Thoughts from Dan: A Career in Coffee
Blog by Dan Messman
As I write this, I’m sitting in a coffee shop other than Treeline. No, I didn’t quit—I’m on ~vacation~ and on vacation baristas go to coffee shops. A wine tour is ‘classy’ but taking a vacation from my coffee shop to spend it in other coffee shops is considered weird? Alright, you might have a point. Now I’m the dude sitting on his laptop in the coffee shop for hours (whoa, role reversal).
In case you didn’t know, Treeline just celebrated our 5 year anniversary (I’ll hold for applause). That means that I’ve been with Treeline for just over 5 years because I got hired a few weeks before we opened. Aside from Natalie and Deejay I’m the last man standing from the crew we opened with. I figured today we’d talk about working in coffee: for those thinking about pursuing a career, those currently doing it, what kind of options there are for advancement, if you can make a living working at one, and those who are just curious about what it’s like on the other side of the counter (and all the other fun things that come with it). So sit around the campfire kids, and listen to a grizzled old coffee veteran talk about how he got to where he is today.
An artist’s rendition of Dan in two years
There’s a saying out there that goes, “Beware of an old man in a profession where men usually die young.” Now, unless an espresso machine falls on me, I’m probably not going to die making coffee. I’ve been doing this for a very long time—this is my profession. If I had to guess I’d say most people stay in coffee for 6 months to 2 years, a few stay longer than that. Sometimes people leave and then come back. I’ve stayed. For nearly 15 years. In that time I’ve learned a thing or two about the industry as a whole and what a life in coffee can be like. Note: I reserve the right to tell an only-tangentially-related story from the old days at any point I want. If you want a tight narrative structure go watch a Kurosawa film.
Here’s the first big myth I’d like to dispel: a coffee shop gig is just a job for college students. Coffee shops are great places for younger people, in school or not, to work. There’s flexible hours, there’s free caffeine, if it’s really slow you can probably get some studying in during the winter months if you live in a frozen hellscape like we do.
With all that said, coffee shops are a great place for everyone to work. One of the many things I love about being in coffee is the wide variety of people I get to work with: people of all different ages, and backgrounds, from all over the world. I’m 35, and working side by side with college students keeps me from sinking too far into the ‘middle aged schlub’ mentality that infects so many of us. My young coworkers keep me young and help me from slipping into cynicism— a very easy thing for me to do. Working with people older than me is equally wonderful because they’ve got so many damn interesting stories, not to mention a tenacity and wisdom that only comes with age. I’ve worked with 75 year old retirees who could work circles around the wide eyed 18 year olds we also had on staff. The fastest barista I’ve ever worked with was at Starbucks, over 15 years ago. He was a Filipino man in his late 40’s named Godofredo, but he just went by Fred. He got to work every day at 4am and worked till 1 so he could get off work in time to pick his kids up from school. He had a big pot belly but that man moved like lightning. All these years later I’ve never seen anyone make drinks as fast as him, including myself. He trained me on speed mostly by yelling at me in Tagalog, some of which I still remember. As gruff as he was on the exterior he had a heart of gold. He always let me bum smokes off of him and just expected that I was going to show up to work slightly late and very hungover. I could still work fast though, because he taught me how. On Fridays he would dance, which was out of character for him, because he was so excited about getting to spend the weekend with his family.
I also worked with a Greek man in his 50’s named Grzegorz who I hired at another corporate shop I worked at. He applied because we had really good health insurance benefits and his wife was injured by a grenade while working as a wartime photographer. We would talk about books and life. I learned a lot from that man. He has a sense of humor so dry it made almost anything he said hilarious. One day we had a particularly uppity customer who was shouting at us about forgetting to give her a fork. So Grzegorz calmly hands her one, and without missing a beat, in his thick Greek accent says “Here you are ma’am, go fork yourself.” I still laugh every time I remember that.
At Treeline we currently have a newer barista who is a PHD Professor at MSU. He’s been coming into the shop for years and I’ve been joking about him working with us for almost as long. Now he moonlights as a barista, and he’s turning into a damn good one. If your staff all look and act the same, you’re not hiring correctly. Coffee is for everyone.
