Cafe del Barista

What separates a good cafe from a mediocre one? What motivates loyal customers to continue choosing your cafe instead of the competition just down the street? What encourages new customers to give your spot a chance? Is it the atmosphere, the customer service, or the quality of the coffee? These were the questions that I came down to Costa Rica to have answered in my crazy pursuit to one day have a cafe that I can call my own.


I’d been in Costa Rica for a little over a month, and I still couldn’t find any real work. I applied to every, single, cafe in San José (That is no exaggeration) and even to a few outside of the city. Every interviewer always immediately asked me, a bit arrogantly it seemed, “Well what cafe experience do you even have?” I’d reply, “My five years in the Navy has not given me much direct experience with hospitality, or coffee for that matter, but I can assure you that what I lack in experience, I can more than make up for in dedication and willingness to learn…” Didn’t seem to matter.

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Volunteering at Cafeoteca, a good 8 pounds lighter than when I arrived to Costa Rica

Tired of waiting for so many 2nd calls or emails that never came, I began thinking that coming to Costa Rica, the source of quality coffee, to learn about coffee maybe wasn’t such a good idea after all. Looking back, I was carrying a decent amount of stress with me and I was losing a good amount of weight. I began toying with the idea of getting a job outside of coffee. Get something that wouldn’t have anything to do with specialty coffee, or even hospitality for that matter, but could afford me the opportunity to survive financially and volunteer after work or on the weekends at a cafe since I “lacked experience.” Swallowing my pride, I accepted a volunteer position (via a good family friend) at Cafeoteca, one of the previous cafes that more or less scoffed at my inexperience. They just happened to be one of the best speciality coffee shops in Costa Rica.

I began volunteering there just about every day from 8AM to 3PM and would use my downtime to search for a paying job. Luckily, I was able to learn quite a bit while “working” from how to use an espresso machine, to how to prepare “Metas” or brewed coffee (Chemix, Aeropress, French Press, V60, Gondola), how to properly steam milk for a Cappucino or Latte, and, most importantly, how to provide great customer service, all in Spanish mind you (It had been a quite a while since I had spoken Spanish daily). After about three weeks of what seemed like indentured servitude at best, I had finally been accepted as an English teacher at a learning academy. The pay was absolutely atrocious, but I could work nights, keep my day schedule at the cafe, and afford to buy food without much stress (Costa Rica is an expensive country contrary to popular belief, its just the salaries that are low).

The English Academy had planned to send me to a “teacher prep course” a month after I accepted the position; however, about two days after I officially accepted the job, one of my “co-workers” had gotten pretty irritated that the cafe wasn’t paying me, but still expected me to work so much. He recommended that I talk to a friend of his, an owner at another cafe, after he put in a good word for me. Not even a day later, I found myself face to face with the world famous Manuel Dinarte, Costa Rica’s 2008 National Barista Champion, and owner of Cafe del Barista. After a brief conversation and demonstration of my recently learned skills (I’m sure the recommendation helped more than anything), I was offered a position as manager at one of his cafes. And that was that. I immediately called the English Academy and regretfully informed them that I was no longer available and got to work.

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Jose preparing a V60

I quickly fell in love with everything about the cafe. The employees were all a part of Costa Rica’s budding 3rd Wave Coffee scene. Eager to both teach and learn anything and everything there is to know about coffee. The repeat customers were in love with the customer service that they received at the cafe, and that showed not only through their repeat business, but more so with how they interacted within the cafe. Nothing but laughs and smiles the entire hour or hour and a half in the shop. Only once had I ever seen a customer have a bad experience and that was because we closed at 530 PM, but they hadn’t taken the hint by 615. The kitchen, bakery, and baristas all loved what they did and that was easily reflected in the products that we delivered to the customer, be it a delicious, glazed cinnamon roll, mouth watering white wine sauce chicken with rice and beans, or our coffee, at the time, a natural processed Geisha from Herbazu, Costa Rica.

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My coffee knowledge seems to have quadrupled, luckily, while working at Cafe del Barista. I was fortunate enough to go directly to the farms from where we bought our beans and see the (sometimes manual as seen above) 1st, 2nd, and 3rd selection process that dictated how much a sack of coffee would ultimately cost.

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I was able to, under the guidance of owner Manuel, get hands on roasting experience. Seeing first hand, what it meant for a coffee to “Yellow,” how the official first crack was noted, and what parameters to use to determine when to stop a roast depending on coffee variety, process, and desired taste.

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At the time this picture was taken I was still learning about Quakers…

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I even got some hands on experience baking. Although, as Cindy, our baker below, can tell you, I have much to learn in the art of baking, and it may just be that I’m not cut out to be a professional baker.

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This was one of the few times in my life “You make it look so easy” applied perfectly

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As you can see, my empanada (Above Left) looks nothing compared to Cindy’s (Above right)

 

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Silky espresso shots

Our cafe was even featured in a TV program on best cafes in Latin America. Guess who the only other cafe was in Costa Rica that made it onto the program…..Cafeoteca.

