“The two ends of the coffee spectrum that get ripped off the most are farmers and baristas,” says Cole McBride. “Pretty much everyone in between, as far as I know, is making somewhat of a livable wage.”
No one’s talking about the baristas though. And McBride wants to change that. He’s been in the coffee industry for 15 years, and this past weekend, he snagged first place at the United States Barista Championships in Seattle. (It’s called USBC for short.) This was his seventh year competing.
The competition is basically the Olympics of coffee—no other stateside competition comes close in scope or grandeur. It’s not just espresso and lattes either. The signature drink portion of the competition is wild. McBride’s winning entry was startlingly complex: It featured an espresso shot that was pulled for twice as long as normal, then twice filtered and chilled into a clean tonic devoid of crema and sediment. He then put it into a CO2 charger with citric acid and yuzu zest from fruit that his friends helped him import.*
All this is to say: McBride is literally the best barista in America.
Yet, he only makes $14 an hour.*
Admittedly, it’s by choice—he’s turned down higher paying jobs in other coffee sectors and has worked in sales, for example, which paid better. A repeat USBC finalist, he’s had his pick of gigs. But he’s always returned to being a barista, because that’s what he loves.
“I am a professional barista and I take my craft very seriously,” he says. “And it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. I get an immense amount of joy from making coffee for people everyday, and crafting really high level specialty coffee and giving great service.”
We Americans worship at the altar of craft coffee, reveling in its complexity and revering its art form. But somehow, we’ve managed to commodify the very people who make it: The baristas. Something is not adding up here. If we believe in the artistry of baristas—and supposedly, we do—why are we treating them as unskilled, expendable, low wage labor?
McBride estimates that even among extremely skilled baristas at the top of their craft, most are forced to leave within five to seven years in search of basic benefits like paid vacation or healthcare. (Both are relatively rare in the industry, he estimates.) People usually move laterally into other adjacent roles like green (coffee) buying or sales, and these are viewed as promotions. But what if you actually “just” want to be a barista?
It turns out there’s kind of a glass ceiling that no one’s talking about. In McBride’s case, his 15 years of expertise have long stopped being proportional to his salary. And McBride is not the only one. T. Ben Fischer, a Philly-based barista who won second place at USBC, caved in to this very same professional pressure earlier in his career when he accepted a management role—only to return to being a barista, because it’s what he loves.
“I know very, very few people that have breached a decade as a barista,” McBride says. Seattle’s Espresso Vivace—a beloved company best known for its iconic takeout window in Capitol Hill—has several, which is probably a testament to their leadership, he points out.
McBride works at Stumptown on 12th street in Seattle, right off the city’s once proudly grunge Pike/Pine corridor. While McBride competed at USBC as an independent barista—not affiliated with the company—it did provide a lab for him to practice in leading up to the competition.
In the course of this interview, McBride and others made it very clear that their critiques of the industry are because of their love for it—not in spite of it. In other words, they love what they do. They have pride in their jobs, and in the companies at which they’ve worked—and want to make them even better.
Let’s back up for a moment though. It’s probably not that surprising that baristas can be viewed—from a industry perspective—as an expendable workforce. It’s a shitty ubiquity of the service industry, which is often burn and churn. And, on the other side of the coin, many millennial employees may view coffee shop gigs with the same level of detachment: As part-time or stop gap jobs possibly with some cultural cachet, but probably not as a lifelong career.
If high turnover is the (admittedly shitty) service industry standard, what’s all the fuss about? Well, this: Baristas, out of all their hospitality colleagues, seem to have it the worst.
If you’re a waiter at a mid- to higher price point restaurant, you have a shot at making a decent salary. “Decent” is admittedly debatable, and the restaurant industry has its own horrors, but the point is: There’s a huge pay range of what servers can make, and the top of it is much, much better than what the best baristas pull in. And bartenders—they can make 50k to 90k minimum if they’re good, McBride estimates.
“Baristas probably make 25k to 32k if they’re lucky, if they’re really lucky,” McBride estimates. “In general, I don’t know of a single company other than… Espresso Vivace that actually pays a semi-sustainable living wage. I worked there a decade ago, and I think I got a little bit closer to making almost 40k, but that’s the only one. I’ve been in the industry for 15 years and I’ve traveled the country dozens of times over. I don’t know of any company that actually pays their employees a liveable, sustainable wage. I really don’t think it exists.”
Even though millennials love to gripe about the cost of coffee—as they hand over their $7 for that housemade macadamia nut milk latte, and say goodbye to their house down payment—the fact is that baristas haven’t necessarily been seeing the financial windfall from these high prices.
And those prices might just be too low.
That’s according to Fischer. “Most coffee that we’re serving at these specialty shops are hand-picked,” he explains. “They’re sorted by hand and dried on a patio for 12 to 14 days. Then there’s roasting and brewing. The coffee costs $2.30 per pound unroasted, and then you have to roast it and package it. Right now we’re selling a small drip coffee to go for two dollars. Specialty coffee is $6. The amount we’re paying for coffee doesn’t reflect the amount of work going into it.”
So could the answer to treating baristas better lie in raising prices? Maybe. Kind of.
As McBride points out, some coffee companies are already make decent profits. It’s just that baristas aren’t really seeing their share of it.
“Usually where I see the biggest discrepancy in pay is management,” he says. “Management roles are usually getting paid pretty damn well compared to their barista colleagues, and obviously any executive level position is making an insane amount of money. Roasters aren’t making hand over fist or anything, but generally speaking they definitely make a livable wage.”
For McBride, as many others have done, the solution lies in opening his own shop. “My goal is to be able to open my own shop and do my own thing in this next year, hopefully,” he says. “I’ve wanted to do it for a really long time, and I’ll tell you this: When I open my own shop, I’m going to work the bar.”
While Fischer has no immediate aspirations to open a company of his own, he’s open to roles in green buying or training. “That’s the fun part,” he says. “It’s a multi-faceted industry where you can really find your niche.”
Although, like McBride, he truly loves being a barista. “I think a lot of companies are doing a good job, and a lot of companies could be doing a better job with these issues,” he says. “If we take an alternative look at the pyramid [structure of the coffee industry], I’d want to flatten it down to a plane so managers aren’t above baristas,” he says. “Sure, baristas report to them, but they’re just different roles.”
“I think there’s a world where we can have professional baristas where we can thrive, and not just survive paycheck to paycheck,” he says. “As a barista, we’re on our feet for 30 to 35 hours a week, and there’s physical issues that come with that. Giving people time off helps, but paid vacation is not commonplace.” While he does have paid vacation from his employer, Elixr Coffee—who also sponsored his training, travel, and lodging for the competition—he currently does not have healthcare.
There is one store we haven’t yet mentioned that does provide healthcare to its employees. You probably hate its drinks: Starbucks.
Fischer’s sister worked for them briefly, and the benefits were “pretty impressive,” he says, although he doesn’t know the nitty gritty details. McBride does speculate that there are some fledgling shops that really, truly do not have the bandwidth to provide healthcare to their baristas. But many do, he thinks, and aren’t. We’re rooting for him to help change the game with his coffee shop, which we’re confident he’ll do.
Until then? Beyond that? The only thing we can think of: The next time you go to your neighborhood coffee shop, be extra nice to your barista. Tip a dollar or two if you can afford it, and thank them for all that they do.
Correction: This piece has been corrected to reflect McBride's salary as not inclusive of tips, how many years McBride has been competing, and to accurately describe the cocktail he made this year.