How to land your first job as a barista

Barista used to be an obscure job. With the emergence of coffee shop culture in North America over the past two decades, it’s now a position that’s widely sought. The job seekers range widely, from young adults looking to break into the industry, to weary corporate elites hoping to find fulfillment in the perfect shot of espresso.

As independent and artisanal shops become increasingly favored over the once-dominant chain brands, the expectations and skills required of new baristas has increased. So has competition for these coveted positions.

The good news is that coffee culture shows no signs of slowing, and busy cafes will always require quality employees. So, if you want to become a barista but aren’t quite sure where to begin, I’ll provide some tips to get your started on your journey. Here’s how to become a barista…

Before beginning your search for a barista job

What are your expectations?

Do you want this to be a part-time job while you go to school or fund other passions, or is it a career that you hope to progress and advance in? Both are worthy undertakings, but knowing this will help you choose where to apply, and how much additional study and practice to put in, both before applying and while on the job. Either way, what’s most important is that you bring your best to it, regardless of your career trajectory.

You’ll also want to keep in mind that barista positions typically start at minimum wage. You will likely receive some gratuities, but they usually add only a dollar or two per hour to your wage. That said, if you have a passion for coffee and this is your chosen career path, there are myriad ways to advance into management, ownership, coffee expert, or world-class barista superstar.

How to become a barista with no experience

Some cafes require that you have previous barista experience, but most will be willing to train you on the job. You may have to start as a cashier or doing simple food service while you learn the intricacies of the espresso machine. If you show an interest and do a bit of homework, most places will reward your initiative and bring you quickly up to speed.

What’s most important to employers is that you have a great attitude and work ethic, and are able to engage knowledegably with customers. Working in a coffee shop can be a demanding, fast paced job. It requires efficiency and attention to detail, as well as a positive attitude. If you bring those to the table, you will be a joy to train and a valued employee.

At what age can you be a barista?

In most states and Canadian provinces, the minimum age to work as a barista is 16 years old. Most coffee shops have no license to serve alcohol, but if you want to work behind the bar in a licensed establishment that also happens to serve espresso, cappuccinos and lattes, you will most likely need to meet the minimum legal drinking age in that jurisdiction.

What does a barista actually do?

This might seem like a simple question, and people often assume it’s a simple job, but being a barista is a demanding job that requires a lot of multitasking, focus, and often encompasses much more than just making coffee.

Customer service

First and foremost, this is a customer service position. You’ll be required to interact with customers in an efficient and friendly manner. Any coffee shop worth its beans would only ask that you be yourself, but we’ve all been served in a cafe or restaurant by someone who would clearly rather be somewhere else. It’s never a great experience for anyone involved.

So if you’re considering becoming a barista, make sure you enjoy chatting with people and can take a little guff from a customer or two (because you’ll certainly get it). The upside is that, in my experience, the vast majority of people are a delight to engage with and you’ll likely become rather attached to many of your regular customers, not to mention your co-workers.

Crafting coffee drinks

If you aim to advance beyond cashier, you’ll have to master the espresso machine. This can seem daunting, particularly if you find yourself in an artisanal cafe that prides itself on its high-level drink creations, but never fear—it can all be learned.

There are several keys to crafting a next-level coffee beverage. They include:

  • Pouring the perfect espresso, which involves adjusting the grind, and perfecting your tamp method to ensure you’re getting a shot that runs between 20-30 seconds and is beautifully layered and topped with rich crema.
  • Texturizing milk by mastering the whirlpool method. It’s all about jug and steam wand placement. Remember: Don’t overheat it! The key to that sweet, creamy steamed milk is the temperature.
  • Mastering your latte art skills. Some take to this easily. It took me years.
  • Developing your palate so you can taste the subtleties between coffee blends, roasts, and preparations. This is advanced and certainly not required unless you have lofty aspirations for your coffee career, which perhaps you do.
  • Care about what you’re doing. It shows.

Menu knowledge

It’s important to be able to speak about what you’re serving. Even if you’re starting out as a cashier and learning the espresso machine incrementally, you’ll be expected to know what your cafe offers, and communicate effectively with customers. If you don’t know the difference between a latte and a macchiato, for instance, you should do some homework before applying.

Food preparation and service

Some coffee shops focus on beverages, perhaps offering a few pastries brought in from off site, but many cafes now offer at least a limited menu of breakfast and lunch items. You may be required to do some basic cooking and meal preparation, as well as simple table service.

Cleaning and maintenance

It’s not all fun and games. Each shift will likely include some combination of cleaning duties, including a daily deep flush of the espresso machine at the end of service. As in most restaurants and cafes, there are a variety of small maintenance and cleaning jobs necessary to keep the place compliant with food safety regulations and running smoothly.

How to get a job as a barista

Now that you know what to expect from the position and what’s expected of you, how do you go about actually getting the job? There are a multitude of opinions and approaches, but here are a few things you might want to try and some resources to start building your knowledge.

