Dear Joe,

I have the hardest time training new employees. My standards are very high for the products that we serve, but my baristas aren’t as picky about quality as I would like them to be. My problem is that if I over-critique their work then they get frustrated and ignore my requests, but if I don’t stay on top of things, then the quality goes down. How can I make my products shine even when I’m not watching my employees like a hawk?

Tomas Roloson


Every coffee shop owner understands the value of a quality product accompanied by a reasonable price. When a customer visits your establishment, their experience should be defined by great coffee and a warm atmosphere. Their table should be clean and tidy, napkins and stir-sticks should be at their disposal, and they should have a desire to return. This is no secret, but even if a café meets all of the expectations of a customer, that customer may not choose to return. The deciding factor that will tip the scale for most customers is service. It isn’t a difficult endeavor to recall a poor experience with customer service, and it will be easy for your customers to choose a different café if the customer service of your barista staff is below standard. Customer service covers many aspects of the café, but the two most significant disciplines of service that a café owner should focus upon are, barista-product and barista-customer relations.

When a barista pulls a great espresso shot or pours some latte art, customers take notice. They may not call home or write a book, but they will choose to return if the product is better than something they can get at a fast food joint. This means that even the best quality ingredients are at the mercy of your barista. Consequently, a good café owner must pay careful attention to the way products are being prepared. Baristas who consistently over-extract espresso shots must be coached until their work is up to snuff. Of course you could yell at your barista until they get it right, but as psychological studies have shown, negative motivational techniques are ineffective at achieving the maximum potential from employees. Constant negative feedback also brings down the morale of your employees. This may not seem important from an economic standpoint, but it does make a difference in barista-customer relations.

One of the biggest advantages that locally owned cafes have to offer is customer service. Your customers don’t have to shout their order through a drive through telecom or speak in combo numbers. They can be greeted by a pleasant knowledgeable staff that cares not only about their product, but may also be aware of current events and politics. The dilemma at hand for café owners is that they must ensure that their employees are performing at a high level. At the same time there is a lot of value in high barista morale. Pushing too hard on either element of this delicate balance will disrupt the entire flow of a café. This is where the criticism sandwich is a perfect tool.

As a former whitewater kayaking instructor, I have some expertise in teaching and managing groups of people. In my experience however, my pupils would not return to improve their skills if they did not enjoy their experience. This meant that any critique had to be delivered in the most tactful manner. The technique that every guide found to be the most successful was of course the criticism sandwich. A criticism sandwich is a simple and direct procedure that ensures that the student will not even realize they are being scrutinized. The idea is simple, give a compliment, give a critique and finish with a compliment. Your barista will be so caught up in the glory of compliments that the critique will be irresistible. Also, when your compliments are tactfully chosen, they will help promote and drive home your employees’ good habits.
Consider the barista who constantly over extracts espresso shots. Instead of simply telling him, “hey Jim, your espresso extraction is too long and your lattes taste diluted,” replace that critique with, “hey Jim, you are really good at choosing the correct dosage level for shots, but I notice that your extraction time is often a bit long. This retracts from all of the great grinding and tamping that you do. Maybe if you back down on the extraction time by about five seconds then your preparation work will really stand out.” Not only does the second statement keep Jim in a positive and welcoming mood, but it also emphasized good tamping and dosing habits. The result is an improvement in extraction time, insurance that his dosing and tamping habits do not disappear, and a genuinely pleasant barista who will stick around to teach and serve great drinks for years.

Yours in Coffee,

Josephius A. Graham