Origin of the Barista Snob: a satirical and historical analysis

Preface: There is a great viral internet meme that sums up the Barista Snob, which was originally posted here.  In an effort to be spared from a lawsuit, I took the meme down, but you can find it on other sites such as here: http://www.foodista.com/blog/2011/08/26/hipster-barista-meme-pokes-fun-at-coffee-shop-workers

Portlandia is past due to make an episode about “The Barista Snob”.
The scene would go like this. Polite customer: “Hi, can I have a small, skinny, decaf latte please?”

Barista Snob replies with a fake half-smile: “Oh yeah, we call that a ‘Why Bother‘; your total is $4″.

The customer pulls out her money and wonders if she is being insulted or if it was just a friendly tease, but she isn’t sure because the body language of the barista is stand-offish (arms crossed, lack of eye-contact…) and there was half of a smile going on but it looked kind of fake.  As the barista’s back is turned to the customer while making the drink, she wonders if her drink is truly being made with decaf.

Today, I offer a historical and cultural perspective on the origins of the barista snob, more recently referred to as the hipster barista. This is not to be confused with a coffee snob, which is the consumer participant.

I have offered my perspective from both outside and inside the espresso/coffee shop industry, along with my observations that have come after living outside of the Pacific Northwest for over 10 years.

I decided to write this somewhat satirical history and analysis after multiple discussions with non-native Portlanders who also have witnessed the phenomenon that I describe as the “barista snob”.

I propose that there are four ingredients needed to create the recipe for this pop-culture stereotype of a barista snob: an immature (young) work force, passive-aggressiveness, shitty weather that makes people grumpy, and a rapid espresso industry boom in which one had to navigate. Below, I will explain my experience and historical observances on the topic and the coffee shop industry.

As a teenager in the 1990’s era of the Pacific Northwest, I was first an espresso consumer before I made the decision to become involved professionally. During this time, I was able to watch, consume, and participate in the rise in popularity of the espresso method of coffee production and consumption. Within this industry, there is the middleman who is involved in the processing of the coffee bean for beverage consumption, whose position is called “barista”. Furthermore, there is a sub-genre in which this middleman is known as a barista snob, or more recently as the hipster barista.

While the barista plays an important role in the creativity and production of espresso drinks, their role also serves to maintain the public spaces in which their espresso drinks are consumed, known in different cities as a coffee shop or a cafe.

It has been almost twenty years since I had my first espresso drink in the first coffee shop I ever stepped foot in. It was on the second floor of an old building at Pike Place Market in Seattle in 1994. I don’t remember the name of the shop, but no, it wasn’t Starbucks.

I was thirteen, and my mom drove my brother, my friend, and I up to Seattle to visit our cousin. This very friend was the person who further introduced me to sugary over-flavored espresso drinks thanks to the new espresso service in the student concession stand at Gladstone High School, in a suburb 30 minutes south of Portland.

Think back to the era of “Snickers mochas”, “Almond Joy mochas”, etc. She somehow found the money to get cracked out on those drinks every morning, and it took me a few more years before I could treat myself to one.

Since then, the espresso/coffee shop industry in America has grown rapidly, and you can find a Starbucks drive-thru near multiple highway exits in every major American city. However, there was a time where the word “espresso” held an exotic, foreign, European connotation, or it was butchered and spoken incorrectly, as “expresso” most likely because of the reported caffeine rush that was delivered from it, faster than normal coffee, as in express mail is faster than regular mail.

The proper role of barista became complete with craftsmanship and history of the product being served. From my observation, this attention to detail of one’s cup of coffee had no place in the typical American beverage landscape. Maybe your Grandma had a percolator, your parents used a drip coffee maker, and that was about it. Outside of the home, you had Denny’s, IHOP, Waffle House, or the mom and pop diners, and you would drink whatever cup of coffee they put in front of you. You didn’t have access to espresso, unless you lived in NYC’s Little Italy, but if you are reading this, you probably didn’t.

You had your McDonald’s coffee, truckstop coffee, and gas station coffee. If you were fortunate to travel to France or Italy in your lifetime, you got to try the best coffee drink ever, made with “espresso”, and you would reminisce about it with your college friends in a cheesy commercial like this one:

My first barista job was on accident. In 1997, I was working for Century Theaters on SE 82nd and Powell in Portland, OR; the first movie theater in the city to offer stadium seating and “gourmet concessions” (espresso and custom pizzas). I was originally working in the box office, but I was offered a promotion to work in the “Cafe” where I learned about the basics of espresso drinks from a corporate booklet. It paid more and sounded cool, so I took the position. I felt like I was doing something more fun and elite then the rest of the staff. I was 16 at the time, and it paid the bills for me to move out on my own when I turned 17 that summer.

