What It's REALLY Like To Be A San Francisco Barista

San Francisco: It’s a city as much defined by its coffee culture as it is by its tech scene. Around here, if you’re going out to get coffee, you’re likely hitting up one of a number of local roasters with menus that feature increasingly specific flavor profiles and bean origins. And the experience of walking into one of these places is not complete without the knowledgeable baristas preparing the drinks — who, if asked, will tell you everything you need to know about what you’re ordering (and we mean everything).

We have a unique relationship with specialty coffee. It’s no secret, then, that we have a unique relationship with those who make it as well. Baristas at beloved, well-trafficked cafés not only get to know their clientele intimately, but also have a distinct lens on the city. They all come with their own stories, just as working in coffee has, amid serving hundreds of people a day detailed, made-to-order drinks, had them bear witness to plenty of stories worth hearing. Ahead, professional baristas share their experiences in the coffee world, from the strange, to the funny, to the remarkably profound.

Photo: Courtesy of Christy Greenwald.
Christy Greenwald
Barista at Ritual
6 years


"I’m a big fan of costumes and wigs — I have a big wig collection. Something I love about San Francisco is that I can wear whatever I want any day of the week here, and it might be weird, but it’s not that weird. I’m also a huge science nerd. I started taking prerequisites for grad school about two years ago, thinking I would go into nutrition. And it turns out, I’m just in love with biochemistry. I can apply that science to coffee; do my own experiments. I like that in coffee you get to mess with things, change the flavors. It has science and creativity — I like that combination a lot.

"So, one of my favorite regulars is this guy who walks dogs, and is a drag queen, and we ended up forming a friendship. He’s given me good wig-shop recommendations. I’d been looking to potentially intern in a lab as well, and he also put me in contact with somebody who works at a lab in town. And this person he connected me with ended up, coincidentally, being one of my old customers, too. I really like when that kind of thing happens, where there’s a lot of overlap and everyone just knows everybody."
Photo: Photographed by Monica Semergiu.
Brett Walker
Former Barista at Four Barrel; now owns George and Lennie
6 years


"Back in the early days of Four Barrel, things were always kind of wild and crazy. The Mission, in general, back then compared to now, [was] a different place as far as the people that hung out in the café and the general attitude and vibe. Everything was kind of wilder back then. So, one time when I was working the floor, it didn’t seem that weird to me when five guys in these cheap, weird, all-white, kind of '70s-looking prom tuxes came in wearing ski masks. They kind of looked like bank robbers from a bad movie, and they were carrying a giant ladder. They come in, and they put the ladder up against the wall above the condiment bar, where there’s these four taxidermy boar heads that are mounted to the wall. Two of them held the ladder, and one of them goes up the ladder, and the other ones are just standing around surveying everything. This guy is trying to take off the mounted boar’s head from the wall, and I was like, Whatever, stranger things have happened here.

"I kept working, but my coworker Justin was really concerned, wondering what we should do, because no one was doing anything and these guys were just stealing this huge boar’s head off the wall. And people were still trying to get half-and-half for their coffee on the coffee bar right below them while they were doing this. They came down off the wall with the boar’s head, and the second they were on the ground, they started running out of the café. And Justin was like, 'Dude, we gotta stop them!' I was like, 'What the fuck are we supposed to do? There’s a line out the door!' So Justin runs out there onto the sidewalk and grabs the boar’s head, and he’s wrestling with the bandits, and there’s a tug-of-war to try to get it back. And customers start coming outside, and people are like, 'Beat their ass! Beat their ass!' I run out there to help Justin. Some [way] or another, I think a customer ended up with it. One guy was lying on the ground at this point, and Justin ripped off his mask, and it turns out it was Sean McGee, who owned Amnesia at the time. When we got the mask off another dude, it was Josey Baker, who would go on to open The Mill. It turned out to be all these dudes that we knew, who were just pranking us. I think [Four Barrel’s owner] Jeremy was actually in on it, and didn’t tell us about it. And that’s what I’m saying, like back in the day, that was just kind of the attitude and the vibe of the people in the food and hospitality industry here."
Photo: Courtesy of Bobby Sanchez.
Bobby Sanchez
Barista at Four Barrel
7 years


