As a hospitality worker, being heads-up on the job is key.
As a guest, being greeted, or at least visually acknowledged, within about 30 seconds of entering a service establishment is key to feeling taken care of.
These two facts are intimately intertwined. Engaging a guest in some way as soon as they enter the space is critically important as a way to begin a service interaction that communicates care, consideration, and calm capability from beginning to end. When it comes to communally-oriented service—and especially when it comes to tipping—this sort of social formality is paramount, and the barista who is able to look up from their prep tasks and engage in this way will always win out in both regards.
But thinking about a heads-up acknowledgement of guests as purely social flattery is deeply missing the point: visually tracking, interpreting, and managing the flow of guests is a critically important part of executing high-volume service with the sort of grace and deftness that enables truly consistent products and experiences.
It is your job as a barista to make sure that your service is flowing correctly, and to do this, you have to be watching. A service space is nothing without a flow, and especially not a busy cafe. Even if there is a line out the door, a quick bit of eye contact with each person shuffling in makes sure that the line is moving, gives you a feel for the speed of transactions and tickets, and helps build the crucial “we’re all in this together” bonhomie of a relaxing service interaction.
None of which is to say that acknowledging and tracking guests is something only for busy times in a cafe. Acknowledging someone as soon as they walk through the door of a largely empty cafe is if anything more important than in a busy cafe because of the need to recreate the service flow for each guest. There are many service layouts that make sense with a line of people queued up in them, but are largely mystifying to the uninitiated walking in the door. A polite greeting or even a simple bit of eye contact and a nod can be all it takes to guide a guest towards where they should go.
Even if a service layout is perfectly clear at every volume, visually acknowledging and tracking guests is important for staff, and especially staff working the espresso station, because it lets the people doing production anticipate their queue ahead of time. Even if there is a separate cashier taking orders, a barista who is working heads up and scanning the guests should be able to overhear the order being made and start prepping the shots/milks/cups/etc for the drinks. Being heads up behind the machine also allows you to see opportunities for you to help move the cashier queue if yours is empty, grab a pastry you see a group eyeing, or go do some work on the dishes pile.
Most of all, a heads-up barista never has a question of “who is this drink going to” because they’ve been watching the whole time as the guests flow through the ordering queue and then the production/receiving queue. Keeping your queues balanced and flowing is the essence of volume coffee production—and there’s less shouting of people’s names to boot.
Heads up service from behind the espresso machine is also an important component of truly stellar personalized service. Nothing is going to make a regular guest happier than having their drink made exactly how they like it, timed to appear perfectly to when they reach the register. Seeing guests puzzling over what to order is one of the most prototypical avenues to engaging a service conversation. And watching to make sure guests receive the correct drink and enjoy it is not only crucial feedback on the coffee, but also a crucial moment to step in and make it right with guests if things are going awry.
Developing the skill and confidence to let your hands and ears do the coffee making work without you having to stare at it is a challenge to be sure, and one most directly met with, well, just a ton of touch-memory and sound-memory practice. But once you’re able to look up from the work and engage customers, knowing your milk is swirling right by sound, and your dosing was precise and tamp true, then you can truly begin to be a barista—a confident service person behind a bar.
Whether it’s chatting with a curious guest who wants to geek out as you pull your shot or pour your concentric circles—or the casual banter that comes from seeing a regular most days they’re alive—looking up and engaging is the key to professional barista work. No matter how much you might be “on the machine” as a worker, you are still first and foremost a person responsible for the functional and social vibes of the spaces and experiences being created for your guests.
So please, look up when you are working in a cafe. It’ll make you a better barista, you’ll have more fun and make more money, and most of all, it’s the polite thing to do.
Alex Bernson is the editor of Barista Hustle.