“People are our greatest asset!” goes the classic corporate cliche.
At Coffeebar, we beg to differ. It’s not that we think our crew members are anything less than amazing and wonderful. But relegating “people” to a place on the balance sheet will never be our company culture. It’s definitely not high enough praise for the folks who offer our guests their time, energy...and kindness.
The daily coffee ritual is a semi-spiritual experience for many people, one that’s created by human beings--not human “resources”. Our founder Greg’s original concept of an Italian-stye community cafe was inspired by the personal, often intimate, level of hospitality he experienced in that country’s great coffee culture. (Read about his vision in our Origin Story series.)
So we’ve built a team of people who have seemingly effortless expertise (an Italian concept, known as sprezzatura) grounded by authentic warmth. It’s a blend that’s essential to “hospitalians”, the word we like to use to describe our employees.
As Coffeebar has grown from our original Truckee mothership to 8 locations, so have our career paths. Most companies have an org chart full of little boxes that show just how one might advance from job A to B to C. In the coffee world that often means growing from barista to coffee lead to store manager. But we think that the “org” in “org chart” really should stand for organic. Opportunities at Coffeebar are often the natural outgrowth of letting an individual’s talents and interests come to full flower.
While our hospitalians definitely have a gift for making our guests feel welcome, not everyone sees themselves in a public-facing role, long term. (Hello, introverts.) Some of the career paths here burrow deep into the beating heart of Coffeebar, behind-the-scenes jobs that are vitally important to ensuring the magic of sprezzatura.
The Roastery Roster
Coffeebar’s Roastery is tucked away on a Reno back alley (back alleys are in our DNA) in a former 1930s motorcycle garage. It’s not only where we roast coffee, it’s our R & D lab and training center. And even though it includes a coffee bar for passionate devotees, it really functions as “back stage” for Coffee Theatre, so the jobs there are unique.
You may never see Joel, our Facilities Coordinator, but regardless of your Coffeebar location, he’s the unsung hero of your morning brew. He began in the kitchen part-time, and after a while decided he wanted to learn and do more. He worked his way up to manager of the Olympic Valley store. This type of advancement is a classic coffee career path.
But...it doesn’t always work. In a variation on the Peter Principle, Joel was promoted to his level of discomfort. He is simply not in his Happy Place managing people. Instead, he likes working with his hands and he enjoys fixing things, giving him godlike status among the right-brainy hospitalians.
When it became apparent that we had a budding espresso machine repair specialist in-house, we sent Joel to Fort Wayne, Indiana for Modbar technician training (Modbar makes the sleek under-counter espresso machines in our Olympic Valley, Roastery, and Redwood City stores). Then it was off to San Diego for La Marzocco technician training. As we began to open more stores, Joel played a key role in installing and troubleshooting espresso machines and training the staff.
“I love that my work is not always the same. I’m constantly in different stores solving problems or just helping out,” he explains. “Nothing is more rewarding than walking into a location with a broken machine then walking out with it working perfectly. It’s the hardest I’ve ever worked, but it’s also the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.”
Joel forged his own unique path in our company, one that’s a natural marriage of his talents and our fast growth. He tells us, “I love that Coffeebar wants everyone to succeed here, be it employees or the farmers we buy our coffee from.”
When Lorna, Production Roaster and Trainer, began at Coffeebar, she had no coffee experience, so she started on the front counter at downtown Truckee. Finding great people means looking beyond the obvious resume data points, and Lorna is the kind of talent a company can discover when you prioritize attitude and aptitude over experience. Skills can always be acquired, but personal values, like Lorna’s love of learning, are baked in.
Because her goal was to learn whatever she could, Lorna set her sights on becoming a barista. It took five months to get on the bar, and from there she grew to become the store’s coffee lead. She transferred to the Reno store and became a trainer, ultimately becoming the Regional Trainer for Reno/Tahoe about 18 months ago. Then the pandemic hit.
“We weren’t able to train employees during lockdown, but we were doing a large amount of online coffee orders,” she says. “I’d never really thought I’d see the opportunity to become a roaster, but I asked for it. Now I’m a production roaster, three and a half years after I started at Coffeebar.”
Lorna conducts our Coffee 101 barista training at the Roastery, and helps new crew members understand the journey of green coffee to the perfect cuppa. She’s not just imparting knowledge, though; Lorna has actually met some of the farmers who grew that coffee. Coffeebar has done two trips to origin with employees, part of our efforts to “connect the dots from farmer to guest”, the mission of our Vertical Sourcing program.
