Thoughts on coffee.
David Schomer who is the owner and founder of Vivace Espresso in Seattle and author of Espresso Coffee: Professional Techniques. He rose to prominence in the Specialty Coffee industry in the 1990’s when he became obsessed with achieving temperature stability through the espresso brewing process — which essentially caused major espresso machine manufacturers to rethink their espresso machine designs. In part, David Schomer is the reason for the temperature precision we find designed into some of high end coffee machines being manufactured today. David Schomer (and his staff at his original coffee cart site in Capitol Hill) is also credited with the “invention” and popularisation of latte art (the Rosetta). Above all, David is known for his passion for espresso.
The urban barista is so many things at once — a host, a culinary artist, a performer on an exotic glittering stage, a counselor, listener, friend, and purveyor of caffeine. People come in dim and dappled, and they need their coffee. We do our magic, and they happy-up, ready to face the day. This is the first reality of the barista: seeing and greeting people who may not be ready to face the world.
I am very concerned about being a good, approachable host. If I walk into a business where I do not feel appreciated, I do not care what they make or do — I’m outta there. And if I have not had my coffee yet, I don’t want a lot of chatter directed at me. I’d prefer if they just read my mind and made something perfectly, and quickly. And if mind reading is unavailable at the time, I want to be listened to. It is compassionate listening that makes a barista approachable day after day by the widest variety of people.
Many espresso bar owners are offering single-origin espressos and may try to regale the customer in line with details of the particular coffee. Offering single-origin espresso is a wonderful idea. Bringing out the flavor of each coffee is made possible by the precision technology available in espresso machines with effective temperature control. You may be very excited about your Guatemala Antigua, but your customer just wants to enjoy it and not get a speech as he or she tries to order. I call this “taking them to school.” We never take our customer to school before they have had coffee. Rather, we are very enthusiastic to respond if they come back and initiate a conversation about the coffee, latte art, or anything else we do as long as we are not holding up the line to do so. If it is too busy for the kind of in-depth conversation they crave, I may invite them to my Friday single origin tasting sessions.
Some espresso bars advocate a high chat style in a barista with lots of intrusive personality and flattering comments. I call this the personality trap. It may increase sales for a year or so, but ultimately the chatty one moves on, and many of her customers may go with her. Putting out a lot of chat is also tough on the barista who, after seeing 400 people a day, will burn out. Compassionate listening makes each encounter unique and preserves energy. To be a long term pro, a barista must conserve energy and use it where it counts — in speed and quality. Also, if you are intent on making people feel great with flattering chat, you attract people that need that … not a pretty picture over time. Again, my approach is old school: I believe that when they come in my door, they want a cup of coffee; my customers already have a life.
My model for the most approachable bar style is the Milanese barista. In Milan, the baristas I met — maybe 50 or 60 of them on two extended visits — were cool, of course. Cool in the popular usage of the term, but also quietly reserved and not full of false charm and a bunch of chatter. At first, I, a cotton-clad tourist from the States, felt that they did not like me or want me in there. But then I noticed something. The second I ordered something, the barista would quickly and deftly begin expert preparation. They were all listening, even if I ordered at the register, which is up front in most Italian espresso bars. They heard the order and launched into action. They were never rushed and frantic, rather, they were smooth and practiced, and I was their clear priority at that moment.
Therein lies my only issue with the barista contests: they are very good for highlighting this new profession and developing skills to create beautiful espresso coffee, but they shift the attention to the barista. They may offer a few lucky winners a career path in barista training and consultation. But they focus so much on the barista as a sort of a star that the young winners can get a self-centered attitude and come to believe the whole thing of being a pro barista is a showcase for their talents.
The customer in line doesn’t care about that so much. They just want a fabulous coffee with attention to detail. The espresso bar can seem like a clubby place with a vague snobbishness pervading it if the barista is self absorbed. It feels like a club that we are not in. A customer can feel left out of this quite easily, and ordering a cappuccino can feel like getting guitar lessons from a rock star. I don’t want to talk to a rock star before I’ve had my coffee. I want to speak to someone who is listening.
It all begins with eye contact. To be a good host requires the barista to make eye contact with the customer within a few moments after he or she has crumpled in. Human beings are an aggressive, territorial species, and this says “welcome to my space.” A nod is all you may have time for, and that’s fine. The eye contact says welcome.
In addition to being a good host, we baristas should be concerned with relaxing our customers, so they may really enjoy the little works of art we make them everyday. We do this with bar design as well as with our service style.
