Head of Retail for Irving Farm is a big job. With seven stores and more on the way, Liz Dean shares her insights on hiring, being an advocate for baristas, and her second life as a amateur equestrian.
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
Disclaimer: Liz Dean and I lead parallel lives. We both found coffee to escape teaching, and now we collaborate on projects and stories about coffee service and the way it affects baristas. I turn to her for advice, ideas, and general thoughts on coffee and the intersection of gender and race, and I hope you find her thoughts as interesting and informative to your own approach to coffee as I do. I’m thrilled to share with you one of the most inspirational and powerful women in coffee I know.
Ashley Rodriguez: How did you get started in coffee?
Liz Dean: After deciding to quit my job teaching high school in the Bronx (having my job threatened because I wouldn’t pass students who’d never shown up to class wasn’t what I thought teaching would be about), I decided to just do some “fun” jobs until I figured out what I wanted to do next with my life. First, I became a dog walker, and then when that wasn’t enough for me to survive in New York, I became a barista: first at a Seattle’s Best in Borders above Penn Station, and then later at Irving Farm’s 71 Irving Place location (where I’d been a regular, in between walks with dogs in that neighborhood).
AR: Before becoming the Head of Retail for all stores, you managed Irving Farm’s Upper West Side location, one of the busiest cafes in Manhattan. What were some of the challenges you faced?
LD: Hands down the biggest challenge we faced (and continue to face!) was and is managing long lines of customers in an imperfectly laid out space, and trying to churn out both drinks and food at breakneck paces without sacrificing quality and service. There is very little downtime, especially in the mornings and on weekends, so the staff has to kind of be “on” for the full duration of their shift, which understandably can lead to burnout if there isn’t strong support and communication in place. It’s also a challenging neighborhood to be in ”when we opened, we were one of the only specialty coffee shops in the neighborhood and we had to constantly find ways to be inviting and welcoming but also unapologetic about what we were serving.
AR: What skills do you think a good manager needs to master?
LD: The best managers are those who set and follow through on clearly communicated expectations (I learned that from being a teacher, actually!). Good managers also know how to play to the skills of their people, and to find ways to bring out the best in their team. They’re advocates for their staff and for the customers, which is not easy! Also, good managers ”unfortunately, in some ways ”know that sometimes their job is thankless, and that people will come to them more often for problems and crises than anything else. So they are tough, levelheaded, and resilient and know how to take criticism well. A good manager is someone whose first instinct is to rise to the challenge.
AR: You’re an advocate for baristas ”you don’t accept that customers are always right. How do you deal with uncomfortable situations between baristas and customers?
LD: I definitely see a huge part of my job ”and the job of my managers ”as being an advocate. Simply listening and hearing someone out can resolve most customer service issues, on both sides, because most customer service issues arise from a breakdown in communication or understanding. A lot of times there are things that we could do better to communicate to customers, but I think a reality that a lot of other folks in the industry won’t acknowledge is that sometimes even if we are trying our best, people don’t listen, or all they are hearing is “you’re denying me something I want”. Sometimes you have to acknowledge that you can’t win everyone over, and that’s okay.
AR: As the retail manager for Irving Farm, you do a lot of hiring. Could you talk a little bit about the hiring process?
LD: I am very open-minded when it comes to hiring. I don’t place much, or any, emphasis on having prior experience. I hire people off of Craigslist, which I know other folks in the industry would never do. Some of my best hires are folks who came to me with zero experience ”just an open mind and a good attitude and a willingness to work and learn.
It’s important to be open-minded about who fits the image of a “barista”. I wonder sometimes if people let their ingrained biases about what a barista is supposed to look like impacts the opportunities that are extended to those staff members. You have to give people chances to demonstrate what skills or talents they have. Not everyone is good at selling themselves, and sometimes it’s up to you as a manager and a leader to tap into the inner strengths of someone who might not even know what they’re capable of.
AR: You’re also a strong advocate for gender equity. How does that shape your hiring practices?
LD: I think sometimes just having someone who is involved in the hiring practices who cares about and is interested in issues of diversity and inclusion is really important, as I think those folks will be less prone to acting on any potential biases. That might mean putting in the work and time and money to get trained and educated on those topics. And also, just generally build that into the culture of the company.
I think it helps that a lot of employees come to us by way of referrals from other employees. I’ve started conducting New Hire Orientation by giving folks the option of stating their personal gender pronouns, and I think that helps set the tone, right away, as to what kind of company we are, and then staff members who appreciate that kind of environment eagerly recommend their friends/former co-workers to us. Even seemingly small gestures like that have a big impact on the kind of people who are drawn to and will stick around at your company.
AR: Do you have any hidden talents?
LD: My first reaction to this question was to be like, “I’m not talented at ANYTHING” but I know deep down that can’t be true. I don’t know if I have any hidden talents, though. I’m pretty good at drawing, actually. Also, a lot of people probably don’t know that I used to ride, train, and compete in the equestrian sport of eventing. I wasn’t super talented and I’ve never had enough money to take it very far, but I still take weekly riding lessons and seize any chance I get to ride. One of my happiest memories from my trip to one of the farms we work with in El Salvador was when they let me get on the horse that lives on the farm and go riding out by myself on the trails among the coffee trees. It was amazing.
AR: What do you hope to learn or do next?
LD: I really love my job. Irving Farm has been growing in a lot of exciting ways during the time that I’ve been with the company, and I’m incredibly excited about what’s coming in our future. We’re opening another store this January, for starters. I’m looking forward to continuing my fight to be a better employer for my staff and to learn more about what else I can do to continue cultivating a workplace environment where all feel respected and welcomed. Better yet, I hope to be a resource for others in the industry looking to do the same for their own companies.