This job allowed me to move on to working for Marsee Baking, a Portland bakery and cafe chain, specializing in bagels, pastries, european-style breads, and of course, coffee. I was sick of making bagel sandwiches and I wanted to be a real barista, goddamnit! So I hit up the market and got hired with Coffee People- Starbucks’ Oregon rival. Coffee People had a locally famous business slogan, “Good coffee, no back talk”, as an acknowledgement that there was coffee snobbery in town. However, this philosophy wasn’t bulletproof.

Coffee shops had found their way onto every main street in the city and suburbs, kiosks were placed in malls, drive thru/walk-up only shops were scattered here and there, in addition to coffee trailers parked in shopping center parking lots along major routes leading in and out of the city and along rural highways. It was common to be on rural portions of the interstate and see hand-painted signs alerting you that there is “Espresso, next exit” where a trailer would be parked strategically for you to buy your mocha and hop back on to the highway to proceed to your destination.

I believe that it was during this espresso boom in which the barista was confronted with a rapid rise in consumer growth, which came with the consumer’s quest for knowledge about the new possibilities for their coffee addiction. With the barista’s elite knowledge of recipes and techniques that could not be duplicated at home, a personality type grew common among the industry.

And as all drug-fueled industries work- the one who controls the drugs gets to be a dick. You see this in some bartenders, as well those who deal with illegal drugs. Its 7am, you are on the way to work, you want your Venti 3-shot mocha with real caramel (not the syrup), and you pay way too much for it, because you can’t make it at home. The barista has it, and you want it; no, wait- you need it. You are addicted to your morning coffee routine.

Maybe you tried duplicating your favorite drink at home and it was gross. So you go back to the same corner coffee shop and you tip every time, hoping that they remember you and become friendly. And they do. I will give Portlanders some credit- they will definitely be nice to you once something pulls them out of their shell, like when the sun comes out for four months out of the year or when they like the band t-shirt that you are wearing.

After leaving Portland, Oregon to move to New Orleans around 2002, I would come back to visit friends and family every year. The longer I was away from Portland, the more I noticed an awkward hostility or lack of pleasantness from the workers at the coffee shops I would stop in before heading out for a day of shopping at my favorite stores.

It dawned on me that there was some weird phenomenon of passive-aggressiveness coming from the baristas in Portland. As I thought about it for a while, I started to determine that it was a Portland thing. I worked in and managed a coffee shop in New Orleans, and none of the baristas were like that in my shop, or any of the other neighborhood shops. However, culturally, New Orleans is a lot more friendly and extroverted, which I loved and had become comfortable with. I couldn’t help but feel put-off upon multiple coffee shop outings during my visits in Portland. I had to wonder- was I like this when I was a barista in Portland, back in the day?

We were young and inexperienced in understanding the true meaning of customer service. Many of us were still technically teenagers, or trying to grow out of that stage as fast as possible, but still too young to know how to put aside our mood swings in order to be “professional” for the next eight hours.  We were the main demographic available to work in that kind of industry: low wages, low to no benefits, lack of workforce experience, etc.  An immature work force does not mean lack of potential, but it means that a sassy teenager attitude is bound to rise to the surface on a daily basis.

In addition to the young workforce of the coffee shop industry of the Pacific Northwest, I also believe that there is a cultural personality prevalent in Portland, known as “Passive-aggressive communication.” For the easiest starting point in understanding what passive-aggressive behavior is, Wikipedia sums it up easily in their opening line by saying it “is the indirect expression of hostility”. The same Wikipedia article references that “the DSM-IV describes passive-aggressive personality disorder as a “pervasive pattern of negativistic attitudes and passive resistance to demands for adequate performance in social and occupational situations.”

The passive-aggression comes out as the barista answers the customers questions with a touch of annoyance as if their precious time is being wasted and there are better things to do (like standing around talking about the new Radiohead album).  Or better yet, the person makes sure that their sighs, huffs, and exaggerated movements are included within earshot and view of the customer, as if the whole day’s schedule will be thrown off if the barista takes one minute to see if the manufacturer of the chocolate for the mocha is dairy free.

