Code of Conduct for the Specialty Coffee Business

The Third Wave Barista’s Guide to Ethics and Etiquette

written by Rafael Hoekstra and Les Kuan

An Extra Hot Tall Latte Please

It was a sunny morning in the beautiful Kensington market of Toronto, when Jane Jones walked into a cafe and politely asked the barista for an extra hot tall latte. He point-blank refused.

He said he “couldn’t do it”.

Bewildered, when Jane asked why, she was told that“it compromised the taste of the coffee beans and we don’t serve Starbucks cup sizes”. The sophisticated barista went on to explain what ­happens to the milk above a certain temperature.

Note that Jane didn’t ask what happens when you heat milk, she simply asked for a latte.

Obviously, she thanked the barista, handed over her credit card, and eagerly awaited what the barista described to be the scientifically superior beverage.

Just kidding!  Instead, she was struck by his condescending tone and self-centered concept of customer service. In fact, she almost wanted to educate him on the job of a barista: to serve coffee how a customer likes it! But, then again, he didn't ask for her to educate him either.

Instead, she simply walked out and went to another cafe over on College street. There she found...

What a Good Barista is

  • A good barista is a polite professional food service worker
  • A good barista is knowledgeable, and will share appropriately with customers who show interest

What a Barista is Not

  • A barista is not an abstract artist, there to make coffee how they feel like it.
  • A barista is not above those he/she is serving.

Guidelines for the Specialty Coffee Industry

Specialty Coffee, sometimes called the Third Wave of coffee is a new and still emerging industry. 

From the 1st wave of coffee importing from Italy in the early 20th century, we moved to a second wave in the 1960’s and 70’s when artisanal roasters began cropping up, notably in California and Seattle. The third wave of coffee’s focus is on quality in every thinkable manner, no longer treating coffee as a commodity or a product, including exceptional customer service.

Like any burgeoning field, we are figuring it out as we go along.

From early beginnings as hobbyists and coffee aficionados, we are now becoming a significant movement, both economically and in popularity. As we make this move from amateur to professional, we need to consider the standards of our industry, for this is how we will be perceived by the world.

Specialty Coffee in Canada Today

At this point, the Specialty Coffee culture in Canada is diverse. Walking into any given cafe on any given day, you may encounter anything from a polite and professional well dressed barista, to a scruffily-dressed kid who neither smile’s nor seems to care how you would like your coffee.

Unfortunately, much of this can be attributed to a combination of many baristas being paid minimum wage. Also, it is often seen as an entry-level job, with no prior training or qualifications required. As such, they may choose the job for its cool hipster image, and therefore dress like a skateboarder and bring some attitude into the workplace. With a high turnover of staff, it is relatively easy for an experienced barista to find a new job if for some reason it does not work out well in their current cafe. Unfortunately, this can promote a laissez faire attitude towards the job, like “It’s my way or the highway”.

Such an approach would never fly in comparable sectors of the hospitality industry such as chefs, bakers, or butchers. In all of these sectors, strict codes of professional conduct are demanded, not least for reasons of hygiene in places of food preparation. Alongside this, an appropriate uniform is mandatory in each of these sectors. For example, the aprons of chefs, the white uniforms and hats of bakers, and the safe footwear of butchers.

Where is such a standard for baristas?

Our hopes that as standards of professionalism rise across the specialty coffee industry, and as the skill of the craft of baristaship is acknowledged and appreciated, so too the salaries may rise from minimum wage to levels comparable with those of other skilled sectors within hospitality such as those of bakers and cooks.

Barista Code of Conduct Proposal 

As we strive to promote consistency in the quality of coffee, we must also promote consistency in the level of professionalism and service of baristas. We propose that the first step of this is to support an appropriate dress code for baristas. While this may vary somewhat between cafes, some of which may have a specific uniform, we promote the following guidelines for a code of dress as a minimum:

  • Tidy hair (if long, tied back and/or under a toque)
  • Closed shoes
  • Either: a shirt of the cafe, or plain shirt without brands/logos/writing that is freshly ironed
  • Apron

Essentially, a barista should look like they are working at the Cafe and not just hanging out in their street clothes.

In forming our code of conduct, we can draw on those from more established hospitality industries.

For example, the SAIT School of Hospitality and Tourism in Calgary, Alberta provides a dress code policy for those in the baking and pastry arts and professional cookery (not baristaship, yet!). This includes such basic things as clean nails, tidy hair, and abstaining from strong perfumes. Additionally, it is stated that jewelry should be conservative, facial hair well-groomed, and makeup understated.

Restaurants Canada from Toronto Ontario also provides a guide to employee uniforms and dress code best practices for the hospitality industry. They concisely cover the rules for each province, and recommend putting the dress code into writing for clarity. For example, black pants and a dark dress shirt can be chosen as a dress code that all employees can wear from clothing in their own wardrobes. And as explained in, there are several styles of dress code within hospitality, from formal to casual.

Alongside a basic level of dress, we can establish expectations for the level of professionalism and service. Again, while each cafe may have specific ideas on this, we can again draw on the golden rule of the hospitality industry, which states that “the customer is always right”. By following this golden rule, we can place the customer above our own ideas and in doing so improve our level of service.

Cheesy as it may be, it doesn’t hurt to reflect on Disney’s Service Model:

  • Smile 
  • Make Eye contact
  • Respect and welcome all guests
  • Value the magic
  • Initiate guest contact
  • Creative service solutions
  • End with a “thank you”

In hospitality, the service provider is “part of the product itself”. For guests to be satisfied, they not only must believe that they have received a valuable service for their dollar, but also feel valued and respected by the workers providing the service.

Keeping our Sense of Humour on this Journey

Coffee is addictive and delicious and it attracts all kinds of characters. From hurried office workers to hipster coffee snobs. As we make this transition from amateur to professional, let’s not forget to have some fun and laugh at ourselves a little.

This video comically illustrates the worst of contemporary cafe culture, where it seems that the last thing service staff would like to do is serve.

Let’s enjoy the irony and then rise above it

We are committed to supporting the growth of Third Wave Specialty Coffee, from a niche pursuit to a professional industry, with established guidelines in service standards.

We need to shift the focus away from the barista and back onto the customer. Customer service should always be first! Otherwise, you have noone to buy your goods and services.

To quote Alton Brown.. passion without pretension , knowledge without attitude...

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