The second myth I’m going to tackle is that working in a coffee shop is easy. Anyone who has been a barista will confirm what I’m saying, so don’t just take my word for it—ask. If you work at a coffee hut that gets 50 customers a day, it might be pretty chill, but if you’re working at a medium to high volume cafe, expect to, well...work. Customers see us standing around sipping coffee and joking with each other; the natural thing to assume is that we get paid to hang out and make the occasional latte. Standing around and chatting is maybe 5% of our shift on a good day. The rest of it is cranking out drinks, washing dishes, interacting with hundreds of customers a day, most of them pleasant, some not so much, and cleaning every inch of the shop because people are messy. This is all while being on your feet 8 hours a day. I’ve had shifts where I stood in the same spot for 7 hours, making drinks the entire time. And the best part is, getting up at 5:30 in the morning, something I’ve been doing my entire adult life. I’m still not used to it. No, we aren’t Oil Rig workers, or roofers, or the guys on Deadliest Catch, but if you want a ‘chill’ job that requires minimum effort I’d look elsewhere. The first time your alarm wakes you up in February and it’s 20 below zero and you have to shovel the sidewalks you’ll know what I’m talking about. Beyond the practical difficulties of working a retail job, if you work in a specialty cafe there’s more cerebral ones. We strive for excellence in every cup of coffee we make. Doing this over and over, day after day, is not easy. Our staff read a 25 page long training manual written by *yours truly* before they even set foot on the floor. As if that isn’t bad enough, they then begin an intensive training program which is again, led by me. There’s a lot more to making coffee than pushing buttons, and getting every drink right over, and over, is emotionally draining, but by god is it worth it.
Tip your baristas, folks.
That brings us to another myth: You can’t make a career out of coffee. If you find a good shop, with good owners, and work on developing your skills you absolutely can. Is it going to make you rich? Definitely not. But you can make a comfortable living. I’ve yet to see a coffee professional pull up to work in a Bugatti Veyron. Even coffee shop owners aren’t raking in dough. The good ones invest their profits back into their shops, pay their employees and farmers well, and focus more on growing what they’ve created rather than trying to wring out every dime they can from the business.
Pictured above: probably not someone working in coffee
I make enough that I don’t worry about money. Am I rich? No, but I get to do what I love and I get paid well to do it. Maybe I’d make a little more working in an office doing whatever the hell people in offices do, but I wouldn’t trade an ounce of happiness for a pound of gold. Epictetus once said that “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” By that metric, I’m Elon Musk. Minus owning a Tesla. I’ll stick with my 1995 Honda Accord, thanks. (It’s not an old model, it’s a classic, just like me)
Picture above: the car that gets Dan all the ladies
I mentioned developing your skills, and that’s integral to staying in coffee for both a good time, and a long time. You don’t just have to make lattes if you want to be in the game. The industry is so huge and there are career paths so numerous that I’m not even scratching the surface here with the next few examples I give you. Have a good palate and attention to detail? Learn how to roast. Interested in sustainability and environmental impact? Become a green bean sourcer. Mechanically minded? Learn how to fix espresso machines and coffee equipment. Please do this actually, there aren’t enough espresso technicians in Montana and sometimes I hit a brick wall when fixing something so having some backup would be good. Like bossing people around? Become a cafe manager. Good at sales? Most shops that roast are always trying to expand their wholesale business. Are you a good barista who likes teaching? Become a barista trainer. Into Social Media? Take over the shop's instagram, I guarantee the owners are tired of running it. Really good at roller skating and throwing elbows? Join a local roller derby team. That doesn’t have anything to do with coffee but it’s not a bad idea.
In my many years in the coffee industry I’ve worked in pretty much every role you can imagine. From barista to manager to everything in between. I still love making drinks, so if you come into the shop, chances are you’ll see me on bar. But like I mentioned earlier, I train all of our baristas. I also work on all of our coffee equipment, and as much as I bitch and moan when something breaks, I still enjoy doing it. I get to interact with customers, make them drinks, train new baristas, and wrench on machines on days when I don’t want to talk to anyone. I’ve carved out the perfect job for myself, and you can too in this industry. Hell, my business cards literally have “Trainer of Newbs and Fixer of Broken Shit” as my job title written on them. By learning these skills, and pursuing improvement like a dog chasing a car, I’ve gotten to a point where I make a comfortable living. I don’t work anywhere else; I’m not waiting to finish writing the next great American novel, I’m not waiting for my band to gain traction, hell I’m not even in a band (although I am pretty good at drums on Rock Band).
This is what I do, this is who I am.
So in conclusion: if you’re thinking about working in a coffee shop, do it. It’s given me a better life than I ever imagined I’d have. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I was going down a dark path in life and found Salvation in a cup of coffee. I’ll close this with some advice I’d give to new baristas. Don’t work in corporate coffee. It will make you hate what you love. You’ll view your bosses as the enemies, and eventually you’ll start to view your customers as the enemies. Instead find a good local shop with owners who have integrity. Try and learn as much as possible about everything around you. Find out what interests you about coffee and dive in head first. Be patient with yourself, this is a craft and it takes years to master. Once you start to master it, stay humble, it’s the only way you’ll keep learning. Show up to work on time. If you’re feeling burned out, take a vacation. Laugh through the endless rushes, and the occasional unpleasant customer. Appreciate the regulars and the polite first timers. Accept that you’ll work with and meet some amazing people, and those people eventually might move on, but the good memories you have of them won’t. Also go to bed at a reasonable hour, damn it. Actually that’s advice I should give to myself, but I doubt I’ll listen.