By Alexandra LittleJohn, Equator Coffees and Teas
I started as a barista.
Of course that’s not the whole story, but it kicks off the chronology of my career. What I usually omit from the dialogue is all of the non-coffee jobs I had to keep to pay my bills. I always worked a second job while I was a barista, usually delivering newspapers, bartending, waiting tables, and eventually teaching. Perhaps I should talk about these other jobs when I tell this story, because it’s worth noting that baristas did not get paid a living wage at the time.
When I started as a barista in the late 1990s, the average wage was around $4.75-$5.15 per hour plus tips. I was usually the only person working, making what seemed like hundreds of different beverage recipes in addition to sandwiches, and all while maintaining the register and engaging customers.
Working in coffee then wasn’t like working in coffee now. I didn’t work there for reasons such as quality, sustainability, chemistry, flavor, and farm practices. I didn’t even work there because I really liked coffee. No, I worked at a coffee shop because that was where everyone I knew hung out. By being a barista, I was always on the pulse of what was happening.
That particular cafe was not just a cafe either, it was a true coffee house. We had poetry slams, live music, all-night game tournaments, and those crazy mega-touch games. I know I dumped at least a few thousand dollars in quarters on that machine just to beat another barista’s high score. In that cafe–and to me at the time–coffee was not the priority.
It wasn’t until many years later that I heard of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, Kaldi, and seed-to-cup stories. That’s when I really started to learn why coffee was so special. Around this time, my boss sent me to witness my first barista competition. It was early on in the competition days and there was a lot of excitement around them. I felt extremely drawn this community.
Since then, the coffee landscape has continued to change significantly. Through social media and industry periodicals we can connect with the greater barista community, as well as learn and grow as professionals. Our industry is catching up in a big way, especially with events like Barista Camp to which I owe my coffee career. The people I connected with at my first Barista Camp have become some of the most important influences on my professional path.
There has also been a huge increase in interest in the barista trade in general. Today enthusiasts, producers, new cafe owners, veteran and newbie baristas alike are all flocking to events like Barista Camp and The SCAA Event to learn and network. Working in coffee finally feels like a “real job”, a truly viable career path.
Coffee professionals coming up now have the advantage of new technology, fundraising platforms, and so much more access to information than I did when I was starting out in coffee. They have opportunities to innovate, create, and expand autonomously. It’s incredible to watch unfold.
So, what’s the secret to this career path? The secret is making coffee the priority!
Alexandra handles specialty sales for Equator Coffees and Teas, based in San Rafael, CA. From her Southern California home, she travels around the country connecting with baristas and promoting Barista Guild activities and benefits. Alex is a Level 2 Certified Barista, SCAA Credentialed Lead Instructor, Espresso Subject Matter Expert, and has recently joined the team of specialized instructors, which will allow her to teach internationally. She currently serves on the Executive Council and as the vice-chair of the Barista Guild’s membership committee.