September 13, 2021

Customer service, coffee education & management: What does a head barista do?

Much like it will for a Head of Coffee, a head barista’s job description will naturally vary from company to company. Each coffee shop is different, and each has different roles within their barista team.

This means that while a head barista can generally be described as a senior or managing member of the barista team, they often have responsibilities beyond that. This may stretch into training, education, or even sourcing if a brand’s Head of Coffee needs support or a fresh perspective.

To understand more about the job role of a head barista, I spoke to two: one in South Africa and one in California. Read on to find out what they said, and to learn more about the skills they said were useful for the role.

You might also like our previous article on job roles, highlighting what a Head of Coffee does.

filter coffee

Leading by example: A focus on quality & service

Becoming a barista is, for many, the first step into the coffee sector. And with the rise of third wave coffee culture, the appreciation for the work and skill of the barista is growing.

More and more people – consumers and business owners alike – are starting to realise the value that a good barista can bring to a coffee business.

While a head barista will generally have managerial responsibilities – from training to managing shifts and rotas – the job should arguably begin with a focus on quality.

Each barista in a coffee shop will be in charge of following set recipes to serve customers high-quality beverages. The head barista should first and foremost serve as the “gold standard” for these recipes: they should be able to provide a perfect example for how a beverage should be served at any given point in time. 

They may also have input into how these recipes are standardised, or even play a role in “drink development”: the process of bringing new beverages or products to a coffee shop’s menu.

Fanie Botes is the head barista at Bluebird Coffee Roasters in Howick, South Africa. At Bluebird, he’s responsible for another area that helps provide customers with delicious beverages. “Most days start with dialling in,” Fanie says. “You need to make sure the coffee is tasty!”

Dialling in is an essential process that is often part of a head barista’s regular responsibilities. Getting the best from your machine and getting the perfect balance by tweaking dose, yield, brew time, and grind size in minuscule increments is easier said than done, but it is important.

A head barista’s focus on quality shouldn’t just be about making delicious coffee, however. Great customer service is also key for any successful coffee shop, and it can be a major factor in customer retention.

Fanie adds: “I focus a lot of my energy on guest engagement and over-the-counter interaction, as well as educating those who are inquisitive about what we do.”

Helping to connect the customer to the right product is vitally important. Understanding what they want and helping to demystify certain products or beverages isn’t just good service; it also helps to improve consumer knowledge. 

Ultimately, a head barista should be able to translate coffee industry “jargon” into a clear language that anyone can understand.

“I think my people skills are most important,” Fanie adds. “At the end of the day, it’s about making folks feel welcome and comfortable in the café. 

“Coffee professionals in South Africa often carry the stigma of being ‘snobs’… letting go of that is really important.”

cupping

Managing, training & teaching

Beyond this focus on quality, however, a head barista also needs to be able to pass on their knowledge and expertise to others. 

Head baristas are first and foremost leaders. As well as leading by example, they are also often required to manage, train, and teach the other baristas they work with. 

This could mean anything from co-ordinating the team through the morning rush to reorganising workflow to make operations more efficient.

However, one specific focus for the head barista is usually training and development. Passing on experience and knowledge helps to make sure that everyone in a team of baristas is marching to the same beat and working to the same high standards.

Laine Barriga is the Head of Training at Ritual Coffee Roasters in San Francisco, California. They tell me that the system they have put in place at Ritual provides an obvious path for new baristas to learn and develop, led by their coffee educators (an advanced, senior barista capable of training others).

“We have a tiered training programme,” Laine says. “You don’t get trained on espresso before you pass a cappuccino test. Once you pass your cappuccino test, you get trained on espresso.”

But the training doesn’t just cover practical barista skills. Laine says that this tiered system is set up so new baristas can follow it to then become a coffee educator, and then lead the training themselves.

“If you’re a new barista, then that coaching is done by the coffee educator,” they say. “But after that, you could become a coffee educator in [as little as] six months.”