Visit the cafe

If you have a favorite coffee shop in mind, somewhere you’ve always wanted to work, then go there. A lot. Become a regular and chat up the baristas. They might end up being your co-workers, so get to know them a little. If you show a keen interest and ask the right questions at the right time (not when they’re 10 coffees deep in the middle of a rush), they’ll know you’re eager when you finally bring your resume by.

Be persistent (but not annoying)

Cafes and restaurants receive a lot of resumes. If they’re not hiring at the time, they might keep your resume on file, but more often than not it’s about the right candidate showing up at just the right time. If you’ve already applied but they were fully staffed at the time, it can help to re-state your interest again a few months later—but don’t become a pest.

Becoming a favored regular is really the best way to have them think of you when a position does become available, not to mention giving you a head start on their menu and particular culture.

Get experience

If you dream of working at the hip little cafe in your neighborhood that always makes you the perfect latte with that unmatched rosetta on top, but you have absolutely no experience, you might consider starting at one of the larger coffee chains to get the basics down pat. I started at Starbucks many moons ago, and although the newer automatic machines have taken much of the skill and romance out of making drinks, I would bet chain coffee shops are still a great place to learn the ropes in a fast-paced and demanding atmosphere.

Stay informed

With endless information literally in the palm of your hand, it’s easier than ever to stay informed and up to date on what’s going on in your chosen industry. Follow your favorite coffee shops on social media to keep in touch with what they’re up to (many shops will also post when they’re hiring ). Check out blogs and videos to keep up with trends and local events.

Educate yourself

If you’re still finding it difficult to break into the industry, or just want to arm yourself with the best set of tools before taking the leap, there are several ways you can educate yourself and start training on your own time.

Learn the lingo

You’ve got to talk the talk before you can pull the shot. Each coffee shop might have it’s own slang terms. Starbucks certainly changed the way people order drinks, but there are some basics that you should definitely know. There are loads of handy little charts and lists on the web to help you out. You could start with our coffee glossary.

Watch videos

The internet saves the day yet again! Endless hours of cool coffee tutorials, documentaries, demonstrations, tasting notes, and anything else you can dream up are all but a click away. Most of it is free. If there’s something you want to learn about, whether it’s how to pull the perfect shot, create beautiful latte art, or what the difference is between fair trade and direct trade coffee, there’s a video out there for you.

Practice at home

If you’re lucky enough to have a decent home espresso machine, or know someone who does, practice pulling shots and steaming milk. Offer to make coffee for all your friends and family, It will go over well, trust me.

If you don’t have access to an espresso machine, spend $30 on an AeroPress or even less on a pour-over setup and start playing around with different coffee beans, grind sizes, and preparation methods to hone your skills and develop your palate.

Take a online barista course

If you’re someone who benefits from structure and likes to be guided through things in detail, you can check out online barista certification classes such as Barista Hustle. As I mentioned, most coffee shops will be willing to train you on the job, but it never hurts to come armed with as much knowledge as you can gather. In an increasingly competitive field, it doesn’t hurt to position yourself ahead of the curve.

What is barista training?

Barista training courses cover some of the theory and science behind coffee extraction, along with plenty of hands-on “lab” work on various brewing methods. They should also teach you how to taste coffee, detect its aroma and flavor notes, and describe them. Some will include training on workstation and equipment maintenance.

If you want to get a feel for what barista training looks like in practice, I encourage you to read this post by Ulla Suoraniemi of Helsinki’s Paulig Barista Institute. She describes a day in the life of a barista trainer, and while it’s written from her perspective, it certainly covers what you could expect as a student.

How much does it cost to do a barista course?

The cost of a barista course varies widely depending on the duration and depth of the course. Online courses typically run between $50 and $200, but if you want to take formal training in person at an institute or specialty coffee shop, you’re probably looking at about $500 per day. Some will have half-day courses for around $250, others might have two-day courses in the $1,000 ballpark.

Is barista training worth it?

If you’re intent on building a career as a barista and you can afford the cost, formal barista training isn’t a bad investment. You will learn important skills and have something to put on your resume. But don’t think for a second that it’s absolutely necessary. You can certainly build all the skills you need by learning on the job, and it won’t cost you a cent. In fact, you’ll get paid!

And of course, if you have no career aspirations as a barista and just want to do it as a part-time job to earn some extra cash, then spending a lot of money on formal training kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?

Go for it

Being a barista was one of my favorite jobs of all time. I personally love the science and skill required to make a beverage that inspires, but above all I cherish the relationships I made on both sides of the counter. It was a challenging and often exhausting job, perhaps best suited for the young and vibrant amongst us, but it will forever remain one of the best periods in my life.

If you’re considering becoming a barista, there’s no end of resources out there to help you along. Immersing yourself in the culture is the best place to start.