How to turn staff shortages into a training opportunity

coffee training

Anthony Lawrence of UCC discusses how to turn staff shortages into a training opportunity to upskill and uplift staff moral and coffee service without burning a hole in the hip pocket.

Cafés are busy and unpredictable environments. There is no rhyme or reason to a typical day at any café. Aside from firm opening and closing times, which, let’s be honest, can change too, anything can happen while serving your customers.

Coffee machines can suddenly lose pressure, grinders may switch off for no reason, or jug rinsers could suddenly explode in a cascade of water. I have seen many things go awry when I am trying to send out orders as quickly and consistently as possible. Even if you are organised, variables and random events at unexpected times can create chaos in an instant. However, displaying grace and calm in the face of pressure while being nimble and creative when your reliable systems begin to faulter is where a real coffee professional can shine.

While there are known systems in place to control equipment functionality, there are less direct approaches when it comes to the other important system we need running as smooth as possible during operation hours: rotation of staff.

Without staff, we cannot present the experience we want to give our customers. They are our life blood. They interact with our customers the most. They take orders, run drinks, and food, and keep the tables cleared and clean for the next arrivals. Their understanding of our food and beverage offerings and service systems is essential to delivering good service and repeat customers.

Floor staff aside, what about baristas? They understand our coffee equipment in a very detailed way. They also understand our coffee beans, how they extract, how they typically taste, how to extract shots consistently, and present the best possible expression of the coffee to customers. A experienced and knowledgeable barista is the cornerstone to a successful café. So what happens if your seasoned barista wants to take time off? Or is sick and unavailable to work? Has a university exam? Wants to travel to Europe, or attend Falls Festival in your busiest period? How can you possibly fill their space at short notice?

This is where the staff roster becomes your best friend. Present it to your team between two weeks and one month in advance. In my experience, a fortnightly roster works well as it’s easy to keep track of and provides suitable notice for staff availability, and unavailability.

Enforce a minimum set timeframe that staff need to request days off. For example, one week in advance. This will help the manager balance the most experienced staff member with the least experienced when shifts get busy. For sickness, request that staff contact the manager by 6am on the day of their shift so that it doesn’t impact the morning rush, and consider having two “backup” or “standby” staff on weekends, like an “on-call” system for ultimate backup. No roster is ever perfect, but over communication is key.

It’s oh so quiet

Any typical day at a café can be broken into two distinct times: quiet and busy. Busy times are when your café is heaving with bodies, and everything is all happening at once. Quiet times are where there seems to be nothing to do in so far as serving customers.

Typically, café managers should try to make allowances for ‘quiet times’ by rostering minimal staff on so that they don’t lose valuable money, and have systems in place so other essential work can be completed. A cleaning roster is a great option to make sure cafés are always presentable and sanitary. But since anything that can happen will happen, venues need to have sufficient staff rostered on to ensure they can still provide good service. It’s a fine line. It’s best not to risk understaffing to the point that it impacts a customer’s experience, but at the same time, there’s no point having three floor staff cleaning windows.

Espresso coffee is simple enough to produce. As long as it’s kept within understood parameters – dose, volume, time; typical rations that define extraction – its predictability is significantly improved. A seasoned barista can track these parameters. They have the ability to recognise when a shot run too quick or slow, and can adjust them during a shift when the coffee changes. The only real avenue toward this understanding is through experience and serving many orders. Your most experienced barista should be serving during your busiest periods. But do you do if they’re not available? How can you prepare in advance?

Lesson 1: Idle hands

When I had my own café, I often had systems in place to ensure rostered staff remained productive during the quieter parts of the week. We had a clearly outlined task roster where important jobs needed to be done on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. As time progressed so did the staff’s ability to complete these tasks, to the point they were without anything to do despite. This presented a great opportunity to upskill staff while remaining productive.

What I did, was pair my most experienced barista with one of my floor staff to cover a part of the coffee service. With the slower pace of service presented, the experienced barista could run through the important aspects of a producing a coffee shot – dosing, tamping, water volume, shot time, extraction ranges etc. At the same time, we would track the staff member’s progress in identifying key aspects of a good coffee shot. As their experience grew, so did their confidence. Before long, we had another option for a barista available to us. It essentially covered the two potential problems of staff productivity and staff skill set with one action without altering our set roster.

Lesson 2: Put structure to chaos

There are opportunities in all aspects of café service. There are point of sale systems to track customer service levels, orders, order times, wait times, and table numbers.

There are also systems to track staff skills so they can improve. I used a system to count the number of shots produced by a barista in training, where we would mark milestones when they produced excess of 100 shots, adjusted the grinder without it interrupting workflow, poured 20-plus cappuccinos, lattes, flat whites, and so on. This gave structure to what they were doing, and helped them engage in a new skill, which kept them excited to learn on the job. This also benefitted customers as more floor staff developed a deeper understanding of the coffee we were serving, and could engage in customer questions with more confidence, thereby improving our quality of service. The key is having a structured approach to staff training with defined indicators so everyone is clear on their task.

I also found that it improved staff confidence and their productivity, because there were clear incentives, such as a reward, to complete their key tasks quickly. The staff enjoyed working in different areas of the café without being “thrown in the deep end”, and the head barista enjoyed sharing their knowledge while also getting the floor staff engaged with special offerings we had.

I would encourage anyone who is experiencing staff skill shortages to skill their workforce. Engage your managers and head baristas, and work on a system that appeals to floor staff who want to learn more about coffee service without adding strain to your roaster. This will help improve staff skill without making a significant financial commitment, improve coffee service, and cover any potential for staff shortages that may emerge.

This article appears in the October 2023 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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