Allow me to spin for you a tale of barista woe. Sort of. Well, that's why I am spinning it, to get your take on things. It is somewhat long, but should you be engaged enough to read it all, I would appreciate some sort of response - thank you in advance!
So in my area, a brand new shop opened up and hired on myself and a couple of barista friends of mine (approximately a month and a half ago), and we all love coffee enough to want to pursue the best of it that we are able. The partners opening the shop have zero experience working in coffee retail of any kind, though one of the owners has a little bit of experience in coffee as his family owns some plantations in Guatemala or some such. Bearing that in mind, we were hired on not only to work in the shop, but to lend them our experience and advice for all things coffee related. When hired, we did not know what coffee they would be serving or much else about the place other than the location, but as this was going to be a small privately owned business, we were optimistic that with our guidance, we could ensure that we would at least acquire some quality coffee to sell and serve (there are several third-wave roasters that are near enough to supply us).
It was apparent from the first day that our hopes for a shop aimed at supplying fresh, quality coffee to the public would not be satisfied. Our coffee is being supplied by an extremely generic semi-local roaster. It is certainly not the worst coffee we could be serving, but it is truly the height of second wave mediocrity. Additionally, we are serving all of the noisy whipped-cream topped things you can think of, smoothies and blended coffee drinks and all that. We started out serving 20-oz "cappuccinos", but quickly did the best we could to fix that, convincing them to get at LEAST 12-oz cups in. We also have the least useful grinder ever conceived; you can't adjust the grind without opening the thing with a screwdriver, and it can only grind in full giant batches, without even allowing one to manual stop it. The brewers likewise can not brew custom batch sizes without re-programming the whole thing; we can only brew drip coffee in enormous batches.
Last and likely worst, someone came in and set the grind on our regular and decaf espresso grinders, and we were essentially told not to tamper with the grind. That's right, we are not supposed to dial in our espresso. Wow.
Now on to the more personal bad things and the controversies. One of the other baristas they hired on is an older guy. He ran his own coffee "kiosk", that is, like a trailer in front of a Home Depot, for 14 years. His habits are absolutely terrible, and he denies, basically, that anything you can do actually has an impact on the coffee. For example, he pre-grinds the espresso and leaves it sitting in the dosing chamber for hours on end. He (for some reason I still can't figure out) refuses to refrigerate his milk pitchers, even after we have explained to him why this is a good idea. Besides the pre-ground espresso, the most hands-on of the owners (the one with a "background" in coffee, hereafter referred to as "Stan") and this guy, who I will refer to hereafter as "Al", have a monopoly on running things as cheaply as possible. This includes pre-grinding the espresso, using the same grind for our drip coffee and french presses, and NOT dumping out the giant urns of coffee even after they have sat for two hours.
One of my friends who works there, who I will refer to hereafter as "Linda", is as dis-satisfied with this lack of quality standards as myself and other friends, and one day, while working with Al, she blatantly dumps out all of his pre-ground espresso, sparking a war that is still raging. Al demands an explanation, and Linda and myself explain to him that the industry norm is really to not pre-grind espresso, and that it is commonly accepted that within 3 to 10 minutes after grinding, the espresso has basically been destroyed. Al disagrees.
I mull this over with a friend of mine (hereafter referred to as "Mac") who runs a third wave shop nearby (where I prefer to hang out and get my coffee, and additionally a good friend of mine works there). He basically says that, as a barista, I ought to take Stan aside and explain to him why quality standards are important, why not to pre-grind espresso, and that I personally am not willing to serve people drinks made of stale espresso and whatnot. This is not a conversation that I look forward to, as I am not a fan of confrontation, particularly with my boss.
Anyway, Mac was of course right. The next day at work, I bit the bullet and pulled Stan aside. I say I have been meaning to talk to him about the "pre-ground espresso thing", and tell him that there is no faster way to deteriorate the quality of a bar drink than to pre-grind the espresso. What followed was just about the worst response I could think to have gotten (besides being fired, of course). I'll spare you the totality of the thing, but here are some bullet points:
*The customers can not tell the difference
*Not even I, personally, could tell the difference between hour old pre-ground espresso and fresh ground espresso, because "you have to be born with that kind of a pallet, it can't be developed" and "very few people can taste such a minute difference" This was the only thing he said that I found to be personally insulting, as I can of course tell the difference between old and fesh-ground espresso, as pretty much ANYONE can.
*He was actually planning on getting a cheaper espresso, because of course nobody can tell the difference, and save the "good" espresso for our more 'coffee-savvy' customers
*The coffee we are serving is of such a HIGH quality that it can sit pre-ground for several hours without deteriorating in quality, and similarly our drip coffee can sit for over two hours without deteriorating in quality (which is complete and utter bullshit - this isn't even subjective, it's just chemistry)
*People who think they know anything about coffee know less than the common person. Essentially, he was asserting that because we wanted to implement quality standards, we were belying our ignorance of things and being pretentious prigs.
*There are no "absolutes" in coffee, and no specific right way to do things (again, I wasn't even talking about an opinion, what I was talking about is simply a matter of chemistry, it wouldn't matter if you started out with Starbucks or Stumptown, nothing is going to be nearly what it was after it sits for that long)
*In light of all of these facts, I was welcome to grind-to order, but I am not allowed to dump two-hour old coffee or hour-old ground espresso should some be in the dosing chamber
Whether or not Stan actually believes these things or is just justifying the penny-pinching he wants to do by repeating them over and over I will never know, but what I do know is that nothing he said during that diatribe (which was about 8 minutes long) had a spec of truth to it. What he successfully did, however, was disarm any attempts I could make in the future to get him to change his quality standards. After all, even if I were to prove to him the FACT that the espresso looks, smells, and tastes even worse than usual after just 10 minutes of being ground (which I did later that day in several tests, both blind and not), he could just stick with his statement that the customers can not tell the difference.
It has since gotten worse day by day. While myself and my loyal coffee-loving co-workers have continued to grind our espresso to order (a habit that we have passed on to all of the less experienced employees we have trained, but not Stan or Al who refuse), the fact of the matter is that we are still serving sub-par drinks to people. Possibly the worst thing is that, since Al has so much "experience", they value his opinions and habits over ours (conveniently, his methods are cheaper, because not having any standards is always cheaper). I again went and shared all of this with third-wave Mac. He put this question to me, then:
"Is there anything about what you're doing there that you enjoy at this point?"
The fact of the matter is that I am glad to be back in the industry (I had taken a 10 month hiatus prior to getting into this shop, with a few brief stand-in exceptions), and I enjoy making drinks for people. However, I know what we are doing wrong, have tried to fix it, and have been shot down. I feel that I have maintained my integrity as a barista, but am I really happy there? I feel as though the bad is overwhelming the good fairly rapidly.
So I put it to you, the barista public: what do you make of the situation? Should I stay, or leave on principle?