How can coffee shops hire & retain long-term staff?
For many baristas and coffee shop staff, passion and interest are two of the biggest motivators to work in specialty coffee.
However, just like many other hospitality sectors, the specialty coffee industry experiences high staff turnover rates. The National Restaurant Association’s 2022 annual report found that as many as 78% of restaurant operators in the US don’t have enough staff to meet customer demand – largely fuelled by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The problem is complex, but covers a number of reasons, such as low pay and unsociable working hours. Nevertheless, it’s still vital that coffee shop owners are able to hire skilled and passionate baristas to ensure their businesses remain successful.
So, how can coffee shop owners hire staff who want to have long-term careers in specialty coffee? To learn more, I spoke with three industry professionals who provided some insight. Read on to find out what they had to say.
You may also like our article on career progression for specialty coffee baristas.
Why is staff turnover so high in the coffee industry?
Around the world, the hospitality industry has one of the highest turnover rates of any sector. The UK alone has an annual staff turnover rate of 30% – double that of any other industry in the country.
Moreover, according to a 2019 report from Deputy, some of the most common reasons for leaving a role in the hospitality sector are unsociable working hours, low pay, fewer benefits (such as holiday and sick pay), and a lack of career prospects.
In some cases, this can also be true for baristas. Despite a growing appreciation for the skills and knowledge of specialty coffee baristas, there can be an unfortunate prevailing stigma around working in coffee shops in the long term.
Jana Elicker is the head of training for Supremo Coffee in Munich, Germany. She explains that one of the several complex reasons for this stigma is that baristas are generally paid lower wages than other coffee professionals – leaving them vulnerable. Ultimately, this means they are more likely to find other work.
“[Working as a barista in a coffee shop sometimes] isn’t lucrative,” she says.
Ryan Garrick is the Head of Coffee at WatchHouse in London, UK. He echoes similar sentiments to Jana and says that wages are sometimes too low for baristas to live above their means.
“Even if you are the best barista in the world, there is still a low pay ceiling because of unfair perceptions that a cup of coffee has low overall value,” he says. “As well as this, lower pay is also based on the value of the person who is preparing the drink.
“In the mixology industry, meanwhile, people will easily pay £20 (US $23.61) for a cocktail because it is served by a highly-skilled bartender,” he adds. “Perhaps if there was the same sentiment in coffee shops, this would encourage more long-term career development for baristas.”
Depending on the size of the business, coffee shops can already run on tight margins – meaning they may have lower budgets to spend on hiring new staff and paying baristas’ wages.
Finding the best applicants
For many coffee shops around the world, experience is an essential part of hiring new coffee shop staff. Business owners are looking for people who are not only passionate about specialty coffee, but also have a solid understanding of how to prepare high-quality beverages.
However, the average age of hospitality staff tends to be younger than workers in other industries. In Scotland, for instance, the average age is 34 years old – four years younger than the next “youngest” industry.
Because of age differences, coffee shop staff may be less experienced when compared to workers in other sectors. Ultimately, this means coffee shop owners need to look for more in a barista than just practical skills and coffee knowledge.
Fotis Vlachakis is the co-owner of Bridge Urban Coffee Roasters in Greece.
“[In my opinion], personality is more important than coffee knowledge,” he says. “We can train them to be a good barista, but we can’t change their way of thinking.”
He adds that coffee shop owners should look for staff who are “hard-working, honest, patient, and willing to develop new skills”.
How can coffee shop owners support baristas?
Despite the fact that staff turnover in coffee shops is a complex issue, there are a number of ways that business owners can retain baristas for longer periods of time.
Training & career development opportunities
Although it’s arguably the most obvious way of hiring long-term staff, it can be difficult for coffee shop owners to find time for adequate training – whether for improving coffee knowledge or customer service skills.
Jana agrees, but says that training is mutually beneficial. “If you train staff to a high standard then it’s more profitable for your business in the long term,” she says.
She explains that at Supremo Coffee, the training is largely led by baristas themselves.
“[It’s important to ask them] where they see their strengths lie and where they think they can improve,” she tells me. “We create training courses based on what they want to learn and what their goals are for working in the coffee industry.
