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Four keys to a lightning fast espresso bar workflow with Steve Cuevas

Black Oak recently sent our head roaster, Steve Cuevas (@dreadfulvegan) and production manager Mckenzie Alexander down to San Francisco to compete in Crush the Rush, a competition sponsored by La Marzocco, to highlight and bring attention to a key aspect of any cafe’s customer service: customer wait times. 

The premise of the competition is simple. A team of three baristas is given an eight drink order and must serve the judges properly prepared drinks in the fastest time. The winning team finished in less than 4 minutes, which amounts to less than 30 seconds per drink.

I sat down with Steve to recap the lessons of Crush the Rush and what he learned from our team (we didn’t win) and watching the performance of the best teams. Steve laid out four key lessons from the competition that can speed up bar workflow:

  1. Proper deployment
  2. Labor saving devices on the bar
  3. Milk sharing
  4. Teamwork

If you can get your team to produce at close to 30 seconds per drink, you can reduce your labor costs by half.

Key 1: Proper deployment

Clearly defined roles and a team leader. 

Station 1 - Shot Puller: This can be your least experienced person. They are going to be pulling shots as fast as possible. The key to their efficiency comes down to proper equipment selection.

Station 2 - Milk Steamer: This person is steaming pitchers of milk, one after another. Keeping the steam wand busy without stopping to pour drinks is going to speed up the team. 

Station 3 - Drink Pourer, Expediter: This person is going to be pouring drinks, filling milk pitchers, helping the other stations stay cranking by always being one step ahead, and finally, serving customers. Ideally this is your most experienced barista, the one most able to understand and anticipate the challenges of a rush.



Key 2: The right technology

Tools and experience to help multitask efficiently are critical

Any time a group head isn’t working to make a coffee, your team will fall further and further behind the rush of customers and the 3rd person in the deployment will be idle for too long. Espresso shot times are going to be between 20 and 30 seconds in most espresso bars. To understand how to keep this torrid pace, the key factor is keeping your group heads pumping out shots with very little down time. Assuming your espresso shot is about 25 seconds, your shot puller must be able to knock, clean, dose, tamp and start a shot in about 20 seconds. This way, each group head will be able to output a shot in less than 30 seconds.

There are two vitally important pieces of technology that will help this happen:

  1. Auto Volumetric or gravimetric shot control. This way the barista only has to press a button to pull a shot, no waiting to manually stop a shot, no wasted hand motions.
  2. On demand grinder that grinds fast and starts as soon as the portafilter is placed on the holder. This way there are no wasted motions or extra hand movements to hinder the workflow.

Optional add on: An auto tamper, like a puqpress. Once again, in addition so saving repetitive stress of manually tamping, the puqpress only requires one hand, freeing up the other hand to grab cups, clean the bar, or advance shots to the milk steamer.

Key 3: Milk Sharing

A skilled milk steamer should be able to prepare two or three drinks in one pitcher

Milk sharing is key to fast bar workflow. With a larger pitcher a barista should be able to steam at least two drinks at one time, assuming they are both smaller than 12oz each. Additionally, with proper technique, they should be able to accurately adjust the foam levels of the drinks. 

For example, a skilled barista should be able to steam a cappuccino, cortado and macchiato in one pitcher. This will require about 12 oz of milk, textured to have thick foam and then the barista is going to quickly pour a lot of foam off to a secondary pitcher for the cap. The first pitcher is going to be used for the latte. The barista will then swirl and cool the second, foamier pitcher to pour the cappuccino. The remaining foam in the pitchers will then be combined to make the macchiato and voila, three drinks in the time it would normally take to steam one. 

The final frontier might be a way to combine different milks in one pitcher, steam them, and then pour them separately through an AI powered milk protein separator.

Key 4: Teamwork

There is no substitute for a team that is well organized, communicative and experienced

There are a lot of factors that you can’t control with your bar, such as: what your customers order. On top of that, mistakes will be made. How resilient your team is in recovering from these mistakes and getting back into the flow is the key to overall speed.

Your final person in the three person deployment is the key to keeping your team in flow:

  • They should help the shot puller prep any drinks that require outside ingredients such as mochas or specialty drinks.
  • They should communicate constantly with the milk steamer about milk sharing and which drinks on the menu can be combined.
  • They must ensure that the service is top quality: tight latte art, no spills, and fill levels on point.
  • They should help remake drinks if the customer isn’t happy.

Finally, how you hire, train and motivate your team has a huge impact on how much pride they will take in the continuous improvement process.

Customers love a fast bar, your bottom line will too.

Fast service means more sales per hour and lower labor costs. Let's say your cost for a 5 person crew is $100 per hour. If you can serve 50 customers at an average ticket of $8 your labor cost will be 25%; totally solid.

What if that same team could serve 80 customers and make $640 in sales? All of a sudden your labor is down to 15%, 100 customers and you are down to 13%. 

Persons on staff


Customers served per hour




Labor cost




Labor cost %




On top of that, the staff is going to be making killer tips if you are serving 100 customers in an hour with low wait times. 

Speed is one of the most important, often overlooked areas of customer service in specialty coffee. Excessively slow service will undermine the great work that your team is doing to craft delicious espresso drinks.

Fast service, and the awesome teamwork and camaraderie engendered by that come from a high performing team will make everyone in your value chain happy. 

by Black Oak Team | August 15, 2019

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