Hiring a Diverse Staff with Liz Dean of Irving Farm Coffee Roasters

As Director of Retail, Liz Dean of Irving Farm Coffee Roasters hires a lot of baristas. Today, she shares some of her tips on building a diverse and inclusive staff.


Barista Magazine note: We featured an interview with Liz Dean a few weeks ago in which she identified hiring and building a diverse staff as one of her most important roles. We asked her to give a few tips to use in a future article, but her advice was so great we decided to publish without any annotations from our staff. Enjoy! 

As Director of Retail for Irving Farm Coffee Roasters, it’s my responsibility to hire all our baristas, choose our lead baristas, and promote managers. In 2016 alone I hired roughly 100 people, and at the end of the year I did a very informal survey of my staff and found that we were about 60 percent people of color and 40 percent white, and then about 57 percent men, 41 percent women, and 2 percent non-binary. Our smallest demographic is cis white men.

While there is always room for improvement, I feel generally pretty good about our hiring practices in the cafes. Here are some of the big lessons I’ve learned:

In 2016, Liz hired almost 100 people for Irving Farm. She intentionally focused on building a diverse staff.
1. Be open-minded!
One of the things that has always been important to me is being really open-minded about where new hires are coming from. I think a lot of people only hire folks who send in their resumes, as these tend to be the go-getter types who have experience, education, and confidence. I’m actually a big fan of Craigslist. You have to weed through a lot of nonsense, but I’ve had a lot of luck hiring some very solid candidates through Craigslist, including one of my current managers. She had zero experience but a great attitude, and quickly became one of my best and brightest.
Challenge yourself constantly on what you think a barista is “supposed” to look like.
2. How important is experience?
Some cafes don’t have the resources to bring on a bunch of brand-new people and get them trained. There is obviously something to be said about hiring someone who already knows how to make coffee and who “gets” what the job is about. But I will always strongly advocate for not emphasizing experience above other qualifications. Over the years, some of my best staff members were those who had no experience. Some of them didn’t even really drink coffee.
Liz, pictured above, doesn’t believe experience is necessary for new hires and will look at non-coffee sites to find new baristas.
One of my all-time best hires was this guy from Gambia. I hired him through a staffing agency to be a dishwasher. He was so great that we trained him to make food, and then when he mastered that, we trained him to be a barista and he just totally killed it. He ended up becoming one of our lead baristas and is still one of the best at latte art in the entire company. He’s also universally beloved by customers. But a lot of people probably never would’ve taken a chance on him because he doesn’t “look” the part of the barista. He also has a thick accent and can be hard to understand, so he might not be someone you’d gravitate toward in a customer-facing role. But given time to demonstrate his impressive work ethic and skills, he has truly blossomed.
3. Interview everybody!
This is easier if you are only hiring for one cafe. I get so many resumes sent to me that I sadly can’t interview everyone anymore. But if you still can, interview everyone and be consistent. Have a list of “go-to” questions that you ask everyone who applies that aren’t based on experience. Things like, “What are you truly passionate about?” or “What qualities would you look for if you were hiring for this position?” or “Describe your ideal work environment” are great ways to get to know someone regardless of what experience they bring to the table.
I’m a big fan of just trying to have a conversation with someone rather than trying to create a formal interview experience, but I also have extensive interviewing experience. (I used to conduct interviews for college admissions, plus I’ve done hiring for a dog-walking company and now for Irving Farm for over four years now.) I just find that when people are more relaxed, they feel like they can be “themselves” and aren’t trying to give you the answer they think you want to hear.
Also, use interviews as a chance to let people “interview” the company. Be really upfront about what the work entails, what the hours are, how much they will get paid, etc. That’s just smart hiring.
4. Don’t JUST interview them
Some people are terrible at interviews. I like to throw people behind the bar for an hour just to watch them move around the space and to get feedback from the folks who will actually be their peers.
If you can, Liz recommends you interview all candidates. Try to standardize your interviewing questions so you can give everyone a fair shot at answering the same set of questions.
5. Evaluate the culture of your company
This is the hardest one. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if you can hire a diverse group people if they don’t stick around. People won’t stay at your company unless the ethos of inclusivity and diversity is actually built into the fabric of the business. Tokenization is easy, but it’s ultimately only ever going to be a Band-Aid on a larger culture shift problem.
That means taking a hard look at what values your company stands behind, how they manifest in the everyday work of the store, who gets promoted or extended opportunities to step up, what HR practices you follow, etc. For instance, my New Hire Orientation begins with giving folks the option of stating their personal gender pronouns. It’s a pretty easy way to make clear from day one that respecting people’s pronouns is something we embrace.
The great thing is that when you build an inclusive culture, you can start relying more and more on referrals for hires, which is where I am now. At this point the overwhelming majority of my hires are from folks who know someone already at the company. My staff talks up what a great place we are to work for, and the news spreads. It makes my job a lot easier!
This is probably just a jumping-off point, but it’s important stuff I’ve learned since I’ve been hiring. I hope that other coffee companies can use these tips to ensure diversity and inclusivity are important elements of their hiring practices.
Liz Dean has been working in the coffee industry for six years. Her first coffee job was at a Seattle’s Best in Borders above Penn Station before becoming a barista at Irving Farm’s Gramercy location. She is now the Director of Retail, where she oversees operations and staffing for the seven cafes in Manhattan and one in the Hudson Valley. She considers supporting and advocating for her staff to be one of the most important parts of her job.
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