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Life behind the bar

April 23, 2012

By Ora Morison

Barista is Italian for bartender. A beautiful word that in North America describes the perhaps mundane job of serving coffee to people who can afford a $4 drink each morning.

More often than not, being a barista is a temp job and those who work it blend into the background of someone else’s morning routine. Baristas are often young – youthful enough to stand on their feet all day – and in transition.

Whether a starving student, a starving recent grad, or a single mother trying to keep her child from starving, the barista is often someone who has left one life phase and is trying to get to another.

Ottawa’s Bridgehead chain of coffee shops employs baristas at its dozen locations across the city. And, from their place behind the bar, these people seem to have found a way to make ends meet while they go through their transitions.

“It’s surprisingly fulfilling,” 22-year-old Will Assad says. He’s been working full time at the Bridgehead on Ottawa’s Sparks Street mall for seven months, since he lost his job at a recording studio.

Assad graduated from the recording arts program at Fanshawe College in London, Ont., and then studied at The Audio Recording Academy in Ottawa, a private college where he learned sound engineering.

He has dark brown eyes and a brown curl of hair frames his face. His dream is to record his own music, but working at Bridgehead is OK too.

“I don’t feel like I’m biding my time,” he says, even though he is actively looking for other work.

After working at The Audio Recording Academy helping other artists with commercial recording, Assad found himself out of a job when the school consolidated several positions into one. He’s only sticking around at Bridgehead until something better comes up.

“I’d really like to get back into [music],” he says.

Assad says he enjoys the atmosphere of teamwork with the other baristas and likes chatting with the regular customers. The job is so good, he says, that he doesn’t feel the need to constantly remind himself why he’d take job serving coffee after a college diploma and practical experience.

It is worth a lot “not to have to rationalize doing this,” Assad says.

His manager, Jen Broad, accepts the fact that this is not a long-term career for him.

“Bridgehead is realistic about people,” she says.

Broad has worked in the service industry for 16 years. Even though she has a degree in something else, she loved serving so much she decided to stick with it.

But Broad knows Assad probably won’t be there much longer than a year.

“If I don’t find more stable employment in the next six or seven months, I will probably make plans to leave,” Assad says. He will either move to another city, perhaps Montreal where there might be more work in his field, or go back to school.

Assad’s co-worker Megan MacLeod is working to save money to move to Vancouver.

“My job is not hard. I serve coffee.” MacLeod says.

But her day-to-day life can be difficult. MacLeod is a young, single mother who didn’t graduate from high school. She is soft-spoken with a thin-lipped, wide smile.

While the service industry has a reputation for demanding long hours, the coffee shop schedule fits well with MacLeod’s child-care demands – and it’s clear she enjoys job. During an ebb in the flow of customers in to the store, MacLeod literally bounces from the coffee machine into hugs with her co-workers.

A few weeks ago her child-care situation changed and she needed to be home earlier to pick up her son. She says it was easy to talk to her manager and change her schedule to shifts earlier in the day.

“The way they do everything [here], it’s so right,” MacLeod says.

She is open with her co-workers and manager about the way her life has to be. Her son is her priority, and the job is a means to an end. Everybody seems to support her.

Valentina Velieva, 21, works regularly with MacLeod and Assad at the Sparks Street location. The barista job is a great way to put in the time while she charts a new course for her life.

After studying music at the University of Ottawa for two years, Velieva, who emigrated from Russia at 15, took a year off to re-evaluate and started working at Bridgehead. She plans to head back to school next September for a general arts degree, and ultimately wants to study medicine.

“I’m a big science geek,” Velieva says, and making coffee even appeals to her academic interests.

During her training to become a barista, she loved learning about the chemical process coffee beans go through as they are roasted and ground.

Velieva likes the pace at Bridgehead. Despite the stream of approximately 1,000 customers that come through the door during an average eight-hour shift, she finds it “really easy going.”

Velieva is looking at nearly another decade spent in school, so having a job is important for her to be able to pay bills and keep her debt to a minimum. She plans to switch to part-time barista work when she goes back to school.

For Velieva, MacLeod and Assad, not much is certain except for the fact that in a few months their lives might be totally different.

But these three seem to have found a place that will see them through their present state of flux. Customers who order the same drink at the same time each morning provide reliability to counter the uncertainty they feel. Even though it’s part of Assad’s plan, he says it will be hard for him to tell his manager he’s quitting when the time comes.

“I like being here,” Assad says. “When I leave it’s going to suck.”

For all the uncertainty about his future, Bridgehead has become one place he knows he can count on.

———————-

I wrote this article as part of my advanced print reporting class at Carleton University. The assignment was to write a “participant observation” piece and we were to go out in to an environment, immerse ourselves in it and write from that perspective.

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