The Last Mile

I spend about half of my time visiting cafes, training baristas, and management on, let’s call it, best bar practices. As in so many professional situations, the potential for success turns on two factors: quality of talent and work environment. And while I can help just about anyone serious about coffee hone their skills within a matter of hours, I don’t have an architect and contractor on call to fix common flaws in bar design. The defects can be both aesthetic and functional, and have a material impact on customer experience, operational efficiency, and the effectiveness, happiness, and even health of those behind the bar.

When it comes to bar design, the eyes – and feet – have it. Sight is the most powerful of our senses, taking in and processing a myriad of information every second. That information sets mood in a profound way that has a domino effect on our other senses. A so-so coffee served up in the right setting can taste far better than it should, just as the perceived quality of something technically superb is easily diminished consumed in a less than pleasing environment.

As for the feet, true fact: during a busy eight-hour shift, struggling in a poorly designed set-up, a barista can cover a good ten miles behind the bar. That is not a typo! Thankfully, this partial marathon can be reduced to a pleasant Sunday jog with smart, efficient design.

With a good architect, ideally, one experienced in café building, with past work you can visit before signing on the dotted line, consulting with a barista you know and trust, and ample planning time, getting it right isn’t tough at all.

Following are my design suggestions. By no means is it an exhaustive list and there are no absolutes. Even if you don’t agree with my recommendations, take note of each element, and think about what could work best for you and your team.

(1)    Floor height. Let’s literally start from the bottom up. Good eye contact is such a big part of the customer experience, saying a gentle “I hear you, and I care,” even among strangers. In that vein, you’ll want to build a raised floor behind the bar (ideally six inches), so your baristas needn’t be NBA players in order to lock eyes with customers, maintain a sense for café traffic, and just plain communicate more easily. Go with wood, which has a little give and is far easier on the feet, neck, and back than concrete.

(2)    Espresso machine placement. There are pros and cons to placing machines so that baristas can look straight out across the counter (pro: better eye contact; con: impeded view of technique), or so that baristas face the back wall or kitchen (pro: better chance to glimpse technique; con: minimal eye contact). Your baristas can have it all with right-angle machine placement, which opens up a side view enabling eye contact with just a slight head turn, while putting full tamping, pulling, and steaming moves on full display.

(3)    Grinder selection. No big argument here: you want your grinder close to your machines, but away from humidity sources like the dishwasher, steaming station, or sink. Since professional grinders are big investments, know that a serious conical grinder, running from about $1,500-$3,000 is about three times as efficient as a flat grinder of comparable quality selling for one-third the price. (Big tip: be sure to regularly clean your grinders with special tablets that work with machines’ grinding action. This is too often overlooked.)

(4)    Sink location. Place your sink as close to the espresso machine and steaming station as possible, and cut down on those ten miles. Your baristas will thank you.

(5)    Milk fridge. Allow ample room to place the below-bar refrigerator within three feet of coffee equipment. Even a few steps away makes a big, negative difference. Capacity allowing, keep it stocked with between two and four hours worth of milk.

(6)    Steaming station. Rather than gallon containers, which can take away from the aesthetic if within a customer’s gaze, consider keeping milk in airpots, labeled by type. Functionally, your baristas will favor pressing down over lifting containers, especially when full.

(7)    High-volume brewers. I haven’t seen one yet that looks at home behind a beautifully designed bar. If you have room, keep them out of sight and decant into airpots for a more pleasing service experience at the bar.

That does it for physical set up. When it comes down to it, it is all about people. The world’s most beautiful and efficient bar won’t fulfill its full promise without a good manager: someone who understands merchandizing and sales, and has that sixth sense essential to keeping customers and staff delighted — not just coming, serving and going.

And as for the coffee menu: keep it simple. More about that in a future column.

Giorgio Milos is illy’s award-winning Master Barista and illy’s North American Barista in Residence who regularly ventures beyond the cup to study the biology and chemistry of the coffee bean, continually striving to master the beverage that is his passion and profession.

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