In a city known for its casual dress, someone wearing suspenders and a tie can stick out like a sore (but dapper!) thumb. Especially if that person is not, say, a lawyer or an actor on his way to an audition to play Butler #1 but instead the person behind the counter at a coffee shop.
The nicely dressed barista is not a new thing, it's not going anywhere, and it's seen more at smaller independent shops than at their uniformed polo/apron corporate counterparts.
Perhaps the shops most notorious for their sharply dressed workers are Intelligentsia Coffee and Handsome Coffee Roasters, with employees often donning a button-down shirt, tie, vest and maybe even a 1920s flat cap and an elaborate moustache here and there. It's a look inspired by another time. A time when flip-flops were only found on the beach, you dressed up for dinner, and Spandex was years in the future.
So is this a dress code, or do Intelligentsia and Handsome just hire nostalgic individuals who love a pair of suspenders as much as they love roasting coffee?
Tuns out, yes, there is a dress code, but not at the expense of employee individualism. Tyler Madden, manager at Intelligentsia in Venice, tells us, "For the baristas on bar, the dress code here is collared shirts, ties (ladies optional), either waistcoat, suspenders or vest along with pants, dark jeans or skirts. More people wear work boots or sneakers over dress shoes because they're more comfortable. As far as fabrics go, linen or canvas are popular and usually in dark colors, brown, or hickory stripe. Colors that will mask a few coffee spills. We go for an individual professionalism."
There appears to be a correlation between how earnest a company and its employees are about the coffee process and how nice they look. Intelligentsia and Handsome Coffee take their brews very seriously and the employees seem to be more along the lines of "expert coffee enthusiasts" instead of "actors at a day job." I don't know the last time I've been inside a Coffee Bean and heard the employees talk about competing in the U.S. Barista Championships, whereas both Handsome and Intelligentsia seem to breed competitors and winners.
Madden explains that there's a much bigger thing going on than just dressing nicely. "We want to communicate that we are a legit profession," he says. "At the same time, we don't want to have a uniform with no individuality or personality. [In regard to the dress code], if everyone is doing it right, it looks like we broke it. The spirit of the law vs. the letter of the law."
Each Intelligentsia outpost develops its own guidelines. With locations in Silver Lake, Pasadena and Venice, Hudson says the neighborhood and store build plays a part in the dress code as well. The Venice location, filled with Edison bulbs, wood and metal, gives off a "classic-era cocktail" look, while the Silver Lake location is a little more casual.
Handsome Coffee Roasters shares a similar sentiment. (Founders Tyler Wells, Michael Phillips and Chris Owens have all worked at Intelligentsia.) Mike Hudson, the creative director, explained, "There is no dress code, specifically. There are general guidelines but with your own spin. The way we looked at it was that you fancy yourself as a professional of your craft, so you want to look like you're at work. We just want to exude a sense that we put a lot of thought into this, we're proud of what we do, and just want to look like we're at work. One of the founders, Tyler Wells, has a particular style, and I think a lot flowed from his personal style but everyone has their own thing. "
Handsome Coffee takes the coffee/fashion relationship to another level partly, no doubt, because of the founders' love of style but also because of the location of their shop: smack in the middle of the Arts District, surrounded by clothing companies where much of the customer base works in fashion, takes pride in what they wear and notices and appreciates small details -- down to the stitching of Handsome Coffee's custom denim aprons.
Plus, because it's a smaller company, it has the ability to form collaborations with clothing designers without jumping through a million corporate hoops. Apolis, a neighboring clothing company, influenced the look at Handsome Coffee with styling tips and pieces from its collections. Hudson says Apolis "gave us advice -- a great group of guys and coffee enthusiasts. We got a nice vibe from them -- button-down shirts with throwback, working-class ties." The company also partnered with salvaged-denim experts Nudie jeans, and with Brooks Brothers, who dressed founders Tyler, Michael and Chris for the opening party here and are planning on doing the same for the New York City store opening.
And did you know that the world of coffee has its own Oscars, which, as with the Oscar red-carpet dresses, influences fashion as well? The World Barista Championships influence how baristas around the country dress.
Then there's the "hipster" factor. As much as we're completely over using that term, there's no ignoring it. The average person might see these baristas and say, "Look at these hipsters in their hipster coffee shop wearing their hipster clothes. You don't have a Frappuccino? Hipster!"
But Madden of Intelligentsia believes hipsterdom has little to do with it. "We're not even that cool or hip," he says. "We're pretty fuddy-duddy. No one wears tight pants. I mean, I don't have a problem with that hipster comment but it doesn't really wash. Maybe it's just the vests?"
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And when they sometimes get questioned by customers on the matter? Madden said, "I have a beard and thick glasses and so does my brother, who used to work with me, and a lady once asked, 'What's the thing with glasses and beards here?!' I told her, 'Well, we have terrible eyesight and we're in a beard-growing contest.'" So there, lady.
Hudson says, "The term gets thrown around a lot but I don't know what a hipster is. We have people from all walks of life. It's a throwaway term. If people feel uncomfortable coming in because of it, it's our job to bridge that gap."
Call them hipsters, call them pretentious, but before you judge, stop by for coffee and conversation and you'll find a genuinely friendly and professional group of individuals who take pride in their work, dress accordingly and simply want to share the experience with you. And if you think this is all too intense for a beverage that the majority of tired Americans drink just to stay awake during the day, know there is a sense of humor and self-awareness behind the bar. Hudson says, "We take our profession very seriously, but at the same time, we know it's just coffee."