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.

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5 Responses to “In defense of Sarah Allen”

  1. I think those kind of articles always attract internet trolls and that’s all it is, I’ve read a lot of Guardian stuff and there is always someone with some strange view just to make themselves look clever.

    There is a sense of “its just coffee” in some sectors in the UK just as there is in the US I’m sure, but its a shrinking minority.

    I hate the wine analogy but in this case its true. 20 years ago you would have got its only wine (certainly here in England) but now no one would dream of saying it with fear of being shot down.

  2. tmcclearinghouse said

    Steve-

    I do suppose trolls don’t necessarily represent the entire coffee-drinking demographic, and in Pittsburgh, which is notoriously behind the times, things are catching up. Slowly, but they are.

    The most encouraging thing, though, is that people are being presented with an alternative framework to things they take for granted. Maybe not everyone is paying attention, but the questions are being aired.

  3. Luke said

    The truth is, Phil, that there are a lot of folks going to a job, punching a clock, and checking out. There are a lot of people that are content to “mail it in” every day and lack any sort of passion or motivation for what they do. I’ve encountered these people while in college, in grad school, and in the corporate world (in very high paying positions). I’ve never understood it, and if you’re a passionate and motivated person surrounded by apathy it feels like you’re beating your head against a wall sometimes.

    That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing now. Our success depends primarily on what we put into it, so every day we try to make things a little better and learn a little more. It certainly makes things more interesting, and the payoff in our business is when you can really delight a customer and change their preconceptions about what coffee is/should be.

    As for the three hours of training… we’re probably closer to three or more months before we let new people pull shots for customers, and even longer before they’re steaming milk or making a drink unsupervised. We’re motivated to put our best foot forward every day, not just because it’s our livelihood but because (as you said) if you’re going to do something you should do it to the best of your ability.

  4. Douglas said

    Dear Phil,

    I am encouraged at your longing for nothing to be merely what it is. In a world governed by strict capitalistic rules of engagement I fear that we can often see a thing as a means of obtaining a higher, or better, thing. We are continually looking ahead to something else instead of seeing what is as what is important.

    I work to make money so I can get a Mercedes, so I’ll be happy, so women will think(know) I’m successful, so I’ll get married, so I’ll be happy.

    I drink coffee because I need caffeine, so I have more energy, so I can work more efficiently, so I can get promoted, so I can be happy.

    I think it is in the individual steps and processes of existence where the happiness, that is meant to be the end goal of all of them, is found.

    P.S. I hope you are well.

    ,Douglas Freeman Cook

  5. Matt said

    I think 3 hours is all you need to retrain a barista, at Starbucks. Keep in mind they already are supposed to know most of the stuff, and the only variable they have, is grind size. One variable, one result, shot time, and maybe training people not to fry the milk to 180. Yes, training to be even good, takes well more than three hours, great, well that depends on what you think great is, but I have a feeling, maybe I’m wrong, that the three hour training only dealt with super automatic machine barista’s already working, and maybe failed to stress that point.

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