Here’s an interesting question to ponder: if a perfect espresso is placed on the counter and no one drinks it, does it have any flavor? I say no: flavor is the human perception of something we ingest (or even just swish around a bit). Why do I bring this up? It’s because the human being is the most important aspect of the culinary experience. Your moods, previous food intake, time of day, health, and present company have a great deal to do with how things taste. There is no objective “best coffee” on planet Earth. There are coffees roasted and made well, or not so well, but if you ask a person “what is the best cup of coffee you ever had” — in the words of Terrance McKenna, you always get a story about set and setting. “OMG! I was with Mary, before the recent unpleasantness, in the cutest little espresso bar in Spain. I will never forget the little Ibrik the waiter brought out, and it was the best coffee of my life.”
This is why I prioritize building beautiful, well laid out espresso bars: to try and relax the customer before he or she orders. An excellent barista takes it from there.
This business is based on regular customers. And if your concept is gourmet, the customer is possessed of enough sensitivity to appreciate the difference in your espresso. A sensitive person may not want a lot of personal conversation every day before coffee, so I teach my staff to try to stay away from leading questions such as “How ya doing today?” Focus the encounter right away on the customers’ needs, using phrases like “What can I get you?” or “How can I help you?” Keep it simple, and you’ll be seen as welcoming and approachable every day.
Then listen and get it right. Being listened to, really heard, by an ambassador of cool such as a barista is a wonderful, but sadly rare, experience. Repeat the order back to the customer, and emphasize the details the customer has stressed, such as not too hot. The number one key to speed on a bar is getting the order right the first time. To endear them to you forever, memorize the drink within two visits and simply greet them with “The usual today?” People yearn to be acknowledged and listened to in our highly paced urban cultures, and this is how we honor their choice to come into our café: we listen. When they need to talk, you’ll know it. And of course we chat when a customer initiates it, and we have time. We wouldn’t be in this business if we didn’t like people.
Executing top notch coffee service is a dance of fluid efficiency. As a performance art, making espresso is clearly a case of the form following the function. The function, of course, is to prepare the finest espresso drinks for the pleasure of the customer, in the shortest amount of time. I recommend all baristas study the style of Murray Stimson, national bartender of the year in 2010.
Back when Murray was still at Zig Zag with Ben Dougherty, we went in for drinks. He built up a beautiful custom cocktail for my friend, who had given just a tiny hint as to what she was in the mood for: something fruity but not too sweet; while I had my scotch and IPA. The place was a madhouse, five deep at the bar behind us and total cacophony. Murray was three people down the bar making another cocktail and I remarked “the Talisker is a bit sharp” in a low conversational tone to my friend. He kept moving, snatching bottles with the speed of a snake’s tongue and made no indication he had heard me. Moments later, he glided down the bar and said to me, “David, maybe you would like a Lagavulin 16 better than Talisker?”
He had heard me over the din, but more importantly he wanted me to be happy; it meant something to him personally. When Murray leaned in and fixed his pale blue eyes on mine, I was flattered by his penetrating gaze, and the twitchy-whiskered intensity of his truly active listening. For just that moment, I was the show. (He is a gifted person. You would never know he was listening down the bar when he is in front of you. And he has a phenomenal memory, having kept track of each Scotch I have tried with him and built an accurate picture in his mind of what I like years later.)
Not everyone can be a Murray Stimson, but we can all emulate his compassion for each customer even though he is a bartending God and nationally famous. His concern is the happiness of the person right in front of him, at that moment. The effect is quite flattering without being condescending. And of course he is fun to watch because he is as fast as lightning and as smooth as the Scotch he pours.
LET THE CUSTOMER SET THE PACE
Lately there is a trend of being purposefully slow and wasting customers’ time by taking them to school when they didn’t ask for it. After a visit to the Bay Area recently, a veteran traveler and coffee friend remarked that “maybe the coffee bar owners think people in San Francisco won’t get excited about a place unless there’s a line.” He said he was at one of the newer big name espresso bars with only eight people in line and it took 25 minutes to get the straight shot he ordered. So he was frustrated and not at his most receptive for the coffee. Being slow as some king of attribute to aspire to, or bludgeon your customers into accepting, will not relax most American customers. It will piss them off, making them unable to taste beautiful coffee. A culinary artist must always be quick as a snake behind the bar.
