Adventures of a barista wannabe

Getting the job

A couple of weeks back, I was given the opportunity, by a friend, to set up a coffee kiosk at a kindy concert.

At first I was a little bit hesitant. I’ve never done anything of the sort. Mostly I would play barista at home, brewing up cups of coffee for myself, and for my occasional guests.

This was something else. The ‘job’ was to serve 200 cups of coffee for the attendants at the concert. When I was first given the offer, I wasn’t sure if my Profitec Pro 700 could stomach churning out that much coffee within a short span of time. But the good folks at Collective Coffee (who have been very helpful throughout the whole process) assured me that the Profitec was a workhorse, and it’d be able to run through with me no problem.

What made me most nervous was that the Profitec wasn’t just the fact that the Pro 700 was a single group machine, it was also because you couldn’t pre-set the machine to brew at a required setting.

The Profitec Pro 700 is a wonderful double boiler machine that allows me pull shots and steam milk at the same time, but, because of the limitation that I can’t pre-set the espresso shot – you know like in most full commercial machines when the espresso stops brewing after some time – I’d have to steam milk and keep an eye on the espresso timer. This kind of multi-tasking is easy when I brew a couple of shots, but with a boat-load of people waiting, I reckon it’d be a whole different game altogether. Add to that, because it’s a single grouphead machine, pulling the espresso would be a major bottleneck if I had a ton of orders.

I thought about it. It’d be a kindy concert, the crowd would probably be a lot more sanguine compared to if I had my stall setup at say, an expo. I expected a trickle of people coming up, ordering coffee, so I’d be able to manage my orders, even if I flew solo. It’d be the perfect setting for me to test out my standard operating procedure for a coffee cart, which means I’d be able to identify and iron out any issues for future jobs. I am also in possession of a workhorse of an espresso machine.

The workhorse

Perfect.

Getting organised

Since I’ve never done anything of this sort, and on this magnitude, I had to get organised. The first time since a long time, I created a checklist of all the things I had to do, and with a little under two weeks til the date, there was a lot.

To give you a picture, here are some of the things I needed to sort out:

  • Coffee beans
  • Milk
  • Two tables
  • Water tank (for water supply)
  • Cups
  • Sugar
  • Ice
  • Hot water dispenser
  • Cocoa powder
  • Large cooler box

And a few more stuff.

Thankfully, I kind of knew the good folks at Collective, so they were more than happy to supply me with 5kgs of freshly roasted, specialty coffee beans. I wanted their delicious, natural processed Rwanda Huye Mountain beans, but they didn’t have enough on hand. Instead I went for their equally delicious Colombian Pura Cepa.

When choosing which coffee to use, I wanted it to be something that I myself enjoyed. And for myself, tend to enjoy cups that are, sweet, fruity, and slightly acidic, and either of those coffees would have been fine (I really wanted the Rwandan, though). Now, a couple of folks said that I could have served any kind of coffee, and nobody would know the difference, nor would they appreciate any of the thought I put into my coffee selection.

But I couldn’t do that. I love coffee, and I love sharing coffee even more. I took this job with the intention of sharing my love for coffee with everyone at the concert. It didn’t matter if many of those who came up for coffee appreciated the specialty coffee that I was going to be serving, but if I could strike up a conversation with one or two people about what my brand of coffee was about, that was more than enough for me.

Through the magic of Lazada, and a lot of help from a lot of people, I managed to rustle up all the things I needed to be able to set up shop. I even had a friend who was willing to help be my wing-person on the day (which I greatly appreciated). This friend of mine is kind of a celebrity, who has done good work highlighting cases of child stunting in Malaysia (look him up).

With everything all prepped, we’re all set to go! All we had to do now was show up.

Ready, GO!

The day finally arrived and it started off like any other day. Whatever sense of anxiety I had pretty much disappeared. “It’ll go well,” I told myself. The event was supposed to start at 5pm, so I had plenty of time during the day to get any final prep going.

I told myself I’d head out at 2.30pm, pick up the milk which I kept in the fridge at the office, drive down to the venue, ready to set up and dial in by 4.30pm, which left me room for relax a bit before the storm was bound at 5pm.

As scheduled, I left the house by 2.30pm, and picked up the milk. All is well. At about 3pm, as I was headed towards the venue, I got a phone call, “hey bro, are you about to set up? The concert should be ending soon, we’re a little ahead of schedule, haha”

I was about to go into panic mode, it would be just about 15 – 20 minutes before I reach the venue, then I’d need time to unpack and set up, “oh shit,” I thought to myself.

“Nah man, I’m on my way there, I should be able to reach in time and set everything up, no worries,” I said, trying to stay as calm as possible.

“Cool, see you in a bit,” and then he hung up.

I wanted to hit the gas so badly, but I don’t want to risk having the espresso machine strapped up at the back of the pick-up truck to bounce around. If I had a busted espresso machine, that would be a whole other kind of trouble altogether.

So, I went as fast and as carefully as I could, and I reached the venue within the estimated time. Luckily, I had managed to park near where I would be set up. It was a hot day, and I was already sweating buckets. To begin, I was only dressed in my tank top and shorts, I would later change into a t-shirt and jeans later on. This at least kept me cool as I heaved all my equipment out of my truck towards my spot.

