Rituals: Lessons from my barista

Neil Breen on the daily grind.

Almost all of us have a morning coffee ritual. And I’m not talking about the Moccona or Nescafe ritual of our parents as we grew up. I’m talking about the modern-day coffee ritual of grabbing a flat white or a latte on your way to work or after the school drop-off or after the gym session.

Mine is fairly rigid. Each weekday morning, I either travel north through the harbour tunnel or towards the west or south to start the day.

On the west-south days, I find a park on Oxford Street and get a large skinny flat white at 352 Fresh. This is purely a take-away breakfast place. There’s a top Swedish guy there who’s always up and wanting to chat sports or whatever. Makes a top brew. If he sees me pull up he begins making my coffee before I even get out of the car. “There you go buddy … have a good one hey.”

If I travel north, I stop at Bloodhound Espresso in East Sydney. Amazingly, I can always jag a park nearby, grab a coffee, have a chat and then start working out how on earth I will cross William Street and make my way towards the north. That’s a whole other column in itself.

The key to the ritual is loyalty. I am very loyal to both these places — even to the point where, if I haven’t had the need to travel west or south lately, I feel guilty that I haven’t seen my Swedish mate for a week or so. The reason is the chat. We’re about to embark on another busy day, and grabbing a coffee and having a yarn is a little respite from the approaching mayhem.

It was at East Sydney that I learnt a valuable lesson that really struck a chord with me. The cafe is run by a few cool young guys approaching 30 with the obligatory sleeve of tattoos. They are incredibly friendly, know all the regulars and, despite a build-up of orders, always have time for eye contact and banter. All with a smile. When it’s not busy it’s hard to get away.

One morning, shortly after I first discovered the place, I ordered my coffee halfway through returning an email to someone. I then sat down on the outside-waiting seats and continued to deal with the emails and texts beeping away on the phone. It was one of those mornings.

By the time my coffee was ready, I was talking on the phone and hardly made eye contact as I reached to take the much-needed flat white. As I took hold of it, the owner/barista held onto it for a split second, as if to get my attention, and in a slightly raised tone said to me “Have a good day mate”. It was his way of telling me I ordered my coffee without looking up from my phone then took my coffee while talking on it.

As I drove to work I realised what slaves to the phone we’d become. I’d become. The guy was right. He was saying “Slow down, dude, have some conversation, stay human even if for a minute”. He sees his purpose as more than just making me a coffee.

Ever since that day I have left the phone in the car or in my pocket when I get a coffee. Same thing when getting lunch, or at the school drop-off, or at my girls’ touch football or netball games. I leave it at home when I go to dinner with my wife.

It’s one of the reasons I am fiercely loyal to my coffee haunts. They’re more than a place to get coffee. They a slice of a more simple life.