*Z&H uses Metropolis coffee, a local Chicago roaster
May Project is a genius idea. Think about it– take a bunch of seniors with absolutely no incentive to work after college decisions and use the energy they would otherwise be using for video games and goofing off to do something “productive.” Of course, everybody knows that although you have to submit a professional-sounding proposal (and you can’t get paid, boo hoo), the administration doesn’t want you on campus for a month, spreading your slacker attitude to the unfortunate juniors weighed down by APs. Plus, when May Project Fair comes around, it’s obvious who’s been slacking off: my junior year, one senior in particular had done a project involving “analyzing sleep patterns.”
Because I’m lazy, instead of bothering to explain exactly what I did for a month, why I did it, and how it went, I’m just going to copy and paste excerpts from my proposal, project write-ups, etc. etc.
Before– From my May Project Proposal:
There are many ways a person can view coffee: it can be the drug that gets a student through exams, masked in a Starbucks venti caramel macchiato, or it can be the most minimal and potent espresso from a local brewer like Chicago’s Intelligentsia or Portland’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Either way, coffee culture has become an integral part of our society, bringing with it as many varieties of cafes as there are types of coffee. Yes, there are corporate chains like Starbucks and Caribou Coffee where everything comes in a to-go cup, but there are also homey neighborhood cafes with quirky baristas and locals that are like walking into somebody else’s living room. These are the kinds of places where art, social interaction and food come together in a single space.
Over the summer, which I spent in Bloomington, Indiana, I studied in the same café, Soma Coffeehouse and Juice Bar, every day. Soma was filled with old couches, blackboards for customers to write on, and vending machines of chocolate-covered espresso beans. It was your typical college-town coffee house, and yet, like all cafes, completely unique. It’s an expensive habit, but since this summer, I have been unable to get my work done outside of a café. There’s something about drinking a cappuccino and people-watching or reading to a soundtrack of music and strangers’ conversations. I make my own espresso at home, but I can never recreate the foam or the potency of a cappucino made by a true barista, and I definitely can’t recreate the vibe of a café. I decided long ago that as much as I loved being a customer, it was time to cross the threshold and see what it would be like on the other side of the counter. As someone who spends way too much time thinking about food and coffee, working in a café is a dream: it lacks the intimidating pace of a restaurant and allows you to experience the “café culture” described above.
I’ll admit that I miss Soma every day, but if Z&H Market Café hadn’t come to Hyde Park, things would have been much more difficult. Walking into the café/ deli/ gourmet foods shop, I sometimes forget that I’m on the south side. The café feels could easily be located in a hip northside neighborhood like Andersonville and is the opposite of the drab streets and gas stations that surround it. And yet, Z&H is also quintessentially Hyde Park: after having been there only once, the owners, Sam and Tim, knew me by name, and the last time I was there alone, I ran into at least four people I knew. Z&H was started by Tim, who also started Istria (another café I practically live in), but saw opportunity for more. He sold his interest in the company and got Sam, who had previously owned a deli, to be his business partner. The café has been met with nothing but success and will move into the UM space in May. According to Z&H’s website, “Our range of exceptional food items is matched by thoughtful, attentive and knowledgeable service without any ‘snooty’ attitude,” and this couldn’t be truer. They are the only place in Hyde Park to feature ingredients from local farmers, cheesemongers and the like, as well as ultra-specific ingredients such as vanilla bean paste or curry-flavored peanut butter. However, the coffee and sandwiches, plus the friendly service and neighborhood vibe, are what keep people coming back. I knew, without a doubt, that Z&H was where I wanted to do my May Project.
Believe it or not, the thing goes on for another three pages (there was a 4-5 page requirement), but I’m trying not to bore you.
During– From my May Project Presentation:
A day in the life of Z&H:
(This is a conglomeration of different workdays, since I never actually worked full-day shifts)
5:10—alarm goes off. Stumble blindly out of bed, choke down a smoothie, and bike over to 47th street. Biking when the air is this fresh is especially exhilarating.
6:00—Clock in (to track hours). Begin prepping the store for opening. This involves: Making oatmeal, bacon, calibrating the espresso machine, brewing coffee, loading the pastry case, putting chairs outside, filling milk pitchers and marking fresh bread with today’s date, among other things.
6:30—Neal, the first customer every day, knocks on the door. He comes every day before the café opens, but he’s such a regular, we let him in. He orders a double espresso, but he pours his sugars into his cup first.
7:00—Lights go on, café opens. The first customers trickle in, the majority ordering breakfast sandwiches, muffins, and lattes.
7:30—I pull a few shots. They’re pulling too quickly (filling the shot glass before 25 seconds). What’s wrong? It’s either my tamp or the grind. Sam, one of the owners, says it must be the humidity. After tweaking my tamp just a bit and grinding the beans a bit coarser, the shots are good. I make myself a traditional cappuccino.
Breakfast catering orders also go out. Bagels, fruit platters, muffins, scones, and coffee boxes are prepped.
8:00— STARVING. Eat a bowl of steel cut oats while crouching behind the line since nobody really orders oatmeal anyway.
Midmorning—this is when lots of random stuff gets done. Soup is made, cookies baked, and runs are made to the basement for paper, cups, plastic crates, potato chips, and other necessities.
