What does it feel like to forgo a chance to work in management and finance and instead take up the position of a barista in an indie café? Leaderonomics’ writer Tamara Jayne speaks to Mahesh Krishnan, a coffee craftsman at a local café, to find out more about his decision to take up coffee art and life as a coffee maker.
He had a concerned look on his face as I entered the café before they opened early on a Friday morning.
“Good morning! What’s the matter?” I ask.
“Oh hey! My colleague’s car just broke down. She’s trying to find her way here,” he replies.
I expected him to tell me that we have to postpone our interview as he rushed to pick her up before the café needed to be opened. That just seemed like the kind of thing he would do for as long as I’ve known him. Always kind-hearted and willing to go out of his way for anyone.
I spent the next hour chatting with Mahesh Krishnan, coffee lover and barista, as he passionately shared his three-year journey – the struggles and the joys that come along with making coffee and latte art every day. He explained that his curiosity got the better of him and that sparked his interest way before the “coffee boom” happened.
“I saw all those different drinks. . . flat whites, lattes and more. I was curious and wondered how one could make so many different drinks out of just shots and milk.
“I spoke to an old friend, Ayub, who was a barista at that time, and he shared with me that coffee is an art. It’s not just a job.”
With his curiosity and willingness to learn, Mahesh joined the barista life. “Back then, there were only two cafés around Petaling Jaya other than the commercial ones. People were starting to move away from commercial coffee joints like Starbucks and Coffee Bean,” Mahesh explained.
I asked him, “What’s your favourite part about being a barista?”
“It’s definitely the art bit of it. That’s where I have a lot of fun. The best part of the job for me is also the opportunity I get to meet people. . . both the customers and the people I get to work with.
Coffee is a language. There’s a whole culture behind it. It’s a conversation starter. We meet our regular customers and different kinds of people every day. You might think it’s just a cup of coffee, but to me, I see it as a chance to share my journey with these people.
“They speak to me about their jobs, their lives, and sometimes even come here to vent their frustrations. Sometimes when they need time off from work, they’ll come here and let it out.”
Having completed a bachelor’s degree in management and finance, Mahesh feels that this is not a short-term plan for him. “I really am passionate about coffee. Even if I go into the corporate world, I want to keep this as a skill. I can work on the weekends. To me, it can even be a retirement plan. I can always come back to this. I see it as a skill and an art. It is something I enjoy doing.
“Whether it is sustainable or not, that depends on how far I pursue it.
People do discourage me. Sometimes I feel like maybe I’m not earning enough? Sometimes I wonder if I keep doing this, I may not be able to start a family either.
“Family members have also asked that since I have a degree, why am I still doing this at 25? But I don’t have to answer to everyone. I know I’m learning a lot and meeting lots of people. I have plans. Eventually, I do want to have a more stable job. To me, this is my hobby and I’m still making money. I treat it as an art. That’s the difference.
When you treat it as an art and as your passion, it’s not just a job.
You can have a job and do this in your free time. And that’s what a lot of people do.”
“What does the future look like for you? In the corporate world, you can climb up the ladder. As a barista, where can you go? Is it fulfilling enough to just be a barista or are you planning to work elsewhere?”
Not in the near future but maybe later on when I’ve made enough money and experienced enough, then I might open my own café. That’s where my management degree can come into play. But if you’re talking about just the skill itself, what happens behind the counter is the ability to share my knowledge. I hope to be able to eventually share my knowledge with people who want to start their own place and educate others.”
The caffeine that keeps me going
“What drives you to wake up every day to do this? Or do you have days where you dread going to work?” I asked.
“Probably the cleaning part!” He jokes as we burst out laughing. “To be honest, what makes me come back every day to make coffee is that every cup I make doesn’t taste the same. I make coffee consistently but each cup has its own character.”
“It really depends on the mood of the barista as well,” he says mischievously. “The nicer the customers are, the better the cup turns out. It’s about how much heart we put into it.”
“A challenge I face is how coffee-making can really be affected by your mood. If you had a bad day, it affects how you make the coffee.”
Taking cues from the coffee connoisseur
“Every job has taught me different things. But this job is an art. I get the freedom to express myself. . . I think everyone needs a hobby. I might need a job to survive but that may get boring so I need a place where I can express myself – something I enjoy.
Art is how much heart you put into the stuff you do and whether you treat it as a skill or job. And I believe everyone needs to have that.
“For those who want to become a barista, you get the chance to educate people. And watch people grow as well. That’s the most enjoyable part for me –when I get new staff without experience coming in, it’s a lot of fun to see the joy on their faces when they’ve finally made a good cup of coffee.
“That part is one of the most enjoyable things about art – where you want to share and are able to educate other people and tell them that this is where they can put their heart into.”
Tamara was previously an assistant editor and writer with Leaderonomics. She loves thought-provoking conversations over cups of tea. If she is not writing, you might find her hiking up a mountain in search of a new waterfall to explore.