Good training is key for any head barista (or equivalent role, like Ritual’s coffee educators). However, the best training will aim to transition new, inexperienced baristas through not just to the point where they are a functional member of the team, but further, so they can give the training they have benefited from. 

By doing so, they can develop a team that functions seamlessly both with and without them.

coffee shop

An ever-evolving role

With the growth of third wave coffee culture and a greater focus than ever on the craft of making and sourcing coffee, some brands have decided to “rework” the head barista role. 

New, rebranded senior barista roles like technical barista, lead barista, and coffee educator (as in Ritual’s case) are becoming more and more common. 

Laine says that Ritual developed their coffee educator programme as a way to keep their coffee servers passionate about their role. It provides them with a greater focus on passing on experience and sharing knowledge, rather than just brewing coffee and serving drinks.

 “I don’t want to say that the role has [necessarily] ‘changed’ over the years,” Laine says. “It’s just evolved. Since 2013, there have been ‘coffee educators’, and I think our programme is unique.

“We’ve defined the responsibilities and what we look for in a person to take on the role. To start you have to have gone through our in-house training programme, which takes up to three months; this means that we don’t generally hire coffee educators from the outside. It’s usually something that we’ve tried to foster in house.”

The role of the head barista will also change based on the culture, size, and brand of the coffee company in question. A head barista in a larger, busier commercial coffee chain, for instance, will often focus on efficiency behind the bar and training those around them. 

For head baristas at specialty coffee shops, however, the role is more likely to focus on education and sharing knowledge. Others still might work with roasteries to source beans, manage stock, and place orders.

“The three main attributes that we look for in our coffee educators are excellent communication, humility, and the enthusiasm to see other people succeed,” Laine adds.

Fanie has also found that the role of the head barista will continue to adapt and evolve as time goes by. “I feel like this role will always change,” he says. “As a customer-facing coffee professional, you need to be ready to deal with things changing, as well as your role developing within the business. 

“From my perspective, my role is very fluid. The expectations and goals remain the same: serve excellent coffee, build relationships with clients, and effectively run the bar. But the means to those ends are constantly changing.”

head barista

Finding and keeping the right people

Every company will have a different approach to finding the right personnel for their business. In many cases, head baristas grow and develop into the role over time, thanks to their understanding of the brand and that coffee shop’s unique setup. 

This isn’t always the case, however; some brands do look externally for head baristas. And even when hiring internally, it’s important to make sure that you bring on the right person: somebody who can do it and wants to do it. 

Laine says that their job has been not only to develop the career path for baristas at Ritual, but also to identify those who want to take their coffee career to the next level. 

“As the head of training, I look for sparks in people’s eyes when I train them,” Laine says. “I’m interested in finding ways to keep that spark alive. Before we developed the coffee educator programme, if there was a decision for Ritual to make [regarding] service, it would be decided by three people in the training department. 

“Things are different now: the coffee educators are the ‘axis’ of those discussions, integrating all the cafés and baristas into the conversation.

“Maybe we’re looking at switching to the Kalita from the V60 for filter; so we would encourage the coffee educators to test both, measure the results, and bring their findings back, to make them more involved in the whole process.”

By involving your baristas more in this way, you’ve got a better chance that they will feel more engaged and want to stay for longer. 

Hospitality has a reputation for its high staff turnover; without clear goals, progression, and a chance to be involved in the discussions which affect how they work day-to-day, baristas may want to look elsewhere. 

coffee art

The head barista role may differ in name and responsibility from brand to brand, but overall the position is grounded in leadership, customer service, training, and overall quality.

By having a head barista at your company, involving them clearly in the right discussions, and giving them the freedom to train and develop the team around them, you don’t just improve beverage quality; you also show your baristas that growth and progression is possible, and that you can give them a roadmap to future career success. 

Enjoyed this? Then try our article on dialling in espresso.

Photo credits: Ritual Coffee Roasters, Bluebird Coffee Roasters

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