And because it is a culinary art, the barista’s every action must ooze confidence. This was the quality I most admired in the Italian baristas I observed in Milan: their rock solid underlying confidence that infused their motions with almost feline grace. A good performance is one where the years of experience have whittled away any dangling bits of nonsense and refined the motions to their highest efficiency. This is beautiful to me, watching real pros do whatever it is they do. And moving with a silky smooth physical style is not only mesmerizing to observe, but it will reduce mistakes and spills. Smooth efficiency is the number two key to speed on a bar. Rushing will slow you down with mistakes and creates anxiety in the customers watching your performance. However, as any serious music student knows, besides practice and experience, the key to a confident performance is in the preparation.
SET THE STAGE
Any smooth performance begins with all the props being where they should be. Arrange your work area according to your working style. For me, milk containers should be opened in advance (I hate wrestling with the little plastic rings, or worse, forcing open reluctant paper cartons in a slam), and arranged for easy access in your refrigerator. Syrup bottles should be shiny, not sticky, and arranged in order of usage, with vanilla and almond right up front. The all-important rag hierarchy is established with a portafilter wiping rag, countertop rags (sanitized), steamer rag, and floor rags to act as mini-mops for small disasters. Back-up rags are one step away. Cups, both porcelain and paper, should be clean and well stocked. Porcelain, of course, is stocked on top of the espresso machine to preheat. Back-up stock is one step away. Grinders should be detailed and stocked with fresh coffee, the back-up coffee within arms reach. Utensils, coffee brushes, Band Aids, pens, foam spatulas, and on and on — everything is where it should be before the door is opened.
The main reason all of this should make sense to the barista is because he or she is a critical piece of the picture. The espresso professional, at minimum, should present a clean appearance in grooming and clothing. Beyond that minimum, some style and flair is nice. Me, I favor dark tight fitting knits and a black or dark brown four-way apron around the waist. I like to look sharp and sassy, clean and fast. For my staff I allow a wide range of personal style because I need them to be comfortable first and foremost, in order to do a top job.
Because coffee is a culinary art, polished professionalism is the best style. This can be reflected in each motion a barista makes — packing, steaming and pouring the rosetta latte, when preparing the espresso. One of my 12-year baristas, Kasey, displays his artistry from the moment he picks up the packer (tamper). He has a flourish when he picks up the packer to address the coffee. He sweeps it off the counter and the packing head sort of does a little circular motion on the way to the portafilter, which he repeats after tapping the portafilter. The circular embellishment is not dramatic and showy; it is smooth and subtle, having developed naturally over thousands of shots.
Free pouring latte art is the grand finale in this two-minute dance. Even after 22 years of watching these patterns ooze forth from our steam pitchers I still find them mesmerizing, and so do our customers. It is a classic finish. The beauty of the free poured patterns is that they are a natural extension of the behavior of the two liquids, espresso and steamed milk, combining. The sensuous, flowing form of the rosetta pattern echoes the viscous beauty of the espresso pour itself. They are silky foams doing what they want to do. Free poured latte art is accomplished with an effortless flick of the wrist, and is never labored or time consuming. Again, it is the form following the function that is the mark of the professional.
COUNSELOR, LISTENER, FRIEND
Over the years there have been a number of strange encounters between baristas and my customers. I will never forget a strapping young man who worked in construction and bristled with masculine energy and coiled muscles, walking in to complain about rudeness he felt he had received at my sidewalk bar down the street. He had been coming for years and as he began to talk about his encounter, his lower lip began trembling, his face grew red, and he began to cry. In his heart, he had been betrayed by a friend.
I have seen repeats of this scenario many times over the years. There is something about making coffee for someone every day that transcends commerce. Perhaps it is our compassionate listening style that slips us past people’s urban defenses. But people will bond with a good barista. This vulnerability on the part of regular customers requires compassion and kindness on the part of the barista.
However, when you see hundreds of people a day a pro barista might run into a few who are not worthy of kindness. For us the customer is always right, and if this does not prove to be the case, the customer is gone. I empower my staff to “eighty-six” abusive customers by telling them that in my absence they are the host of this espresso bar. In my 22 years, this has led to one or two instances of a customer being asked to seek coffee elsewhere. My people are professional baristas and are given my respect when they don the apron. Trust is the only way to manage people with the sensitivity and intelligence to produce espresso on our level, and knowing they have my trust relaxes them and fosters the confidence that is the basis of the whole bar persona.
As Mark Pendergast argues in his book Uncommon Grounds, coffee advances only take place when the customer is willing and able to pay for them. To really make espresso bars the welcoming den of 21st century America, and be able to serve caffe espresso as a culinary art, you must respect the customer that might not be ready to face the world. If we embrace them first, they turn around and love us back.
This article was written by David Schomer for Barista Magazine back in April 2012. Barista Magazine is the unprecedented industry mag of the specialty coffee industry.