The eMyth of the Cafe Business

Most self-help books seem like poor attempts to create a cult. They have one idea and spend 10 chapters of poor prose iterating the same point with different stories about really clever, successful people who are united only by their adherence to the one idea and the smugness of their smiles. The book promises to make you one of them if only you follow the path of the guru and their one idea.

Around four years ago I read a book with one idea called the ‘E-Myth Revisited’ by Michael E. Gerber. It maintains that the way out of the trap of working all hours of the night and day in your business is to write everything down in manuals so that, should anyone suddenly leave the business, or you got sick, or exhausted, or just needed a break, a new person could come in, read the manuals, do the training and crack on with the job. The book Gerber does assume that the work is less skilled than barista work, but I thought the idea of writing down and standardising the training was pretty good and set about doing so for our cafes.

The first thing that I wrote was the induction to the company. It covers the things required by law: pay, working conditions, holidays etc.; and the other things that new baristas to the company need to know: work expectations, service culture etc. Pretty boring stuff. Naturally, before doing this I searched out examples of what others had done, but the examples were such bloody awful cut-and-paste jobs that I had to write my own boring induction from scratch. After that, I decided the next logical thing to cover in a coffee business was barista training.

Up until this point, barista training had consisted of working side-by-side with enthusiastic baristas and everyone, including myself, learning by osmosis. We’d have the occasional training session on anything coffee related but there was nothing systematic. This worked fine when I had just one cafe, but by the time the third opened and I’d finished the designs for the fourth, I was far too busy trying to run the operation. I had got as far as developing seven workshops and an exam for the guys, but, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I wanted to spend the time with the guys practising and tasting coffee, not throwing lots of theory at them and hoping some would permeate into their long-term memory.

According to Michael E. Gerber I needed a barista training manual.
A barista training manual wasn’t something that I wanted to write: I had training notes for the seven workshops that I ran for the guys and just writing those had taken me quite some time. Besides, I had my work and three kids to spend time with, so I tried to find a textbook to complement the workshops. The best book on the market back then was Scott Rao’s The Professional Barista’s Handbook, which was excellent for the time it came out, but that time was 2007 and a lot has happened in coffee since then. Instead of a textbook I pointed the guys to blog posts by James Hoffmann, Emma Sage, Tim Wendelboe, the Coffee Collective and Matt Perger and a great couple of courses from Chef Steps. However, this felt quite fragmented and I really needed a comprehensive barista manual to backup the workshops – so I had to write my own, but it was important to me and the baristas that this wasn’t a boring textbook. What Michael E. Gerber failed to mention in his breezey ‘E-Myth Revisited’ was that writing these manuals takes a bloody long time – four years to be precise.

Part of the reason that it took me so long was that manuals aren’t just text and some artistic photos against red brick walls anymore. Some of the best manuals going these days are on YouTube. If you ever need to know how to hand-temper chocolate, fluff up a soufflé or perform an emergency tracheotomy, YouTube or Vimeo are a fairly good places to start. And it speaks to people, literally, in a very different way from traditional textbooks. But textbooks aren’t traditional anymore. Textbooks now have YouTube inside them. They include video, audio, 3D models and interactive content like quizzes to ensure that the reader is absorbing the subject matter. They can link to any website on the internet. They can offer up extra information depending on what answers a student gives in order to help them understand a subject better or automatically skip forward if the student already understands a subject. There are a couple of great pieces of software out there to help design this kind of textbook. One is Adobe InDesign and the other is the remarkably intuitive (and free for people with Mac computers) iBooks Author.

To sum up the process of getting to this point, I’d been taking the guys on seven workshops to get them ready for their exam:

  1. Induction into Artisan Roast: history of the company, culture, standards etc, etc.
  2. Retail: how to sell and make long-term customers.
  3. Flavour perception
  4. Grinding for coffee
  5. Handbrew
  6. Espresso 1
  7. Espresso 2

Before each workshop I’d go to the printers and make sure that I had enough handouts for the guys. This was always more rushed than was healthy for me and often the printers were too busy to print right away. Perhaps, you’re thinking, I should have just printed off stacks of notes and kept this stockpile close to hand so that I could nonchalantly grab a handful while leaving to set up the workshop. The problem was that my notes changed after every workshop. One of the guys would always ask me something that I didn’t know to the answer to or, after grading an exam, I’d realise that I hadn’t taught something well enough for the guys to grasp the concepts. Sometimes what I’d taught had been wrong and I’d have to go to everyone who’d already taken my workshops, wringing my coffee-stained hands, apologise and give them my updated notes on more dead tree.

