Developing Good Employees

black coffee

Once you’ve hired the right person, how do you develop them into a good employee? There are some basic philosophies about 

Management Skills

that all coffee shop owners need to understand.

The first thing you need to realize is: the strong-arm style of management just doesn’t work!

If you declare yourself supreme tyrant, if you are condescending, demanding, unappreciative, and mange by intimidation, we can almost guarantee your failure. Your employees will do everything possible to contribute to your failure. They won’t care about your product quality, customer service, store cleanliness, or your costs, and they’ll probably steal from you as well! The important thing to remember is you can’t make your employees do anything. You have to make them want to do it for you. This should become the underlying strategy in developing your management style. Once your employees respect you, like you, and believe in your business mission, they will do almost anything for you.

There is nothing wrong with becoming a friend to your employees, but at the same time you need to be their boss first.

They need to understand what it is you expect from them. They need to know that it’s unacceptable if they don’t follow policies or maintain the level of performance you expect.

If employees show up late to work, give them a verbal warning. If they show up late a second time, give them a written warning (which goes into their file), and warn them of their impending termination should they be late again. If they show up late again, you terminate their employment. If they simply miss a shift without excuse, it results in a suspension from work, or termination. If these remedies seem heartless and extreme to you, then you need to toughen up! Of course, your reaction to your employee’s failure to adhere to policy will not come as a surprise to your employees if you developed a thorough policy manual stating your policies and you covered the content of that manual with your employees prior to them going to work.

If you don’t have reasonable set of rules and policies, or your employees won’t adhere to them, then it will be almost impossible to run a harmonious, efficient business. You’ll have unhappy employees with no respect for each other – or for you either!

Those who are new to managing people are usually overly concerned about having their employees like them. And while we do want to win over the hearts and minds of our employees, we have to insist they adhere to certain rules and polices. It is not unlike being a parent. Sometimes you have to demonstrate “tough love” when dealing with your children. Certain actions and behaviors have to be dealt with for their own good, and the good of the family – even though they may not know it is for their own good at the time. By not reacting to an employee who disregards policy, you encourage the rest of your employees to do the same. Recently we visited a client whose business has been open for over a year. His sales have not yet developed to the level where the business can debt service itself, he’s running out of operating capital, and he has been unable to do much guerilla marketing because of problems with his staff. It seems this owner is spending up to 40 hours a week working employee’s scheduled shifts. When we asked him why this was happening, he said that his employees just call in sick whenever they feel like it and these occurrences have increased to four or five times a week! When we asked him why he let them get away with this, he replied, “What am I suppose to do, if I fire them, I’ll have even less staff!”

We informed our client that he had not only allowed this problem to develop, but had encouraged it. By not taking action to discipline those who have disregarded his unexcused absenteeism policy, he has demonstrated to the rest of his staff that there will be no serious consequences if they do the same. So, whenever someone wants to go to a concert, the movies, out on a date, or they just don’t feel like working, they can simply call in sick!

We encouraged our client to adopt a new strategy. He held a meeting with his entire staff to reinforce all of his store policies, after which he informed them that while he would appreciate their cooperation he would no longer tolerate their disregard for policy. Two employees tested his resolve within the first several weeks by trying to call in sick. He informed them that if they were so sick they couldn’t work, he wanted to see a written, dated, diagnosis from their doctors on official letterhead. Neither boy visited a doctor. He terminated their employment. He has had no further problem with the rest of his existing staff, and has since hired half a dozen new employees to pick up the slack and to provide some cushion, and has been able to resume his guerilla marketing efforts in earnest.

Another important point to understand, especially when managing teenagers and young adults, is that they are trying to gain independence from their parent’s influence. They want to prove that they can be responsible adults worthy of trust. If when they do something wrong you address them as if you were their parent, they will be much more likely to be resentful and/or rebellious. Don’t be judgmental, don’t scold them, and don’t show disgust.

Do not counsel an employee when you are angry.

If he or she has committed a flagrant breech of policy and you are upset, then send the employee home and designate a specific time for him or her to come back tomorrow so that you can address the incident then. The time you need to regain your composure will also be time your employee spends worrying about what you might do. This period of waiting will certainly be to your advantage.

When counseling or administering discipline to an employee, the key is not to get emotional (anger, disgust, condemnation, etc). Think like the coach of a professional sports team. If a player isn’t performing, what should the coach do? The coach doesn’t get angry, he simply pulls the player out of the game and puts him on the bench. If the player misses a practice, he is fined. If he misses a game, he is suspended. The player is supposed to be a professional, and if he doesn’t do what he is paid to do, or if he doesn’t respect team policies, then he must suffer the consequences (which may include being released from the team). You need to have the same frame of mind when it comes to dealing with your employees. Don’t get angry – calmly deal with situations in a business-like manner.

