Rant about our current situation as Baristas in the US

I love what I do, and thats why I do it. However, in the world we live in, I'm starting to think things are a little off kilter.

In every cafe I've worked, tips are split equally at the end of a shift. If I understand the laws correctly, tips must be reported. This is unfortunate, in my opinion, if you fall into a certian tax brackets... Essentially because of where I am in life (not married, not in school, no dependents...) I get taxed $.90 for every dollar I get tiped. So if I make $20 in tips in a shift, 18 will be withdrawn from my check, leaving me with 2 dollars.

2 dollars is better than no dollars, but if your depending on these tips to live, things get a little rough.

I know what we do (at least here in the states) is not always seen as a respectable job. Although I have dedicated the last 4 years of my life to this industry, I still seem to come out under the gun. I have done extensive cupping training, trained baristas, visited orgin and worked on a farm, roasted, and taught classes, and I still make less than a brand new SBUX employee. I'm not saying this in any offense to shop owners or managers who must make certian sacrafices to greater benifit the company, because I have been in your shoes where the bottom line must be met.

I realize that the money is simply not there to go around, but how about some respect? I get so much effing shi* every day for being an unproductive member of society, a "college dropout", but ask me how Rui Rui 11 has economically failed Kenya or why the trade situation in El Salvador has benifited from COE competitons and I'll tell you straight. I'll even write you a report.

Here I must say that I greatly respect the farmers who continue to bless us with amazing coffee each year, even when the economy isn't in their favor.

Where do you draw the line between what you love and how you live? If any other Baristas have felt this, speak up!

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I honestly don't know why this discussion ever ended. I think about these things every day.
Perhaps I can bring up another discussion relating to the title.

I have felt a fair amount of frustration with cafe owners who know very little about what they are doing or about coffee at all. Like they are running some other business altogether and trying to make money first and foremost and using coffee (or other whatever) as an means to an end.

It can be hard to influence these people to make changes in their business or way of doing things. Mostly, when you know you know a lot more about the industry than they do. It's almost like, why am I not the manager since I know more about it.

Anyone else have a similar experience or have any productive and positive ways to try to work through this kind of situation?
i'm confused as to the 90% taxes on tips, there is no extra tax on tips. i just add the tip total into my employees gross pay, tax the gross, then subtract the tips back out. it's just normal tax brackets.

dylan, i completely agree about most shop owners being that way. so i just opened my own shop. problem solved :P
I sympathize. Actually, I'd love to run a poll: what percentage of baristas work for an owner as obsessed with coffee as themselves?

It's probably a little bit of a catch-22, because baristas don't typically make enough money to open or buy coffee shops.

Re: the original post, it is a really strange situation industry-wide. I don't know of any shops in my city that pay more than a dollar or two above minimum wage, plus tips. I'm managing my shop now, so I have a more livable wage, but I can't realistically envision getting a house, kids, a not-over-used car, unless my partner were to make, say, twice as much as I do. If I owned my own shop, I would want to distribute the profits rather differently to the baristas, but, short of raising a toast to the revolution, how can I really blame the person who has made the financial risk, who is committed long-term in a way 95% of the staff can't be, for wanting to keep pay low? Anybody know of any "coffee co-ops" where the baristas can all eventually buy in to become share-holders or some such? I've been pondering that model for a while.

In some ways I feel that the appreciation of coffee/espresso as a gourmet endeavor has been a "sneaky" thing. Everyone on this forum feels passionately about our craft, but how many of the customers (or owners) of our shops really feel that way? To a certain extent, I hope that that image continues to change, but I think a culture where people respect and pay for coffee on a similar scale as wine is a long way off. And it's a bummer that baristas don't make bar-tender-level tips, since a lot of us are putting more passion and skill into the drink, and since we're serving uppers instead of downers, but...there you are. People don't repeatedly slam caps the way they do mixed drinks, bars have a very different cultural position than coffee houses, and caffeine doesn't have that lovely, judgement-impairing, I'll-just-tip-a-twenty-this-time-to-be-cool effect of alcohol.