10:00—catering begins! Most catering orders are for 11:45. If they’re bag lunches, each bag must be labeled by sandwich name, then filled with a cookie, a bag of chips, and a napkin. Sandwiches are made. Wrapping a sandwich is harder than making one.
11:30—early afternoon—CHAOS. Massive crowds to pick up lunch or eat in. I work the register, jotting down orders, print receipts, sending the order to the deli line, and taking payments. I WANT TO SLAP the couple who asks for a sandwich with a million substitutions and “half spicy, half not.”
Early—late afternoon—as the crowds die down, everyone catches their breath.
I GET FREE LUNCH.
Dishes are done, more cookies are baked, and we start setting up the next day’s catering orders. After Sam and Tim, the bosses leave, the staff can joke around a bit more. I take orders for drinks so I can practice. Someone asks for a 6-shot Americano.
6:00—Start getting ready for closing. BLAST WHATEVER MUSIC WE WANT.
7:00—CLOSING. Wrap up deli meats and pastries, put away leftover soup, clean espresso machine, wash dishes, sweep and mop floors, shake mats outside, take out the trash, and clean behind the line. It is disgusting back there.
8:00—Bike home and eat everything in sight. Mopping is a workout.
THE COFFEE BREAKDOWN
Grind 7 half-batches (3.7 oz each)
Each batch is good for half an hour, so write down the time.
Iced coffee is a full batch brewed on a half-batch setting: double strength because it gets diluted when poured over ice.
The most expensive, yet easiest part of working the bar. For tasting the subtleties of specific blends. Although the mouth feel becomes more “tealike” when the liquid is extracted, it lacks the bitterness of regular coffee.
Measure out and grind 42 oz, set the machine to 12 oz (6 oz if iced) and start. Pour in the grounds. The machine will fill with water. Gently stir the grounds and water with a spatula and the machine will do the rest.
- So few manual machines exist in the U.S. that only two factors are up to you when it comes to pulling shots: the grind and your tamp.
The grind: Also known as calibrating the machine. If the beans are too course, the shots will pull too quickly, and if they’re too fine, the shots will will pull too slowly.
Your tamp: Always tamp with 20 lbs of pressure from the shoulder. Keep your hand level so the tamp is even. Tap the portafilter a few times, then tamp again.
- Pulling shots: overfill the portafilter, then scrape off the excess. Tamp, screw on the portafilter and start the shots. Ideally, they should reach the top of the glass at 27 seconds, but anywhere from 25-30 is fine.
- Really good shots should have a layer of crema, or a caramel-colored foam, on top. The crema disappears as the shots sit.
- If you’re pulling consistent shots, you can pull them directly into your mug.
- As your shots are going, steam/foam the milk.
- Milk is more unpredictable than coffee: you’re working with a living substance.
- Latte milk: submerge wand in pitcher and turn on the steamer. A soft hissing is good, but a squelching is NOT and means the milk is scorching. Keep both hands on the pitcher and STOP when it gets too hot to hold.
- Cappuccino milk is the hardest. You steam in a rounded pitcher and try to pre-long the hissing, while tilting the wand to the side. It should be foamier and lighter than latte milk.
- Macchiato/ traditional cappuccino milk is just latte milk made in a much smaller pitcher, so that you only end up using the foam on top.
*ALWAYS CLEAN UP AS YOU GO ALONG. MAKE DRINKS IN THE RIGHT ORDER.
- Milk-based drinks have 2, 2 and 3 shots for 12, 16 and 20 oz
- Water-based drinks have 2, 3 and 4
- Flavored syrups vs. ganache for mochas
- Iced lattes have a foam cap
After– From my Self Assessment:
I knew that I wasn’t going to become a true barista overnight, or even in a month. I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to work at Z&H and only work the bar, because the café doesn’t have any rankings or titles; all employees do everything. However, by the end of the second week I realized how I was completely on my own. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if I wanted to get good at making drinks or do less of one particular task (LIKE SCOOPING COOKIE DOUGH), I had to make it known, or just go to the bar and start pulling shots. Since I wasn’t getting paid, it really was up to me. I had to be assertive. Tim and Sam told me, “There is nothing you shouldn’t do, except for stand around and not do anything.”
However, this was all easier said than done. I wanted nothing less than to anger either one of my bosses, and there would be times where they would have me on the bar with them making drinks for customers, but I would mess something up. There wouldn’t be time for me to redo all the drinks, so they might get frantic and say, “I need to finish this drink. You need to get out of my way.” I just had to accept that, so I stepped back and watched the masters at work.
Independence, tolerance, the feeling of having a workplace and co-workers, where people work together in a very cramped, small space, sometimes happy and sometimes underslept and grumpy… the lessons I took from this are just as, if not more, valuable than the technicalities of coffee. I began my first weeks scared to do anything: to take food, or do anything without asking first. Once I got the hang of how things worked in the store, I learned to always check something. Nothing was worse than the feeling of standing around and watching other people work. Unless I was in a terrible and lethargic mood, I would move around, reloading the pastry case, stocking milk, etc. When one of the “new” employees came in for their first day, I felt like I already had a ton of experience.