Coffee Careers

Café Basics


Photo: Andrew Neel.

It was around this time last year, early fall 2015. I walked behind the bar at our flagship store, dressed in a gray suit because I was on my way to a board meeting for a foundation I serve. A frequent morning customer, a man no older than sixty, asked, “Do you have an interview for a real job today?”

I was incensed. Does this man know all that Summit Coffee does? Is he aware of our roasting facility, and our multiple cafés? Does he have any idea what I do? My instinct was to fire back a part-witty, part-terse statement that really put him in his place. But I paused, handed him a coffee and side-of-my-mouth chuckled with him, not at him, about his remark.

What is a real job? Is it something with a career path? What is a career? Answers to these questions vary from person to person, obviously. But the consensus to these questions has changed wildly with generations. This customer, a now-retired baby boomer no doubt, was more likely to spend his years working for a small number of companies. There’s intrinsic value in showing up to work, hustling through nine-to-five’s one year at a time. Loyalty is a buzz word for baby boomers—earn your keep, wait your turn, and good things will happen.

On the other side of the counter, however, is our staff of thirty-seven millennials. Millennials now represent the largest segment of the workforce, especially in service- or retail-related industries like coffee. Yet while a study from Deloitte shows 44 percent of millennials “would like to leave their current employers in the next two years,” consensus is that this generation is more likely to pick an employer that matches its personal values.

So here’s the crossroads that I face as an employer: How do I justify investment in a workforce that’s inclined to see greener grass tomorrow and jump off the bus? And how can I grow this, or any, business without investing in the people who choose to work with our organization? I’ve found that the limited intersection for success lies in how you invest in people.

Millennials want to develop skills. Millennials want a work-life balance. Millennials want not only to ask questions, but have those questions answered. Millennials want a company that shares a responsibility, both locally and globally, in caring how we source and how we produce. Millennials want businesses to focus more on people, less on profits.

The barista as a part-time, temporary rest stop for people without drive, without college degrees, and without a plan for the future is quickly becoming a thing of the past. In the last three years alone, the type of applicant we’re seeing is staggeringly different. Really smart, really motivated men and women are choosing to work at places like Summit Coffee, and it’s my responsibility as an owner to make their employment as fulfilling as possible while they’re on our team.

So how does that work? Trust and transparency.

I refuse to make employment seem like a transactional business. I’m uncomfortable with the status quo of work being a paycheck for showing up on time and sober. When we agree to work together—and that is a very mutual agreement—we agree to trust each other. I trust that you want to work in coffee, with and around people, and in a fast-paced service environment. When we send you into three weeks of barista training, sitting through hours of classes on extraction and milk chemistry, you’re going to learn because you want to, not because you need to.

And you trust that I hired you for your skills and your personality, not because your availability to work forty hours a week lines up with the shifts I need covered. You believe that your skills are not only understood but valued in this company. You know that whenever it is you decide to leave for another job, you will look back on your time and really take something from it other than an hourly wage and good cash tips from the locals.

When we wanted to make work more transparent and more of a partnership, we thought outside the time clock for some inspiration. First, I borrowed from Peregrine owner Ryan Jensen the idea of a transparent wage scale that he spoke about at the SCAA Convention in April. Let your staff know why they make what they make, and then give them checkpoints to get raises. If you’re a barista, and you know that a $1/hour raise is coming if you win a latte art throwdown or get a sig bev on the menu, there’s now a known value to going above-and-beyond. As an owner, it takes all the ambiguity out of raises and reviews.

Secondly, we have all-staff dinners every month. I bring my family, and staff is encouraged to bring theirs. This is a people-powered business, and while we’re all hustling side-by-side for seven days a week, we also recognize that we all have lives outside of the café.

We also implemented an employee bonus fund that can be used for three things: education, personal wellness, and community service. We often reward employees for thinking outside the box and doing more than what’s asked.
In the end, whether that baby boomer who liked my suit knows that I consider coffee a career is irrelevant. I know that coffee is a career. Not just for me, but for dozens of folks on our staff who found a passion in this craft. So, business owners, let’s embrace the millennials and all of their beautiful drive for personal and social awareness. Millennials are no longer just the future; they’re the present. And we’re better off for it.

Brian Helfrich is co-owner of Summit Coffee in Davidson, North Carolina.