June 30, 2022

How can coffee shops handle a busy rush?


There’s no doubt that a sudden rush of customers is a familiar prospect for many baristas and café owners. For some, this can happen on a weekly or monthly basis; for others, it is a daily occurrence.

Even for more experienced baristas, busy rushes can be stressful to manage – especially if you need to focus on making sure that you are consistently serving high-quality coffee. However, dealing with a rush of customers is just part of working in a coffee shop and there is consequently a strategy for handling it.

I spoke with four coffee professionals to learn more about how baristas can manage a busy rush while still serving great-tasting coffee and providing excellent customer service. Read on to find out what they said.

You may also like our article on managing staff shortages during seasonal peak periods.

A rush of customers in a busy coffee shop.

What is a “rush”?

For coffee shops and other hospitality businesses, a rush is when a large number of customers order over a short period of time. This can happen when customers enter the store, order online, or through third-party delivery apps – especially as digital ordering and payment services have become more popular in coffee shops over the past few years.

Lily Dominguez was formerly a manager at Bad Owl Coffee Roasters, which has three locations in Las Vegas, Nevada. She tells me that all of Bad Owl’s coffee shops experience rushes on a daily basis, but the Rainbow Boulevard location often has the highest number of customers.

She explains that baristas take orders at the register, online, over the phone, through delivery apps, and at the drive-thru. 

“For Bad Owl, a rush is when customers are ordering through all of these systems at once,” she says. “When this happens, staff start to have around 15 to 20 drinks that need to be made at the same time, as well as up to 20 food items that also need to be made within the same time frame,” she adds.

It’s important to note that each coffee shop will have their own definition of a rush, which will largely depend on the size of the business. For instance, smaller coffee shops that only take orders at the register may consider a rush to be five to ten orders at one time, mostly because they have less baristas to handle this kind of influx.

A barista pours espresso into a cup at Black Fox Coffee.

When can a rush be distressing for baristas?

Daniel Murphy is the founder and CEO of Black Fox Coffee in Brooklyn, New York. He says the higher volume of orders he experiences is largely a result of the locations of his coffee shops, which are in more corporate areas of the city. 

He tells me that in his opinion, a rush in a coffee shop is anywhere between 200 and 350 cups of coffee ordered within a period of one to two hours.

“At those volumes, we would be making around US $1,500 per hour,” he says. “We also have a small kitchen, so we sell pastries and breakfast items, which is another US $1,500 on top of coffee sales.”

Dan Lee was a barista based in New York. He participated in barista competitions which are designed to replicate high volume, fast-paced service in coffee shops, such as La Marzocco’s Crush the Rush. Dan, along with Ujae Lee and Christina Lee, placed first at the 2019 competition.

Dan told me about one of the most stressful rushes he experienced as a barista, which was when he volunteered at the New York Coffee Festival.

“It felt like we didn’t have time to breathe,” he said. “We started around 10am and then we were making drinks non-stop until 4pm or 5pm, without breaks. I’ve never felt so burnt out.”

Lily tells me of a similar experience at Bad Owl on Valentine’s Day earlier this year. 

“It took the team about four hours to get through the rush,” she says. “It was the first time in a long time that we saw an increase in orders similar to those we had experienced before the pandemic.”

A barista arranges several portafilters to on the counter in Black Fox Coffee to improve workflow.

Optimising workflow

Although busy rushes in coffee shops can be stressful and demanding for baristas, they still need to serve high-quality coffees as quickly as possible, as well as providing excellent and professional customer service.

So, how can baristas handle rushes in a more efficient manner?

Tom Bomford is the Coffee Director for Black Fox Coffee.

“We started using 4oz (118ml) dosing cups for espresso,” he says. “The espresso will sit between 10 and 15 minutes, so there is understandably some concern about quality.”

However, Tom adds that the baristas use the espresso at such a fast pace during rushes that quality can be maintained – ensuring customers continuously receive high-quality coffee. 

“There is one barista extracting espresso and preparing all the drinks,” he explains. “We also have support from the back bar barista, who pulls shots into the dosing cups to be used for other drinks.”

As well as this, optimal workflow largely means moving as little distance as possible from your workstation, such as the espresso machine or the register.

There are a number of other organisation techniques that can better prepare baristas for busy rushes. These include restocking all cups, saucers, cutlery, coffee beans, and milk, as well as setting up milk jugs in the order in which beverages need to be prepared. 

For example, if milk for two cappuccinos needs to be steamed before two flat whites and one latte, the barista can either fill three separate pitchers at the same time, or prepare one jug for the cappuccinos and a larger milk pitcher for the flat whites and the latte. 

By doing so, the barista can prepare milk with the right texture for each beverage, as the cappuccinos require more microfoam than the flat whites and the latte.

Cleanliness is also an essential aspect of good workflow during a rush. A “clean as you go” system enables baristas to keep on top of necessary cleaning tasks, while still focusing on preparing beverages and providing quality service.

Some examples of clean as you go practices for baristas include brushing away coffee grounds on counters, purging group heads while dosing, and rinsing multiple milk pitchers at the same time.

It’s also worth noting that busy rushes can be overwhelming for many baristas, especially those who are new to working in coffee shops. To manage stress more effectively, practise developing your workflow during slower periods on shift. This will help you to optimise your workflow as you have more time to focus on where you can reduce or shorten your movements. 

Barista work behind the counter at Bad Owl Coffee.

How can you manage stress?

Undoubtedly, busy rushes cause a certain level of stress for baristas. On top of this, the shift could be understaffed, the espresso machine or grinder may not be working properly, or there could be a stock shortage. 

Any of these factors are likely to be distressing, but it’s essential that baristas are still able to provide excellent customer service. 

“The most important thing that baristas should do is remain calm and positive, and remember that their team is there to support them,” Lily says. “If baristas stay positive and work hard, most days will go well for them, even during rushes.”

She adds that it’s also useful to inform customers about longer waiting times, as this can ease the pressure on baristas, as well as making customers more aware that their order is being prepared. 

“A lot of Bad Owl’s drive-thru customers expected a more fast-food approach when it first opened, and we struggled to meet their expectations,” she explains. “Telling them when we were busy with multiple food orders, or letting them know that we were short staffed for the day, would often create a better customer experience.”

Furthermore, barista work often requires a lot of physical and emotional effort, which can quickly lead to exhaustion if not managed effectively. Open communication with baristas on how to optimise workflow and deal with rushes in a more sustainable way is essential to look out for barista wellbeing during busy periods.

Coffee shop owners can also invest in more automated equipment, such as automatic tampers or milk steamers. This equipment can not only reduce the likelihood of repetitive strain injuries for baristas, but also speed up service when there are busy rushes.

A barista pours ground coffee into a portafilter at Black Fox Coffee.

Even for the most experienced baristas, a busy rush can be daunting. However, it’s important to remain calm and organised in order to successfully manage a sudden rush of customers.

Furthermore, managing barista workflow will also equip you to handle a busy rush much more easily, as well as maintaining more of a focus on coffee quality and customer service.

With plenty of practice and patience, any barista will be able to effectively handle a rush – no matter how often they occur or how busy it may be.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on looking out for barista wellbeing after Covid-19.

Photo credits: Black Fox Coffee, Bad Owl Coffee Roasters

Perfect Daily Grind

Please note: While this article was being edited, Dan Lee sadly passed away. His family’s wishes were to still include his insights in the article.

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