Baristas are ‘basically like a drug dealer’

During the coronavirus lockdown, an interesting thing has been happening in France.

People have been turning out in droves to their local bakery.

As James McCauley reports in the Washington Post:

"Lockdown or no, the lines extend down the block. They line up to buy the bread they always buy - baguettes, pain au lait, sourdough - even in a global pandemic.

Bread occupies a unique niche in France, where regimes have toppled because of it and where this highly regulated commodity has long been a national symbol.

"In a time of crisis the likes of which France and Europe have not seen for generations, consumers here are turning back to bread - a commodity the French depend on less these days than they once did but that serves as a source of immediate comfort in the midst of uncertainty".

During lockdown in Australia, if you notice people queuing in a similar fashion, chances are they're lining up for a takeaway coffee.

Along with regular exercise, going and getting a coffee is one of the few things we're still allowed to do … and boy have Australians embraced it with enthusiasm. Queues at cafes are often seen snaking down the street, and people seem to have no problem waiting in the rain, 1.5m from their fellow caffeine addicts.

It seems the long macchiato is to us what a baguette is to a Parisian.

 

People line up for coffee on Easter Monday in Kings Cross, NSW during the COVID-19 shutdown. Picture: John Feder/The Australian.
People line up for coffee on Easter Monday in Kings Cross, NSW during the COVID-19 shutdown. Picture: John Feder/The Australian.

Someone who has a unique understanding of the lure of coffee - especially in this unusual time - is Salvatore Malatesta, founder of Melbourne cafe St Ali.

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, despite him having to close the doors for dine-in patrons, sales of takeaway coffees have leapt 18 per cent.

For many people, heading out to get a coffee is the only time they leave the house. Malatesta believes cafes provide a shot of normality during these unusual times.

"People are tribal … going out and getting your coffee and seeing a familiar face is so important at the moment. It's a good excuse for people to connect," he says.

"People need to get that all important eye contact, and feel like part of their daily ritual is still happening."

 

Salvatore Malatesta … started out in hospitality in Melbourne when he was 15.
Salvatore Malatesta … started out in hospitality in Melbourne when he was 15.

Even before the pandemic hit, many coffee drinkers had a strong relationship with their barista. Now, during a time when many of us are craving human connection, it's even stronger.

"The relationship between barista and customer goes pretty deep," says Malatesta.

"I was a barista for many years and I was a little bit old school. I would make your coffee when I saw you walking down the street. I'd know your name and everything about you," he says.

While he agrees that the social interaction is part of a barista's appeal, he makes no bones about the fact that coffee is a "drug of dependence" and as such "it's like that Curtis Mayfield song (Pusherman) … As a barista, you're basically like a drug dealer".

 

St Ali in South Melbourne has been churning out coffees since 2005.
St Ali in South Melbourne has been churning out coffees since 2005.

He says he's in constant awe of coffee, and the power that it has.

"If that first sip of coffee isn't good, your whole day is spoiled," he says.

"And if that sip of coffee is amazing, your whole day is made … The coffee plant is a powerful plant and given the right opportunity it can have a powerful voice. It can totally transport you. If it's treated with reverence and care, it's quite magical. Tell me another plant that does the same thing … that's legal".

Malatesta notes that Melburnians are particularly passionate about their coffee.

"I think perhaps it's like we are with our sport … we take an obsession with something, and we've got to win," he says.

Melburnians are particularly passionate about their coffee. Picture: Sarah Matray
Melburnians are particularly passionate about their coffee. Picture: Sarah Matray

As well as getting their daily caffeine hit and seeing some familiar faces, regular customers are also keen to support the local businesses that have been providing them with sustenance for years. Rain, hail or shine.

"St Ali started in 2005, so it's a community. It's like friends," says Malatesta.

"Everyone knows each other. There's a group of seven guys who have been coming every day for 15 years. They know more about the venue than me. They ring me directly and tell me if they're not happy with the music that played that day.

"Coming in is so in-built in their ritual. They still come every day and essentially do the same thing. They have the same conversations … but now they have to do it two metres apart standing on the street."

Originally published as Baristas are 'basically like a drug dealer'



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