Roastery, coffee shop, trader, farm and mill: no matter where your business sits along the coffee supply chain, having a well-trained staff is vital to your success.
The finest coffees that have received perfect care through cultivation, harvesting, and roasting can be ruined by a barista who lacks proper training or motivation. On the other hand, when a whole team has a solid understanding of their work and is equipped to succeed, your business will run more efficiently, profitably, and to better quality standards.
I spoke with Ildi Revi, Director of Learning at Ally Coffee, to find out what you should be thinking about when preparing to train staff. Ildi holds a master’s degree in Education specializing in Adult Workplace Learning and is also a Certified Performance Technologist, which means she specializes in going beyond training and into actual workplace performance. On top of that, she’s a Q instructor and lived and worked on a coffee farm in Zimbabwe for a number of years. She’s also used all of this experience to design Ally’s online learning platform, PACE.
So, let’s take a look at the keys to successful staff training.
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Cupping coffee at the Ally Coffee lab. Credit: Ally Coffee
The Right Curriculum
It’s one thing to train staff about coffee. It’s another thing to train them on the material they need to know in order to perform their job.
Ildi tells me that a common mistake she sees is owners and managers who don’t have a clear vision. “People spend a lot of time on the technical and they don’t define what they want the outcome to look like,” she says. “They want somebody to be good at something, but they have to define what good is.”
She gives the example of a high-end espresso bar versus a small-town coffee shop, stressing that “the learning is going to be very different.” At a high-end espresso bar, the focus would be on espresso-based beverages and technical knowledge. In a small-town coffee shop, while the beverages are still important, it might be useful if baristas are also trained in food preparation.
So, work out exactly what skills your staff need based on their role and your organization’s brand. Then, plan your training around that. It’s a good idea to have a written curriculum so that you can keep track of what expectations you have of your staff. You don’t want an avoidable mistake to happen, only to hear the staff member in question say, “I was never trained in that.”
You may find it easier to use already designed training courses. However, make sure you carefully select them and are prepared to also train your staff on anything that is specific to your business.
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Inspecting green beans at different stages of roasting, a hands-on part of learning. Credit: Ally Coffee
Time & Space
First of all, you need to decide who will be training your staff. Is it going to be you, their manager, an internal trainer, or an external trainer? If it’s an external trainer, will it be done in your workplace, in their training center, or online?
Ultimately, you want your staff to receive the best possible training in the most efficient and effective way. If you decide to train your staff yourself, you could save money – but do you have the time, know-how, and management skills for this? You could send them to a training center, but how far away is it? In some countries, you would be expected to pay your staff for their time spent traveling there in addition to the training time.
The ideal training system may well make use of several methods. Ildi is a fan of combining learning with on-the-job practice. “You can learn something online, a small snippet of information, and turn around and go apply it on the job immediately,” she tells me. “And that is real learning.”
If you are going to train your staff in-house, make sure you have enough space and time to do so. When training is interrupted by other staff members using that space or customers that your staff have to serve, it is significantly less effective. In quieter coffee shops, for example, you may be able to find a spare thirty minutes during your staff’s shifts. In others, you might need to ask them to arrive before you open up.
Checking the roast development on a sample roaster. Credit: Ally Coffee
You might know everything there is to know about your staff’s jobs – but do you know how to train them on that? There are many types of leadership skills, but training staff requires patience, empathy, the ability to inspire others, and more. It also takes the ability to teach: to understand why someone isn’t getting something, to break it down in a simple way, and to know what is achievable for them to learn and when.
Whether you personally lead your staff training or delegate it to another team member or an outside trainer, you need to be aware that the abilities of a great trainer go far beyond just coffee skills.
Ildi tells me that there are three domains of learning. “Every job, every task, has knowledge (you have to know something), then it has its skill (you have to be able to perform different functions to perform the task), but there’s a third thing, the affective domain of learning.” This is the motivation and the behavioral aspect.
Your staff can’t learn how to do a task if they’re not open to listening, if they’re not motivated to learn more, and if they don’t believe they can learn it. But motivation isn’t just internal; it’s also external. A good trainer can bring out this confidence and motivation in their trainees, even when the trainee makes mistakes.
