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Professionally Speaking
The Challenges of Professional Barista Training
Author: Ellie Hudson-Matuszak
Posted: July 27, 2004
Article rating: 7.8
feedback: (41) comments | read | write
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Ellie Hudson Matuszak is the head trainer at Chicago's Intelligentsia Coffee. She tackles many challenges and training circumstances keeping Intelligentsia's Baristi corps at the top of their game (as well as many of their clients).

The situation is all-too-familiarÖwalking into the new coffeehouse, ordering an espresso or cappuccino and feeling one's hope quickly transform to deep disappointment as we cringe through preparation and grimace our way to the bottom of the cup. We have yet again witnessed a breach in the coffee quality chain. We leave, feeling both a renewed understanding of the importance of our own commitment to quality coffee and a cynicism for the possibility of ever achieving our collective desired results.

In addition to targeting cleanliness of equipment, quality of the beans, and roaster-freshness, barista training usually makes the short list of reasons that the quality breach has occurred, and rightly so. After all, even if the other three aforementioned factors are achieved, they are somewhat useless if the barista canít prepare a proper portafilter.

In most coffeehouse or café settings, the café owner or an appointed (and hopefully very skilled) head barista trainer carries out most staff training. Not surprisingly, when there are drawers to count, customers to greet, teapots to dust,and phones to answer, proper barista training is a crucial step in ensuring that the highest possible standards are always followed- even when other responsibilities take a trainer elsewhere.

To me, proper training is a complete transfer of any and all necessary skills to change a traineeís skill level in a positive way towards providing the ultimate coffee experience for your customer. For the Specialty Coffee industry, this usually means that there is a training goal of teaching and inspiring all staff to provide great espresso drinks, drip coffee and coffee by the pound with outstanding customer service 100% of the time, which ultimately and continuously generates more and better business for a store.

Even the best trainers expect to face challenges when working toward their training goals, many of them somewhat universal. Understanding these challenges and how to deal with them can help us better achieve our training goals. It is useful to think of these situations not as indications that something is wrong with the trainee, the trainer, or even the training (although in some instances it might be true), but instead as normal challenges that one should expect to encounter and overcome in the training process. As a professional barista trainer, Iíd like to offer some insight into these challenges and hopefully invite you into the world of overcoming them in the specialty coffee community.

A Style of Training

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Hands on
Elly is showing a trainee at Intelligentsia the proper way to pour milk in a cappuccino
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Hands on
Hands on in the training lab, the most important thing for a trainer is to practice what they preach.

Challenge #1: We can deliver the quality I want, but not consistently.

And while weíre at it...

Challenge #2: I can never tell if my training sticks.

These common and recurring challenges may seem to have an obvious answer. The training has 'stuck' with the trainee if he or she demonstrates mastery of the tasks, and if not, then the trainee needs more training, right?

This may be true, but often truly measuring success is overlooked. It is easy to see if, for example, training on how to grind to order has been effective - the trainee grinds to order (or not!). But anyone who has worked on an espresso machine knows there is more to being a great barista consistently than just learning to grind, dose, and tamp a certain way. How can one judge the effectiveness about training to really taste espresso, or how to describe coffee, or the infamous 'La Passione', to name a few? Furthermore, how can a trainer be sure that all factors are working together to inspire real enthusiasm and understanding?

If achieving a high level of quality can be difficult enough to do, maintaining high quality can be nearly impossible and requires a great deal of planning, hard work, and perseverance. The quality-driven members of the specialty coffee community largely agree that without consistency, occasionally reaching high quality can only go so far to contribute to the bottom line. Addressing this challenge with training is a natural step to take and is certainly one that I have experienced.

Training consistency to individuals and among a staff collectively must start from the ground up. At Intelligentsia as an example, to address this particular challenge we created a test and certification process and geared barista training toward passing the certification. We sought to objectively quantify all of the important aspects of what it takes to be a barista. Our first step was to determine what those aspects are, and we quickly realized that the best way to set our drink-making rules was to base them entirely on what produces the best-tasting espresso and espresso drinks in a timely fashion.

