Editorial: Imagining an Ideal Barista Guild

The Barista Guilds of America and Europe talked of unification at this year’s Bloom event, which invites the question: What’s the purpose of the Barista Guild? What should it provide for its members?


During the kick-off event at the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA)-hosted Bloom on July 27 in San Francisco, the Barista Guilds of America (BGA) and Europe (BGE) hosted a panel and opened a discussion about uniting the guilds, mimicking the move that the members of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) and the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE) voted for in 2016: the integration of the associations as the SCA.

Member baristas of the guilds will have the power to decide whether the American and European factions should be unified. This puts into question what the role of auxiliary organizations like the various guilds (not limited to just the Barista Guilds but also including the United States and European Roaster Guilds and the Technicians Guild, founded in late 2016) are meant to do.

So at Bloom, leaders of both Barista Guilds got together and turned the question over to the barista members: What should the Barista Guilds of America and Europe—or one combined guild, should that be voted into effect—provide to members in terms of services and benefits?

On its website, the (BGA) states that its vision is “[to] be the world’s most important network for the professional barista,” and implies that the BGA does this through programming and providing educational opportunities. The BGA is responsible for events like Bloom (or Co-Lab for the BGE) and Barista Camp (the BGE also hosts an annual camp), but with talks of unification of the guilds, the topic is ripe for discussion. Can the guilds provide something more, or different, or better? What do baristas actually need to excel and succeed in their professional lives?

Today, I posit some ideas as to what the guilds can provide, using a potentially unified Barista Guild as an example, although the examples set below could apply to any professional guild. In the days following Bloom, I thought a lot about what an ideal Barista Guild could provide, and I discussed it with friends and peers in specialty coffee. I’m not saying these things are all possible, nor is this an exhaustive list. I’ll likely miss something, or perhaps a BGA Executive Council member, the governing body for the BGA, will call me up and tell me there’s no way we can have all the things I want. But maybe we can start thinking about what a professional organization can, should, and must provide. And I open this discussion up to our readers, who can comment below or reach out via email.

  1. The Barista Guild should provide and promote a definition of the role of the barista.

This one seems obvious, but if a barista is to join the guild, there should be a working definition as to what a barista is and what skills they should possess. Right now, that exists on the BGA website: “A barista is a coffee professional who has the experience and training to deliver coffee and espresso-based beverages to customers that demonstrate craftsmanship and quality, creating a culinary experience for the customer.”

This definition is technically accurate, but how do we translate it to the actual practice of being a barista? Many companies still treat their baristas as expendable, and although we have a guild that defines our roles, we are still beholden to the employers that hire and pay us. Ultimately, many baristas are undervalued and underpaid. If a potentially unified guild doesn’t promote the specifics of our craft and expertise, then we can’t hope to move our industry forward.

  1. The Barista Guild should provide pathways to professional development.

Another obvious one, and professional development is something that the BGA and the BGE currently provide. Once a barista finishes camp or passes their Level One certification, however, what happens next? How can we continue to push the definition of “professional development”?

I went to my first barista camp in 2012, and I was floored by the number of options and jobs I discovered there were in coffee. I thought the only jobs available to me were barista and manager. The idea of “professional development” didn’t mean anything to me because I was already a barista, and I didn’t think there was much else to learn or anything else to aim for. A redesigned Barista Guild can focus on creating more opportunities for baristas to explore potential career paths, and put them in touch with leaders and innovators that can make a pathway clear. This could be through mentorship (where the guild can pair baristas with career coffee professionals as opposed to baristas having to reach out to coffee leaders), increasing the number of camps and making them cheaper, or providing interview-coaching and resume-building workshops to baristas looking to advance in the coffee industry.

  1. The Barista Guild must make clear what the rights of the barista are.

In a previous barista job, I was told we didn’t get overtime because we were getting paid in cash. At another job, my boss—the owner of the cafe—took tips. I never knew if I was allowed to take a sick day, and had no way of knowing who to turn to if something happened to me.

Guilds, professional organizations, and unions exist to protect the members of the trade that they serve, and right now there is no governing body that protects baristas. None. Most baristas don’t know or understand their rights, and it’s paramount that we protect our most vulnerable members. Baristas should have a resource to turn to if they feel their rights are being violated, and an advocate to speak up for them in situations where they might feel unable to speak for themselves. Just recently, the members of Gimme! Coffee in Ithaca, N.Y., formed a union to protect the rights of their staff and ensure higher wages, and have received the support of management and the owner, Kevin Cuddeback. But there are many places where baristas simply don’t have the numbers, resources, or support from their bosses to take this step. The Barista Guild should provide a platform for baristas to speak up and stand for what is right and equitable.

  1. The Barista Guild must promote equity and equal representation, and condemn discrimination and marginalization.

The BGA took a huge step toward the fight for equity and a willingness to engage in difficult discussions by inviting Jasper Wilde and myself, on behalf of our podcast, Boss Barista, to speak at Bloom. As important and overdue as discussions about gender, race, and queer and trans discrimination are in the coffee world, there are still countless people in our industry who think these topics aren’t relevant to coffee. They are, and it’s the job of the guild to show support and promote these discussions.

  1. The Barista Guild must create a system for reporting and documenting harassment, violence, and mistreatment of baristas.

As I mentioned before, there’s no governing body that outlines your legal rights as a barista. When you’ve been mistreated in your place of work, whom do you turn to?

I’ve run into this problem—I was harassed by a member of the BGA, and then was told by another member of the BGA that what I experienced wasn’t harassmentI talked to members of SCA about what happened, but never in full because—as I’m saying here—there doesn’t exist a resource to which I can report, seek help, and document such an episode. Personally, I have this platform and the platforms of my other projects from which to publicly wag my finger and say this is wrong. I can’t imagine the number of baristas who have suffered harassment, however, and how many of them we’re missing because we have no clear, actionable resource for support.

Along with an organization designed to protect and promote barista rights, we must prioritize efforts to combat harassment, including training managers and business owners on protecting their staff from verbal and physical assaults. The guild can and should provide guidelines, educational seminars, and even webinars, and make clear that harassment and abuse will not be tolerated.

Unification of the Barista Guilds of America and Europe would provide a clean slate, and an opportunity to reassess and implement the structure necessary to be an organization that reflects the present-day needs of its members. If you have suggestions or ideas, please email bg@sca.coffee, or leave a comment in the Comments section below.

About Ashley Rodriguez 413 Articles
Ashley is the Online Editor for Barista Magazine. She's based in Chicago. If you want to share a story or have a comment, you can reach her at ashley@baristamagazine.com.