A barista’s technical skills, from grinder calibration to recipe manipulation, are of critical importance – but we all know there’s more to being a barista than just making great coffee. Not even a World Barista Champion will succeed in a coffee shop if they hate talking to people.
Learning how to spot those people with the right personality and behaviours for working in a café is key to building a good team. And this is especially true when you’re taking on trainees instead of experienced staff.
As someone who once worked in psychometrics for HR (i.e. personality assessments for recruitment and promotion), let me take you through the signs that a person is well-suited to the role of a barista – and how you can spot this in the job interview.
Spanish Version: Reclutando Baristas: Cuáles son los Buenos Rasgos de Personalidad.
How Important Is Personality? & Can a Barista Change It?
Personality doesn’t dictate a person’s work performance. A shy barista can still provide great customer service and a naturally independent person can still be a strong team player.
However, it does indicate the type of behaviour a person is most comfortable with. If a person’s job goes against their personality, it will be more difficult and tiring for them. In stressful situations, or at the end of long shifts, they will find it harder to continue doing the positive behaviour you expect of them.
At the same time, there is no perfect candidate and personality traits lie on a scale. A mildly disorganised person will cope better with kitchen rules than an extremely disorganised person. What’s more, a person who knows they are disorganised and actively works to be more organised may, in fact, follow those rules better than an “averagely organised” person.
You’ll want someone whose personality traits, technical skills, and work habits best match your requirements. Rather than simply saying “this person isn’t meticulous, so I can’t hire them”, you should build up an overall picture of your candidates and then select the one who is the best match for your coffee shop.
Of course, you should also remember that good performance is about more than just skills and attitudes. It’s also about good management, team cohesion, and more. But if you hire the right staff, train them well, and motivate and inspire them, you will end up with an exceptional team.
SEE ALSO: How to Keep Your Baristas From Quitting
So let’s get started by looking at some of the personality traits, motivations, and attitudes that are useful to baristas, along with potential interview questions you can use.
A barista behind the bar. Credit: Ana Valencia
Sociability & Personableness
Staying friendly and chatty all day long, every day, takes a certain kind of person. A good barista will thrive off social interactions, know how to put customers at ease, and make a café feel like a home away from home, even at the end of a twelve-hour shift. And believe me, as an introvert who’s had to do just this while working in cafés, we can fake being outgoing – but it gets tiring. So if your potential new barista seems like they prefer their alone time, you’ll want to probe for some more information.
How to Spot This:
This is what you should say during recruitment: “Every barista has had nightmare customers and favourite customers. Can you tell me a bit about yours?” (If the applicant has never worked as a barista before, you may need to modify this to other types of customers, team members, or even classmates or neighbours.)
If a candidate’s favourite customer always used to share stories of their grandkids, you’re probably looking at someone with excellent interpersonal skills. But if their favourite customer always knew exactly what they wanted to order, never caused a queue, and never asked for their coffee extra hot, this candidate probably values efficiency over relationships.
A barista pulls a shot of espresso.
A coffee shop can be a chaotic place. Queues develop without warning, a failure to keep up with the dirty dishes makes catching up almost impossible, and an ill barista turns scheduling into a nightmare. You need staff who are going to be flexible, whether it’s a case of covering someone else’s shift, working late, or moving from the espresso machine to the dishwasher.
How to Spot This:
The good news is that, while everybody knows that flexibility is a good trait, most recruits also know that this question has real consequences. To drive this home, focus less on their previous work experience or their personality, and more about their expectations for this role.
For example, you could ask: “If a coworker is ill, how much notice would you need to cover their shift?” “Are there any particular times that you can’t cover shifts?” “If you had to work a lot of overtime, would you prefer overtime pay or time off in lieu?”
A barista brews coffee with two Kalita Waves at once. Credit: toolboxplus
Specialty coffee shops offer customers one very important thing: quality. And that requires meticulousness at all stages, from weighing the beans to using the right grind setting.
Don’t forget that a coffee shop also needs to meet health and safety requirements, from cleaning surfaces to recording dates, either. Just one oversight can cause serious issues should an environmental health inspector come calling. For this reason, meticulousness is key.
How to Spot This:
Every interviewee will claim this trait if asked directly. To check if your recruits really are meticulous, start with the obvious signs: how is their CV? Are there typos or errors? Did they follow the instructions on the recruitment post perfectly?