Always separate the person from the action. We have met few people in life whom we actually didn’t like, but we have all encountered many people whose actions we disliked.

Don’t say, “Jimmy, you’re lazy!” Instead, say, “Jimmy, I don’t think you’re giving me your best effort.” No one likes to have their character assaulted, but they might be open to evaluating their actions, especially if the criticism you level is constructive in nature.

You’ll pretty much get what you expect from your employees, so expect excellence! If you assume your employees will be mature, responsible, professional adults, then they probably will be. If you expect them to be lazy, worthless idiots, they’ll probably live up to your expectations. It’s not that you have “willed” the behavior, but rather your attitude and interaction portray how you feel about them, which they will perceive and respond to.

It’s not unlike an experiment that was conducted with school children several years ago. Two classes of children that were considered emotionally and academically challenged were assigned to two different teachers. One teacher was told that the class he was being assigned was composed of hopelessly learning-impaired students. The other teacher was told that the children she was being assigned had incredibly high IQs, but were motivationally challenged. The teacher that thought his class was hopelessly impaired achieved minimal results over the course of the semester. The teacher who was convinced that her class was composed of near genius students achieved remarkable results. The difference was the teacher’s attitudes towards their students. The teacher who was convinced that his students were impaired had low expectations. He didn’t expect his students to excel, and made little effort to try alternative methods to motivate and teach them. The teacher who was convinced that her students were highly intelligent was critical of her own performance when she was having difficulty capturing her student’s interest and enthusiasm. She knew her students were gifted. Surely if she wasn’t connecting with them it was because she had failed to identify a viable method for stimulating their interest. She kept trying different approaches until she was successful.


What often comes to mind when thinking of why workers remain with a café is monetary compensation. However, there is much more involved in keeping your best employees. A performance-based compensation plan should be designed to encourage your staff to do their best and to make sure they behave in a way that will promote business growth, profitability, quality service and efficiency behind the bar. To attract great employees, you will need to offer a base pay and earnings potential that are equal to or better than other coffeehouses in your area. This pay plan also must be objective and fair to ensure morale, but it will be ultimately based on performance and responsibility.

In a coffeehouse, you want to encourage teamwork. A fair pay plan, along with the sharing of employee tips, can help accomplish this. In our industry, tips are a considerable part of a barista’s wage, and in many cases, they are directly related to an employee’s performance. I generally have let my past employees figure out their preferred way of splitting tips, but you will want to first consult your local department of labor to familiarize yourself with the stipulation of tips and claiming tips in you area.


It is smart to provide whatever benefits you can that will put you in a better competitive position to attract and retain employees. If you are a start-up retailer and have been tagged as a foodservice operation, full health benefits may not be feasible right away. However, a small company group health plan may be within reach given the age of your employees, and the cost will depend on your provider. Giving your employees access to, or at least the option to obtain, health insurance can be a great way to retain those who are looking to make coffee their career. You also may look to professional industry associations, or for example, credit unions that offer membership eligibility for coverage.

Nontraditional benefits, beyond the usual employees discounts, require just a bit of creativity. Providing small perks like movie tickets, gift certificates or, like here in Portland, Oregon, the occasional tattoo appointment, can really help make your employees appreciate their jobs.

Praise and Recognition

Numerous studies have shown that money is not always the primary motivator for employees, and from my experience, I completely agree. It is important to recognize your employees for good work, and they will often repeat the performance. When you have the chance, give praise in front of a customer or in a staff meeting. Also, give credit where credit is due and reinforce excellent performance. You can look for key measures to recognize your baristas such as great latte art, a clean work area, great customer service or handling a rush well. There is nothing better than getting off work after a long bar shift and having your boss tell you that you kicked ass today!

It is easy to come up with contests to recognize your staff, such as a weekend-day latte art contest, creative cupping notes, a Barista of the Month award and other achievements. Instead of money, give recognition certificates, plaques, a new tamper, a T-shirt, tickets to an event, or dinner for two at a local restaurant. Giving something tangible makes a longer-lasting impression than a $20 bill.

By engaging your employees in your day-to-day business decision-making, you give them the authority to act in your coffeehouses’s best interest. With the right training, you can trust them to make decisions in your absence if there is a customer problem or an operation issue. Do not criticize employee mistakes; instead, use an honest screw-up as a way to improve performance. No one is perfect, and the last thing you want is an employee who is afraid to make a decision on his or her own. As an owner, nothing is more gratifying than seeing employees build their skills behind the bar, making sound decisions that are in the best interest of your business.