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The kitchen crew, Monica, Enrique, and Ariel who probably provided me with 95% of my laughter throughout the day

And in everything that I’ve learned through my experience at Cafe del Barista, I’ve finally figured out what the secret is to running a great cafe. Its not how well the beans are roasted, nor is it the quality of the coffee beans, or the baked goods, or even the food. What turns a good cafe into a great one, is, as you’ve probably guessed, the people. The basic essence of what a cafe is, a place to escape the stressors of life and relax, a place to enjoy good company, share a cup of coffee, and laugh away your thoughts. The baristas serving your cup of coffee, with care and attention, take it from a mediocre cup, to an excellent one, and the difference is easily tasted. The chefs eliminate your growling stomach, with carefully prepared dishes from the heart. And, cafes fortunate enough to have an in house baker like ours, the baker provides the perfect, mouth watering complement to your great cup of coffee.

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Love these guys to death

I’ve heard stories of cafes, in Costa Rica at least, that seem trendy, seem hip, seem like a great place to relax, but the owners treat the employees like trash. I’ve visited these cafes myself. Sure, they have great coffee, good food, and everyone greets me, but each time, there is something that is just off. I’ve never felt a burning desire to go back to these places, to waste away my quiet Saturday afternoon enjoying their coffee, or even support their organization with my money. I strongly believe that is because the people were not taken care of, so how could they possibly fully take care of me.


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“You can smell it. The warm subtle notes of fresh Costa Rican coffee calms you as you breathe it in. The steady drip from the pot reminds you of when mother would pour her coffee early Saturday mornings. As you bring the warm cup to your mouth, your taste buds expand, anticipating the beautiful embrace of perfection. Come join us for a cup of coffee.” -Cafe del Barista, written by yours truly.

 

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Coffee and I

My very Hispanic step-mother from Bogota, Colombia, whom I endearingly called by her first name Edith, survived on coffee. The first thing she did after waking up was prepare coffee. She drank coffee in times of great happiness, and great sadness. She drank coffee to help her raise my two younger brothers Mateo and Santiago, who were never short of energy. She even somehow drank coffee at night, prior to going to sleep. She and coffee were one and the same. After my many visits to Bogota, I quickly learned that, for her and her family, coffee wasn’t just an energizing refreshment, but rather, a way of life.

Edith had these three red, ceramic, air-tight jars that she kept in the cabinet above the oven. Each one was a different size, and within each, she kept coffee beans, sugar, and rice, respectively. Every morning on the weekends, I would like to treat myself to a big bowl of oatmeal that I could eat while I watched cartoons in my pajamas. Of course, as a sweet toothed teenager, nothing went better with my big bowl of oatmeal than a generous tablespoon, or two, of sugar. Well, of course, I could never get the jar size right. “Last time, I tried the middle one, and it was coffee…so it has to be the big one,” I would think to myself. And every weekend, without fail, I would open the wrong one before finally getting to the sugar. Well, each time I guessed incorrectly, and opened the jar with the coffee beans, I would spend a good minute with my nose in the jar, taking in the smell of the beans and its entire aroma. At the time, I thought coffee was just coffee, I had no idea where the beans came from, that there were levels of roast, or even that there were different kind of beans. All I knew was that I was in love with that smell and everything it reminded me of.

Flash forward ten years and I’m on a U.S. Naval Warship, having just graduated from the Naval Academy. It’s three in the morning, pitch black, and I’m standing my first duty night-watch, guarding the ship. To say that I was struggling to stay awake is a gross understatement. The person I was standing watch with, HM2 Deane, a young medic originally from Guyana, asks me in his heavy Guyanese accent, “Sir, would you like some coffee to help you get through this watch?” Growing up, I had never really had coffee. Edith would offer me a sip from time to time, but my father was worried my growth would be stunted had I enjoyed too much coffee. I carried this mentality with me to the Naval Academy, and I never really drank coffee, always desiring to be in top physical and mental condition. I told HM2 Deane that I was appreciative for the offer, but that I didn’t really drink coffee. Again, in thick Guyanese English, “Sir, you’ll be able to breeze through this night watch, without the pain of your brain trying to fall asleep.” “What the hell,” I thought. I was no longer at the Naval Academy, competing against my peers. It was the first time in my life that I was awake at three in the morning, with the expectation that I would have to stay awake, guarding the ship, until seven in the morning. “Sure, why not,” I thought, “It couldn’t hurt.” My eyes were so heavy. All I could think about was placing my heavy head on a pillow and sleeping the night away. HM2 went to get the ship’s coffee for me.

By the time he returned, I was barely clasping to consciousness, praying for any situation that would give my eyes just a fifteen minute break to rest. As soon as he handed me the Navy Coffee Mug, I got a whiff of the smell, which looking back, I’m sure was terrible, and my entire childhood flashed before me. I saw Edith in the kitchen preparing coffee as Mateo and Santiago got ready for school. I remembered the weekend morning cartoon session with my big bowl of oatmeal and three, maybe four tablespoons of sugar. I even remembered my step-mother yelling at my brothers and I for using all the milk before she could have her morning coffee, and my Father in the living room chuckling. I was instantly awake and I did in fact, breeze through the rest of the night-watch. I spent the remaining four hours, reminiscing on the fortunate childhood I had, my loving step-mother and father, and the best younger brothers a former only child could have asked for. All of these memories, brought about, by the unforgettable and enticing smell of coffee.

I’ve been drinking coffee ever since. Fortunately, I’ve been able to get my hands on better quality coffee. I can’t imagine that the Navy’s twenty year old, instant coffee machine, filled with 3 week old coffee grounds, was anything taste-worthy. Since that first cup, I’ve become fascinated with coffee culture. I’ve always considered myself a man of science, and the coffee bean is nothing short of that. The variables on altitude, bean selection, processing methods, roasting level, and exposure time all fascinate me beyond belief.