How To Train Great Baristas with Kai Maclean-Hoedeman of Happy Goat Coffee Co.

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Written by: Liam Eales

When it comes to training/educating new baristas, it’s both an art and a science.

Lately I’ve been searching for someone to discuss staff development in the coffee industry, and found it hard to find a roaster in my area with a strong training program to find out how to train a good barista.

Now it should be stated lots of people are trying to get into the coffee industry, and it can be tough to break into without much experience, and lots of cafes/roasters simply don’t have the resources or time to train new staff from scratch.

In my time in the industry, there’s one man who I feel understands this type of training best, so I set out to interview one of my mentors… Kai Maclean-Hoedeaman, the manager over at the Happy Goat Coffee Company in Ottawa (Rideau and Cumberland location specifically)!

Kai Maclean-Hoedeman of Happy Goat Coffee Co

LIAM: Hey, how is it going?

KAI: It’s been going well, you know, same old living at work at by the Rideau Centre…good spot!

LIAM: Awesome, now I must recognize a little bit of bias here – you trained me and we worked together for many years.

KAI: I was a part of training you.

LIAM: hahahaha true, how was I as a student?

KAI: Well you were definitely eager to learn, and you took it upon yourself to improve, and which is the best thing anyone can ask for when training somebody when training somebody, cuz when you have that, the rest is easy on my end.

LIAM: Aw, sweet, thats a way more positive answer than it thought I was going to get, so…

KAI:  Nah, I’m not gunna chirp you.

LIAM: hahaha alright, lets get started…how long have you been in the coffee game?

KAI: About 5 and a half years now.

LIAM: Do you feel you are an expert at this point? You know what you are doing, being in a café…

KAI: Yeah, I’d say I know just a bit more than the average Joe about coffee.

LIAM: Always so humble, so would you say the quality of coffee is on par with café operation when it comes to how you prioritize your work/where you work?

KAI : If you are working in a café, the quality of the coffee needs to be the most important thing. I mean, the café can cut and conserve a bunch of things, but if the coffee your making isn’t good, how can you be proud of your job or happy with your café?

I won’t lie – when I was first hired a barista at bridgehead, I didn’t know anything about coffee, it was just a job and seemed like a good experience for me.  But I fell in love the industry and coffee itself, and learned to recognize what good quality coffee is.

LIAM: How important is it to you that your staff have an interest in coffee, in relation to being a barista?

kai and liam hangin

KAI: I think uhh it’s most important that staff respect that passion weather they have it not. I think its unrealistic to expect everybody that works in your café to have the same passion or understanding of coffee that you or the owners do, but you can look for is that they have that respect.

That’s because, if they don’t respect or attempt to learn a little bit then that will come across with customers when they ask certain questions, and hurt your brand as a whole if the client doesn’t see that your barista respects the brand or product, and that respect is something that really can’t be taught.

LIAM: Do you have staff that aren’t very concerned with coffee and maybe more focused on other projects and personal goals?  Do you try to teach and inspire despite that?

KAI: That’s a good question!  Well, when you are dealing with people, everyone has something that makes them tick and catches their attention, so like part timers, a lot of it depends on how they value the job.

If it’s someone who was already an avid café goer, they may already have a craving/taste for good coffee and sometimes that’s enough to help motivate them the rest of the way, just having that initial appreciation will make them inspired enough when they get behind the bar and, at that point, my job is create an environment where they have good beans and exposure to new techniques and brew methods.

LIAM: In the industry, we know there are baristas and baristas, meaning there a lot of people with job title, but only a few want to make career out it and concern themselves with science, processing, constantly playing with brew methods and ratios.

Meanwhile, others just like to make pretty lattes and get on with their lives.  You are obviously and career barista with a lot behind you, whats your approach and how in depth would you go with someone is brand new?

happy goat staff

KAI: I’d see how they respond to their initial training on bar, I was initially taken aback and fascinated by all the steps, and how they change the flavour and consistency, because coffee is a sensitive science, and little changes result in big changes flavour profile.

So, I found that cool and that complexity sold me. For others, that’s stuff that may not be what they wanna focus on. Some just want the skills side, and may just focus on latte art and that’s actually motivation that may get them going.

It’s just matter of figuring out what is going to motivate this person to care and keep perusing an interest in coffee as a whole.

LIAM: Training staff from scratch… does it help you if they have Tim Hortons or Starbucks experience?

KAI: Yeah, well, obviously if someone is coming from another industry, especially if it’s a similar industry, and depending on how long they worked there, they come with a lot of the base skills for working in the service industry.

Now, they may have kept some old / outdated habits/muscle memory that do require retraining, and that can be tough, especially when they have been doing it for years certain way.

But, at the end of the day, when I get those resumes in from Tim Hortons or Starbucks, I know in terms of efficiency and customer service usually, that’s all there, and that is a whole other aspect of the coffee industry that is tough to train.

From taking the order, to getting the coffee made and to the table, and balancing all those things can be tough and overwhelming, especially for beginner.

When I’ve hired people who have come from those environments, I notice that that was one thing less on my plate for me to train, when they intuitively had that café sense, and so I mainly had to focus on making sure they meet Happy Goats’ standards and requirements on drink quality.