Next, in the interview, describe a few situations in which the candidate needs to choose between meticulousness and a different positive attribute – say efficiency or customer service. Which one they consistently select will reveal their true values. (I recommend doing more than one for greater accuracy.)
For example: “There’s a long queue. Would you skip weighing in and out in order to save time and provide better customer service?”
Strict health and safety rules dictate a coffee house’s operations and you need to know your baristas will follow them to the letter. This point needs no further explanation: as a manager or café owner, you know how critical this is.
How to Spot This:
Again, every applicant will claim to be a rule-follower, so you need to be careful with how you ask about this one. First, try balancing it against other desirable traits – such as breaking a rule to provide “better” customer service. What would your recruit do?
You can also get an insight into a person’s attitudes by asking them to share rules in previous workplaces that they disliked. Ask them to share the rule first, so you know that they’re talking about one that genuinely was an issue for them. Next, follow up by asking how they responded. If they didn’t break the rule, or they expressed discomfort breaking it, you know they’re generally a rule-follower.
A barista pours latte art. Credit: Dapper & Wise Coffee Roasters
Teamwork is key to a barista’s job. By dividing responsibilities and supporting each other, your staff can ensure they’re producing consistently high-quality, quickly prepared coffees for customers. But put an ego behind the coffee bar, someone who will drag their feet if asked to bus tables or who won’t invest time into supporting newbies, and you’ll find everything starts to fall: team morale, quality, productivity… and ultimately profit.
How to Spot This:
This point is similar to sociability: rather than asking someone how they’re good at teamwork, ask them about their dream and nightmare teams.
If someone’s nightmare team was filled with incompetent people who worked slowly and made mistakes, you know this interviewee values efficiency and competency. However, if the interviewee’s worst team experience featured people who wouldn’t support others, you know team cohesion is one of their priorities.
Of course, your ideal recruit will value team cohesion, efficiency, and competency. You shouldn’t write off a candidate just because they didn’t like working with careless team members. However, you can probe further. Ask them how they tried to resolve the situation, how it affected their relationships with their coworkers, and more.
If they tell you that, during a quiet moment, they showed their coworkers how to operate equipment better, you know that this person will put effort into making the team better. If, however, they just gritted their teeth, apologised to customers, and tried to work faster, this person is a good worker but not great at creating team spirit. You need to decide how important these traits are in your coffee shop.
Team spirit: the baristas at La Marzocco café in Seattle, Washington. Credit: La Marzocco Cafe
Being a barista is stressful. Shifts are hard work, customers are regularly ungrateful, and the environment is often hot, noisy, and busy. Key to handling this is emotional intelligence: a person’s ability to recognise how they’re feeling, understand why they’re feeling that way, and not let it affect their actions or attitudes.
How to Spot This:
Emotional intelligence isn’t about never getting frustrated or emotional at work – it’s about managing those emotions. So the solution here is simple: ask recruits about times when they’ve been stressed out, angry, or upset at work, whether by something a customer said or a team member did. Ask them why they felt that way and how they handled the situation. Do they think they did the right thing? How would they handle it now?
Service with a smile: a barista brews coffee for a customer. Credit: Monk & Mongoose
Other Skills You Might Want
While we’ve listed the key personal traits and behaviours baristas need, every coffee shop is different and so too is every barista’s role.
If you’re looking for a manager or assistant manager, you might look for initiative. On the other hand, for a regular barista, you might prefer someone who’s good at upselling (confident, appreciates targets, likes a challenge) or handling customer complaints (patient, empathetic, and tactful).
If you know that some of your team members are passionate about coffee but more disorganised than you’d like, you could look for a highly organised individual to help create more orderliness. On the other hand, if you know that certain team members have good technical skills but are lacking in self-confidence, a kind, approachable person with a tendency towards mentorship could be a good hire.
And if you’re having personality clashes in your team, someone with strong listening skills, empathy, and persuasiveness or negotiation skills could help to calm the situation down.
To really get the best new hire, you shouldn’t just rely on a list of important but generic barista traits. Sit down and work out what additional skills you need your baristas to possess before you begin creating that job listing.
There is no perfect barista. However, there is a barista who is a good fit for your coffee shop, your team, and your expectations. And it’s your job to find them.
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