On barista competitions, from an employer’s perspective.

There are many reasons I’d taken an intentional multi-year break away from the competition-side of barista and brewing competitions (“competition-side” but not the “event side,” as I’ve stayed on as the emcee for a few), but I still root for them. So going last weekend to Knoxville, Tennessee to the first of two US “Coffee Champs” qualifying events with Bethany and Adam, not to mention the weeks of playing the coach role, brings with it a flood of thoughts. Here’s my main thought though.

I’ve played pretty much every role there is to play in barista competitions and at the Brewers Cup: competitor, judge, emcee, timekeeper, runner, station maintenance, staff organizer, competition developer, rules editor, board of directors member, US Barista Championship committee chair, and coach. There might be a few other roles that I’ve left out, but for the last day, I’ve been thinking about one critically important role that I almost never think about: employer.

Barista competitors (lumping Brewers Cup and Barista Championship competitors together) come in different shapes and sizes, different levels of expertise and experience, and each find their way to the competition stage through a different path. It’s a personal journey, but like all of life’s journeys, they can be influenced in small and great ways by other people. The important word in that last sentence is “can.” It’s not automatic, and it’s not a given.

I spend a great amount of time dwelling on what my responsibilities and authorities are as someone who employs people. In general, my role (together with Trish) running a specialty coffee company is divided into three sections: coffee, business, & people. I’m better at coffee than I am at business, but I’m learning. But for me, both of those are ultimately about sustaining and supporting the people part.

Which brings me back to competitions. I guess it raises a question for me: Employers, which part do barista competitions most fit into for you: coffee, business, or people?

The answer can be “coffee.” Competitions are a unique and fantastic training experience. Nothing else inflicts so much scrutiny on a barista’s competencies as these competitions, and they can truly help elevate the standards of quality within an organization, even if it’s just certain key people who participate. Competitions can also help shed a light on the roasting and green departments as well because while no one should try to produce only coffee that would be of the competition-winning standard, it’s useful to know what that standard is.

A significant portion of the national and regional specialty coffee brands have used barista competitions to fuel their brand building. Success at these events results in a PR and marketing affect that can be boosted, if so desired, with further investments and activities. In that way, the “business” angle tends to be the most compelling one for coffee company owners and management. When the leading brands are doing something like this, it seems like an easy decision to follow suit.

Both the coffee and business cases for “Why compete?” question are compelling and valid. However, the one that’s the least discussed among coffee business people is, at least to me, the most important. It is, of course, the people part. You want to support, or at least appear to be supporting, your employees in their professional and personal development. So you let them compete, and you support them with finances and resources. Yeah, yeah. You should probably hug them afterwards, regardless how they finish. Pep talks. Etc. Yeah. You don’t need me to tell you that stuff, though it might be a good reminder.

No, the thing on this topic that I’ve been reflecting on the most has been about how being an employer who supports your barista competitors provides you an opportunity to be an even better employer. That’s right, it’s an opportunity. But it’s up to you to take it.

It’s an opportunity for you to show your baristas and other employees that you’re fully engaged in the activities that your company commits to. It’s an opportunity to prove to your baristas that they aren’t gladiators sent out to be champions for your brand, but are cherished people with skills and accomplishments who you want to celebrate. Financial support and creating space in your company for their competition preparation is the bare minimum you should be providing. Is the bare minimum good enough for you?

Get engaged. Resist the temptation to stand back with your arms folded and just tell them, “Go get ‘em!” Wash their dishes for them. Participate in their preparation and practice, not as a looming figure with opinions, but as a friend and mentor, always thinking about how to boost their morale. Don’t be afraid of your limitations and insecurities about what little you think you have to offer. In fact, reveal those limitations to your competition baristas and ask them to guide you in your support.

Go with them to the competition. Make sure they’re fed nutritious food. Wash their dishes for them there too. Help them solve problems. Work with them to find the tasting notes. Be the loudest cheer in the crowd. Tell them how proud you are of them, both before, and after the results are announced. Post about it on your social media.

Make the competition experience an opportunity for you to get to know your baristas better. Competing is a frightening and nerve-wracking experience for the baristas no matter what, but it does present a unique opportunity as an employer to either show up and really prove your support, or an opportunity to show how little you care about them and what they do. It can bring your organization closer together, or it can nudge you apart.

After the competition, most competitors are left with a “I thought I did better than these scores” punch-in-the-gut feeling. It’s a mix of sadness, embarrassment, anger, resentment, confusion, and disappointment. At the same time, as the one who pays the bills and spent a lot of money on it, you as the business owner might have a similar cocktail of feelings. Why did we spend all this money on all this crap only to place so low in the results? How is this worth this investment? What waste of time and money.

You must set those feelings aside and focus your attention on helping your barista competitor heal. It can be a quick, stabbing wound for a barista when they get their final ranking and scoresheets, but it’s another opportunity for you to prove to your employees how much you truly care about them, or for that matter, how little you ever did. Assure them that it was indeed worth it. That they are worth it. Celebrate them then, and when you get back home. Be proud, and show how proud you are.

A barista competition is basically 10 to 15 minutes when a few people observe, taste, evaluate and score the coffee presentation of one barista at a time. However, the competition experience is something much larger than just those 10 to 15 minutes, and the actual results are something much greater than scores and rankings. For us as employers, if we have competitors representing our company, we’re “in it” whether we think we’re getting actively involved or not. Believe me, the baristas are watching us, and they’re all talking to each other about how much and little and what kind of support they got from us.

Both Bethany and Adam did great last weekend, and both will be preparing for the national competition in April in Seattle. I trust they’re both going to do great there, and learn a lot through the preparation and competition experience. Personally, I’m committing my SCA Expo time on supporting and helping them with their competitions, and many upcoming hours between now and then with them while preparing and practicing. Mostly, I’m excited for all the upcoming opportunities to prove to both of them, and through them every member of our staff, how much I love, respect, and cherish them all. Hope to see you all in Seattle!