While I think it is safe to say that younger folks have a tendency toward passive-aggressive styles of communicating, it is my travels and time spent in other cities and cultures that have made me see the contrast of passive-aggression vs. direct aggression or direct styles of communicating in other regions.

No way would someone in NYC or New Orleans ask me “Um, could you maybe not do that?” if they didn’t like my actions.  Instead, I would be asked “Please don’t do that.” “I don’t like it when you do that.” Etc…Direct. Straight to the point. There is less dancing around the subject with words that convey that something is possibly upsetting or annoying a person. At least, this is how I remember communication differences along the way.

I remember when a trip to a coffee shop sealed the deal on my beliefs that Portlanders were passive-aggressive and Portland baristas were indeed snobs with the same problem. I had taken my mom out for a coffee date, and I wanted her to try my favorite Portland coffee, Stumptown.
I brought her to their store on SE Division St. where she politely asked the barista, “Is your chocolate gluten-free?” As he darted his eyes around the room, he managed to expasperate that he would “assume that it was because he doesn’t know why anyone would put gluten in chocolate”.

Since my mom was dealing with health problems, she was trying an elimination diet at the time to try to find the source of the problem, and at this time, she was eliminating gluten. Again, politely, she asked the barista if he could check the bottle for her, and he held up the blank bottle that the chocolate had been transferred to from its original packaging, and claimed that he couldn’t get that information since the chocolate was now in this blank bottle.

At this point, I had to chime in and ask if he could check the original packaging, trying to hold back calling him a dick or just an idiot. After standing there shrugging, he finally took the moment from his day to find the original bottle and found that it was gluten-free. This moment embarrassed me, since I had just brought my mom to try something from a company that I had always applauded, and here this guy was being a dick to her. Since my mom was undecided on which drink she wanted yet (she is not normally an espresso drinker, and it was still foreign territory for her as a 61 year old), so we let the fellow help the next customer. Luckily, when we were ready to to order our drinks, we were helped by a friendlier employee to finish the transaction.

It is moments like these that always made me cringe during my visits back to Portland. Since that visit, however, I am seeing a pleasant shift away from this attitude. As a motorcycle lover, I have been drawn to See See’s Coffee since I moved back to Portland 10 months ago, and they have been nothing but pleasant on every occasion. In fact, during most of my outings for meals or drinks since I have returned, I have experienced more pleasant and professional experiences than I used to from 2002-2012.

I have also noticed the demographics of the city changing, in that most of the people I meet in my age range now are transplants from other cities. Perhaps the more pleasant and professional demeanor is being imported from other cities, and then inspires other co-workers to get their heads out of their asses for a moment in order to do their jobs that involve communicating with the public.

While I understand I may be insulting my friends and former associates by referring to them as immature during the era that I am referencing, I mean it in the least personal sense. After all, I am admitting to be a part of that very demographic. In fact, it was some of my mature, pleasant and smiley co-workers who inspired me to be more chipper at times when I came in grumpy from riding my bike across town in the rain.

After living in the South for the last 11 years, I have noticed some of my default chipperness lacking since I returned to Portland. I definitely attribute it to the weather, which was one of the main reasons I left town. While I am by no means championing a false chipperness as seen by the Chotchkie’s server, Brian, in the movie Office Space, I do feel like the weather in Portland puts the lid on the brighter side of my personality, and I have no doubts that it does the same for many other Portlanders.

In conclusion, I would like to think that the barista snob personality generalization is on its way out, and I recognize that there is room for error in my theory. After all, the man in the barista meme at the top of this story, is a real barista from the Atlanta area, and it is very sunny there, so I admit that “shitty weather” and “a passive-aggressive Portland personality” may not have as much weight as I originally had thought.

Also, dear native Portland friends, please don’t hate me. Stumptown coffee, I still love you and I will return despite Mr. Passive-aggressive barista.


