The Specialty Barista

Baristas are often young adults with no plans to work toward a career in the coffee industry. Their time is usually split between their coffee job and another important life task; they may be serving coffee while they build a business, earn a degree, make a life transition, raise their children, or save for travel. Commitment to the craft and quality of coffee is not automatically a high priority for someone who is serving coffee on the side. Also, barista wages are low for the level of professional skill required. Some are paid less than minimum wage, because they earn enough tip income in a month to qualify them as a tipped employee; tipped employees have a lower minimum wage standard than non-tipped employees (US Dept. Labor, 2019). However, tips aren’t always enough to bring their hourly rate to a livable wage; so, many baristas struggle with the added stress of living check to check. Work stress can also be quite high depending on the cafe and the circumstances of the shift. Busier cafes bring in more tip income, but they are also more stressful overall. These characteristics of the barista role can make it difficult to achieve high levels of motivation, professionalism, and work excellence among baristas.

Professional baristas are constantly juggling quality of product, efficiency of production, quality of guest experience, and highly-effective interpersonal communication throughout every shift (Guevara, 2017). Baristas may serve between 100 and 600 guests in a shift (Bernson, 2012), which could be as many as 100 transactions per hour, and for many of these guests this transaction is their first, undercaffeinated interaction of the day. The workload can become high-paced and very stressful even under the best of conditions. If something goes wrong for the barista, they do not have the luxury of walking away from the rush, the guests, or their peers to consider and resolve the issue in a constructive way, and by the time the rush is over the issue might no longer be salient enough to speak about it. However, these tensions can accumulate over time into a toxic, conflict-ridden environment that detracts from the guest experience and creates hidden costs for the cafe.

Lastly, even though specialty baristas must be skilled and professional workers to perform their jobs well, larger American society still categorizes the barista role as unskilled labor, and the barista as anything but professional (Bernson, 2011). This perception can lead to negative opinions about baristas from guests, managers, and even other baristas. As a result, baristas must juggle more than just the physical and mental demands of the job, they must also manage their own emotional state while socially navigating through the subconscious biases of others. The ability to provide a great experience regardless of how they are treated has a big influence on the success of the cafe and the income of the barista; however, there is a cost to this emotional labor that can create consequences for the baristas, management, and the cafe if it is not recognized and managed effectively.


Bernson, A. (2011). The social space of the cafe: How service and physical design condition social performances. Wesleyan University.

Bernson, A. (2012, Oct. 23). The Schomer approach to customer service. Sprudge. Retrieved from

Guevara, J. (. 2017, Sept 18). Baristas debate: What is a specialty barista’s role? Perfect Daily Grind. Retrieved from

US Dept of Labor. (2019). Minimum Wages for Tipped Employees [Data file]. Retrieved from


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