January 24, 2020

Onboarding New Baristas: What Café Owners Need to Know


A thriving specialty coffee shop environment revolves around consistently crafting and serving bespoke, high-quality beverages – and your staff’s performance is essential to being able to do so. When you’re looking to hire baristas, you’ll want them to stick around if they can do the job and are a good fit for your company.

While you’ve probably put effort into sourcing, shortlisting, and selecting the right baristas to work in your café, you’ll need to pay just as much attention to their onboarding to make sure they’re prepared for how your café and team works, and that they remain invested enough to stay. 

Here’s how to retain the baristas you hire, and keep them from leaving.

Lee este artículo en español Cómo Incorporar Exitosamente Nuevos Baristas a tu Café

An espresso machine at a café in Madrid, Spain. Credit: Julio Guevara 

Why Invest In Onboarding?

While no specific research has been undertaken on staff turnover amongst baristas, research reveals that most businesses in the hospitality industry tend to have a high staff turnover. Even large chain stores aren’t immune, with Starbucks allegedly spending $3000 to replace a single barista in its USA branches. For coffee shops with smaller budgets, this cost could be even higher.

It’s estimated that losing a salaried employee can cost a business between four and nine months of their salary to recover, which could mean that you could end up paying the cost of a barista’s salary even after they’ve found another job. Seeing as 20% of all staff turnover events takes place in the first 45 days of employment, onboarding could prevent this from happening.

Onboarding can also decrease the costs you might face from a lack of training, which can add up over time. This could be something as small as poor portion control when preparing drinks costing you money, as well as more expensive issues that could result from them being unaware of how to properly maintain or use your grinding equipment.

Finally, as onboarding is a training and development investment in a person, it can make a difference in how they view your business. A lack of opportunities for career progression is a commonly cited reason for baristas leaving the coffee industry. Showing them that you’re willing to help them improve their skills lets them know they’re valued, which can motivate them to work harder and positively impact your bottom line. 

You might also like How to Design an Effective Barista Training Programme

A single espresso is poured at a café in Madrid, Spain. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre

Hiring For Skill Versus Fit

Before you begin onboarding, you need to think about what qualities you want in your baristas – and which of these traits are innate or can be acquired through training. You’ll want to hire candidates who can perform their role well and whose behaviour and beliefs coincide with your business culture.

It would be helpful for a barista to have the basic coffee knowledge required to learn and apply technical skills. However, such skills, including a knowledge of coffee flavour profiles, production, processing, and roasting as well as practical skills like brewing, grinding, espresso-making, and milk steaming, can be taught.

Other equally valuable skills to look out for can include their ability to cope with pressurised situations (such as when there are long queues of customers) and working in a team. It could also involve being flexible (for example, covering for co-workers who are sick), and being dedicated.

Josh Clarke is Director of Coffee at specialty coffee roasters Clifton Coffee in Bristol, in the United Kingdom. He says “I feel that we can get very comfortable when hiring new staff members and want to find people who have similar interests and hobbies as us, because it makes the day to day of working with someone easier”.

“However, I think it’s good to challenge yourself and your business by working with different types of people. I think it brings diversity that stops businesses becoming too comfortable… when we are comfortable I think we become lazy.”

Young baristas at a training session. Credit: Red Band Academy

Hiring for cultural fit doesn’t have to come at the expense of workplace diversity. The Harvard Business Review says that assessing cultural fit should involve how well a person’s values align with your business, rather than elements such as age, gender, ethnicity, and other factors. In addition, research reveals that diversity can bring creativity and innovation into your business.

To ensure that your employees are all the same page despite coming from different backgrounds, you’ll need to foster a unifying and positive workplace culture by defining and communicating your values at the outset (for example, your code of conduct), as well as by having policies in place regarding overtime, customer interaction, and unacceptable behaviour.

When it comes to this, you should bear in mind that you can’t always know everything, and that bringing in objective external organisations can improve your systems and leave your team more informed. For example, this can take the form of bias workshops or inclusivity seminars to prevent possible misunderstandings and uncomfortable situations between co-workers. 

Having a workforce that thoroughly understands your business and what it stands for can help you find the right people in the future. For insight into this, I spoke to Daniel Hobbs, owner of Aussie Coffee Brasil, which is an Australian style espresso brand and bar operating in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

Daniel says “your employees who wear your brand on their sleeves have their own filtered pool of potential future employees. They’ve worked with them previously and know who could make the best fit with your culture.”

A barista works behind an espresso machine at a coffee shop in Colombia. Credit: Henry Wilson

Start With Your Recruitment Process

Now that you know the value of onboarding new staff members, you’ll need to create an onboarding process for your business. You might feel like you don’t need one right now, as you haven’t recently hired anyone. However, onboarding can start long before this. A recent article on onboarding published by Inc. explains that it can begin during recruitment and hiring.

Josh says, “We’ve found that the more we invest in this process at the beginning of their journey with us, the better the return. Our business is only as good as the people who are working with and for us. We like to invest in staff so that they want to stay with us. Train them so that they can leave and move on to bigger things, but treat them in a way they won’t”.

