discount the incredible value of the various pre-existing coffee education campuses around the country. Check if there are any SCAA campuses in your area. Ask your roaster if they offer coffee courses as a part of their wholesale client packages. Consider outsourcing the heavy lifting of laying foundational coffee education to those who might have more time, space and equipment to do so. Work smarter not harder.

Regardless of whether you’ll be partially or entirely training in-house, you’ll need to assign the task of barista educating to one individual who has enough flexibility in their schedule to train when they are off-shift. Expecting your staff to be able to do their jobs well while simultaneously training a new employee during their shifts is not only unfair to them, but also to your customers and your new hires. It will only serve to create confusion and miscommunication, and result in a lot of important information slipping through the cracks.

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When choosing an individual to lead your barista training program, you need to consider their experience. Has this person already worked for your company? In a perfect world the answer to this question is yes. After all, you want your trainer to be someone who’s in tune with your business, your customers and your vision. It’s important for them to not only know, but to reflect, your shop’s culture. Promoting an already-existing staff member contributes to a more seamless transition into a coffee education program.

If you’re struggling to find the perfect person within your staff, it’s perfectly acceptable to go with an outside hire. Barista trainers should have at least a couple of years’ of experience in coffee. They’ll likely have taken some form of coffee education classes in the past, whether through a nationally-recognized certification program with an organization like the SCAA, in a series of workshops by a roaster like the ones offered by Counter Culture, or in a culinary school. What we’re really looking for here is an individual who is not only going to invest in the education of others, but has a history of proactively searching for opportunities to educate themselves. This helps to ensure that the information they’re passing along is accurate, and that they have some frame of reference for how to facilitate a learning environment.

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Your barista trainer must possess strong communication skills. Trainers work hard to dissolve complicated systems and techniques into more approachable and understandable terms, so your candidate must possess the critical thinking skills and creativity necessary to navigate those moments. Barista trainers should be personable and friendly, capable of engaging and connecting with even the most introverted students. Last, but most certainly not least, your trainer must be exceedingly patient. I cannot stress this enough: find someone with patience. Very few fledgling baristas flourish under a harsh and snippy trainer. Hire a well-spoken, compassionate and patient educator, and your baristas will thank you.

In part two of this series, we’ll tackle the complexities of adult education and find practical solutions to creating an engaging and productive barista training program. Stick around!

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