How to Kill a Barista
In 2015, Matt Perger suggested in a talk, “The Death of the Death of the Barista,” that super-automatic espresso machines will eventually meet and eclipse a well-trained barista’s coffee-making skills. He claims that these machines will produce better service and product quality in speciality cafes, allowing shops to charge specialty prices and to provide distinct career paths for their baristas.
My argument is that technological innovation comes at the expense of workers while its economic benefits are primarily accrued by owners. As specialty super-automatics become widely adopted, baristas will see their health and material welfare deteriorate in order to maintain profitability for shop owners.
As a disclaimer, I don’t contest that machines will eventually become better than baristas at making coffee. Commercial manufacturers have introduced innovations like self-calibrating grinders in super-automatics, and specialty espresso pods and instant coffee have made their debut in the consumer market. Indeed, technology has the potential to make baristas’ lives better by automating the most laborious tasks, enabling them to pursue more meaningful aspects of their careers.
However, there are issues with Perger’s claims about a barista’s welfare when specialty shops adopt these super-automatic machines without changing labor relations in the status quo, which I address in the following points:
Specialty Means Higher Prices, Not Higher Wages
To begin, Perger defines speciality coffee as “anything that makes the customer spend more money.” However, he doesn’t make any connection between more expensive coffee and higher wages/better benefits for specialty coffee workers.
In fact, we see low wages across the board in the food service industry, from fast food to fine dining.
IBISWorld reports that there “has been a small amount of real wage growth” over the last 5 years for the coffee industry, even though shops need to hire “skilled baristas and coffee preparers that command higher salaries.” Sprudge’s 2013 barista income survey (unscientific, but still illustrative) showed that wages still closely match the hourly mean wage for food preparation and service workers in their respective metropolitan areas.
No hourly wage for baristas meets a living wage in any of these metropolitan areas.
Moreover, I’ve included a graphic below that compares average barista wages as surveyed by Sprudge with the local living wage from the MIT Living Wage Calculator. As shown, no hourly wage for baristas meets a living wage in any of these metropolitan areas.
James Hoffman has also conducted some (again unscientific, but illustrative) surveys. In one article called “The Cappuccino Index,” he attempts to see if drink prices are correlated to barista wages. As the image shows, there is a diversity of cappuccino prices but virtually no relationship with baristas’ wages.
The reality is simply that employers are incentivized to extract as much value out of their barista labor in order to maintain profitability and competitiveness. If drink prices go up, it is to pad profit margins rather than to better compensate employees.
Compelled by the Market
All of this sounds rather malicious, but shop owners aren’t inherently evil. If owners are interested in accumulating greater profits, then they will pour their profits back into their business through expansion and investment instead of adding to their own salaries. A competitive market’s incentives will compel owners to perform this process of accumulation in order to avoid being put out of business by their competition.
Currently, the coffee industry is flourishing, with big specialty market players like Stumptown, Intelligensia, and Blue Bottle “growing at annualized rates of more than 20.0%” according to IBISWorld. This growth in business (as well as the healthy margins of specialty products) has incentivized an outgrowth of independent specialty cafes, leading to increased competition.
“Fierce competition is expected between the major chains and independent establishments… This competition will increase as the market becomes saturated and operators attempt to appeal to a wider audience.” — IBISWorld
Additionally, the recent spate of acquisitions increases competitive pressure among key market players. Peet’s Coffee bought out Stumptown and Intelligentsia, which is owned by JAB Holding Company (who also owns Keurig Green Mountain and Caribou Coffee). Most recently, Blue Bottle was acquired by Nestle for a massive $500 million price tag.
“An increase in consolidation activity…indicates that major players are recognizing the benefits of economies of scale and are attempting to gain a competitive advantage through acquisition.” — IBISWorld
However, this rate of growth is only achievable for so long. Eventually, the market will become saturated with specialty cafes and consumer demand will wane, so employers will have to find ways of maintaining profit margins from within—like increasing worker productivity.
IBISWorld notes that coffee shops currently operate at a low rate of capital intensity, meaning that they use fewer machines to increase worker productivity, relative to other industries. Technological innovation like specialty super-automatics will be key for businesses to survive in the market.