“I see people reprimanding learners,” Ildi tells me. “People who are learning […] and they get reprimanded, or there are negative consequences for not learning, that impedes the learning… and that’s a big mistake.”
Finding a person with the right qualities to train your staff can be tricky. Een well-known figures in the coffee industry with years of experience don’t necessarily make the best teachers. When deciding on a trainer, you should ask yourself: Does this person have the patience to work with new learners? Are they not only proficient in the content well enough to perform it in their own job, but also well enough to be able to communicate it to novices?
Cupping coffee samples. Credit: Ally Coffee
Equipment varies significantly according to the coffee business, but it’s an important factor to consider when designing a training program. Obviously, you’ll want whatever machines you’re working with to be in proper working order. If new staff start off learning “workarounds” for faulty equipment, it’ll be harder to retrain them properly down the road.
It is, of course, necessary to get your staff experienced with the same machines they’ll be using during the course of their daily jobs. However, consider incorporating other equipment into the training program if it helps flesh out lessons.
For example, even if your café only uses batch brewers, teaching principles of extraction with a V60 or Chemex will allow students to literally see how factors like grind size affect flow rates through a bed of coffee grounds. Similarly, even if your roaster has automated features, training your staff in manual roasting will help them develop a more thorough understanding of what’s happening when.
Preparing coffee samples for a cupping. Credit: Ally Coffee
If the scale of your business allows it, you can consider investing in equipment for empirical measurement. For baristas, a refractometer is a great tool for empirically measuring extraction, while for roasters, color tracking machines such as an Agtron allow you to measure roast development.
If items like these are out of your price range, check with the roasters and importers in your supply chain to see if they have rentable tools you can use for training purposes. Otherwise, investing in cupping equipment is never a bad idea and can be used to evaluate coffee in any number of ways.
Similarly, some importers have roasters and other equipment you can use for practice. This is a more costly option than using your own, but the benefit of roasting alongside an experienced roaster on a machine that you know is in optimal condition cannot be underestimated. It means that your staff know that it is only their roasting ability affecting the roast, not any issues with the equipment. The same goes for espresso machines and batch brewers.
The Ally Coffee learning lab. Credit: Ally Coffee
A Positive Culture of Learning
Your training plan may have a curriculum that comes to an end, but the learning doesn’t need to do so. Giving space for your staff to tinker and experiment can keep them motivated and excited about their job. So too can encouraging positive attitudes toward learning and group discussion.
Andres Camargo is the owner of roasting start-up Unlocked Coffee Roasters in Greenville, South Carolina. He tells me that he has taken several of the PACE courses with Ildi, including Roasting Principles and Practices and Community of Practice: Cafe Leaders. When I ask him about his experience with those courses, he emphasizes that it was the peer-to-peer aspect of the course that he got the most out of.
“Attendees were learning from each other about their own experience as coffee roasters, managers for the coffee shop, and how to work with difficult employees,” Andres says.
Ildi has had similar experiences. She recalls a recent course where students got to work hands-on with brewing, water quality, and other important café items. “But the real bones happened,” she says, “during mealtimes and roundtable discussions.”
Café leaders dished on everything from cup sizes to security. “They were able to talk about stuff that worked for them, and that was the most valuable, I think, for everybody.”
These peer-to-peer conversations are a natural by-product of formal courses, but there is no reason why you can’t also nurture this in your own business. Encourage people to share tips. Praise them for ideas rather than shooting them down. It will motivate them to become even better at their work – and you might find yourself adopting some of their ideas too.
Cupping coffees together for calibration. Credit: Ally Coffee
The thought of training your staff can be a daunting one. However, when done well, training can be a constructive experience for everyone. So, make sure you consider your curriculum, equipment, and space. Nurture a positive environment. And select the trainer carefully.
By doing this, companies can create a positive atmosphere where people want to do their best every day. “That’s why people get really excited about their jobs,” says Ildi, “when they’re supported at their company.”
Written by Zach Latimore. Feature photo credit: Ally Coffee
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