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Inside the barista business

Greater Portland’s plethora of independent coffee shops, from local chains like Coffee by Design, Arabica and CIA to the true one-offs like Quill Books & Beverage in Westbrook, provide a cozy change of pace from the big guys like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. Part of their charm is in their varied decors and menus and, of course, their friendly non-uniformed baristas.

We sat down with a few of those baristas in between pulls to ask the questions that run through our heads while we’re in line, including how they pay skyrocketing rents on a coffee shop salary, and whether this is a temporary gig while they wait to get into law school? And what kind of coffee do they drink?

KAIT SILVA

Kait Silva, manager at CIA in South Portland. Even her t-shirt references coffee. Photo by Bonnie Durham

Age: 26
Works at: CIA South Portland
Favorite thing on the menu: The bistro BLT and a menu-hack Almond Joy latte.

Photo by Bonnie Durham

Kait Silva gets up at 4 a.m. to make coffee for other people, so it’s no wonder she cites the free coffee she gets at CIA (coffee, ice cream, art) as a major perk. “My regulars make me want to come into work,” she says. Their rapport makes CIA more than just a coffee shop. “It makes me want to go above and beyond.” As the manager, Silva supervises about eight employees, most of whom are also young women in their 20s. “We’re family-oriented,” Silva explained, “Callie, she’s pregnant, …and we threw her a baby shower because her family lives in Iowa. We all make sure everyone’s OK.”

Silva grew up in the Bath/Brunswick area, and after several years living in Portland, paying $1,600 a month for a 500-square-foot apartment (one bedroom, two big dogs), she’s headed back home. She’ll be paying $1,700 in Brunswick for a three-bedroom house with utilities included. “It’s a big difference,” Silva said.

Her six years in the Navy inspired her to pursue a degree in psychiatric nursing. “Vets need a lot of help,” she says. “I definitely needed a lot of help when I got out of the service.” Civilian doctors tended not to understand those needs, she says, and she hopes she’ll do better. While she studies to do that, she’ll be pouring coffee.

MADISON MASI

Madison Masi foams milk at Coffee by Design in Portland. Photo by Bonnie Durham

Age: 23
Works at: Coffee By Design, Portland
Favorite thing on the menu: A french toast latte.

Photo by Bonnie Durham

Madison Masi has two associates degrees from Southern Maine Community College—one in horticulture and one in liberal studies—and someday wants get her bachelor’s degree. But she’s happy working at a coffee shop. “I love the connections that I make with my customers,” Masi says. “It’s kind of like being a daytime bartender.” Masi started as a barista about a year ago and is a shift leader now.

It’s not easy to rely on tips. Sometimes, it’s awkward. “I can tell that sometimes the tip screen makes customers feel pressured to tip, especially if I’m standing right there,” she says. But she’s developing some financial stability, as well as budgeting skills. “It took a learning curve of how to budget, how to save money, and also still feel like I’m treating myself,” Masi says. “I’m definitely not living lavishly, but I am comfortable.”

She’s a renter, sharing a $1,200 a month two-bedroom apartment, but has started to imagine becoming a property owner. “I think it’d be cool to be a landlord. It’d kind of be like working on your house on HGTV but somebody else reaps the benefits,” she said. Masi is happy about the way Portland is booming, but worries that young people are going to be driven out of the area as rents continue to rise.

For the near-term, she and her two quirky cats Molly (toothless) and Mustache (seven-toed) will stick around and she’ll continue her work as a barista. She has trouble paying for non-necessities, often finds herself drained after a shift, and sometimes lacks the energy to get things done or visit with friends, but her regulars at CBD help offset the drawbacks. “I actually also really love the art of coffee,” she says. “I thought I knew coffee, and then I came here and I realized how large the coffee world is. It’s just as complex as that of wine or whiskey.”

LILLY VAN DER STEENHOVEN

Lilly Van Der Steenhoven at Quill Books & Beverage in Westbrook. “People feel safe in this space and that’s really special,” she says. Photo by Bonnie Durham

Age: 31
Works at: Quill Books & Beverage, Westbrook
Favorite thing on the menu: Vegan banh mi and a maple latte

Photo by Bonnie Durham

Lilly Van Der Steenhoven was recently promoted to manager at Quill. With tips, she makes roughly $450 a week. She’s the first to admit that doesn’t make for financial stability, but being a barista is fulfilling in other, more important ways. She used to have desk jobs, and the flexibility of the coffee shop gives her more time to pursue her goal of opening her own consignment and second-hand clothing shop. Mostly, though, she loves the atmosphere in the bookstore/coffee shop. “This space really cultivates a community feeling and brings in a lot of interesting people to meet; people feel safe in this space and that’s really special.”

She recently bought a split-level two bedroom house in Westbrook with her husband, and their monthly mortgage payment is $1,200. When she lived in Portland, they spent the same amount of money per month on a one-bedroom apartment. It’s a relief to live more affordably.

She advises other young people attempting to thrive in Portland not to underestimate the value of community. “In my experience, some of the best jobs, apartments, etc., come from word of mouth, friends, friends of friends,” Van Der Steenhoven says.

CAROLINE HOMER

Caroline Homer at Omi’s Coffee Shop in South Portland. A natural introvert, she’s become more outgoing because of the job. Photo by Bonnie Durham

Age: 22
Works at: Omi’s Coffee Shop, South Portland
Favorite thing on the menu: Coconut cold brew

Photo by Bonnie Durham

Homer grew up on Mount Desert Island and studied opera at SUNY Purchase. She hopes to make a living as a professional singer but in the meantime, she loves working with the women owners of Omi’s. “They’re really fair and they care about the people that work for them.”

She describes herself as an introvert, but finds she really likes being outgoing on the job.

“I love seeing the same customers everyday,” she says, “it makes me feel like I’m a part of the community.” She’s also getting more and more into coffee. “I’ve really started thinking about it more as a hobby and less like a job.” She shares an apartment in Portland with her boyfriend. The rent is $1,000 a month. “I’m not going to lie and say that I’m not stressed about money,” she says. “I feel like anybody [my] age is.”

She views working at Omi as a welcome relief after the hustle and stress of college life. “I loved [school], but I was giving 200% all the time and there was no way I could keep doing that, it wasn’t sustainable.” In college stress is treated almost like a badge of honor and stepping away from that didn’t come naturally. “Taking a break has actually been really challenging, if that makes sense,” Homer says, adding, “it’s an interesting paradox.”

Hannah Johnston graduated from Connecticut College in 2018 after finishing an honors thesis in creative writing. She is a freelance writer who lives in South Portland.