Reflections on Being a Young Barista

Coffee is a young industry, and has always attracted young, enthusiastic new baristas. Dillon Williams shares a few of the struggles young baristas face, and how we can help guide and shape our new generation of coffee professionals.

BY DILLON WILLIAMS
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE

Throughout my life, I have had the best tools possible for being successful. Mac desktops in my elementary school, interactive whiteboards in middle school, and a personal laptop in high school. I have seen the exodus of textbooks, and the death of paper note taking, along with other members of my age group. Generation Z—generally thought of as the group of young people born in the mid-1990s to early 2000s—is the next generation of young people joining the workforce. Though supported immensely through their school life, Gen Zers have more competition than ever. In the specialty coffee industry, we strive to be diverse and inclusive, yet the industry is flooded with highly educated, experienced millennials (the cohort born just before Generation Z, usually starting around the early 1980s). How do young, driven coffee professionals prove themselves? How do they find jobs and learn the craft of specialty coffee?

A rosetta from a young barista at Starbucks. Entering the specialty coffee world can be intimidating, and many young enthusiasts get their start at chain stores like Starbucks.

For many, the first step into the coffee world is through the door of chain coffee shops. Working in the industry for the first time can be daunting; you have to do everything from blending up iced drinks to managing a large line of “to go” cups in a multitude of sizes, all while delivering exceptional service. Many will scoff at a young barista trying to work their way into this work environment. Greyson Hall, who is 19 and a barista at Starbucks in Boulder, Colo., says it best: “Being a young barista, I sometimes assume that I don’t know what I’m talking about … yet being young gives me the opportunity to prove myself and stand out.” Community- and people-centered, Greyson gives an example of what Generation Z can be in the workplace. “Not every industry is as capable of forming communal values the way coffee does,” she says. “To see such a community form over something as simple as a dose of caffeine has inspired me to appreciate every person I am capable of serving.” Her advice to young baristas? “Allow yourself to experience a little bit of everything. Talk about it with those around you and don’t be discouraged. It’s OK not to be able to identify a coffee’s origin after one sip. Coffee is like most things and just takes practice.”

A barista at his first day at a new job and one year later. Although clearly skilled already, this young barista improved his latte art skills significantly over time.

A lot of stress can go into the quest for perfection, especially with younger baristas. Work can sometimes turn into more of a high school environment. With all the stress of quality and efficient workflow, a shift will have its fair share of drama. “While younger baristas certainly tend to have a high level of energy and enthusiasm in the workplace, I’ve found that they also can be a bit distracted at work and emotionally volatile in customer service settings”, states Diana Mnatsakanyan, coffee consultant and barista trainer. Having hired and trained up to 60 baristas, Diana has seen her fair share of drama that can occur from young baristas, yet she adds, “People can surprise you no matter what their age, and I’ve had some truly remarkable employees that were quite young. Age will always be a consideration, but not a deal-breaker.”

Sometimes, we can be wary of hiring young baristas, as they might not be as mature as older ones. But sometimes the best hires are baristas with little experience who are excited to learn.

With the amount of effort cafes put into hiring, training, and delegating quality control, it can be difficult for a high-volume shop to always keep eyes on the ‘green’ barista. “Hiring someone with no work experience could be a wonderful thing,” as Will Shurtz of Methodical Coffee in Greenville, S.C., says, “You can train them with your shop’s priorities in mind, and without the need to un-train bad habits. It’s really just a wonderful honor to be able to bring someone new into this industry, and create a positive impact towards others in specialty coffee.” It is important as a young barista to be open-minded and available for anything. Balancing between school and work can be difficult, especially when the barista is still in high school, but being flexible and hardworking will not go unnoticed. As Will says, “As long as someone is a good fit for the team, is available, and is ready to treat people super well, I’m game for them coming on board!”

In the end, being young and in coffee can be tough, and it’s the job of more experienced professionals to foster the next generation of coffee experts.

Being a young barista comes with many struggles. As the famous Aristotle quote goes: “Young people have exalted notions, because they have not been humbled by life or its necessary limitations.” It can be a struggle trying to be recognized in an industry filled with so many great coffee professionals. Generation Z may be labeled as arrogant and naïve; but remember, young baristas, time is in your favor. Generation X introduced espresso to the United States and formed the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Millennials brought the third wave and the new industry standard for quality and sustainability. Generation Z can bring big change to the coffee industry. They will make new rules and change old ones. They will encourage being global and an active force for diversity in our industry. They will be the next generation of barista champions and the face of sustainability. What we must do as coffee professionals is encourage this generation and be open minded. The future of coffee is in the hands of young baristas.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dillon Williams is a barista, Disney lover, and cyclist residing in Charlotte, N.C.

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