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5 Keys to Staff Retention for Coffee Shop Operators

keys to barista retention

In the coffee retail industry, staff turnover is expected. However the questions of why people and when people leave is often determined by the behaviors of coffee shop owners and managers. The fact is, businesses lose staff needlessly through actions and environments that push people away. 

Wouldn’t it be amazing to have staff that love working so much so that they are actually heartbroken when they have to move on from their role? While that may be overly aspirational, there are some key elements that must be in place in any shop in order to make such a scenario more likely. 

Here are five of the most important keys to staff retention:

Boundaries + Clarity

First off, owners, operators and managers need to recognize that their relationship with staff members are fundamentally professional. As such, there needs to be some linguistic boundaries that are not crossed beginning on day one. Staff are not “family;” they are employees. We lose staff needlessly when we start to use “family” and “loyalty” in association with our employees who are just there to do a good job — not be adopted by the owners. Many toxic work environments start when we don’t respect such boundaries.

Building on this concept of a professional relationship, owners and managers should be sure to create detailed and clear job descriptions while clearly communicating expectations from the start. When we treat our employees as professionals and give them clarity in their work, they are much more likely to stick around.

The Right Tools for the Job

This one is huge. I am always surprised to see just how many baristas have to do their job without the proper tools. Shop operators too often rely on baristas having to adapt to dysfunctional conditions of the operators’ own making. 

When I do speaking engagements and consulting, I will jokingly tell people to go out and buy some new sponges and watch staff’s eyes light up. It usually gets a laugh because most owners and operators have running list of things in their cafe that are “minor” fixes or needs, and this reminds them of something they have pushed back in their mind. The trouble is, from a barista’s perspective, the lack of essential or updated equipment is often interpreted as the a lack of care for them.

Thus, when owners and  managers take care of the tools that staff rely on to take care of the physical space and the customers, it is an act of care. 

Value + Generosity

Consider the concept of “staff blindness.” This is what I call it when operators lose sight of the people working at the shop, and view them more as fixtures in the cafe. Owners and managers may see the same staff members day in and day out, assuming all is well until one day, those people put their notice in.

While the notice may be shocking, an operator not suffering from staff blindness may have seen some earlier signs of trouble. People need a recognition and affirmation in their work, and owners too often lose sight of the fact that their businesses are only made possible through the work of others. When they 

Fixing this looks like prioritizing affirmation, practicing gratitude, and also being generous in the way you compensate them for their work. The generous mindset thinks asks “What more can I do?” not “What can I get away with?” This is the same mindset any owner or manager would love to see in their staff, so it should be applied both ways. 

Trust

The phrase “It’s hard to find good help” is thrown around without irony in the coffee business by people who are unaware of their own part in creating a work environment that is unsupportive or toxic. 

In one sense, this mindset is associated with trust. Trust is first extended to the barista by the owner, again, in a spirit of generosity. As Danny Meyer wrote in his essential book on hospitality, “Setting the Table,” we have to have “charitable assumption.” When we start with an opposite mindset — call it “malevolent assumption” — toward staff, we end up with with a self-fulfilling prophecy resulting in a loop of distrust between operators and staff.

Owners and managers are in charge of creating the environment in which baristas can be successful and thrive. When trust is extended to staff from the outset, they are more likely to meet that trust with their best work. The bottom line is, trust equals respect and people stay longer where they are respected the most.

Humility

Finally we come to what may be the most challenging key of all: humility. Running a great shop means running a people-first shop. In order to do this, you need to be a real person, too. People want to be led by a human being, not by a robot, or by someone who pretends to be perfect and won’t admit fault or say “I am sorry.”

In establishing a facade of perfection and invulnerability, owners and managers unwittingly  communicate false expectations to their staff. Instead, owners and managers should embrace self-awareness and vulnerability in order to become better leaders. If someone wants a staff comprising humble, self-aware and openly communicative people, they need to accept and model those characteristics. Active humility in leadership it creates an environment that projects safety, where people have the permission to human at work. With that permission, people are more likely to stick around. 

I would encourage you to pick one of these five things and commit to improving it over the long term. As you see progress being made, take on another. You won’t do it perfectly, but a commitment to positive change through consistent action will create the kind of environment that make you, your staff, and your customers never want to leave.


[Editor’s note. Chris Deferio is the host of the Keys to the Shop podcast. The podcast was recently noted in Roast magazine’s Audio Articles series, featuring a story written by roaster Anne Cooper and and a related episode of Keys to the Shop. Check out the episode with Cooper here.

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1 Comment

Jacob Goble

Brilliant, as always, Chris. These five keys apply to all industries, but you did a fantastic job of zeroing in on Coffee. Thank you!

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