7 thoughts on “Origin of the Barista Snob: a satirical and historical analysis

  1. I would also add that by the time we were entering the coffee world, the idea of “barista” had cultivated a stereotype as being a person educated in something “impractical” such as English or Philosophy and being part of some super cool counter-culture experience akin to the beatniks where everyone wears black and people would come to the “coffee house” to listen to poetry readings and snap their fingers instead of clap. Even though I’m totally basing this off of a scene in So I Married an Axe Murderer, the fact that it exists as a pop cultural reference is an indication that this idea exists. Also, even though barista work is a service job, on a “cool” scale, it ranks higher than a fast food worker even though wages are probably the same. This leads me to another thought: the importance of perception. Fast food workers are currently working toward raising the minimum wage. I haven’t seen baristas out there making this demand even though they seem like the stereotypical group who would be more into something like this. What do you think the dialogue would be like if baristas were the face of the raise-minimum-wage campaign as opposed to people from places like McDonald’s?


    • I agree with every bit of your observations but I think I understand the differences that set barista’s apart from traditional fast-food workers.
      Baristas are not making wage demands, because they are better off, financially, due to the “cash-tipping culture” of coffeeshops. I am not sure how owners handles the tip situation in the coffeeshop world these days, but we had a nice boost from untaxed cash/coin tips. Employees in some neighborhood coffee shops in certain communities that I have been a part of, do extremely well in the tip department.
      I feel uneasy to openly discuss the subject of tips in a somewhat public forum, but since I don’t have a large following or whatever, I”ll consider this more of a conversation between just us two, or the fellow ex-coworkers who I have passed this blog on to. However, the tips are not a consistent guarantee, and should be looked at, as an often-received random bonus, but we all know that the IRS doesn’t give a fuck about that.

      These neighborhood coffee shops are ran differently than the businesses of “fast-coffee” joints that you see in larger corporate shopping environments, such as Starbucks in Target, or Seattles Best in Borders books, and other similar fast-coffee/retail partnerships. At these “fast-coffee” shops, tips are often not allowed. So you would think their low wages would put them in the same boat as “fast-food” workers but I don’t think we will see that demographic joining in on the fight.

      I believe that the corporate “fast-coffee” joints are stepping stones for employees to move on into food management jobs, “cooler” coffeeshops, or they are jobs that are just enough to get by without having to drink the kool-aid and dedicate themselves to a workplace, so that they can still have the time do other things in life, such as raise a family, go to school, or work on personal projects (art, music, etc). I could be wrong, but I speculate, from my observations from people I know who worked in “fast-coffee”, that many people don’t invest themselves in “fast-coffee” entry level positions like they would in “fast-food”, because they don’t plan on staying there for the long-run.

      I think if baristas called attention to raising the minimum wage, then republicans would call attention to their un-taxed tipping culture, and the taxed $1 more per hour that will be gained, is less than the possible untaxed $2 more per hour, gained through tips. Therefore, baristas in traditional coffeeshops will be keeping their mouth shut.


      • I think another factor in why you don’t see Baristas joining the fight for higher wages is that they tend to be part of that particular demographic that lacks commitments. They tend to not be married, don’t plan on having kids any time soon, don’t own property. They can afford to hold onto the “cool” job and make just enough while figuring out what they want to do with their life. This is much different from the fast food workers who probably would have traditionally worked in the factories that have been shipped overseas. This is a generalization, but I think I would find enough supporting evidence to show that there has been a rise in service worker jobs and a decrease in specialized labor.

        Based on what I made at CP, even with tips, I don’t think that I could have responsibly raised a family without the help of a partner with a job that paid way better than what I was making. I do remember working with one girl whose parents bought her a house and paid off her school loans. I would have loved to be in that situation. But I digress. I was lucky enough to have a partner who wasn’t making much, but could contribute to the bills. I had enough to pay my half of the rent, buy groceries, pay insurance on my car and save a little each month for a cheap trip somewhere. But God forbid I be struck down with a major hospital bill. I was lucky, but living on the edge financially.

        As for the coffee shops and employees in the larger corporate environments, they are often subject to the rules of the corporation. When Ben worked at the Starbucks at Fred Meyer, he was paid a higher and more livable wage that more than made up for the lack of tips, and had a better health care plan. I don’t know how the employees of Fred Meyer are faring now, but at that time, they had a very strong Union and very low turnover rate. I can’t say the same for Target.


      • Yes! I think this is a valid portrait of the socio-economic landscape of the barista, and I think it shows the differences of the barista world, both past and present. I like to think that it also supports my theory on the Origins of the barista snob, while it enables us to recognize that the stereotype is fading away because of other economic factors, such as the variety of barista work that is out there now, overlapped with traditional service industry/fast-food models of employment.


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