"As a barista, because you work in such a public place, people recognize you and ask you about your life and remember things. We have some pretty faithful regulars that get to know us. When I decided to do the AIDS/LifeCycle for a second time, I did all of my fundraising through customers here. It was such a great thing to be able to support this cause, and it’s touching, because on this ride you’re surrounded by different people affected by HIV and AIDS. When customers would come in, they would ask, ‘How are you doing?’ And I would tell them, ‘I just signed up to do the ride! I gotta raise money.’ Over the course of a week, I raised everything I needed through them. I mean, my friend who had been fundraising for eight months still needed money for the ride. So that was pretty amazing."
Photo: Courtesy of Brenna Betts.
Brenna Betts
Barista at Wrecking Ball
3 years


"Back when I was working at another coffee shop, I met a lot of fairly interesting people. You know, famous people and artists. One time I was doing the magazine shelf, which includes switching out old magazines for new ones. I was ripping old covers off of old magazines to send them back to be reimbursed for the cost, so that you’re not paying for things that didn’t sell. And this guy came in with some friends, and he was looking at me. He said, 'What are you doing — putting the new magazines out? Is that how you send them back? So are those discounted?' And I told him, 'Yeah, they’re free-99, because who wants to buy a ripped-cover magazine? That’s stupid.' And he laughed and was like, 'Which magazine do you think I should buy?'

"I asked him what he was looking for, and he said he wanted the ones with the most nudity. So I told him to check out the European ones, since they tend to have the most nudity. And then, I look over and another barista was like, 'Brenna. That’s Sergey Brin. He started Google.' I told her, 'Hey, I just like to mess with people. I’m sassy. That’s just how I am.' And then, when I got on register to help people, he came over and was really excited. He was wearing sweatpants and had Google glasses around his neck, like totally casual, which I appreciate, because people with Google glasses would come in there a lot and it always weirded me out. But he came up to me and said, 'Okay, I guess I’ve decided Sports Illustrated is the best one with the most nudity.' And I said, 'Oh yeah, that’s actually a really great issue.' And he told me, 'Yeah, thanks for the tip,' and then tipped me $5 for the magazine."
Photo: Courtesy of Patrick Rice.
Patrick Rice
Barista at Ritual
3 years


"The Real World came in here one time; that was weird. They gave us about an hour’s notice. They were like, 'By the way, we’re The Real World, we’re gonna be there in about an hour.' They asked us not to have the music up. They rolled up in a limo Hummer and they all got out, and then the film crew ordered coffee. One of the actresses started asking Alex here a whole bunch of questions about the coffee, and it was kind of funny; they had the camera on him trying to answer these questions. We’re not like your average coffee shop, so I don’t know why they chose Ritual of all places to come in. Apparently, they just needed a scene of people getting coffee. So someone started asking us questions about coffee, and here, you’re going to get this long-winded response — well, not long-winded, but with the level of detail to where you feel like you learned something. It was funny seeing one of those people come up and start asking about coffee, and them being like, Oh, whoa, I didn’t expect this level of answer."
Photo: Courtesy of Tom Baker.
Tom Baker
Barista at Jane
12 years


"At work, I just talk to people all day long; that’s kind of what I do. I’m the concierge type. Somebody comes in and they wanna know where they can get a good sandwich. And it's like, 'Oh, there's this place nearby, or you want something a little more gourmet? You can go across town to this place.' Or, 'Oh, you’re looking to get your eyelashes extended? My girlfriend goes to this place.' Or, [they say] 'I need a foot massage,' and I tell them, 'You can get a full-body, or you can get your feet done at this place.' I’m not very social, but I try to be that guy people can call if they need to.

