All I Really Need to Know I Learned at the Coffee Shop

The title is a bit of an exaggeration, but you’ll get the point. Life today is much different from 7 years ago when I left a 2 year stint at a coffee shop. I’ve mentioned before that I worked at the Tanasbourne and King City/Tigard Coffee People stores. In some ways if feels like forever ago, and in some ways it seems like I just left. Either way you look at it, life has changed dramatically since then. I don’t know that I would have imagined myself being established in the business world or the telecom industry…let alone in Alaska. I still find myself thinking of lessons I learned while working the Espresso bar making lattes and Black Tiger Shakes.

Wake up before the rest of the world.

Being awake and open for business while the rest of the world is on their way to work is a strange idea to me these days. While I enjoy my morning wait in line with the rest of the commuters at Kaladi, I don’t envy that alarm clock going off at 4.

In the business world coming to conclusions before anyone else, taking a risk, inventing a product, developing a new way to do something will always put you at an advantage. When you’re in a hurry at quarter ‘til you need to be at work, remember, your barista has been up for hours to make money off of you. The great ideas and great products weren’t made by people who didn’t put in the time.

Details make the perfect product.

Even at the most busy times, when I was making drinks, I was measuring, stirring, and making sure the temperature was correct. The right amount of chocolate or vanilla or whip cream makes all the difference, especially when you have the same thing every day, the slightest variation will make the biggest difference in the perceived quality.

Many times in business something is rushed and there’s a tendency to cut corners or treat your work like a production line. Work overall gets messy, you forget by the next day what you did, and the quality suffers. Whether you’re in a production, service, or administrative function, paying attention to the details will keep the quality at it’s highest level.

It’s not the size of the line…

In the coffee business, it’s built around rushes. You have your 7-8am rush of commuters, your 10am rush of breakers, your lunch crowd, and an occasional afternoon pick me up rush. Despite the length of the line you still make espresso one pull at a time. You still steam milk one pitcher at a time, you still essentially make one drink at a time.

I used to have to tell CSRs this when I ran our call center. Don’t treat the customer you’re presently talking to any different based on the blinking light telling you someone else is waiting. When it’s that next person’s turn and they get great service, they’ll both forget about the relatively short wait and assume you were giving great service to the person right before them. Don’t let the length or the impatience of “the line” determine how you treat people.

Don’t fear change.

Our tip jars said “Do You Fear Change, Then Leave it Here” back in the day. A lot of people didn’t get it on the first read; puns can be that way, but often the chuckle connected enough to drop their change in the jar.

In my world, if you can’t handle change well, you might as well start stocking up on Rolaids for that ulcer. I know my industry isn’t alone in the constant changes. There are lots of job functions that aren’t affected as much by constant changes, but honestly their not as fun or challenging. Keep yourself on your toes, but don’t fear the changes.

Environment, environment, environment.

There’s a reason Coffee House is a genre of music and furniture design. My time in the coffee business predated WiFi, but we did have a number of folks that would bring their business to our stores, bring their computers.

Environment is two lessons in business. You can’t be afraid of expenses that indirectly make you money. Giving away WiFi and providing outlets for laptops will feel like losing money when looked at in a budget, but there’s a common theory that if people stick around, they spend money. They may not have a second cup of coffee in one stop, but they’ll come back.
Environment also can have a huge effect on employee morale and also the attractiveness of your workplace to potential employees. Perhaps it’s the nature of the industries, but I spend a couple hours a week in an advertising agency and every time I walk around their open floor plan, bright colored walls, and work spaces each employee creatively makes their own, I think to myself that it would be great to come to work in a place like this. It’s a two way street though, management needs to empower individualism, and employees must figure out what makes their mundane grey or brown cubicle an enjoyable place to spend 8 hours a day.

Let everyone read the paper.

Newspapers are cheap, but valuable in spreading information. We started the morning with a stack of papers that would sell for the usual 35 to 50 cents depending on the day. A lot of the papers would leave with the buyer, but anything left behind would be shared with whoever spent time in the shop.

Spreading information in your company is cheap and easy, but a lot of times we think that no one would find it interesting. In the news paper there are articles I read and articles I don’t. There are sections that are must reads and sections that I never even pick up. As long as there is some way for employees to filter, there is no such thing as too much information. Do your part in keeping your employees caught up with local news, industry news and especially information that affects their work.

