What’s a barista really worth?

I once befriended an Australian who offered me a place to stay and a job in his country if I ever decided to come and work there for a while. Perhaps I should have taken him up on it? Link:

It’s the mark of a successful barista in a profession that has come of age. A first-rate barista knows customers by name and coffee of choice and juggles hundreds of hand-crafted beverages each day.

In Italy, the average age of a barista is 48. It’s not a job for an eager student who will disappear at the earliest opportunity but an exalted career. In Sydney, a top barista can earn about $100,000 and in Melbourne, well, rates aren’t necessarily that generous but we love them anyway.

That comes to about $78,000 in US dollars. Even assuming that particular figure is an extreme outlier, baristi are pulling in more money in Australia than they are here. Why? (Seriously, for my own benefit, why?)

Part of the answer has to be a more developed cafe culture. If metropolitan Australian consumers are more particular than their American counterparts (arguably true), employing skilled baristi there will be more important for attracting customers. Talent becomes relatively more essential compared to location, price, etc. Yet this doesn’t seem to make such a large difference between, say, DC and Seattle.

Perhaps in Australia the position of barista tends to be more specialized than in the US. It seems most American coffee shops have a fairly flat hierarchy, with most employees doing a little of everything. If good Australian shops tend to have more specialization of roles, it could be that baristi take a larger share of wages than their non-barista colleagues while keeping average cafe wage rates not terribly different than they are in the US. I have no idea if Australian shops actually are more hierarchical, however.

A different article complaining about the “rock star” mentality among Aussie baristi suggests that a shrinking supply of labor in the service industry is part of the explanation for the higher pay:

Restaurant & Catering Association chief executive John Hart said a 21 per cent drop in the number of employed hospitality workers, compared with a sharp rise in the number of businesses, was affecting the quality of service.

The national body had 249,000 employed members in 2003 compared with 196,000 in 2006, while the number of businesses rose from 29,000 to 37,000 in the same period. Wage costs increased by 10.8 per cent a year over the past four years, he said.

So while Australian baristi make more than their American counterparts, it’s not obvious they’re making that much more than Australian bartenders, waiters, and others in the service industry.

I’m similarly skeptical of the way we romanticize lifelong Italian baristi. Do those 48 year old men really keep making coffee because it’s an exalted position, or because the Italian economy just doesn’t offer many great alternatives?

It’s common in the American coffee industry to complain that if shops here don’t start paying their baristi better, quality will always be an issue. Smart, passionate people with a love for coffee aren’t going to stay in jobs that don’t give them a good living.

True enough, but it may be a while before significantly higher wages for talented baristi become practical here. Australia seems to have the perfect combination of many demanding consumers and few skilled service workers. In the US, most consumers aren’t particular and there’s a ready supply of transient workers seeking coffee gigs while they wait for something better or find themselves.

As much as I’d like to argue for higher barista pay, I’m not convinced the economics of it make sense for many American shops right now beyond some premiums for skill and longevity. Consumer education strikes me as the larger priority. When Americans demand more from their coffee, perhaps then we’ll see barista wages rise to compensate talent in a discerning market. Until then, “career barista” will be a tough path to follow.

[Via BCCY. Cross-posted on Smelling the Coffee.]


4 thoughts on “What’s a barista really worth?”

  1. Italian coffee bars are also family run. So that if “junior” wants to take over the bar one day, he needs to stay there until the time when papa at the age of 98 gives it up. By then “junior” should be in his 60s. So maybe the 48 year old barista in Italy is merely a boss in waiting, aspiring to reap the big bucks (or lire or euro) later.

    (It’s also quite possibly that my view is overly shaped by myths about the Italians…)

    The parallelism with the classic bartender is interesting. Germany’s most famous barkeeper Charles Schumann (I even found his book in Dallas, TX) opened a “Tagesbar,” a (night)bar for the day, here in Munich several years ago. I nonetheless think that his classic (night)bar along with its personnel has a higher reputation than the (day)bar.
    Also, in eat-and-drink guides, the (day)bar gets mentioned for its gigantic coffee machine (joke has it’s NASA-certified), while the (night)bar is known for its barkeepers of the highest professionality.

    Some Bavarian perspectives here.
    So long.
    – T

  2. My name is Flavio Costa and I am looking for work (part time) as a coffee maker (barista). I have more than one year coffee experience. I am Brazilian studying here (Student Visa).
    I look forward to hearing from you.

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