“[T]echnology is also being used to boost profit margins, improve service levels and to help minimize labor costs…” — IBISWorld
As these big players compete, they will be compelled to increase their capital intensity, leading to changes in the labor structure for coffee shops. This is where Perger’s insights are both prescient and ominous for baristas.
Killing the Barista
In his talk, Perger offers a vision of the coffee labor market as divided between two types of baristas, “technical” baristas and “service” baristas, in order to ameliorate current job dissatisfaction and high turnover rates. However, this dichotomy this fits very neatly into two processes called the “division of labor” and “deskilling.”
Both of these processes enable employers to find savings in labor costs while wringing the most value out of their capital investments.
Division of Labor
The division of labor involves separating the mental, intellectual tasks from the physical, laborious tasks. This allows managers to compel higher worker productivity by dictating their pace of work through scientific management, investing in more efficient machines, and simplifying the labor process.
“Every step in the labor process is divorced, so far as possible, from special knowledge and training and reduced to simple labor. Meanwhile, the relatively few persons for whom special knowledge and training are reserved are freed so far as possible from the obligations of simple labor.” — Harry Braverman
In a traditional sense, we see the division of labor between management and labor. Managers have control over when and where labor is performed in the workplace. In the coffee industry, we have the infamous Starbucks “clopening” where a barista is scheduled to close the shop at night and then open it the morning after.
Perger envisions a division of labor between technical baristas and service baristas. He sees this as a solution to high turnover rates with dissatisfied workers who would prefer to either dial-in espresso all day or interact with people all day.
I would posit this serves another purpose: to reduce the number of expensive baristas who need to be skilled enough to dial-in coffee.
Perger admits that such a consolidation is likely to happen with the advent of the technical barista. The work of 20 lead baristas at 10 different cafes could be condensed to a single technical barista who goes from cafe to cafe, ensuring coffee quality.
You could pay a technical barista $100,000 and still end up with another $100,000 in yearly savings from firing the other baristas.
This results in massive cost savings for employers because if a single technical barista can be responsible for the work of 10 lead baristas—assuming those lead baristas were full-time at a $10 wage—you could pay a technical barista $100,000 and still end up with another $100,000 in yearly savings from firing the other baristas.
Independent shops are not invulnerable to such a change. It would be straightforward to imagine an independent technical barista who visits different shops for quality control—the same way we currently have independent espresso machine technicians servicing different businesses.
Naturally, many more baristas will be out of a job because there are a limited number of technical barista positions in this new coffee economy. They could work in other industries or they can remain unhappy in their jobs when they have to become service baristas, continuing the industry’s high attrition rate.
So, now that the technical skills are sequestered in the role of the technical barista, we are left with the service barista. (Perger doesn’t discuss the issue of existing deskilled labor: bar-backs.)
“Translated into market terms, this means that the labor power capable of performing the process may be purchased more cheaply as dissociated elements than as a capacity integrated in a single worker.” — Harry Braverman
Service baristas, with their lack of technical expertise, become less valuable in terms of their discrete skills they bring to the market. It is far cheaper to hire a barista who only has service skills than a barista who also understands how to dial-in coffee. The worry then becomes whether specialty cafes will be turned into vending machines, as Perger puts it.
He attempts to get out of this conundrum by saying that specialty shops will be distinguished by the level of service — but he still admits that there is the shop’s brand, its design, and other factors that have no bearing on labor costs that impact a consumer’s perception of specialty and their willingness to pay specialty prices.
I would even argue that being good at service is closer to being an attribute of one’s personality rather than a certified skill. At one point, Perger was asked what keeps a service barista around, and it’s telling that his answer was that the service barista has a personal love for coffee—with no mention of their material welfare. To me, this just seems exploitative of a barista’s passion.
Ultimately, when your only differentiating skill is pouring milk shapes into coffee, you don’t have a great bargaining position as a service barista.
In other food service businesses, workers who are only required to provide service—even when they provide excellent service—are still being squeezed on wages because they have no leverage. And when employers need fewer skilled workers, the labor pool grows larger and more workers will have to compete for the same job, driving down wages.