Lorna went on a team trip to Guatemala in 2019. Part of the purpose of the trip was to enable farmers to taste their own coffee--something they’d never experienced before (speaking of connecting dots). Among other unforgettable experiences, Lorna and her teammates spent an evening jubilantly roasting a batch of each farmer’s coffee in a blazing-hot motel room.
“For me it’s the community we can hold space for, and the coffee knowledge I have access to,” Lorna says. “Learning opportunities, traveling to origin in Guatemala, and event planning were never things I expected to find in my coffee journey! But it’s a direct product of the Roastery having such an open and receptive culture. The possibilities feel endless.”
Part of the vision of sustainability in our company is hiring from within whenever possible. When Greg decided it was time to find someone to helm our roasting program, we entered a whole new business. It was a huge step, perhaps even a unicorn hunt. Thanks to the rapid growth of the specialty coffee world, we knew there were super-talented, knowledgeable roasters out there. But we also needed someone who would embrace our company culture. We were lucky to find that rare combination in our Director of Coffee, David Wilson.
David is an architect by training, but after beginning his career discovered that it wasn’t his calling. While figuring out his next move, he took a job as a barista, and found himself resonating with the world of coffee. Never one to do things halfway, he passed the rigorous tests to become a certified Q Grader, the coffee equivalent of a sommelier. He also founded his own Reno-based coffee roasting business, Vertical Roasters, with another now-Coffeebar team member, Becky. At the time of our search, he was working with De La Gente, a non-profit importer that supports small, remote coffee communities in the mountains of Guatemala (For more on our Vertical Sourcing program, check out our blog series here.)
There was a little catch in the recruitment process: David was living in Guatemala at the time. Greg managed to lure him back to Nevada and David has overseen our roasting program since Day 1, working diligently to create an ever-tighter bond between our coffee farmers and our customers. Being “on the ground” provides insights that can’t be achieved in any other way, so travel to origin remains a part of David’s role.
Kc, our Head Roaster, began as a barista at our Mount Rose Street store in Reno. He was excelling in that position and looking for new challenges around the time the Coffeebar Roastery opened. Though he was not yet a Coffee Lead, he’d expressed interest in that path and when the Roastery opened in November, 2018, we invited him to become a part-time member of the opening team.
He quickly embraced roastery operations and the opportunity to learn more about cupping, the intricate assessment process used to evaluate the quality of coffee and assign it a score. With new stores opening and the company growing, we needed another production roaster. Kc had shown us he was a solid team member with an aptitude for mastering new skills and responsibilities.
Kc has an analytical mind and quickly grasped roasting theory. Roasting coffee is not a matter of set-and-forget; each batch of coffee is different, and requires meticulous supervision. Kc’s natural curiosity also extended to our purchasing decisions, even how to improve the quality of roast. When another production roaster left to pursue a career related to his university degree, he took on more responsibility and expanded his knowledge base.
As Coffeebar continued on its growth tear, David’s role grew to embrace more of the whole company. He also needed to leave day-to-day operations for weeks at a time while traveling to origin. (There’s simply no way to make a “quick” trip to remote coffee farms. Business is relationship-driven, and the pace in coffee communities is considerably slower than it is here in the States.) So it was only natural that we create a new Head Roaster position to reward Kc for taking on extra responsibility and showing ownership of the roasting operation. And to our delight, he bonded with the splendid beast that is our San Franciscan #25 roaster, making beautiful coffee music together.
Kc’s story is demonstrates the possibilities that open up when employee growth is organic, encouraged, and unimpeded. “The best people require challenges and opportunity,” David observes. “And it's our job to create those for them. The worst feeling I can imagine in a director role is losing a good employee because they were bored or couldn't see a path for growth.”
You belong here.
There’s no more important expression of our core value of radical inclusivity than the idea that everyone belongs here. (Even if your taste in hospitality runs toward the transactional--as in, just make my beverage and get me outta here fast, we can’t help but slip some Belonging into your coffee.)
The secret to Coffeebar’s growth has been extending that invitation to each community we become part of. From our ski town roots to deepest Silicon Valley, the best way to ensure that guests feel they belong here is to make sure that our employees feel they belong here. When our employees are passionate about what they do, that passion naturally spills over into the guest experience--and that makes coffee taste better.
But it takes more than good company policies and a fun working environment. It means creating space for individuals to grow. And sometimes even making up a new job. (It can make for a funny-looking org chart, but that’s okay with us.)
In the end, Coffeebar can’t demand passion from an employee any more than we can demand it from a customer. We have to earn it, every day. And that makes for a very active culture.