We spoke to two baristas in Austin, Texas, who took a break from coffee during the past year to transition into the tech world.
BY MIRANDA HANEY
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
A barista’s first coffee job can be a lot like falling in love; it’s exciting at first, full of romance and adventure and learning. You have your ups and downs, but for the most part it’s fun, and you almost always stay longer than you thought you would.
That is, until something crazy happens (re: a global pandemic), and the strength of the relationship is tested. For some, 2020 was the year they broke up with coffee for good.
Before former educator and barista competitor Em Orendorff (they/them) learned how to dial in, they were fascinated by coffee competitions. “I was like the nerdy coffee person that didn’t work in coffee,” they said. “It wasn’t a career, but it was something I was into.”
They landed a job with Boulder, Colo.-based roaster Boxcar Coffee during college, and stayed on post-grad. Soon they were managing, training wholesale clients, and placing among the top baristas in the country. In 2019, Em’s life changed forever when they accepted a position as a retail educator for Intelligentsia Coffee. They relocated to Austin, bought a house, then got laid off in 2020.
“I think I was partially relieved,” they said. The news came during some of the deadliest weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, and showing up every day without feeling supported by the company was causing some serious burnout for Em.
Learning to Code
So they drove back to Colorado, took some time to decompress, then returned to Austin to work as a barista at a small coffee kiosk in an office building. It was excruciatingly slow, and in between the occasional customer, Em started to learn how to code.
Eventually the tiny kiosk laid off its employees too, and Em, burnt out for the last time, decided it was time to hang up their apron and enroll in an intensive online computer programming school.
“There’s so much to learn, and constantly learn, that I don’t foresee burnout happening,” they said.
Now four months into the program, Em is looking forward to working remotely, growing professionally, and enjoying some work/life balance. And they’re not alone—former barista Shelby Fry also made the jump from tea to tech for similar reasons.
Shelby (she/her) first came to coffee for the people. Many of her friends already worked for Austin-based Caffe Medici when she took her first barista job in 2017. Her relationships with co-workers and customers kept her with the roaster for three long years, but when all of that disappeared in 2020, coming to work became really hard.
“I had some really intense customer interactions and that was my huge motivation to get out,” she said.
Connecting Coffee to Customer Support
Shelby accepted a position as a customer support agent for a shipping company in August of 2020. She has been promoted twice since then, more than she’d ever moved up in her coffee career. Still, some of the lessons learned as a barista have proved essential in her new job, like setting boundaries with customers and advocating for co-workers, she said.
“I love coffee, I’m emotional about it,” Shelby said. “I don’t think I’d be the same person I am now without it, it’s taught me so much.”
One of the most challenging things about her new remote job has been the lack of social interaction, said Shelby. Luckily, the relationships formed in coffee didn’t just disappear when she changed paths.
Self Reflection and the Future of Coffee
Like any breakup, it’s been a time for self-reflection and discovery for both ex-baristas. There’s plenty of things to miss—dialing in, the hustle of the rush, and of course, the free coffee—but overall, job security, opportunities for growth, and work-life balance all seem to outweigh the stress of their past lives.
As for getting back together, well, never say never. Em is still open to judging or coaching for competition, although it still seems like a weird thing to talk about.
“There’s just so much stuff in the world right now that it feels dumb to think about those things,” they said. “But it was also the thing that brought us so much joy, or at least brought me a lot of joy.”