Tag Archives: Barista

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 https://sprudge.com/bernson-is-burning-the-schomer-approach-to-customer-service-27657.html

Guevara, J. (. 2017, Sept 18). Baristas debate: What is a specialty barista’s role? Perfect Daily Grind. Retrieved from https://www.perfectdailygrind.com/2017/09/baristas-debate-specialty-barista-role/

US Dept of Labor. (2019). Minimum Wages for Tipped Employees [Data file]. Retrieved from https://www.dol.gov/whd/state/tipped.htm


Barista Meaning of Work

When managing baristas, one of the most important things to consider is what frames their meaning of working for the cafe, because this meaning shapes their perception, which helps to moderate the amount of emotional labor they must commit to their shift. Meaning is constructed within the experience an individual has from interacting in a culture and society; it is generally shared among individuals within common sociohistorical contexts (Tolfo cited in Santos & Fontenelle, 2019). In the workplace, the company occupies the place of society, and the individuals together construct and deconstruct meaning that emerges a culture based on their interpretation and experience of working for that company (Schein, 2010; Boas, Davel, Bispo, 2018). Overtime, the company develops a sociohistorical context of its own that becomes embedded in the culture to guide future meaning-making processes within that company (Putnam & Fairhurst, 2015).

Meaning of Work (MOW) scholars have reported that work becomes meaningful with the interactions between self, others, work context, and spiritual life through the mechanisms of authenticity, self-efficacy, self-esteem, purpose, belongingness, transcendence, and cultural/interpersonal sensemaking (Rosso, Dekas, & Wrzesniewski, 2010). Meaningful work has been described as a fundamental human need that impacts job satisfaction, turnover intention, and organizational commitment (Wang & Xu, 2017). Human needs are non-negotiable, and Galtung (2000) considers the desire to satisfy them as a force of nature.

The meaning and significance of the work to the worker has been shown to negatively correlate with the amount of emotional labor required to do the job well (Santos & Fontenelle, 2019). The more meaningful the work, the easier it will be for the barista to manage their emotions when they do not align with the situation. If cafe managers are to reduce the emotional labor of their baristas, they must put effort toward influencing the emergence of a company culture that allows all the stakeholders to feel effective and authentic members of an organization they can be proud of belonging to. With this effort, evidence suggests that the baristas will become more motivated to excel at their jobs, and cafe profits will increase beyond what is possible otherwise.


Boas, O. T., Davel, E. P. B., Bispo, M. D. (2018). Leadership as cultural practice. Revista de Administracao Mackenzie, 19(1). doi: 10.1590/1678-6971/eRAMG180076.

Galtung, J. (2000). Conflict transformation by peaceful means: The transcend method. United Nations Disaster Management Training Program: TRANSCEND.

Putnam, L. L. & Fairhurst, G. T. (2015). Revisiting “organizations as discursive constructions”: 10 years later. Communication Theory, 25. 375-392.

Rosso, B. D., Dekas, K. H., & Wrzesniewski, A. (2010). On the meaning of work: A theoretical integration and review. Research in Organizational Behavior, 30, 91–127. doi: 10.1016/j.riob.2010.09.001

Santos, E. F. & Fontenelle, I. A. (2019). The construction of meaning for the emotional labor. Revista de Administracao Mackenzie, 20(1). doi: 10.1590/1678-6971/eRAMG190089

Schein, E. H. 2010. Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wang, Z. & Xu, H. (2017). When and for who ethical leadership is more effective in eliciting work meaningfulness and positive attitudes: The moderating roles of core self-evaluation and perceived organizational support. Journal of Business Ethics, 156. 919-940.


