Friday, August 15, 2014

Interview With a Barista - It's Not Just About the Coffee


The other day I got to interview Vanessa, a barista and supervisor at Grouchy John’s Coffee Shop here in Las Vegas. We sat down together just after she closed the shop for the evening. For me, worshiper of coffee shops and small local businesses in general, this was like being a groupie and getting a backstage pass after a concert. 

I wanted to talk to a barista for the same reason you’d want to talk to a barista. They have a noteworthy position in our culture because we need the drinks they make, and because we’ve come to cherish the world of the coffee shop and they’re the denizens of that world.

Vanessa talked, I listened, and I realized I had fewer questions than I thought about coffee-making and more about her life. Maybe this will be part one in a series of interviews of cool women in my home town doing stuff I admire. Here’s what I learned about Vanessa and her work:

1) She knows how to make your coffee, and she knows your day is better because of it.

Vanessa told me her first barista job was in the airport, of all fast-paced and crazy places. She admits it was stressful, and that even parking was difficult. But she said she had good training and learned the job so well that she moved into management within six months. Her first boss was strict but she appreciated that. “Especially with cappuccino,” she said. “It’s the hardest to make and he could tell by the weight if it was made correctly. It’s supposed to be equal parts milk and foam. It’s too heavy if there’s too much milk.”

So she has this super-knowledge of how to make good coffee, and she pairs that with an awareness of its effect on people. “We deal with mood swings,” she said matter-of-factly. People come in looking not-so-great but get their coffee and “sit here a bit and leave smiling.”

2) Her “spirit animal” is a honey badger, whose characteristics are damn good for customer service.

Owners and employees at Grouchy John’s have been trying to assign a “spirit animal” to everyone who works in the shop. Before our interview, I knew thanks to Facebook that it had been decided that Vanessa’s is the honey badger. When I asked why, she laughed and explained that one of the owners said, “because they don’t give a shit and they get what they want.” This is perfect for a strong woman persona, but how does it play out in a customer service career? From what I could tell, the only thing Vanessa doesn’t give a shit about is trying to be something she’s not. She says, “The corporate thing isn’t for me.” She has stretched ear lobes and once had a mohawk and there are past employers who didn’t appreciate these expressions. When that was the case, she quit and moved on. 

As far as what she wants, and getting it - Vanessa said the most important things to her are her family and her job, being a hard worker, and “doing what it takes to make everybody happy.” Well, hell… if that’s what she wants - any customer, employer, or family member will benefit from her presence.  

3) Her traits make her a valuable coffee-shop employee, but we may need her in national leadership.

Vanessa began and completed cosmetology school several years ago. She got a job as a hair stylist but knew right away it wasn’t for her. “You don’t get to interact with people. If you’re processing or blow drying their hair they can’t hear you.” She quit the job to go back to the coffee biz. She said she realized that working in the food and drink industry is her calling because that is what brings people together. 

Beginning even in high school, that emphasis on bringing people together was strong. She was involved in Key Club, with its values of leadership, character building, caring, and inclusiveness, and won the office of President by her junior year and Lt. Governor in her senior year. This is notable partly because she is Mexican and the club’s demographic was largely Asian. She had a vision to increase the diversity of the club right away and took deliberate action to do so. Her efforts were recognized; she was voted President of the Year for her 840-member division. 

The priorities she exhibited as a high schooler have grown stronger in adulthood. When she had management positions and did hiring she looked for diversity. Her inclusivity and the wisdom she had from an early age naturally influence her working relationships. If only this example in the life of a young barista could be followed by more of our corporate and political leaders! 

You only have to glance at a business publication (or better, step into a coffee shop) to figure out that the coffee business —from bean export to the barista profession— is thriving. And coffee shops serve as community hubs, places where people gather and share ideas and discuss things. So the baristas who are a significant part of this business have a large influence on our culture. In Vanessa’s case, and at Grouchy John’s coffee shop, this is excellent news.
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