LIAM: Do you have a set plan in place, or procedure, before going into a training session?

KAI: I generally have an idea, but it always starts with the staff.  I like to read them to see where they are at.

Bullet point checklists are okay, but everyone learns differently and at their own pace obviously, and they just need to adjust to things their way.

I do have a start, middle, and end goal in mind for the staff and I do communicate that, while tailoring it for the person and their individual needs.

For my staff, all of them came from some sort of coffee background in Ottawa, so they had most of the fundamentals of barista training already, which always helps with training.

LIAM: So you set individual goals for staff members ?

KAI: Exactly! What really helped was they all a keen interest in latte art, so I set their goals around that, and each week I had a new design for them to try, and it really helped improve their overall coffee knowledge and skill, as well as the cafés consistency and drink quality!

latte art 1

Within a couple months, their improvement was phenomenal, and now they are helping training others in the company and new hires.

When it comes to milk texture and symmetrical art and its really awesome to see them take your teachings and passing it on to new staff!

LIAM: Latte art isn’t everything, though, right? Another huge aspect of coffee is dialling in the espresso machine, which can change and ruin everything, especially if its sitting there untreated for most of the day and not being cared for.

KAI: Of course.

LIAM: How would you begin to explain the mind-bending science of espresso to someone who is willing to learn but may initially assume its just a button-pushing process?

KAI: Ooooh ya this a doozy, because anybody in the business knows calibrating your espresso or drip is a process, and it’s never the same.

You can know the kind of thing to look for and how you may be able to adjust, but it is finicky, with a lot of fine tuning and learning that kind of ties into developing a taste.

LIAM: Tell me more about that.

KAI: Lets just say they like coffee. One thing that helped me was tasting the differences in extraction, both over and under extraction and comparing that with perfectly extracted coffee, and comparing all those flavours.

As a beginner, you aren’t going to recognize that without help, so its important to give them a basis in understanding and communicate what’s wrong when you may be fixing it for them.

As well as regular tastings and then teaching them how to get there. And I think anyone in coffee or going into coffee should know that it isn’t an overnight process! You have to work with it and it takes time, you are going to waste a lot of beans hahah!

LIAM: What about pour overs? I’m aware that at Happy Goat most of their shops only have Chemex as a slow bar method.

Do you stress that to your staff at all to understand those techniques and varying methods? And do you give them any tools to help them in their continuing learning of varying slow bar methods?

KAI: hahaha actually if I’m being honest this location doesn’t actually have a pour over on the menu, and we don’t really have any manual coffee apparatuses, BUT, I do bring in my own V60 from time to time and let them play around on it for their benefit.

And when they do express that they wanted to learn about it or making coffee at home in general, I show them the BrewTime app, (unfortunately its just on IOS), it was a excellent resource for me to learn how to do Chemexes properly as well as V60s and Aereopresses and I always found the final product was VERY good and its very easy and its not as involved as other methods/recipes.

At the end of process, you can leave it and have all the water drip through and that makes it really great when working in café and you need everything to run efficiently. Some of them use it at home and I do too!

LIAM: Let’s talk communication. I remember when we worked together, the people who were training me had 3 VERY different communication styles.

KAI: YUP hahahaha!

LIAM: hahahaha um I know your style from first hand experience, but uh can you explain it to the people reading this? What’s the Kai philosophy when it comes to teaching and encouraging staff ?

KAI: I think what I do…(whether or not I follow it to a T), obviously, I try to be as consistent in my position as possible for their benefit and trust.

In that I’ve always been a very relaxed person and I don’t try to take things too too seriously but the most important/ fundamental thing is respect.

If you respect the person you are training, and show them that respect, I think 9 times out of 10 they respond with respect and when both parties respect each other openly, its much easier for them to communicate openly with each other about where they are having difficulty, which makes training easier.

If they don’t feel respected by their employers, then they will naturally want to dismiss things you are saying or not take a lot of what you are saying seriously which results in poor café operation.

happy goat

LIAM: Fantastic, last question. Why is the coffee industry worth working in to you?

KAI: I have a lot of different answers to this, but it really depends on the kind of person you are. For me, it’s really about that human connection and community space that comes with working in café.

You may serve hundreds of people a day (depending where you work) and you get a small window into their each of them and their lives, and I find that super interesting.

I am very social person and just being able to have access to that in my day to day is awesome and I can attribute most of my social skills today to my café experience!

On the more technical side, I’m the kind of person that loves to learn and continue to learn, I need to be in constant state of learning and need to improving for my own sake, its always been that way, and coffee is so complicated niche skill and growing industry and you constantly learn and never really really perfect it, you are always kind of learning.

LIAM: Awesome! Thank you so much for time! Drinks later?

KAI: Yea!

Post Script

liam and kai

As you can see the man has a lot of experience when it comes to training baristas, and knows his stuff.  Kai has learned how to do it in a way that helps the people around him, while everyone is on the move in such a busy café environment.

He has logged many, many café hours and faced all manner of challenges, all of which which has made his thoughts/approach on this topic of training baristas very strategic and structured.

And so, training staff while on shift is doable with the right personnel and leadership.

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