Just because someone can do something themselves, doesn’t mean they won’t pay someone to do it for them.

Making coffee isn’t hard. With the modern coffee maker, it only takes a few seconds and you can even set a timer to start brewing when your alarm clock goes off. Yet our perceived busy lives put us standing in line to pay extremely marked up prices for either a fancy way to make coffee or the exact same product you can make for yourself.

In business this principle holds true. A little service goes a long way especially when what you provide is something a consumer can get for themselves or get from someone else. Either way you’re competing not only with your direct competition but with consumer values.

Always be doing something.

Although working in a coffee shop affords you the luxury of justifying shooting the breeze with customers, there is always something to be done. In the down times, there are things to be cleaned, things to be prepped, and always the next rush to prepare for.

People don’t generally make it very far up the proverbial ladder by being afraid of work. It’s not always hours to be put in, but quality and quantity of work accomplished will always be a factor in where your career is headed. If you’re not getting promoted, work more. If you’re not getting noticed, work more. It may or may not lead to being promoted, but to my knowledge, no CEO has ever said, “Gee, I wish my employees wasted more company time.” And remember, your boss or your boss’ boss wanting you to be doing your job when you’d rather be doing a crossword puzzle or reading celebrity gossip on the internet doesn’t make them mean, evil, or off base.

The grass is always greener.

Most days every job looks better than making coffee. I had a number of strange job offers from customers who worked in a variety of fields, and I don’t know what I was thinking to not explore them. Guys who work in an air-conditioned, fluorescent lit, collared shirt environment daydream about working outside in the sun, in the fresh air lifting heavy things and getting their hands callused. Guys who work outside in the burning sun, the driving rain, lifting heavy things and getting their callused hands dirty daydream of sitting in an air-conditioned office with clean clothes and soft hands. Just because another company, another job, or a colleague looks like they have it better than you doesn’t mean there are trade-offs; in fact, it’s guaranteed.

The customer can’t always be right if they don’t really know what they want.

Mocha lattes, non-fat mochas with whip, and mochas without the coffee…all common orders that a cashier or barista have to interpret. The adage that the customer is always right isn’t true as often as the person who coined it thought. In technology, in telecom, and in coffee there are certain things that the customer thinks that are wrong. It’s up to the organization to either educate the customer or teach the representative that works with the customer to interpret the message despite the words. Sometimes you just have to accept the fact that your customer calls their monitor their TV or that when they order a “Milky Way” mocha, that they just really want something so sweet, it no longer resembles coffee.

Don’t be too busy to have a conversation.

On my first day in the coffee world, my boss at the time explained that she would never get upset if she walked out onto the sales floor and saw one of her employees chatting with a customer. There are obviously times when work levels keep a conversation from being able to develop much, but you can likely learn more from one good conversation than from all the financial reports in the book.

In one way or another every business is built on, for, or because of people. Either your employees, customers, investors, or the general public as a whole; one way or another it’s important to pay attention to your interaction. In my current job I focus a lot on cold hard facts and figures, while there are branches of the organization that depend on anecdotal evidence and customers they’ve heard from. The conversation is very important and often overlooked in a service industry. If your interaction with a customer is a series of yes or no questions from a script, you’re not giving your customer the credit they deserve as being someone who interacts with your product.

Do your best to be the best.

I’m not trying to generalize about the barista population, but at least in my day, they tended to be slackers. In Portland in the 90’s, ambition was a faux pas. So, if you were the best and being the best led to promotions and favorable treatment, there was resentment among the ranks. Being the best might not make you the most popular kid in class, so to speak, but every organization is looking to build and expand around the best people.

If no one else is leading, you might as well.

At a few stretches of my illustrious coffee career, there was managerial turnover leaving the store in potential anarchy. I was asked several times to consider going through their management training program, but declined because I liked the coffee and people side of things and not so much the answering for sales levels and counting waste. During the times of turnover, I took up the slack by keeping inventory under control, employee schedules, and other little things. It definitely got me noticed, and although I shunned the advancement opportunities, I learned that leadership is a quality that people respond to. I think of LOST and a plane full of strangers suddenly depending on each other. Who became the leader? That’s right, the guy who stepped up.

Sorry about the rather long post. If you’re interested in the shorter more mundane things, check out the link to my Twitter profile. While you’re at it, create one of your own or add me as a friend.

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