The overall goal is to encourage employee behavior that builds your business and to recognize baristas who practice these behaviors often. They will enjoy working in a fun environment with the people they enjoy being around. Encourage and perhaps even organize events outside of work for you and your staff to attend, such as a movie or a concert. If you don’t feel comfortable breaking the ice outside of work, maybe look for a key employee who can assume this role.

Employee Relations

Motivating and retaining great employees requires strong leadership and effective management skills. Providing your employees with the right tools and support is key. Developing and sticking to a training methodology and a well thought-out, performance-based compensation plan will encourage your staff to help build your business. A positive work environment will prove more desirable than monetary income to almost any good employee.

As a coffeehouse owner or manager, it is your responsibility to provide recognition and good communication to your staff. Doing these things will help you create that harmonious team that every employer dreams of: one that works not only for themselves but also for the benefit of your customers and your company.

As I’ve said, we work in the coffee industry because it is fun and because we love interacting with people and serving an outstanding product. The loyalty and motivation of your employees will be dictated by your example. If you can succeed in creating a pleasant environment in which your employees can thrive, they will reward you by performing their job with pride and at the highest level.

Delegating Activities

Your goal as a manager should be to delegate as many of the operational functions as possible to your employees. In other words, you want to get out of working in the business, and be working on the business. Following are some examples that will help you understand how to do this.

When we owned and managed our coffee bar, one of our pet peeves was seeing fingerprints and smudges on the front door and pastry case glass. These two areas are extremely important! The front door is the first thing the customer sees when coming into the business. If it’s filthy it makes a statement about the rest of your establishment. The pastry case is the showcase for displaying what you’re trying to sell. If the case looks dirty it certainly won’t compliment the items inside, nor will it make them look very appealing!

It was our tendency when we first started operating our business that if we saw that the front door or pastry case was dirty, we’d grab the glass cleaner and paper towels and clean it ourselves. We had a lot of other responsibilities to attend to during day, and that one function combined with dozens of other similar functions was certainly occupying a large portion of our time. Reality finally struck us one day, and it dawned on us that our cashier and barista were standing there watching us clean, with absolutely nothing to do!

At some point you should be asking yourself, Why am I doing this work? From that point on, we would ask whoever wasn’t busy to please clean whatever it was that needed cleaning. They would oblige, but only if we asked. So, the question still remained. Who actually “owns” this job? It became clear that the answer was that we still owned the job. Unless we asked someone to do the job, it still wasn’t getting done. This brought us to our next realization.

If we were to ever relinquish ownership of this function, we would have to delegate it and make it part of a particular employees daily responsibilities. We pulled the cashier aside and said, As soon as you’re done servicing the customers and you have a moment, part of your daily responsibility is to look at the front door and pastry case. If they’re not spotless, please make sure to clean them. The employee’s response was, I’m going to have to do that 50 times a day because they’re always dirty. We said, That’s absolutely right. That’s what we’re paying you for and what we want you to do.

At this point we no longer owned the job. It became the employee’s job and responsibility because we delegated it to her on a permanent basis. Of course we still had to supervise and remind the employee that these things needed cleaning, but with constant reinforcement she finally took care of those things without us having to remind her.

This is something you need to think about if you’re going through your day and find yourself doing mundane chores on a regular basis. These are chores that don’t require management expertise and should be done by your employees. If you’re doing them, ask yourself why. The answer will probably be that you haven’t delegated them to your employees or made it part of their job.

Teaching Your Employees

It’s also important to constantly challenge and teach your employees. We’re strong believers in the saying that ‘There is no such thing as a plateau.’ When it comes to personal or professional development you’re either growing or regressing. In order to keep your employees motivated and always moving forward, it’s important to keep them challenged and thinking. Let us give you another example:

You’re doing a walk-thru of your espresso bar during the morning shift. You see your barista pulling shots of espresso and the streams are pouring out much too quickly from the portafilter. They are much too large in diameter, watery in appearance, and the crema is a light blonde color. You understand that this is creating an under-extracted shot of espresso that will taste sour. There are a number of ways you can handle this situation.

Probably the simplest solution would be for you to reach over and adjust the grind yourself. However, by doing this, you haven’t involved the barista in the process and it’s highly unlikely he or she will have learned anything if you use this approach.

The second way you could deal with the situation is to say to the barista, Your extraction is too fast, adjust your grind to be finer. By doing this the barista will hopefully adjust it to the right consistency to reestablish a perfect shot of espresso. You still own the job however, because you had to tell the barista what it was he or she needed to do. The barista would probably only make this adjustment if prompted by you.

