I remember my first day at every company I’ve worked for—all thirteen of them. From the shift I spent crushing discarded recreational vehicle windows with a plastic mallet to the day I walked into a room on the Apple, Inc. campus to a round of applause from the leadership of the company. From the tour of Disneyland’s backstage areas to the tour of the deep fryer in the back of Burger King. From my first sip of coffee at Starbucks to my first sip of coffee at Portland Roasting.
Every one of those first days made an impression on me and taught me about the organization where I had just thrown in my lot.
What does a first day at your company teach your new employees about you?
I advocate strongly for training—I believe it to be one of the most important (if not the most important) factors in determining the success of a coffee establishment. I’d like to simultaneously take that a step back and a step further with this proposition: the success you have in training your staff to be extraordinary baristas starts on the first day of their employment—and that first impression will color their ability both to learn from and work for you.
If that’s true (and it is), that’s daunting. What on earth does a great first day look like?
If I’m being vulnerable, it doesn’t look like my first day working for Portland Roasting almost seven years ago. We’ve changed things dramatically since then to reflect a much more intentional and well-scheduled first shift, but that wasn’t always the case.
Learning from Experience
When I arrived on my first morning, I didn’t get the impression that people expected me to be there. As the day went on, that impression didn’t change much. I was shown to my desk, and handed a phone with dead batteries.
“So, where is the training material I’ll be teaching?” I asked.
“It should be in the drawer to your right,” came the reply.
I opened the drawer and found several pieces of receipt-sized paper held together by a paperclip with some random facts about coffee’s history scrawled across them. A five-year-old guide to pulling a shot of espresso was below that.
“Is there anything more to it?”
“That’s for you to develop!”
I sat at the computer, stared into the glow of the monitor, and wondered what I was supposed to be doing to earn my pay. Write a new training program from scratch right now? I’d been in and around coffee for nearly a decade, so I wasn’t a neophyte, but I also didn’t have a ton of experience starting a training program from scratch.
It got better the next day. And even better the day after that. By Friday of my first week, I felt welcomed, and like I was part of the team. That first day, though, has stayed with me, and driven me to work hard to give those who came after me a better experience.
Conversely, my first shift at Disneyland was incredible. I walked—nervously—to the office where I thought I was supposed to go, and a familiar-looking woman greeted me.
“Nathanael! I’m so glad you’re here! Follow me!”
It was the person who’d interviewed me for the job. She had interviewed hundreds of people (including three people in my interview group) and still recognized me and remembered my name. She led me to a table, grabbed a name tag (upon which she correctly spelled my name), then took me to a huge theater filled with other people who were as excited as I was to be employed at the Happiest Place on Earth. The lights went down and the show started. We were welcomed and entertained by a team of enthusiastic greeters who whipped us into a frothing, human mass of excitement. This was for us. This whole production with music and singing and skits was for us.
We spent the rest of the day learning, touring the resort, eating, and laughing. It was one of the best days I’ve ever been paid to live through.
Every moment of that eight-hour block of time was planned, coordinated, and orchestrated to excite us about the company, our role in the company, and the things we were going to be able to do together. It laid the foundation of learning that was to come over the next few weeks, and engaged us deeply into the culture of our new employer.
It’s no surprise that my next two years at Disneyland were spent working to get onto the training team that led those orientation experiences. So great was the impact of my first day that the course of my professional life was changed. As I write these words, I can remember every piece of information I was given that day. The Four Keys (safety, courtesy, show, efficiency), the SERVICE model. Everything.
Planning Day One
Why? Why was one first day so dramatically different than the other? What can you as a business owner or café manager or barista or trainer learn from those two experiences?
The most important take away, I think, is to value that first day. Make those first hours memorable and special. You are welcoming a new person onto your team, and hopefully they will stick around and bring value to your organization. How you treat your new employee is an acknowledgment of the value they bring.
So, plan the first day. Who are they going to see first when they arrive? Make sure that person knows the name of the new employee and expects their arrival. There is a radical difference between feeling expected and feeling that no one knew you were coming. It’s a difference that can color the whole day.
Next, fill the day with activities that set expectations for all the days to follow. These can be easily categorized into three areas: who you are as an organization, the role your new employee will play in that organization, and the things you can accomplish together. These are all part of simple, basic training. With the right person (or people) leading the day, you can make a tremendous impression on your new hires that will stick with them for the rest of their lives.
The most important take away, I think, is to value that first day. Make those first hours memorable and special. You are welcoming a new person onto your team, and hopefully they will stick around and bring value to your organization.
Who are you as an organization? What principles are you founded on? Portland Roasting strives to produce excellent coffee that respects the environment we all live in. This means sourcing coffee in a sustainable way, from farms where we have relationships with the growers. Everything we do centers on relationships and sustainability. You learn that in detail on your first day, because we want you to be excited about working here. You work for a company with real values that extend to the core of who we are and what we do. That’s exciting!
What role does the new employee play in your organization? Who do they report to, and what are they going to be doing? If they’re a barista (and especially if it’s their first coffee job), tell them about their place in the industry, and how awesome it is that they get to be the person—the only person, usually—in the coffee chain that actually sees the final customer enjoy the fruits of dozens of people’s labor. Whatever their role, hype it up! Make it exciting. You’ve hired them because—presumably—you need them. Make them feel needed!
Finally, where can you go together? What are the goals of your organization, both short term and long term? How does your new employee fit into and help you accomplish those goals? Even entry-level positions play a crucial part in the company’s success. At Disneyland, it would seem that the janitorial staff, who wear all white pants and shirts and walk around the park with a broom in their hands, would be hard to motivate. But Disneyland made that role feel important. People’s perceptions of the whole park and company are colored by how clean it is. The front line of that reputation is the janitorial staff, and they’re a proud group of people. Yes, they’re picking up trash, but they’re picking up trash in Disneyland. They keep the Happiest Place on Earth looking like the Happiest Place on Earth.
Moving Forward Together
It sounds so simple. Start your employees with a first day of training that engages, encourages, and excites them. Introduce them to your company, to their role, and to the bright future you have together. For something so simple, then, why is it so hard?
Maybe the first day at your company looks like Portland Roasting’s did seven years ago. If that’s the case, reevaluate your methods. We dramatically changed the way we onboard employees so that from their first moments in our building, they feel warm, welcomed, and valuable. Because they are valuable. We looked at how things were, found ourselves dissatisfied, and changed.
Maybe the first day at your company already looks like Disneyland. If that’s the case, keep doing it. You’re awesome, and I aspire to be more like you.
Ultimately, we work in an industry that most people don’t have much knowledge of, which gives us an incredible opportunity to make a memorable impression on newly minted baristas, production workers, and other entry-level positions. This is coffee. This is where it comes from. This is who we are. This is how you fit in. This is where we can go together.
I get excited just thinking about it.
—Nathanael May is the director of coffee at Portland Roasting Coffee.