After several rounds going back and forth, carrying heavy things, I was totally drenched in sweat. Powered only by adrenaline at this point, I miraculously set up the stall within 15 minutes. It was now 3.45pm, the stall was set up, the machine was turned on and warming up, I had a bit of time to get changed. Already, people were lingering around the food area, so it was a matter of time before they started coming up for coffee. I ran to the toilet quickly, got into my t-shirt and jeans, and rushed back to begin dialing in the coffee.

My aim was to brew 42 grams of espresso in 26 seconds, which apparently was optimal for the Pura Cepa. 4pm, has arrived and my partner for the day, Derek, arrived, just as promised (I love people who are punctual).

“Everything alright, bro?” he asked, jovially.

“All swell, mate,” I answered back, screaming internally.

At this point people were already queuing up, ordering their coffee. Like a star, Derek began taking orders. I hadn’t managed to grind the coffee in properly yet, as the line was building up, “fuck it,” I thought, “let’s just roll with it.”

I had managed to get the espresso to brew at 36 grams in around about 30 seconds. It wasn’t ideal, I figured the coffee would be a lot bolder than I intended it to be, and I wanted the coffee to be a bit on the sweeter, more acidic side, which needed a longer brew. But the line was building up, if I don’t get things going, we were going to be in deep shit trouble.

Under control (pressure)

Things were under control for a while as only a small group of people would come over a bit at a time. These were just visitors lounging around the food area, those who aren’t currently in the hall watching the concert.

Brew time was good, coffee was coming out at a good rate. People seemed happy, and my trusted partner Derek had time to chat up some of the people at our stall, telling them about the kind of coffee that we were serving.

Shortly after, around about 4.30pm, the concert in the hall came to an end. That’s when the crowd started getting really heavy.

I had imagined, before I took this on, for the crowd to be intermittent. People, after having sat for a couple of hours in the hall, would come out looking for main meals first, with coffee coming last, to accompany their dessert.

Boy was I wrong.

The crowd picked up, and it picked up real fast. I could have sworn, during all the time Derek took their orders, I didn’t look up once to see what was going on. In my head, it was always about getting everything done all at once.

Latte? Grind, brew, steam, pour, order out, knock, purge

Mocha? Choc in cup, grind, brew, steam, pour, order out, knock, purge

Tea? Teabag, hot water, order out

Iced latte? Ice in cup, cold milk in cup, grind, brew, order out, knock, purge

Iced mocha? Ice in cup, cold milk, choc in cup, grind, brew, order out, knock purge

Rinse and repeat to infinity.

That was went thru my head as the orders poured in.

I could see now that the line was getting a long, and Derek, being the champion that he is, took the orders, and got the ones ready out. A couple of time we (I) lost track as the orders piled up. This was one of those times when I was really thankful I had someone around to help me out.

I had earlier thought that I’d take this thing on solo. That would have been a grievous error. Even with an assistant, I was struggling. God knows how many times I wanted to throw in the towel as it got at a few instances, a little overwhelming. But we powered thru. Derek calmly took the orders, placated and entertained the guests who were waiting, and my little Profitec chugged along like a warrior, never stalling for one bit.

For just over two hours we went at it, sweating, and swearing like drunken sailors in our heads. It was important that we kept our cool, because deep down, we really wanted people to enjoy their coffee.

Throughout the entire labour, we would have people coming back, telling us that the coffee was delicious. I think it was these small expressions of enjoyment was what kept us going. I had no idea if the coffee was up to standard, but if people were enjoying it, I was happy.

As it approached 7pm, the backlogs were cleared, and the queue got smaller. It was during this short time we were able to talk to our visitors a bit more, explaining to them what our philosophy of coffee was about. They seemed to listen intently, and took interest in the difference between normal coffee, and specialty coffee, and why it was important for the barista to be able to take the optimum amount of time in order to brew the perfect cup.

This was what it was all about. Despite being knackered as all hell, I was happy that I able to have these small conversations.

By about 7.30pm, we were done. Derek had to leave earlier as he had other plans. But boy was I grateful for his presence and tenacity throughout. I definitely would have failed without him being around.

Cleanup was another arduous process. I was all gassed out, so I took my time with packing up, bringing my equipment back to the truck.

All in all, it was a heck of a day. The number of people that lined up were beyond our expectations, and I’m pretty sure, throughout, there were moments where we would have loved to have just given up and go home.

But hey, we made it. And despite the insane three or four hours of agony, there were many moments of joy. To be honest, I would do it again, for some strange reason. I guess it’s the reward of people walking up and telling you that you did a great job with their coffee, that was enough for me.

There were of course, a lot of things I would have done differently, like showing up waaaaaay earlier, and maybe have another assistant to help me with non espresso based beverages, but overall, I thought we didn’t do to bad.

So, I’d like to take this post to express my gratitude to Qawiem, for presenting me with the opportunity, to my dear wife, Aliaa, who had to put up with a shitload more stuff I kept at home and added to the clutter, and for dealing with the kids the whole day, Derek, my champion wing-man, Barrie and his team at Collective, and everyone else who helped during the process, you know who you are.

Til next time.

Now it’s time for me to sit back and enjoy my cuppa.

We survived (barely)!

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