In defense of Sarah Allen

February 27, 2008

Yesterday, Barista Magazine‘s editor Sarah Allen wrote this editorial for the Guardian regarding her hopes for Starbucks’ company-wide staff retraining. In three hours, each and every button-pushing drink-maker employed by the Green Giant would become a barista. In three hours, each and every Starbucks employee would have at their disposal all knowledge necessary to create, by self-defined standards, the perfect espresso drink. In three hours. It’s that simple, folks. All it takes is three hours.

Allen goes on to reference the myriad independent-minded coffee shops that spend not hours but weeks, and even months on training new hires. As quoted in the article, Kevin Fuller of Portland’s Albina Press said “training goes on for ever and ever and ever.” My personal experience at The Vault Coffee & Tea Bar followed a similar pattern; it took a month before I could even touch the machine, followed by a few weeks of cleaning the machine, followed again by weeks of espresso preparation with the conclusion of steaming milk. It took awhile. But I learned an appreciation for the science and preparation necessary for a proper espresso drink. It takes time to really own something.

I had the time to look through the comments people had posted. Maybe it’s an across-the-pond disconnect, but I began to get frustrated. Some comments:

  • Coffee gobbledegook is silly.
  • I think this particular ‘discipline’ could use a little debunking, and I speak as a fan of coffee.
  • It’s just coffee.

It isn’t just coffee. Nothing should be “just anything.”

Maybe you’re just working at an insurance company. Maybe you’re just building a family. Maybe you’re just doing whatever it is you do.

Please stop.

Please.

Everything is important. Everything deserves to be done well, and if it’s not being done well, it’s not being fully respected. I’m guilty of this disrespect, too, but I would dearly love to see people, myself included, in any environment doing for that very environment what people are trying to do with coffee. Trying to remember who got these beans to my roaster and trying to do justice to the work that’s already been put into this coffee by the people who grew it and carried it and shipped it and bought and sold it. They deserve my best.

I believe that this “just ______” attitude is symptomatic of the decrease in ownership (in both senses of the word) and stewardship of good things as well as the abdication of personal responsibility. I, for one, would like to see people take a little more care in our day-to-day lives and think a bit more about where our actions fall along supply lines. I’ve said before, I think coffee is uniquely situated to bring up these questions, and the response to Sarah Allen’s editorial shows that coffee is a good place for these questions to come up. Help me figure out how to keep asking these questions in a way people are open to hearing.

So I just got back from Chicago where I visited these fine folks, among other things. Many other things. Like buying used books and records and seeing my old roommate be a blue man in a big theater.

Thought about things to do and what they meant. Couldn’t really get more specific than that, and I wasn’t trying to. I hope things come into focus (into the open) a bit more, though.

I am curious, intensely so, about how to get people doing what they love, or how to get people to love what they do. How, I suppose, to get people to enjoy life a bit more. I think this is a carry-over from my own current experiences; not being a psychologist, however, I’m not sure what it means if I’m trying to fix my problems in everybody else instead of looking to my own life for solutions.

I would like to not be bored to tears at my job, is all.