Respect from a stranger is all about image. I recently decided to fold up the band t-shirts and skinny jeans, switch over to button-downs and slacks at work. It was mostly for my own mind, trying to take off my work-worries when I change back to casual clothes, but the change in attitude I got from customers was immediate. The "suits" and at any rate over-20 crowd that makes up the biggest part of my latte demographic have been way more apt to engage me in conversation, listen to my comments about coffee, approach me more respectfully about problems...I'm not saying you have to dress up. And I like, culturally, that cafes are this sort of haven for alternative lifestyles of all kinds. But when I decided to change from wearing my normal, very college-like attire to something a little more professional, it did more for my ability to educate the customer, and get some respect, than the previous 4 years of obsessing over skills, bean-origin, cleaning, technology, etc.

We should all make more money. Respect is something we have to earn. Hopefully we're in the midst of a slow revolution that is changing how people think about coffee.

Dylan Jung said:
Perhaps I can bring up another discussion relating to the title.

I have felt a fair amount of frustration with cafe owners who know very little about what they are doing or about coffee at all. Like they are running some other business altogether and trying to make money first and foremost and using coffee (or other whatever) as an means to an end.

It can be hard to influence these people to make changes in their business or way of doing things. Mostly, when you know you know a lot more about the industry than they do. It's almost like, why am I not the manager since I know more about it.

Anyone else have a similar experience or have any productive and positive ways to try to work through this kind of situation?
Lots of interesting thoughts in this thread.

On the subject of taxes-
There is a slew of information on why income tax is inappropriate and illegal in this country for most of its people. You can even read the actual tax code and see that we're not required to pay taxes. However, we as individuals do not have the financial resources to battle the US Government the rest of our lives to prove that income tax is not required. Pay your percentage and be done with it.

Cafe Owners
Few things are as bad as working for people who do not lead and challenge you to be your best. Most cafe owners are examples of this and if you're serious about pursuing coffee as a career, then you're better served by finding a place that will challenge you and beg for a job there.

Bathing
It's beyond me why anyone would actually have a contest to see who can go the longest without a shower. I've spent a week backpacking and living in a tent and I remember smelling rank and foul when we emerged from the trail. I can't imagine keeping anyone under my employ who attempted such a practice. First of all, it's unhygienic and you work in foodservice, and second these are the same people who bitch and moan about how we're not recognized as the "professionals" you pretend to be.

Dress
Rocket noted that he sometimes looks "like the south end of a north bound horse" and that this kind of behavior "just comes with the job." Unbelievable. With that kind of approach and attitude there should be no question and no ignorance as to why most people regard baristas as a joke "profession."

Jacob's experience is notable because it underscores the need for us to take our craft and profession seriously before anyone else will do the same. And while Jacob doesn't want to say that you "have to dress up," I am saying just that: dress up and get serious.

To my mind, taking your profession seriously will, in turn, command higher wages. Currently, coffee shops offer crappy (read: shitty bohemian college flophouse) environs staffed with dirty and disheveled "professional" baristas who sport unkempt hair and lots of fucking attitude who wonder why they're not being paid higher wages and better tips. "You look like shit, you should expect to be paid like shit" as a wise old man once said to me.

And as far as tips go, what have you really done for me, the customer? You pumped prebrewed coffee out of an airpot or poured a latte, and after experiencing your dirty self giving me attitude, I still have to walk over to the dirty and unkept condiment bar to not only mix my own cream and sugar but put on my own cup sleeve and lid? And I'm supposed to tip you equivalent to a bartender for that?
I too believe there is a point to looking at least a little nice in your work place. Personally I go full out most of the time with nice pants, dress shirt, vest, old hat, even a pocket watch. Not to sound funny but the amount I make in tips from ladies or even older ladies I'm sure is greatly affected by this. Then on top of it if I give them their drink with nice art or a good presentation, it all just works alongside the service, image and quality I am working to put out there. THen I am magically rewarded for it by the tip Gods who are looking after me.

