Steam rose from the shiny orange espresso machine. Workers scurried back and forth behind the thick wooden counter, preparing milk and espresso for the gathered customers at Cafe Grumpy in Midtown.

The scene was the same happening around the city every morning: specialty coffee workers preparing a cup of artisan java for New York City’s local coffee aficionados.

The growth of artisan coffee has created new career opportunities, attracting New York’s young people with higher wages in entry-level jobs and career mobility. Many can make close to $20/hour in wages and tips. And many have begun coming to specialty coffee as a post-college career.

“Third wave” coffee is characterized by slowly-brewed drip coffee and simple milk-and-espresso drinks. First wave coffee was Folgers, second wave was Starbucks, and now third wave is the Café Grumpies, Stumptowns, and Intelligentsias of America.

Over the last fifteen years, specialty coffee has spread from its origins in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, landing most recently in New York City. While some cafes and roasters have failed, many, like 4-year-old Brooklyn Roasting Company, are wildly successful.

In the last 18 months, according to founder Jim Munson, the fledgling company’s profits have doubled – from $5 million in revenue to close to $10 million.

Portland’s Stumptown and San Francisco’s Blue Bottle have both opened cafes and roasteries in New York City in the last five years, and New York staple Joe the Art of Coffee expanded in 2012 to Philadelphia.

The success has allowed the third wave coffee industry to pay higher wages than “second wave” competitors. The average wage for food and beverage servers in the United States in 2012 was $8.84 per hour, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Dunkin Donuts baristas make much less at $7.78/hour, as reported by employees on the website “” Starbucks baristas in New York City on average earn $9.40/hour, while the second-wave establishment contemplates a three percent raise.

But behind the futuristic orange espresso machines of the six Café Grumpy coffee houses, baristas start at $12/hour, while those at San Francisco import Blue Bottle start at $11. Each café’s entry wage varies depending on prior experience, and increases with each level of training.

“We think it’s the right thing to do, to pay our employees a living wage,” said Lisa, a spokesperson for Café Grumpy.

Baristas at third-wave roasters in New York City make on average $12/hour, plus tips that can bring their take-home closer to $20/hour.

Rookie ‘barbacks’ at Joe cafes start at $10, but move up fifty cents at every stage of their barista training, and usually within a year are making $11 or $12/hour in wages plus at least $6/hour in tips, putting a “Joe” barista’s takeaway around $18/hour or more.

It isn’t a three dollar pour-over that is making the money for these business, though. To be lucrative, cafes have to either sell food and baked goods or roast their own beans. Roasteries make the majority of their income in wholesale beans, and cut out their own cafe’s wholesale purchasing costs in the process. Roasteries also have the most opportunities for upward mobility.

Coffee has a long journey from seedling to 30-second espresso pull, and Roasteries have developed a wide range of jobs to shepherd it on its way. Green buyers travel the world, scouting the best beans and building relationships between growers and the roastery. Roasters study the science of heat-on-bean in order to bring out the perfect flavor profile. The wholesale department ferries roasted beans around to non-roaster cafes and retailers, with an army of packagers, truck drivers, salespeople and managers. And in the shops, experienced baristas can train new hires or be trained themselves as a Q-graded cupper, the coffee industry’s version of a sommelier.

Behind the coffee, there are a plethora of other jobs – from accountant’s assistant to event managers and designers – and most roasters will pay for the extra training required. At the top of this career ladder sit general managers, owners and CEOs, who have the potential to make over six figures.

Jonathan Rubenstein said that when he started “Joe the Art of Coffee” in 2001, most employees were college kids.

“Now, half are here for a coffee career,” he said.

When Jim Munson left Brooklyn Brewery to start Brooklyn Roasting Company, he wanted the same mobility that had been available to him at the Brewery to be a reality for his workers at his new coffee company.

Munson, who started at the brewery as a delivery driver and worked his way up to partner, said baristas at the four-year-old company often are promoted to trainers, wholesale reps, and more. The company’s 27-year-old general manager herself was plucked from the barista ranks early on when Munson noticed her strengths were in other areas and made her his executive assistant.

“That kind of opportunity is what were talking about,” said Munson. “The last thing you want to do is put someone in what they feel is a dead-end job that’s underpaid.”

“I came [to New York] with the purpose of getting further into specialty coffee,” said Aislinn Cullen, who moved from Australia three and a half years ago. After a stint at Blue Bottle in San Fransico and a couple years in coffee back home in Australia, Cullen finally came to the decision that she wanted coffee to be her career, not her waiting place. She moved to New York without a job, was hired back by Blue Bottle as a barista, and is now a trainer with the company.

In the future, she’s thinking about getting involved in nonprofit organizations that work with growers in Africa and South America, or becoming a Q-graded cupper.

“There’s this whole career ahead of me, and its super exciting and I like it.”


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