You need to ask yourself why the barista is pulling shots that are too fast to begin with. The answer is that the barista probably lacks the knowledge to identify a poor extraction. Or the barista may have forgotten what he or she was taught during initial training. But whatever the reason, it is obvious that the barista does not understand the importance of proper extraction rates.

Even though it’s more tedious and takes more time, you should address the issue with the barista when he or she is not in the middle of a rush. Ask the barista, How does that shot of espresso look to you? In other words make him or her go through an analytical process. If you’ve trained them up-front, the barista should know and say, It looks a little fast. Your next question should be, “How can we fix that?” The barista may come back with a question such as, “Adjust the grind finer?” To which you would agree, and say, “Yes, adjust the grind finer.”

After the grind has been adjusted, you will need to tell the barista to run the grinder a few seconds to push the old coffee out the chute to the doser. Remind the barista that the coffee in the chute was ground before the adjustment was made. After having disposed of all the old coffee in the doser, have the barista grind some new coffee and pull a test shot to determine if the consistency is correct. Ask again, “How does this look; is it a good shot now?” In other words, by taking the barista through the thought process and having him or her articulate what the possible solution might be, followed by actually performing the function, you are teaching the barista a skill. With some reinforcement, the barista will learn to analyze extraction rates and fix the grind without your intervention. This is how you develop a professional staff and free yourself from daily micro management.

It’s also important on a daily basis to help an employee who is in some need of some development. Who on your staff is having problems or could be stronger in the skills related to their job? Make an effort to work with this person and put some effort into improving her skills. Let her know it’s her “lucky day” and that you’ve chosen her as your personal development project for that day. You want her to understand that you’ve set aside some time to help develop her skills and make her a better employee. Remember your business is only as strong as your weakest employee.

Understanding Your Employees and Accepting Responsibility

Understand that your employees will be passing judgment on you on a daily basis as to whether or not you are fulfilling your duties and responsibilities as a manager. Most owners find this difficult to accept. After all, what right do your employees have to pass judgment on you? You’re the owner of the business! You’re the one working 80 hours a week! You’re the one that has taken the giant financial risk! They don’t know how many things you juggle, or how busy you are, and how much you actually do. But really, those things are not important to your employees, and shouldn’t be important to them.

What is important to employees are the things that impact them and their job function on a daily basis. Do they have the tools necessary to perform the job at the level that you expect from them? Is your equipment in optimal condition or is it in need of repair? Do they have enough steaming pitchers and thermometers, enough ceramic cups, enough syrup pumps? Do they have the ingredients available to prepare all the items on your menu, all the time?

You need to understand that if you’re out of something, it’s probably not you that’s standing at the counter experiencing the disgust of the customer. It’s your employee that’s being embarrassed. It’s your poor employee who is listening to your customers, hearing perhaps 20 times a day, “What, you’re out of chocolate?” If you are going to demand professional results from your employees, you have to be professional in your job as well.

Organize your day. We are amazed at how many people think that the function of a coffee bar manager is to sit in the dining room for the majority of the day, drinking coffee and talking to customers. While networking with your customers is important, there are so many things that you need to be doing in the business that you should have every minute of every day occupied with constructive tasks. Tasks that not only deal with what’s necessary for daily operations, but also tasks related to the short-term and long-term programs necessary to move your business forward.

We are always amazed and saddened by people who won’t take personal responsibility for their own mistakes and difficulties. It always someone else’s fault with these individuals, like those darn customers, or that rotten landlord, or those stupid employees. But, the bottom line is that you can’t correct the problem unless you realize and accept the fact that you are the one that has total control over the process.

In order to be a successful manager, you must be willing to accept personal responsibility for your business. That means not only taking responsibility for your success but also for your failures. After all, if you are the owner or manager of the business, then you are more than likely the one who made all the critical decisions that are contributing to your success, or your failure. Will it not be you who chooses the location and signs the lease? Will it not be you who hires and trains your employees? Will it not be you who will select the products and develop the recipes? Will it not be you who will be responsible for marketing your business to attract the necessary customers to produce the income necessary to meet your expectations and insure your business success? If something isn’t working as you had originally anticipated, then look at yourself first. Look at what it is you have done, and if necessary develop and implement an alternative plan in an effort to make your business successful. If you are to manage successfully, then you need to understand that the only days that are important are today and tomorrow. Learn from your past mistakes, then work smart every day so that your goals and dreams will become your reality tomorrow.

Our Business Workshop is jam-packed with information for the prospective coffee business owner. We can offer expert advice no matter if you’re opening your first shop or looking to expand. Learn about location scouting, marketing, management, and much more. 

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