Like most recent college graduates with a creative and/or liberal arts degree, I have followed my dream, moved to Brooklyn, and become a barista. It’s because I’m unique, from a special generation, and the much cheaper Midwest I grew up in just doesn’t get me, you know? Sarcasm—picked that up junior year in creative writing. Anyway, I was a barista for a few years in Boston as well before finding my way up to New York, putting off my Food Handler’s Certificate Exam, and starting work at another coffee shop. I’d like to think I have a fairly strong understanding of coffee and the culture that comes with it. Lord knows how much money I’ve dropped on coffees out rather than just buying a French Press. Though I will say, the biggest perk of being a barista is definitely all the free coffee. Seriously, you will build an addiction and then a resistance. As such, I am fairly critical of the coffee shops I frequent and what I believe makes a good shop.
1. The baristas are friendly and talkative.
I feel like baristas can get a bad rap. We all have this stereotype of this twenty-something hipster wearing thick-rimmed glasses, sleeves of tattoos, and a beard. He obviously knows how ignorant to coffee you are when he scoffs at your order. Well let me tell you this, I have no tattoos, mild scruff, and keep my scoffing to a minimum. Some of my best experiences at coffee shops, on both sides of the counter, involve just shooting the breeze with the barista or customer. Making friends with the barista will not only make your stay more enjoyable but may come with perks. Perks being the occasional coffee on the house.
2. It’s clean but not too clean.
Having literally just taken my NYC Food Handler’s Certificate test three hours ago (as of writing this), I understand that cleanliness is essential in keeping a good shop running smoothly. There shouldn’t be milk everywhere, crumbs and trash on the tables or floors, and rats sampling the bagels. All that being said, you want it to seem like a place you can breathe and not worry about making a small mess. The baristas should have some coffee ground stains on them somewhere and it should smell like espresso, not bleach. This is a place to relax.
3. It has a strong set of regulars.
If you go to the same shop a few times you’ll start to recognize some of the faces around you. There’s that one older guy who always has a double espresso. He generally sits at that table on the left near that college girl in the window who orders lattes and pours three packs of sugar in them. Oh hey, there’s that guy with the blue bike who drinks giant iced coffees. Do they all live down the block? Probably, but if they’re always here, the shop must be doing something right. The fact that you notice these people probably means you’re a regular too. Ten points if they have a celebrity regular (Hi Steve!).
4. The baristas can tell you about their coffee.
Every coffee shop has probably three or four main sets of beans they use daily. One for the standard brew, one for their special brew, one for espresso, and maybe one for iced or some other hot variety. They have varying flavors, origins, and amounts of caffeine. I will tell you that 95% of customers do not care about the who, what, when, where, why, and how of their coffee, but occasionally you’ll get that one guy (or gal) who wants to know what country your beans are from and what sort of flavors they should expect. If the barista is able to knowledgably talk about this, you can expect a good cup of coffee from them. It shows that they, or their boss at least, cares about the customer (i.e. you) and want to provide you with the best product.
5. Latte Art and Food.
Know something you’ll rarely ever see at Starbucks or Dunkies? Latte art. Know what else you’ll rarely see? Freshly made food. Sure there are rare exceptions but that’s beside the point. Let it be known: latte art is a pain in the ass to learn. Some blessed people pick it up quickly, but my experience was painfully slow. If the shop you’re in has it so that any barista can pour you a nice basic rosetta or heart, this is a sign that the higher ups personally train the baristas. As far as food goes, if the shop is going to serve a menu aside from bagels and muffins, that food should be made to order, not just sitting in packaging in some fridge. Bonus points if there is an actual cook.
6. The ambiance.
So you know how it seems like a coffee shop has popped up every other day since Friends premiered back in 1994? Almost twenty years later and they’re still the “cool” place to be. While I’m not the biggest fan of Starbucks, I will admit their absolute genius when it comes to creating an atmosphere. The soothing earthy colors, Norah Jones and Sufjan Stevens on repeat, and comfy chairs make it less a place to grab a coffee and go and more a place for you and your other film buddies to work on becoming the next Woody Allen. Do you have a great product? Congrats, people will come in. Do you have an arguably mediocre product but amazing atmosphere that promotes staying? Congrats, people will come in, stay, buy multiple drinks, and fight over power outlets. That, or you could just open on a college campus, then people will stay no matter how boring your shop is.
7. Free and Fast Wi-Fi.
Self-explanatory and nonnegotiable.
8. The coffee itself.
First thing I order at any new shop is a cup of black coffee. You know that line from Casino, “He could fuck up a cup of coffee?” If that’s true then just leave. Seriously, go. No coffee should have to be drowned in milk and sugar to taste good. Coffee is square one, the starting line, insert most primary colloquialism here. And for the record, “burnt” isn’t a good or unique taste. It just means you can’t roast or brew your coffee properly. We all know who I’m talking about.