Cuppa joe?

There’s time and expertise behind that double latte, folks

By: Jessica Emili
   It’s 2:30 in the afternoon, well past the morning rush of caffeine-seeking regulars on their way to work, and several hours prior to a post-workday crowd. And yet the line at Small World is snaking around the café’s cupcake- and pastry-filled ordering counter, past the window-facing front tables, and around to the sugar-stocked condiment counter. Pretty soon the line will be out the door, but no one seems to mind the wait.
   Jazz and fragments of conversations compete with the whirring of the espresso machine. Red-apron-donning baristas scurry about, making iced lattes and chais and various other cold concoctions for customers seeking refuge from the 98- degree scorching sun. Some saunter in after peering into the Witherspoon Street landmark’s windows, others quickly rush through the door amid their midday routine.
   Jessica Duriee opened Small World Coffee 12 years ago. After working in the restaurant business during college, she decided it was a career she wanted to pursue. " I enjoyed working in an environment where I could help customers," said Ms. Duriee. After attending restaurant school at Cornell University, Ms. Duriee spent a year driving around the country, scoping out college towns to open a business, before settling down in Princeton. Small World has since grown so much that Ms. Duriee has opened a second Princeton location at 254 Nassau St.
   With a Starbucks on every corner, the term "barista" has quickly worked its way into the American vernacular. The word stems from its Italian translation, in which "barista" roughly equates to a bartender. In Italy, "bars" are similar to American cafés, serving alcohol and coffee, as well as small sandwiches and refreshments. The English translation has come to mean one who’s acquired some level of expertise in preparing espresso-based coffee drinks.
   Baristas know more than just the basics of espresso — they understand the history of coffee, are familiar with various blends and varieties, know how to use espresso equipment, and are often skilled in "latte art" (creating designs on top of espresso drinks).
   Small World’s employees don’t get to make drinks right off the bat — there’s plenty of training that goes into becoming a coffee connoisseur. Before becoming a "barista," employees work on the register and do all of the other little things that keep a café up and running, "until they get a holistic idea of how the place works," said Ms. Durrie. Then comes 20-plus hours of training on the espresso machine, where they learn how to steam and foam milk, and make everything from lattes to cappuccinos to macchiatos and more.
   New baristas are tested for accuracy in making drinks, as well as speed. You can’t work, after all, in a bustling place like Small World without being on the ball. At the end of their training, baristas take what Ms. Duriee calls "the four-cup test." For the test, the barista has to be able to pour four froth-topped cappuccinos from one cup of milk. "If you can do that, you’re a pretty good barista," said Ms. Duriee. Small World has yearly cappuccino-making contests, judged by former baristas.
   The art of espresso expertise has grown to such popular proportions that there’s not only a "Barista Guild of America," but also a World Barista Championship. The first battle of the baristas took place in 2000 in Monte Carlo, where a group of 12 baristas from various nations showcased their talent and competed against one another. Last year, representatives from 35 countries traveled to Trieste, Italy, a mecca of high-quality espresso, to compete in the 2005 WBC. But being a barista isn’t about competition. For many who work in the coffee retail industry, the café environment is the best part of their job.
   Vinn Jule, a Small World barista who’s worked at the establishment for five years, loves the diversity among the clientele. "I’ve made some good friends here, other employees and customers. The staff at Small World feels like family. There’s not as much employer-employee separation as in other places," he said.
   In addition to the usual regulars, Mr. Jule has dealt with some odd customers during his time at Small World. "One guy kissed the floor from the door all the way to the back of the café. We read that he also did it in an Amherst café, so apparently he roams the country kissing café floors," said Mr. Jule. Ms. Duriee laughed, saying "our mantra here is ‘it takes all kinds.’"
   Linda Grimsley, owner of Orpha’s Coffee Shop in Montgomery, started out as a coffee roaster-wholesaler. She used to attend coffee roasting meetings and classes with her husband, Patricio, as a hobby, before turning it into a business. "Coffee roasting is sort of like wine tasting. It’s something you do on the side by taking classes and going to meetings. It’s a hobby. But we do it very well," said Mrs. Grimsley. When her husband lost his job after 9/11, Mrs. Grimsley resigned from her corporate job and the couple "took our hobby on full time."
   After roasting and selling coffee wholesale, "people told us we should open a retail shop so that we’d have a face for what we’re selling," said Mrs. Grimsley. To learn more about her trade, Linda and Patricio attend meetings, trade shows and classes. They are also members of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), a trade association for one of the fastest-growing food industries in the world. The couple also has attended Coffeefest, an industry-wide trade show held three times a year.
   Orpha’s has been open for three years. Unlike many corporate-owned coffee shops, Orpha’s roasts their coffee on the premises "We make everything fresh. We sell and serve everything in our store within a week of making it," said Mrs. Grimsley. While Linda is also a coffee roaster, she calls Patricio the "master roaster" behind Orpha’s.
   Similar to Small World, Orpha’s employees have to complete preliminary training before becoming full-fledged baristas. They finish at least 12 hours of training before they work behind the counter, learning things like the proper temperature and pressure needed to make drinks, how to foam milk correctly, and more. They also watch videos on the history of coffee and how it’s made.
   "It’s not required that they drink coffee. I’ve had people work here that never drank coffee before. Then they learned about how it’s made and how to make drinks, and now they drink it black," said Mrs. Grimsley. Eventually the baristas also learn how to decorate their creations with latte art.
   For Mrs. Grimsley, the best of part of her job is "being her own boss." Like Ms. Duriee, she enjoys being able to serve her customers. "It rewarding to be selling something you really believe in," she said.
   Orpha’s also sees its share of regulars. "Even though we’re sort of hidden (in a shopping center), the café’s still a meeting place of sorts. About 50 to 60 percent of our customers are regulars," Mrs. Grimsley said.
   "We don’t know everyone by name — but we recognize people and we know them by drink. So we say hello and we know that ‘oh, that’s medium cappuccino guy.’"
   Orpha’s baristas love the laid-back environment of their work. "Working in a coffee shop is really fun because you get a lot of regulars. It’s a social job. I enjoy coming to work," said Jill Schwarte. Fellow barista Jenna Kring agreed, "It’s hardly even a job. We get paid to talk to people."
   Owning a café isn’t easy. "It takes up a lot of hours, a lot of waking up early," said Mrs. Grimsley. But for those involved, there’s an art to their trade that they’re passionate about. While many cafes have purchased high-tech espresso equipment, Orpha’s doesn’t use "super automatic machines," said Ms. Grimsley. "You lose the art of making coffee," she explained.
   The sense of community and helping customers is the other major draw for café owners. "There’s never a dull moment," said Ms. Duriee, with a smile.