"I can’t really think of any fun, crazy stuff; it’s always really depressing stuff. Like, Oh, there’s that guy sleeping on that mattress. Oh, look, the paramedics are showing up. Oh, that guy’s dead. That happened a few months ago across the alleyway from the shop. It’s San Francisco; I don’t think anyone’s gonna argue that there’s [not] a lot of homeless people in the city. Mostly, it’s the same drunk people out there, drinking, napping on the street. And this guy was on a mattress, and a lot of people were walking over and around him all morning. By 9 a.m., first response shows up, and they put a blanket over him and declare him dead. I was making drinks, and I could see a clear view of it all out the window as it was progressing. It was pretty wild. Definitely depressing."
Photo: Courtesy of José Ortez Jr.
José Ortez Jr.
Barista at Wrecking Ball
6 years


"I used to work for De La Paz coffee inside the Contemporary Jewish Museum. There was a Jewish deli, Wise Sons, and I was on the coffee side. Last year, I volunteered to work on Christmas Day. And I don’t know if you know how most Jewish people celebrate Christmas? They don’t. I didn’t really have an idea of what was going on at the time. I was like, Cool, this is going to be a super-busy day. I’ll make a lot of money, and it’ll be super-fun. And that was like the absolute worst day of my life, as far as work goes. There were literally hundreds of people lined up outside the door, and I was like, Okay, this is going to be the best day ever. I’m gonna make all these tips; I’m going to keep really busy. And it was the complete opposite.

"I worked from 10 in the morning to 3, and I made about five drinks the whole day. As far as barista work, if you’re working that type of thing the whole day, it’s so depressing to see that many people not ordering any coffee. You had to be there to see the mayhem that was there. I was basically standing there for five hours not doing anything, just watching people order food and never ordering any coffee. For some reason, just no one cared for coffee that day. It was really bizarre! I didn’t understand. It was so upsetting."
Photo: Courtesy of Sightglass.
Ricky Mendia
Barista at Sightglass
2 years

"I just recently started bartending, so that takes up a lot of my time outside the coffee world. It’s a place called Lone Star at South of Market. It’s like a gay bar, a bear bar. I work there mostly at night. It’s always funny bumping into one of the coffee regulars outside of work, but when it’s at the bar, you really get to know them. Like they’re at a bar and they’re already drinking, so they’re a lot more open to what they talk to you about — you know, besides coffee stuff.

"Anyway, there was this one day here we had someone — I can’t really call him a customer — a gentleman who came in, and he was really high on something, I’m guessing ecstasy. He was just kind of dancing around the store, not buying anything, making people uncomfortable. So I stepped up to kick him out, and as I was walking him out he started to freak-dance with me. I just stood there while he grinded up on me for about 10 seconds, then shooed him along. I was like, ‘Okay, come along,’ and he was just getting down. It was pretty funny. Luckily, since I also work at the bar, I’m used to people touching me when I don’t necessarily expect it."
Photo: Courtesy of Matt Fields.
Matt Fields
Barista at Jane
6 years

"Craziest day…man. I remember this one time, it was an average Wednesday afternoon. I think our espresso machine had gone down, and someone was coming in to fix it. So, all we had was drip coffee. This lady had come in before and had epilepsy. She had a spell, and luckily I knew that time she had epilepsy. I still don’t really know how to handle those situations, but at least I knew what was going on. The paramedics come, the fire department runs inside, but once they get inside this lady just starts screaming. Someone else had collapsed in the café while the paramedics were here.

"The fire department comes up to me, and they’re going, 'What’s in the coffee?!' And all we had was drip coffee, so I was like, Oh my god, did something get into the coffee and everyone is just dropping like flies now? It was crazy — you had to be there to experience it. People just dropping, this lady screaming. And then, to assume it’s our coffee — it was a really intense moment. It turned out she had epilepsy; she was fine, she came to. The other one was actually a regular, Victorio, and when he came back a couple days later, he said it was something to do with his heart. I was thankful the paramedics were already there to take care of them. It was convenient but, I guess, totally insane that it was going on. That happened three years ago, and I still remember it to this day."