Alan Anderson vividly remembers the day crowds stood outside Serda’s Coffee Company on Royal Street. Police contained curious masses, but barista Alan was concerned: He had to make his shift, because espresso waits for no man. “After explaining to cops that I work here, they escorted me in, ” Anderson, opposite, recalls of the day Downtown Mobile pressed against windows for a glimpse of Nicolas Cage sipping coffee.
It’s not often one serves customers such as Cage, Bruce Willis or Kevin Spacey. (“Spacey likes peanut butter smoothies, ” Anderson reveals.) But for the jugglers of java, friends of frappé and liaisons of latte, every day is an adventure in coffee.
Like most Americans, three certainties unite the people of the Bay area: death, taxes and packed coffee houses from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. “Within 10 minutes, we can go from a couple of customers to standing room only, ” barista Victoria Nix of Carpe Diem Coffee & Tea Company on Old Shell Road says. “You have to be ready and able to multitask.”
The standard cup o’ joe accounts for only half or even less of most sales. There are a dozen or so variations of basic drinks (what baristas call “the base, ” such as lattes, cappuccinos and espressos); from there, hundreds of combinations are possible. “You must know the drinks by memory, ” Nix says, “and be able to make three at once. The job is enjoyable, but there’s a lot that goes into delivering a high-quality product.”
Behind the counter, it’s not just a job: It’s an adventure in choreography. “In order to work here, one must do the dance, ” Morgan Custred Kelley, co-owner of and barista at Saraland’s Moka’s Coffee House, says. “You learn how to weave and dodge with drinks in hand so as not to run into each other.”
Meet the Baristas
Serda’s Coffee Co.
Years as a barista: 9
Signature drink: The Undertow.”Start with 1 ounce of half-and-half. Then gently pour shots of espresso on top, so it doesn’t sink to the cup bottom. When drinking it, you experience hot, then cold sensations.”
Known for: “I sing and dance, ” he shares. “Which is what you look for in a good coffee shop. A dancing barista means a happy work environment.”
Oddest drink request: “One customer asked for a caramel muffaletta, which evoked spontaneous laughter from staff, as a muffaletta is an Italian sandwich. They probably confused muffaletta for macchiato. We had a good laugh.”
Morgan Custred Kelley
Moka’s Coffee House Saraland
Years as a barista: 10
Signature drink: One of her specialties (and a Moka’s favorite) is a hot buttered toffee concoction with real caramel syrup and English toffee.
Known for: This Saraland barista is known for who she knows — almost everybody. “It comes from being here for 10 years, ” she notes. “You get to know the customers and their favorite drinks.”
Oddest drink request: “Someone asked for a cup of whipped cream with a spoon; another wanted a cup — just a cup — but with 6 pumps of syrup. But they did not ask for chocolate as that would be too sweet.”
The Coffee Loft Fairhope
Years as a barista: 1
Signature drink: White Silk — white mocha with caramel (Drink just one and you’ll never open another can of Folger’s.)
Oddest drink request: “They recite things they’ve heard on TV, or they want ingredients for a hot beverage only found in frozen drinks and vice versa. We try to interpret what they really want.”
Carpe Diem, Mobile
Years as a barista: 2
Signature drink: Lattes blended with Mexican vanilla and an intense caramel macchiato.
Known for: “I smile all the time, ” she says, smiling. See? She did it again.
Oddest request: The weirdest are actually not for coffee. “One person wanted fermented tea (we don’t sell it) and another, tea with milk and shots of espresso.” And then there was the guy inquiring about an avocado sandwich, because who doesn’t visit a coffee shop without craving avocado sandwiches?
text by Emmett Burnett • photos by Elise Poché