Barista, 11/6/2009

Ah, Portland. City of roses, evergreen trees, bike lanes. It’s also the land of the coffee bean. From the city’s first real espresso machine (installed at La Panier in the early 1980s), the Almighty Bean has surged and blossomed into an unstoppable culture. And Starbucks will not do. Portland coffee aficionados prefer locally roasted, organic, fair-trade beans. Stumptown, of course, leads the pack for locals, but there are a few other independent roasters that add texture to the landscape once dominated by Starbucks.

It’s the barista that rules in Portland, the daytime bartender of caffeine. Baristas, depending on their expertise and the cafe in which they pull shots, can make over $20 an hour (mostly in tips). They compete in international championships. They found their own dynasties: the best example of this is Portland barista Billy Wilson, who owns both the Albina Press and “coffee brewpub concept” Barista. Furthermore, Portland seems to specialize in coffee-slingers. Since the Stumptown empire has recently expanded to New York City, Stumptown-trained baristas get preferential hiring, and are considered masters of their craft.

So how to get into this cool kids’ club? The short answer: you can’t.

With a surfeit of starving artists, overeducated and unemployed, barista positions go quickly. And they aren’t handed out to whoever is available—the selection process is rigorous, and often based on more than talent. Open calls for barista positions are rare, and usually have such high turnout that the applicant pool spills out into the street. More often, people are hired from an existing network of smartly dressed, good-looking, highly experienced people under 35.

And if you’ve pulled shots for Starbucks don’t bother applying. Top-notch cafes look for independent, specialized training, which is why Stumptown graduates are in such high demand. Other ways to get your name in the hat are less glamorous. You could wash dishes in the cafe, bus tables, or otherwise ingratiate yourself to the manager. There is anecdotal evidence that hooking up with the manager (or owner, or both) slightly improves one’s chances of being hired—but this publication doesn’t recommend trying it. (CRF)

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