Tales From Our Baristas

New York’s professional coffee connoisseurs say what they really think about pouring, pricing, and waking up with the roosters to keep you cool, calm and caffeinated.

Tales From Our Baristas

The alarm clock rings. You want to hit snooze, but you can’t because if you don’t get out of bed people will be without coffee. You’re a barista, not a profession you fell back on because Plan A didn’t work out, but one you chose because of your passion for the drink – the beans, the farms and farmers who produce them, and the environment of a modern coffee shop. That, and you don’t care what people think anyway. If that were the case, you probably wouldn’t rise with the sun to make coffee for the tired masses here in New York City.

Working in the service industry gives baristas a rare insight into the minds of New Yorkers. As coffee gets fancier, there may be complicated new brewing methods and in-depth discussions of bean varieties, but the coffee transaction remains what it has always been: a basic interaction between two people.

Martin O’Connell had his back turned when I walked into his café and out of the rain. There was no one else there. Chairs were pushed to one side and he was sweeping the debris from a day’s work into the shape of a football.

“Martin,” I said.

“Ahh, what,” he replied, whipping around in a mild panic and nearly losing his broom. “Oh right, you wanna do that thing today,” he said, recognizing me from a few days earlier and referring to the interview I had requested.

“I’d love to if you’re still free.”

“I have some loose ends to tie up,” he said in his grumbling Irish inflection. “Can you come back tomorrow at one?”

Café Martin in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Café Martin in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

“Absolutely. Sorry to startle you. And I wanted to ask, would you mind if I quote you for the story?”

By now he had regained his composure. The broom handle was under his chin and his hands rested on top of its soft, rounded end. He smirked. “Depends on what you ask me.”

When O’Connell moved to Brooklyn from Ireland at the turn of the millennium, he started making coffee at Ozzy’s (now Café Dada), an independently owned coffee shop on 7th Avenue in Park Slope. A decade later, he continues to serve coffee in the neighborhood, now behind a small counter at a shop he owns on 5th Avenue called Café Martin, where he pulls shots from a small La San Marco machine and uses Strongtree coffee. “They’re a small company,” O’Connell says of the brand he’s bought since day one, “and they’re very dedicated. Even if I could get better coffee for cheaper I wouldn’t switch.”

O’Connell, like most of the other baristas I talked to, said he’s proud of his profession and there’s nothing else he’d rather be doing.

“I just developed a patience,” he says, “a liking for it.” O’Connell wakes up at six a.m. every day so that he can ride his bike and be on time to open his shop at seven. “The hours were never an issue,” he says. “I’m used to it. You just kind of button up and get into it.”

“A lot of time you’ll get the question, ‘What else do you do besides coffee?’” says Brye Roth, a barista at Southside Coffee in South Park Slope who has been making coffee in New York City for nearly a decade. “And for people who think, ‘Oh, barista, that art school degree must not have gotten them anywhere’ – screw those people.”

Not to show Roth in a bad light: she’s extremely polite, passionate, soft-spoken, and thoroughly versed in coffee—the makings of a great barista. Her frustration with the issue comes from dealing with the same question for nine years. “I don’t think most people really know the skill and knowledge it takes to be good at this job,” she says. “I think most people just see it as what you do on the side.”

Macchiato, as prepared by Brye Roth of Southside Coffee in Park Slope.
Macchiato, as prepared by Brye Roth of Southside Coffee in Park Slope.

Sean Liljequist, who works at Joe Coffee on 13th Street in Manhattan, shares this sentiment. “I feel like people think it’s just a normal minimum wage job,” he begins, “until they taste how much effort is put into the cup.”

The service industry brings a constant flow of unpredictable clientele. A rift can grow between barista and customer and it’s always intensified when the customer has no experience with service jobs.

“Sometimes people come in and sit down without ordering anything,” Roth says. “So we’ll ask if they need something. It happened recently with one girl, and when she was asked if she needed anything she got an attitude and said, ‘I was actually in here earlier and I bought a bunch of stuff then.’”

In the past, Roth might have had to shrug it off. “At certain places I’ve worked,” she says, “it was ‘the customer is always right.’ But here, we’re right. So if you’re not buying things, and you’re just being an asshole, you don’t need to be here.”

Having an understanding (or not) of the service industry plays into the way that customers tip. “Tips are always better in smaller neighborhoods where other people also work in service,” Roth says matter-of-factly. “People snatch up shifts at Blue Bottle in Williamsburg for that very reason.”