Once we determined which skills produced the best tasting drinks, we listed each contributing factor that goes into creating each drink and then further defined them. Each feature was assigned a point value and by extension, each drink was then worth however many points as its distinct features are worth together. For example, the Intelligentsia Caffe Mocha ended up with over 30 distinct specifications. Most features are worth one point because we wanted to reinforce the idea that there is one correct way of doing each step, and that any variation is incorrect. Some features, such as creating a latte art rosetta, are worth more than one point because a qualitative judgment is necessary. A pretty good rosetta, while not perfect, is better and should earn more points than no rosetta or a sloppy rosetta.

As a trainer, this helped me to objectively measure the progress of each trainee, which addresses both the challenge of consistent high quality and the challenge of determining the effectiveness of training. When a trainee knows without question what success looks like, he or she should be able to demonstrate achieving success when their skills allow them. At my place of work, we call our program Bar Certification. Every staff member must pass the certification before being allowed to work on the espresso bar while the store is open.

Certification Programs

Our certification program also specifically targets both the theoretical and practical application of barista skills. There is a written portion, a rosetta latte portion (a variety of milks, a variety of cups), a portion dealing with grind adjustment, and a portion we call the 'menu board' (which is the section that utilizes the point-value system outlined above). The barista must make (in succession), every espresso-bar drink that we offer on our menu. The challenge is that there are three different versions of the menu board which mix up the combinations of for here and to go cups; regular, skim, and soy milk; Black Cat and Decaf Black Cat espresso; and the possibility of added vanilla syrup (vanilla is the only syrup we offer in our shops).

We divided up our menu board into four categories: espresso-only; milk-based; iced drinks; and other. We made sure that each category had each kind of milk, every size, one decaf and one vanilla to make sure that all versions are consistent. The barista starts with all possible points (Total points possible: 617) and as compromises (doing each feature correctly but running out of time) or minor mistakes (forgetting to dry the portafilter, using the wrong cup for cappuccino) are made, points are lost.

For example, serving in the right cup is worth 1 point. This means the right size, the right saucer, and the right spoon all are prepared according to our defined standard. Grinding the exact amount of coffee (within 4 grams) is a point. Steaming milk to the perfect temperature is a point. Tamping with 30 pounds of pressure is a point. At the end, a score at least of 90% overall is needed to pass the bar certification (553 points). Over 50% of the points are achieved by preparing espresso correctly, so itís not possible to even glimpse passing unless espresso skills are near perfect. Since implementing this program over a year ago, we have certified over 30 staff members.

The certification process, while very involved, time-consuming and complex, is still just a small part of the actual training process. To even attempt the certification, there must be hours of tasting espresso, learning how to adjust the grind and prepare drinks, learning latte art, learning about the roasting process, cupping coffee, and on and on and on. At the beginning of drink training, the trainee is presented with the Bar Certification in its entirety so he or she knows exactly what is expected.

Bar Certification then not only provides an environment for complete and effective training, but also has created an overall, everyday increase in skill level, drink quality, not to mention consistency. Ultimately, this was our goal, and our training and certification program has helped us achieve it.

Continual Learning and Adapting

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Latte Art
Pouring latte art is considered "de rigeur" at Intelligentsia.
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The Rosetta
Latte art technically doesn't improve the taste of a cappuccino, but it completes the sensory experience.

Challenge #3: 'When I learn something new, itís difficult to get my staff to adapt.'

The nature of the specialty coffee business is quite dynamic. There are continuous efforts throughout the industry and community to educate ourselves and provide our customers with the ultimate coffee experience. We attend seminars, trade shows, and classes. We travel to origin. We read books, trade magazines, and newspaper articles about coffee. We visit websites. We watch videos. We meet new people. All of these are part of life in specialty coffee.

All of these instances may cause us to learn something new and sometimes we can implement new procedures in our stores. It is easy enough to adjust a training program to include new findings; for example, drying the portafilter, using a digital timer to time espresso shots, etc. all for future trainings. The tough part is often how to introduce new material to veteran staff. On one hand, you donít want your staff to feel that youíre always changing the rules - this can be frustrating and confusing. On the other hand, you want to serve the best coffee possible, and if a new skill improves the way your coffee tastes, then itís counterproductive to ignore those new skills.