Notes, notes, notes, reams of notes. Being a devote greenie, I felt ill printing on all that paper and started casting around for an electronic solution. I looked into many learning management systems (LMS) and spent weeks fighting with configurations of Moodle, Kineo, Adobe Captivate and Articulate. Finally, I discovered iBooks Author, which was full of bugs, but by far the easiest program I’ve tried and, importantly, got the message across best to the guys.

The idea of using text or even video to teach something that is, in its essence, a flavour might seem counterintuitive. But learning about coffee takes time and I’ve found that it’s better to spend workshop time practising and associating flavours with theory rather than merely boring people with a PowerPoint shower. More time tasting; less time talking.

Writing with iBooks Author was maddening because it constantly crashed and took up to 15 minutes to start up again (the bugs have now mostly been fixed by software upgrades and the crashing was greatly alleviated when I finally bought a new computer).  Moreover, there’s no function for tracking changes, so that a copyeditor can easily show where she’s made corrections. However, I’m fairly convinced that writing in iBooks Author created a book that I wouldn’t have written had it started in Pages or Word. Having the pop-up pictures, video, interactive content, 3D models, and quizzes in place while writing allowed me to preview the experience that the reader would eventually have and changed the way that I wrote. This helped me write something that centred more on the reader’s perspective, which is important.

My goal is not to teach; it’s for people to learn. It a subtle, but important distinction: I don’t need a boost to my already over-inflated ego; I need baristas to understand difficult concepts and be able to communicate those concepts to customers. Although some are academically gifted, not all baristas find that learning chemistry and fluid dynamics comes easily. However, using text that is supported by graphical explanations gets the message across much better than the textbooks of yesteryear.

Magnesium ions dissolved in water, increase the ability of the water to extract coffee solids.

Some people will read the previous sentence as far as ‘ions’ and the rest will read “…blah blah blah, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.” And I’m not surprised. It’s not a line that even Christopher Hendon could use to pull in the loosest of Massachusetts’ clubs. But everyone can understand the animation below.

This clip is part of an animated presentation that allows the student to progress at their own rate. Many people learn better visually, but, better than video, a multimedia textbook can engage the reader, making their learning active instead of merely passively watching a video or reading a book.

The big disadvantage of iBooks Author is that the iBook that it produces can only be read by the cult of Mac. If the student has a Windows computer or an Android device, they won’t be able to read the iBook. It is possible to convert the project using Amazon’s Kindle Textbook Creator to create books that will work on Kindle HDX, but the only interactive elements that survive this conversion are videos that will only play on Kindle Fire HDX devices and the resulting book is a fixed format. I spent two months converting the iBooks version to a Kindle version and I was so disappointed with the results that, in the end, I discarded it completely. Fortunately, iBooks Author will also create and export ePub books, which can be read by Windows, Android, as well as Mac and iOS using an ePub reader such as Google Play Books app.

Why bother converting the book? Well, as I mentioned before, a book like this is what I was looking for to act as a reference book to help my guys learn the theory behind their craft. If such a thing had existed then, I could have happily saved myself four years of lonely introspection and writerly angst. I needed it for my business and if you’re a barista or barista trainer, then you need it too. I also thought that it would be an easy thing to throw it onto the iBook and Amazon stores. I was wrong. It was a year ago when I thought that I had finished the project. However, editing the manual that I thought I’d finished took me over ten months. This process isn’t coffee related and doesn’t belong in a blog about things coffee and cafes, but if it is something that interests you, I have written down the publishing journey here.

Editing took a long time because being a barista isn’t a simple thing. It’s not a single idea, around which I could write 10 chapters of poor prose. It’s complex and needs clear writing to get across the concepts. But it wasn’t just this that took so long: coffee keeps changing and we never stop learning about it. Since publishing the iBook on 20 May 2016, I’ve already made four updates to the book, which brings me back to one of the reasons that I decided to go digital in the first place: updates are inevitable. And in this format, the baristas will always have the latest version to hand.

The book is called Coffee for the Mildly Obsessed and the iBook version is available here.


Available on iBooks.

I’ve also put together a barista trainer’s package, so that trainers can adapt the materials for their own style of coffee. This package, ePub, MOBI and PDF versions are available here.


Barista Trainer’s Package available from Coffeegen.


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