O’Connell has also found that being a shop owner influences the way people tip. “There have been some people who don’t leave a tip because they know I’m the owner. I’ve overheard people comment on it. One guy actually wouldn’t tip me because of it, so I asked him, ‘When you get your haircut, do you inquire as to whether the person cutting your hair is the owner or not?’”

Rich Nieto of Sweetleaf in Long Island City.
Rich Nieto of Sweetleaf in Long Island City.

Richard Nieto, a Queens native, co-owns Sweetleaf Café in Long Island City. The shop has grown to three locations since the original opened in 2009, and the most recent is an espresso/cocktail bar.

“Now that I own a cocktail bar, I see the difference in tips,” Nieto says. “Barista tips are just under 10% and bartender tips are above 20%. For everyone who tips a buck to someone who makes them a latte, that’s a big tip.” He does the math out loud. “That’s 25% on a $4 latte, so for baristas to walk out at the end of the day with less than 10% of sales means that most people didn’t tip. I think that’s something that really should be changing for a specialty shop. There’s a lot of thought, effort and time that goes into preparing drinks consistently. I’m not saying they should be getting tipped more, but they should be getting tipped on par with any other type of server.”

O’Connell doesn’t see that happening anytime soon. “It’s come around a little bit,” he says, “But I don’t think it’ll ever be on the same line or become the same thing as tipping a bartender.”

Like many of their peers, Roth and Nieto have taken classes to further understand their craft. “It sounds really nerdy,” Roth admits, “but learning about coffee and how it’s processed is better for you as a barista. If someone asks a question, you want to be able to answer it.”

This seems particularly true in New York City, where the clientele can be just as learned as the staff.

“People are definitely aware of what coffee can be now,” explains Sean Liljequist, who moved to New York from California and landed the job at Joe Coffee after a stint at Qathra, a family-run café in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park. ”Joe is a perfect example of that,” he says. “We get a lot of connoisseurs coming in asking us questions about our coffee. That’s made me feel like I have to be on top of my game more. Every time we get a new bean in we all try it together. We talk about it. We have pamphlets on where it’s from. It keeps you on your toes.”

A Macchiato at Southside Coffee.
A Macchiato at Southside Coffee.

For some baristas, the most memorable stories come simply from watching their regulars live their lives. “There was a customer who would come in everyday,” Nieto told me. “He was a clean cut guy—always in a suit. He asked me one day what was in the back room. I told him, ‘That’s our record room. You can go back there and listen to records while you have your coffee.’ He came in one weekend and just hung our there for hours playing rock-and-roll records. Then he started coming in all the time and hanging out back there just listening to records. I started noticing that he was growing his hair out. To make a long story short, within several months he had long hair and a long beard. That was the most awesome metamorphosis I ever saw.”

Conflicts over music often top the list of baristas’ pet peeves. Roth can’t stand when people complain about the music she plays (The Band, Janis Joplin, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and The Strokes on my visit). A close second: when customers bark the ‘That’s your large?’ question, it sends shivers down her spine.

She holds back, but wants to say, “It’s New York City, there’s a Starbucks with a 24-ounce cup with your name on it right down the street.”

Roth, who’s engaged, also can’t stand being hit on. “It’s annoying,” she says. “And awkward. I don’t smile at you because I like you. Half of my job is to make you a really good cup of coffee. The other half is to be nice to you and make you want to come back. But that doesn’t mean I want to sleep with you.”

“Sometimes being a barista is like being an underpaid therapist,” says Roth. “I find what people will tell you just because you’re behind the counter to be strange. I know how many kids people have, what their grades are, where they go to school, I know about people getting divorced and people going on dates. People will pretty much tell you anything–especially if you ask.”

Conversely, the bonds that grow between coffee-maker and customer can be one of the things baristas love most. “You become involved with people’s lives so easily: invited to their art shows, invited to parties, invited to babysit their kids—using your skills to do more than make coffee for them,” says Roth. “It’s nice to have that connection with people. And for the most part it’s just kind of chill,” she says. “And awesome.”

Rich Nieto's favorite drink: espresso.
Rich Nieto’s favorite drink: espresso.

Liljequist agrees: “It’s awesome being a barista. I get to work with amazing coffee and amazing people.I used to work at sling ‘em-type cafés, but I really enjoy taking my time presenting something that’s gone through so much work behind the scenes. I feel like I’m sharing all the hard work from all over the world that goes into growing, processing, and selling coffee.”

“To be able to serve coffee to people and talk to them about it is a real blessing,” says Nieto. “You put your heart and love into something and then watch people consume and enjoy it.”