Barista Motivation

Big business methods of increasing worker motivation are full of reward and punishment systems that can be too expensive and complex for a local cafe to maintain. Historically, coffee in America has been a low-cost, low-quality commodity that must be sold in high-volumes to make a profit (Halevy, 2011). As a result, many cafes can not afford to give raises or benefits such as health insurance and paid vacation to their baristas, and many cafe owners and managers don’t have the time to consistently evaluate and modify their organizational practices to manage cultural stability with a transient, young workforce. This makes it difficult to motivate baristas in traditional ways. Not to mention, research repeatedly finds that external rewards can undermine the natural motivation of individuals (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999). Therefore, it is necessary to think beyond traditional, American business practices to understand what can enable and what can undermine barista’s natural motivation states for the work they do.

Self-determination theory (SDT) posits that humans have three basic psychological needs that drive motivational quality, well-being, and satisfaction among workers. These needs are competence, relatedness, and autonomy (Rigby & Ryan, 2018).  The need for autonomy can be fulfilled by being clear about the reasons for the task; the need for relatedness can be fulfilled by respecting and supporting baristas as valuable elements of the cafe and including them as much as possible with organization-level decisions; the need for competence can be fulfilled by ensuring everyone has what they need to succeed at their jobs (Rigby & Ryan, 2018). When these needs are fulfilled, evidence shows that workers are more satisfied, committed, productive, and they tend to miss less days due to physical illness (Guntert, 2015; Williams, et al., 2014).

SDT refines the traditional construct of extrinsic motivation into a continuum between controlled motivation and autonomous motivation, with autonomous motivation being the closest to having intrinsic motivation for completing a task (Gagne & Deci, 2005). The further away the motivation state is from intrinsic motivation, the more coercion or persuasion will be necessary to convince the baristas to complete the specified task. This can increase manager stress and can create a negative feedback loop that can shape a negative meaning of work for all involved, which further undermines cafe and barista excellence. The closer the motivation state is to intrinsic motivation the less effort the managers and leads will need to make to motivate the baristas. Therefore, it is important to move the motivation state of the baristas toward intrinsic motivation for their work by satisfying SDT’s three basic needs. If the baristas can make their work meaningful, then their motivation state will move even closer to intrinsic motivation. Managers can help with this by shaping a meaningful experience of working at the cafe.

Among the ways in which MOW research has shown work becomes meaningful to the worker, authenticity is linked with intrinsic motivation, which is what SDT strives to recreate; self-efficacy relates to individual perception of power to control circumstances and the ability to complete job functions, which is linked with SDT’s competence and autonomy needs. Belongingness links with the need for relatedness by way of individual experience of interpersonal connectedness to the organization and its members (Rosso, Dekas, & Wrzesniewski, 2010). Therefore, a self-determined workforce could derive greater meaning from the work they do. For baristas, managers, and leads, this could contribute to a decrease in the negative effects of emotional labor by increasing their capacity for deep-acting and intrinsic motivation to complete their daily tasks. For cafes, this could increase profit and improve sustainability without relying on traditional methods that may be out of the budget for that location. However, if organizational conflict is managed poorly, it could undermine all other efforts to satisfy barista needs.


Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125. 627-668.

Gagne, M. & Deci, E. L. (2005). Self-determination theory and work motivation. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26. 331-362.

Guntert, S. T. (2015). The impact of work design, autonomy support, and strategy on employee outcomes: A differentiated perspective on self-determination at work. Motivation and Emotion, 39, 74-87.

Halevy, A. Y. (2011). The infinite emotions of coffee. California: Macchiatone Communications.

Rigby, C. S. & Ryan, R. M. (2018). Self-determination theory in human resource development: New directions and practical considerations. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 20(2) 133-147. doi: 10.1177/1523422318756954.

Rosso, B. D., Dekas, K. H., & Wrzesniewski, A. (2010). On the meaning of work: A theoretical integration and review. Research in Organizational Behavior, 30, 91–127. doi: 10.1016/j.riob.2010.09.001

Williams, G. C., Halvari, H., Niemiec, C. P., Sorebo, O., Olafsen, A. H., & Westbye, C. (2014). Managerial support for basic psychological needs, somatic symptom burden and work related correlates: A self-determination theory perspective. Work & Stress, 28, 404-419.