As far as owners/managers go, don't get me wrong I respect whoever is above me. My easiest solution would be to run my own place which is the ultimate goal. But until then (since most of us don't make enough to afford it on our own) I try to help educate them or sway them to hear out my ideas and make it beneficial for their business and customers and my passion of course.
It takes everyone. One shop cannot change the industry.

The trick? It takes work, effort, and a desire. And it has to come from everyone on a mass scale.

A handful of people can put forth the work and effort, and a handful of people will gain the respect of their employers and customers, but the standard will remain the same.
Your "presentation" idea looks like it would hold serious water. The idea of looking, acting and being professional in the workplace would hopefully bring about more respect. I have been trying this (and trying to get my co-workers in on it too). A button up shirt, shaved, clean, awake, approachable are what I strive for in the environment, but a lot of people I run into in the shop seem to believe that coffee isn't something that should be taken so seriously. Coffee is the ONLY thing I take seriously. So until the industry itself gains the respect it deserves (just like serious sommeliers have gained respect) I don't think any customer service level employees or positions are going to be making the dollars a specialist deserves.

Brady said:
Agreed. The money situation is difficult. Maybe impossible? It seems to be much like the life of a professional artist or musician... but without too much prospect to balance income on a regular basis by teaching. It sucks, and the industry will continue to suffer as long as this persists.

The respect thing is strange. I do have a theory about this. This may or may not apply to your situation, Matthew, we've never met so I don't know. But I do feel that it applies to quite a few that will read this thread, so will post it here. Please everyone, no offense intended, I'd like to help.

An aspect that many skilled baristas miss is their own presentation. Regardless of a baristas knowledge, dedication to craft, or skill, if you look like a homeless college dropout that just rolled out of bed or act like a high school kid behind the bar, that's how many people will treat you. If you decide to be a coffee professional, dress like a coffee professional, and act like a coffee professional, this will not go unnoticed. This may sound like bullshit, but I think its a piece of the puzzle that too many baristas miss. This sounds harsh, and I'll happily accept disagreements with this idea... but I think many of us can benefit from taking a look at what we are presenting to the world as a whole.

Looking forward to a good discussion on this.
Oh, Jay, I didn't see your points. Same deal.
I think shaved is probably an unrealistic expectation; as long as it's clean, what's nothing wrong with facial hair?

Clean, awake and approachable should be standard. I wonder why it is that owners put up with anything less?

Mac Pearce said:
Your "presentation" idea looks like it would hold serious water. The idea of looking, acting and being professional in the workplace would hopefully bring about more respect. I have been trying this (and trying to get my co-workers in on it too). A button up shirt, shaved, clean, awake, approachable are what I strive for in the environment, but a lot of people I run into in the shop seem to believe that coffee isn't something that should be taken so seriously. Coffee is the ONLY thing I take seriously. So until the industry itself gains the respect it deserves (just like serious sommeliers have gained respect) I don't think any customer service level employees or positions are going to be making the dollars a specialist deserves.

Brady said:
Agreed. The money situation is difficult. Maybe impossible? It seems to be much like the life of a professional artist or musician... but without too much prospect to balance income on a regular basis by teaching. It sucks, and the industry will continue to suffer as long as this persists.

The respect thing is strange. I do have a theory about this. This may or may not apply to your situation, Matthew, we've never met so I don't know. But I do feel that it applies to quite a few that will read this thread, so will post it here. Please everyone, no offense intended, I'd like to help.