“If we can incorporate training into their daily routines then that’s even better,” she adds.
Training can also be outsourced, too – such as the Specialty Coffee Association’s Coffee Skills Programme.
Fotis tells me that this approach can help to create a mutually-beneficial “partnership” between the barista and the business.
“As a result of training opportunities, coffee shops can increase productivity and potentially expand the business – becoming a more competitive and stronger brand in the industry.”
For most baristas, the majority of daily tasks are largely the same for every shift – potentially leaving some staff unchallenged in their job roles.
“Working in a coffee shop can be fun, but if you work in the hospitality industry for a long time, at some point it may feel like you’re ready for something different and new,” Jana says.
Creating new opportunities for baristas can encourage them to remain engaged – potentially increasing their job satisfaction.
“You need to find new ways to motivate people and provide them with a ‘new’ side to working behind the bar so that they can then further their skills, develop their knowledge, or just have a break from the same everyday conversations,” she adds.
For instance, Jana suggests inviting staff to attend community or industry events, such as running a booth at a trade show. Ryan, meanwhile, says involving baristas in conversations about the roasting process can not only increase engagement, but also encourage career progression – meaning staff may stay with the company for longer.
Investing in staff
Unfortunately, because some coffee shop owners expect high staff turnover rates, they may not invest in their staff enough. This is largely because investment can be expensive, and business owners might not want to lose money if baristas leave their positions after a short period of time.
However, investing in the goals and ambitions of employees is one of the many ways in which coffee shop owners can express their interest in retaining long-term staff.
One of the most prominent examples is ensuring there are prospects for salary growth and schedule flexibility. Baristas often work unsociable hours, such as weekends and late evenings, so coffee shop owners should take these factors into consideration.
Furthermore, providing pathways for career progression to more senior roles – such as head barista or management positions – can encourage baristas to remain with the company for longer.
Jana encourages coffee shop owners to regularly liaise with baristas on their long-term career plans. “Find a way together [to grow together],” she says. “This has helped us to build long-term relationships with our staff.”
Positive work environments
Another key factor which can increase staff retention is creating a healthy working environment – both physically and mentally.
WatchHouse operates several coffee shops across London. Ryan tells me that the location and opening times can play a significant role in baristas’ job satisfaction.
“At our shops which open from Monday to Friday only, we’ve noticed that staff retention is higher because the baristas deal with fewer tourists and have less difficult interactions with customers,” Ryan says. “These locations have the same team working every day and most of the customers are the same every day, too.
“Even the customers have better relationships with the baristas, so if someone is having a bad day they can understand each other better,” he adds.
Although the location and opening hours of a coffee shop are largely dictated by consumer demand, and therefore difficult to control, business owners can still find ways to make this more manageable for baristas.
Open and clear communication, as well as organising the bar to improve workflow, are just some of the ways which they can achieve this.
Career progression options for baristas
Developing a career in specialty coffee may not be the plan for every barista, but for those who are interested, it’s not always so straightforward.
For staff who work in smaller coffee shops, there may be limitations as to how far they can progress with the company. Generally speaking, most baristas express interest in moving into roasting, but this can come with its own set of challenges.
“Pulling espresso shots can only make so much money for a business,” Ryan says. “If baristas want to be able to do things which are of higher value for a company, they need to look at what else they can bring to the table.”
Diversifying skillsets is one of these ways – this may mean picking up some experience cupping and scoring coffees or providing support to the marketing team, for instance.
Ryan also encourages baristas to consider gaining more experience at larger coffee companies if possible, too.
“You can develop more skills, such as understanding the bigger picture of a coffee business, which are ultimately more desirable,” he says.
For coffee shops, hiring long-term staff is an opportunity for mutually-beneficial growth. Not only can businesses be more financially stable, but baristas can also better develop their skills and knowledge – potentially improving their long-term career prospects.
In order to reduce staff turnover rates, coffee shop owners should focus on improving employee satisfaction and engagement. By doing so, they can help to strengthen the specialty coffee industry overall.
Looking for coffee sector job roles? Head on over to PDG Jobs and take a look!
Photo credits: Fotis Vlachakis, Supremo Coffee, Sinan Muslu, Darren Rowlands
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