Ultimately, when your only differentiating skill is pouring milk shapes into coffee, you don’t have a great bargaining position as a service barista.
How to Survive
Given the inevitable technological onslaught of perfect super-automatic machines, what are workers to do about it? Even now, being a barista simply isn’t a viable long-term career. The business is structured like a pyramid, with many baristas, few managers, and even fewer owners—leaving little room for the low-wage workers to move up.
Towards the end of the talk, Perger suggests that if baristas want a different kind of career ladder, then they would “obviously need to go run their own business because there’s only so much that [owners] can offer staff members.”
This is a somewhat privileged view. The following covers two potential routes that could preserve baristas’ material interests without assuming they have a pile of money to start their own businesses.
In response to mass market coffee, artisanal concerns made a serious difference in the labor process. Specialty shops aren’t pulling 12-second shots from untamped coffee. Instead, baristas are taking their time to weigh their shots, pay attention to their milk steaming, and carefully pour latte art.
Machines threaten this autonomy in the workplace — they never become exhausted, they do not need smoke breaks, and the pace of work becomes determined by the machine’s output rather than the worker’s ability. Being able to assert one’s skill and expertise allows baristas to wrest control over their labor from managers and owners.
The focus on artisanal craft to protect job security even has it’s own particularly infamous historical account.
However, I dislike this approach because it boils down to unwarranted elitism. There’s very little distinguishing a specialty barista from a Starbucks barista or even a waiter who serves coffee. Establishing fake cultural hierarchies between artisanal craft and mass market (when the labor is virtually the same) undermines the ability to organize across industries, decreasing the potential of organized workers’ power to collectively bargain with employers.
In my ideal world, baristas organize in their shops to form strong worker organizations that can collectively bargain with their employers. Historically, this has been the most successful way that workers raise their standard of living because even well-intentioned employers are still compelled by the market to take actions detrimental to workers’ material welfare (like cutting labor and wages to remain competitive).
This collective action is key for more privileged baristas to forcefully advocate for those who have less power.
Right now, baristas have valuable technical skills and the ability to shut down a shop. And workers can more effectively exercise collective power when widely organized across different shops, from Starbucks to Stumptown. When workers act collectively like this, their ability to pressure employers across an industry is far more likely compared with the workers of a single store—and this collective action is key for more privileged baristas to forcefully advocate for those who have less power.
At the same time, baristas face serious obstacles to organization. Beyond a fragmented workforce, one issue is the aforementioned cultural hierarchy between the “artisanal craft” baristas and “mass market” baristas. Another issue is that coffee shops can easily replace their workers if the labor pool is large enough. To exacerbate this problem, attempts to organize have a lower probability of success as new technology deskills workers’ jobs.
Thankfully, there is space for baristas to organize without putting cafes out of business. IBISWorld acknowledges that as demand for specialty coffee rises (and without the specialty super-automatic), “operators have hired more skilled baristas…that command higher salaries,” and “[e]ven as wages have grown, industry profit has risen since 2011.”
Who You Gonna Call?
If baristas want to organize, then the first step is to contact a union organizer.
Organizers like those at the Industrial Workers of the World will help guide workers through the process and educate them on their right to organize in the workplace.
Still, organizing will not be easy. IWW has organized in the coffee industry in 2004 with the Starbucks Workers Union. They immediately faced serious opposition from Starbucks, with the corporation issuing multiple legal challenges and waging a vicious public relations campaign. Starbucks’ success in reforming its reputation is evident when Matt Perger cited Starbucks as having a “really committed staff”—even as employees condemn the company as a “cult that pays $9 per hour.”
At the same time, there is good reason to be hopeful that coffee workers can come together and organize for better conditions and better pay.
Rising drink prices, higher profit margins, and increasing consumer preference for specialty coffee are creating an opportunity for workers to demand better compensation and working conditions from their employers.
Right now, baristas can organize without becoming an existential threat to the business. Rising drink prices, higher profit margins, and increasing consumer preference for specialty coffee are creating an opportunity for workers to demand better compensation and working conditions from employers with growing profits.
The time is ripe for coffee workers to organize, it’s just a matter of whether they will take that opportunity.
All views expressed here are my own & this analysis is specific to the U.S.
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