An aspect that many skilled baristas miss is their own presentation. Regardless of a baristas knowledge, dedication to craft, or skill, if you look like a homeless college dropout that just rolled out of bed or act like a high school kid behind the bar, that's how many people will treat you. If you decide to be a coffee professional, dress like a coffee professional, and act like a coffee professional, this will not go unnoticed. This may sound like bullshit, but I think its a piece of the puzzle that too many baristas miss. This sounds harsh, and I'll happily accept disagreements with this idea... but I think many of us can benefit from taking a look at what we are presenting to the world as a whole.

Looking forward to a good discussion on this.
Perhaps we ought to think about how this change occurred for sommeliers.

They took their profession seriously. Before anyone else did. They treated themselves as serious professionals. If baristas desire the same, then you will need to do just that: take this profession seriously and act accordingly. That means bathing, grooming and dressing well. That means not acting like a Third Wave Asshole.

Expect people to not take the profession seriously. Expect them to mock you, laugh at you, deride your chosen profession. Maintain dignity and professionalism and in time, things will change. Demonstrate a mastery of your craft and people will start to understand there's more to this than being a college dropout pressing a button on a Clover Automated Brewer.

It will take a long time, but it will happen - so long as people treat the profession as a profession.

Bear in mind too that there will always be a vast difference between those baristas who excel in the craft than those at the fast coffee chains. Just as the difference exists between the line cook at Waffle House and the chef at Le Bernadin, Eric Ripert.

Which one will you be?


Mac Pearce said:
Your "presentation" idea looks like it would hold serious water. The idea of looking, acting and being professional in the workplace would hopefully bring about more respect. I have been trying this (and trying to get my co-workers in on it too). A button up shirt, shaved, clean, awake, approachable are what I strive for in the environment, but a lot of people I run into in the shop seem to believe that coffee isn't something that should be taken so seriously. Coffee is the ONLY thing I take seriously. So until the industry itself gains the respect it deserves (just like serious sommeliers have gained respect) I don't think any customer service level employees or positions are going to be making the dollars a specialist deserves.

Jonathan, you're right. Theres nothing wrong with clean facial hair. I just don't have the testosterone in my system to grow a full beard so I'm biased against it.

Jonathan Aldrich said:
I think shaved is probably an unrealistic expectation; as long as it's clean, what's nothing wrong with facial hair?

Clean, awake and approachable should be standard. I wonder why it is that owners put up with anything less?

Mac Pearce said:
Your "presentation" idea looks like it would hold serious water. The idea of looking, acting and being professional in the workplace would hopefully bring about more respect. I have been trying this (and trying to get my co-workers in on it too). A button up shirt, shaved, clean, awake, approachable are what I strive for in the environment, but a lot of people I run into in the shop seem to believe that coffee isn't something that should be taken so seriously. Coffee is the ONLY thing I take seriously. So until the industry itself gains the respect it deserves (just like serious sommeliers have gained respect) I don't think any customer service level employees or positions are going to be making the dollars a specialist deserves.

Brady said:
Agreed. The money situation is difficult. Maybe impossible? It seems to be much like the life of a professional artist or musician... but without too much prospect to balance income on a regular basis by teaching. It sucks, and the industry will continue to suffer as long as this persists.

The respect thing is strange. I do have a theory about this. This may or may not apply to your situation, Matthew, we've never met so I don't know. But I do feel that it applies to quite a few that will read this thread, so will post it here. Please everyone, no offense intended, I'd like to help.

An aspect that many skilled baristas miss is their own presentation. Regardless of a baristas knowledge, dedication to craft, or skill, if you look like a homeless college dropout that just rolled out of bed or act like a high school kid behind the bar, that's how many people will treat you. If you decide to be a coffee professional, dress like a coffee professional, and act like a coffee professional, this will not go unnoticed. This may sound like bullshit, but I think its a piece of the puzzle that too many baristas miss. This sounds harsh, and I'll happily accept disagreements with this idea... but I think many of us can benefit from taking a look at what we are presenting to the world as a whole.

Looking forward to a good discussion on this.

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