When faced with this challenge, we have found the most successful way to introduce a change is to connect it with the most basic of basics: how the coffee tastes. I remember long, long ago (before my days as training director) when we didnít dry the portafilter before preparing espresso. When the idea was first introduced to us, it seemed like a waste of time. All of us Intelligentsia baristas liked the way our espresso tasted just fine, thank you very much. But, when we tried espresso shots prepared with 'our' way (not drying) side by side with the 'new' way (drying), it was clear that we needed to change our preparation techniques.

This approach is also effective when dealing with a staff member that has a few 'rogue' habits. For whatever reason, staff members may occasionally stray from the exact specifications outlined in your training program. Whether itís because theyíre trying to improve efficiency, or they may still have leftover habits from a previous café job, or because they simply make mistakes, the important thing is for a trainer to address the situation and correct it as soon as possible.

As a trainer, I have found in many instances that demonstrating how the rogue habit negatively affects taste in the actual cup is far more effective than simply telling the person to stop. I remember a situation about two and a half years ago, when we had an otherwise great barista that wasnít flushing the group head before each extraction. All it took for me to neutralize this habit was to have the barista taste a shot of espresso pulled after flushing the group head, then taste a shot pulled on the same group head without flushing. They noticed a profound difference in taste and the need to flush the group head instantly became crystal clear to the barista.

Finding the Time

Challenge #4: There is not enough time to train.

This challenge could also be called 'We are too busy to take time for training' or 'I only hire people when I need them to start working on the sales floor ASAP,' among others. This is perhaps the most misunderstood training issue and all too common. It also is an unfortunate recurring pattern in many cafés, rather than one isolated incident, and it can quickly send the trainee down a path of ambivalence toward quality, creating more problems in the future.

Many café owners are reluctant to carve out specific time for orientation or training, usually concerned that a shorthanded staff might not be able to keep up with customer demand, and could cause customers to leave and never come back. Another reason often cited is the distaste for the labor costs usually incurred when an 'extra' person is on the payroll for each day of training. Some see specific training as a waste of time, as the expectation is for employees to just learn on the job, especially when customer demand is the reason for hiring new staff (such as those hired for holiday help or to staff the cafés expanded hours, etc.).

The costs of training (labor, time, and otherwise) should certainly be carefully monitored to keep training time purposeful. If staff are expected to meet the needs of customers in a way that is consistent with your training goal, then it is crucial that they receive the transfer of skills and knowledge that allows them to do this properly. The way our training program addressed this challenge was to designate specifics about orientation training in accordance with the old standby 5 Wís and H. (Anyone that worked on their high school newspaper will remember Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.)

Once you have done this, create a schedule so you have an idea of how long orientation training will take, and hire accordingly. If you need someone to start on December 15, and you have determined that you need 3 days for orientation training, then hire to start on the 12th instead. The three 'extra' days of labor costs will more than be offset by the outstanding customer service this new person is able to deliver on day 1 and beyond. Most importantly, by outlining specific training procedures and time boundaries, you greatly reduce or even eliminate the possibility of a time-crunch infringing on your commitment to properly train your staff. This approach is also effective for training outside of orientation. Barista training, coffee bean education and sales training, and even latte art training will be much more efficient and effective if approached this way.

In the specialty coffee community it is common and almost expected to face training challenges such as these. It can be tempting to fall into a trap of frustration when routinely encountered with some of the same challenges. It is promising, though, that with some serious planning and a clear emphasis on serving the best-tasting coffee possible, your training program will elevate the skills of your staff and the quality the drinks served, which is both beneficial to your store and to the specialty coffee community as a whole.

Article rating: 7.8
Author: Ellie Hudson-Matuszak
Posted: July 27, 2004
feedback: (41) comments | read | write
Professionally Speaking Column Archives  
Column Description
With each new Professionally Speaking feature article, you'll read the words of a professional in the coffee industry, addressing issues that matter most to other industry members. Topics will include commercial roasting, green bean buying, staffing and managing a cafe, and anything else related to the business of doing coffee.

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