Aus vs US

There are a million differences large and small between the Australian approach to coffee service and the standard fast-food style approach in the United States. But I think they all boil down to the physical positioning of one specific staff person.

In the United States, you generally wait in line approaching a bar where a single person is working a register station. There’s probably some form of overhead or printed menu you are supposed to peruse as you wait, and once you reach the front of the line, you order over the bar as soon as stepping up, finish the transaction quickly, and then have your drink shouted at you by a barista when it’s done and waiting.

In US coffee, the register person is behind the bar, and serves each party sequentially.

In Australia, this “register person” is actually responsible for far more than just register duties, and crucially, they are on the guest side of the bar for most of their time, serving multiple parties in parallel. (It’s worth mentioning that this is also default cafe service in parts of Europe and elsewhere, but Australia seems to have refined it the most in the coffee context.)

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When you walk into an Australian cafe, you may have to wait in-line for a bit, but when you reach the front of the line, you are greeted by a friendly server who either seats you and hands you a menu, or stands and talks you through their offering, or takes your order (it’s much more standardized down there with only a few main drink orders). The exact order of operations from there depends on if the cafe is more of a to-go style or a sit-down style cafe, but in every single cafe I observed they provide a complete service experience, paced to a pleasing social rhythm. What I mean by this is that the service person takes you through every bit of the service interaction from ordering, to delivering your order to you, to asking you if you’d like more, to handling payment and wishing you on your way.

Wait, this bears repeating: Coffee servers in Australia come around to your table and ask you if you’d like anything more when you finish something.

I have admittedly only spent a couple weeks in Melbourne myself, but I observed a fascinating phenomenon that pretty much every traveller who has visited confirms is true: in Australia, you often find that you’ve spent $20+ at a cafe in a single sitting.

The truly sumptuous array of food and juice and tea and alcohol and pastry etc. that cafes serve in Australia certainly helps explain this. But I’m pretty convinced that just as important is the fact that coffee service in Australia operates like any other hospitality industry and asks their guests if there’s anything else they would like, in a relaxed setting and way, and then charges them for it.

(From what I could tell Australia seems to be conveniently free of the history of free coffee refills that is so strong in the States, but I don’t think that’s insurmountable. You just have to give the full service experience.)

When you don’t have to wait in line to order more, it’s amazing how often someone asking leads to you getting another flat white, or to try the other pourover on the menu, or to snack on a croissant or avocado toast.

Now we’re back to that line thing, and the differences between Australian and US service. Because the serving worker is stuck in one place behind the bar in the US, they are forced to handle each economic transaction in full before moving on to the next one. This US approach is wildly inefficient, because each order transaction must immediately followed by an economic transaction, wrapping things up before moving onto the next party sequentially.

In Australia, the serving worker is much more free to roam amongst their guests, handling individual parts of transactions in batches, which is much more efficient, and leaves the serving worker more time to talk guests through menus, answer questions, and present elegant settings—all while the production barista happily chews through a queue of tickets.

Now, I haven’t addressed bar-style service or even really full restaurant-style service here, but I think that both of those styles also have at their core the idea of service people amongst their guests, either on the restaurant floor, or seated intimately at the bar. This is how hospitality-focused industries interact with their guests, and if US coffee wants to move past fast-food service, I think it needs to do the same.  

It’s time to get service out from behind the bar. Unless there is bar-seating, let the baristas focus on heads-down coffee production (as seems to be their wont already…). It’s time to have  dedicated serving positions that provide complete care through the entire service experience.

I know some people might say that US consumers aren’t ready for this style of service with their coffee, but I think we should have more faith in our guests. Especially because every other high-service business in the US already operates with service workers on the guest side of the bar.

As the Australians say, it’s time to get amongst it.

Alex Bernson is the editor of Barista Hustle (and an American).