What separates a good cafe from a mediocre one? What motivates loyal customers to continue choosing your cafe instead of the competition just down the street? What encourages new customers to give your spot a chance? Is it the atmosphere, the customer service, or the quality of the coffee? These were the questions that I came down to Costa Rica to have answered in my crazy pursuit to one day have a cafe that I can call my own.
I’d been in Costa Rica for a little over a month, and I still couldn’t find any real work. I applied to every, single, cafe in San José (That is no exaggeration) and even to a few outside of the city. Every interviewer always immediately asked me, a bit arrogantly it seemed, “Well what cafe experience do you even have?” I’d reply, “My five years in the Navy has not given me much direct experience with hospitality, or coffee for that matter, but I can assure you that what I lack in experience, I can more than make up for in dedication and willingness to learn…” Didn’t seem to matter.
Tired of waiting for so many 2nd calls or emails that never came, I began thinking that coming to Costa Rica, the source of quality coffee, to learn about coffee maybe wasn’t such a good idea after all. Looking back, I was carrying a decent amount of stress with me and I was losing a good amount of weight. I began toying with the idea of getting a job outside of coffee. Get something that wouldn’t have anything to do with specialty coffee, or even hospitality for that matter, but could afford me the opportunity to survive financially and volunteer after work or on the weekends at a cafe since I “lacked experience.” Swallowing my pride, I accepted a volunteer position (via a good family friend) at Cafeoteca, one of the previous cafes that more or less scoffed at my inexperience. They just happened to be one of the best specialty coffee shops in Costa Rica.
I began volunteering there just about every day from 8AM to 3PM and would use my downtime to search for a paying job. Luckily, I was able to learn quite a bit while “working” from how to use an espresso machine, to how to prepare “Metas” or brewed coffee (Chemix, Aeropress, French Press, V60, Gondola), how to properly steam milk for a Cappucino or Latte, and, most importantly, how to provide great customer service, all in Spanish mind you (It had been a quite a while since I had spoken Spanish daily). After about three weeks of what seemed like indentured servitude at best, I had finally been accepted as an English teacher at a learning academy. The pay was absolutely atrocious, but I could work nights, keep my day schedule at the cafe, and afford to buy food without much stress (Costa Rica is an expensive country contrary to popular belief, its just the salaries that are low).
The English Academy had planned to send me to a “teacher prep course” a month after I accepted the position; however, about two days after I officially accepted the job, one of my “co-workers” had gotten pretty irritated that the cafe wasn’t paying me, but still expected me to work so much. He recommended that I talk to a friend of his, an owner at another cafe, after he put in a good word for me. Not even a day later, I found myself face to face with the world famous Manuel Dinarte, Costa Rica’s 2008 National Barista Champion, and owner of Cafe del Barista. After a brief conversation and demonstration of my recently learned skills (I’m sure the recommendation helped more than anything), I was offered a position as manager at one of his cafes. And that was that. I immediately called the English Academy and regretfully informed them that I was no longer available and got to work.
I quickly fell in love with everything about the cafe. The employees were all a part of Costa Rica’s budding 3rd Wave Coffee scene. Eager to both teach and learn anything and everything there is to know about coffee. The repeat customers were in love with the customer service that they received at the cafe, and that showed not only through their repeat business, but more so with how they interacted within the cafe. Nothing but laughs and smiles the entire hour or hour and a half in the shop. Only once had I ever seen a customer have a bad experience and that was because we closed at 530 PM, but they hadn’t taken the hint by 615. The kitchen, bakery, and baristas all loved what they did and that was easily reflected in the products that we delivered to the customer, be it a delicious, glazed cinnamon roll, mouth watering white wine sauce chicken with rice and beans, or our coffee, at the time, a natural processed Geisha from Herbazu, Costa Rica.
My coffee knowledge seems to have quadrupled, luckily, while working at Cafe del Barista. I was fortunate enough to go directly to the farms from where we bought our beans and see the (sometimes manual as seen above) 1st, 2nd, and 3rd selection process that dictated how much a sack of coffee would ultimately cost.
I was able to, under the guidance of owner Manuel, get hands on roasting experience. Seeing first hand, what it meant for a coffee to “Yellow,” how the official first crack was noted, and what parameters to use to determine when to stop a roast depending on coffee variety, process, and desired taste.
I even got some hands on experience baking. Although, as Cindy, our baker below, can tell you, I have much to learn in the art of baking, and it may just be that I’m not cut out to be a professional baker.
Our cafe was even featured in a TV program on best cafes in Latin America. Guess who the only other cafe was in Costa Rica that made it onto the program…..Cafeoteca.
And in everything that I’ve learned through my experience at Cafe del Barista, I’ve finally figured out what the secret is to running a great cafe. Its not how well the beans are roasted, nor is it the quality of the coffee beans, or the baked goods, or even the food. What turns a good cafe into a great one, is, as you’ve probably guessed, the people. The basic essence of what a cafe is, a place to escape the stressors of life and relax, a place to enjoy good company, share a cup of coffee, and laugh away your thoughts. The baristas serving your cup of coffee, with care and attention, take it from a mediocre cup, to an excellent one, and the difference is easily tasted. The chefs eliminate your growling stomach, with carefully prepared dishes from the heart. And, cafes fortunate enough to have an in house baker like ours, the baker provides the perfect, mouth watering complement to your great cup of coffee.
I’ve heard stories of cafes, in Costa Rica at least, that seem trendy, seem hip, seem like a great place to relax, but the owners treat the employees like trash. I’ve visited these cafes myself. Sure, they have great coffee, good food, and everyone greets me, but each time, there is something that is just off. I’ve never felt a burning desire to go back to these places, to waste away my quiet Saturday afternoon enjoying their coffee, or even support their organization with my money. I strongly believe that is because the people were not taken care of, so how could they possibly fully take care of me.
“You can smell it. The warm subtle notes of fresh Costa Rican coffee calms you as you breathe it in. The steady drip from the pot reminds you of when mother would pour her coffee early Saturday mornings. As you bring the warm cup to your mouth, your taste buds expand, anticipating the beautiful embrace of perfection. Come join us for a cup of coffee.” -Cafe del Barista, written by yours truly.