According to Glassdoor, interviewing candidates extends well beyond asking them about their skills and abilities and extends to their other areas. There are several potential interview questions you can ask that will give you insight into what a potential hire is like. 

For example, if you want to know about a candidate’s sociability and agreeableness, you could ask them about past customers they have liked and disliked. If they mention that they disliked a customer who was indecisive or fussy when ordering, this could indicate that they prefer efficiency to fostering relationships. 

You could gauge their flexibility by asking them how they’d react if they needed to fill in for a co-worker in an emergency situation. In addition, asking them if they’d skip certain steps in preparing a drink if there were long queues of people waiting can tell you about their adherence to protocols.

Coffee cups on top of an espresso machine at a café in Guadalajara, Mexico. Credit: Ana Valencia

Dos & Don’ts of Onboarding

The specific onboarding process your coffee shop will require will depend on many variables, including its size, how long it’s been in operation, and what the scope of work involves. To ensure your onboarding meets its goals, following a few dos and don’ts can be helpful.

Do Make Sure You Don’t Delay

When bringing a new employee on board, you might assume that their training can take place after they’ve started officially working, or that it can be delayed until more new employees start work, so that a group can be onboarded at once. 

I spoke to Shaun Aupais, who is a Trainer at the Red Band Barista Academy in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He says, “from a barista trainer’s perspective, it’s so much easier to teach people when they’re fresher…newer. [and they have] no bad habits that have set in”.

According to Business2Community, companies often delay onboarding until the person physically starts working in the workplace, but there’s no reason why you can’t begin engaging them as soon as they accept your job offer. 

When you begin onboarding, make sure you dedicate time for it, so new hires can give it their full attention. It should take place during their first week, but this will depend on your priorities and staff plan. It’s worth remembering that having a barista jump into a full work schedule before they’re trained can reduce their productivity, take up your time as you’ll need to oversee them, and result in customers getting poor products and service.

Josh says, “They won’t have any set sales or performance targets at this point. We want to remove any pressure they may be feeling … to create an environment in which they can learn about the job we’d like them to be doing, and get to know the people they will be working with better”.

Don’t Assume They Have Foundational Training 

According to Shaun, foundational skills that a barista should have would include understanding your equipment and the general operations of a barista bar, as well as recognising the tools they’ll need to use, and how to prepare a variety of common drinks. However, these skills can differ from person to person depending on their work experience and their past training. 

A 2015 Gallup poll on employee engagement that involved over 550 organisations and 2.2 million employees revealed that over half of all employees aren’t clear on what their employers expect from them. It also reveals that getting it right can lead to better customer perceptions of service quality, productivity, and employee retention.

For this reason, you should ensure that your expectations are communicated to new employees clearly. By outlining your expectations for them as well as the rules you expect them to follow, you can prevent disciplinary, performance and behavioural issues from occurring. 

Your expectations can cover performance tasks, such as updating displays regularly, leaving work areas clean after shifts, and restocking items that are running low. It can cover service tasks, such as how to correctly take an order and bill it, as well as conduct, which can include honouring the work hours they’ve committed to, following health and safety protocols when preparing drinks, and treating customers with respect.

Do Benchmark Their Progress

To ensure your onboarding has had an impact, you need to benchmark the progress of new baristas. After you’ve established what skills they do and don’t have, you can work out what would be required for them to ascend to the next level, and how long this should take. You’ll need to make sure they’re making regular progress daily, by creating steps for them to follow.

When providing them with feedback, it’s important that it’s manageable and in context. For example, if a barista is taking too long pouring shots, it might be more helpful to focus on improving their pulling technique, instead of telling them they still have several urgent tasks outstanding, which can demotivate them.

Putting your feedback in context is also important, as what might seem like common sense to you might not seem relevant to someone unfamiliar with your business practices. This applies to the unique best practices your business adopts, as according to Forbes, best practices can be important in fields where there is little or no formal education, certification, and regulation, such as in coffee shops or amongst baristas.

An example of this could be restocking items before ending certain shifts. A new employee might not be aware that the shift coming after them is the busiest that will take place all day, and that a failure to restock disposable cups, spoons, and other essentials can lead to significant delays and unhappy customers. Communicating why this must take place will ensure they do it.

Young barista learning to steam milk at a barista training. Credit: Ana Valencia

Onboarding a new staff member can seem like a massive task to take on, and you might feel like you can’t spare any resources to focus on it. You need to remember that your human resources are just as much of an asset as your equipment is, and the building you operate in. 

You wouldn’t consider outfitting your coffee shop with furniture months after you’ve opened for business, and you wouldn’t debut a new espresso machine until everyone has been trained on using it first. Preparation is always necessary.

Pay as much attention to preparing your onboarding as you do to other business investments and it will pay you back in hours of time saved and money spared in the future. 

Enjoyed this? Then Read Barista vs Machine: The Role of High-Tech Coffee Shop Equipment

Feature photo: Freshly ground coffee falling into portafilter. Feature photo credit: Fernando Pocasangre

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