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Column: Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Finding the champion barista

Perhaps Fay Brennan was the original barista who pioneered the perfect cup of morning coffee at the luncheon counter at the Woolworth Five Ten located on White Plains Road. In the 1950s, coffee there was a nickel, and the old men of the Bronx would sit at the counter and consume this magical brew while reading the latest on the Yankees.

In those days, coffee was a tad less complicated. You could only get it black. However, for those with discriminating taste, cream and sugar were available. Regardless, Fay served it from a percolator that she kept simmering on a burner.

Fay could clean up spills, take five orders at once, refill waters and split checks, all while keeping the coffee flowing. She instinctively knew which customers were the crazies, but she made everyone feel as though they were drinking their morning brew at their kitchen table.

The world has evolved many times since Fay Brennan artfully served her customers their morning cup of joe. Everything is continuously changing, refining, improving, regressing and adapting. Yet, many of today’s baristas maintain the same reverence for quality, competence and service. Pride of artistry is essential throughout their shifts.


Most mornings while writing, editing and rewriting my novel, I’m nursing a cuppa at Starbucks. I take note of the baristas’ attentiveness to the morning onslaught of obsessive-compulsive customer requests and the smiles of those wearing the green apron. The baristas move with purpose, attempting to fill the orders of the hurried morning crowds.

Recently, Chelsea Stier, the manager of the Starbucks on Foothill Boulevard at Gould Avenue asked if I would help judge their Barista Championship. The event was an opportunity to showcase the craftsmanship thematic in these thoughts. The new Starbucks located on Foothill just east of Ocean View Boulevard also had a barista championship.

Trying to pick a winner between Shannon Doyle and Joe Wulke at the Foothill/Gould site was like splitting hairs. As we contemplated the competitors’ lattés, Chelsea commented on temperature, froth, consistency, flavor, texture and presentation. “What do you think?” she asked me. I gave her the old eye-roll and said, “I agree.” After this meticulous deliberation, Joe Wulke won.

At the other store, the championship was between four baristas: Anthony De Rosa, Hanna King, Kyle Russell and Alex Sanchez. The district manager, Katherine Pittman, and Bettie Gonzalez, the store manager, knew what they were looking for in the perfect presentation. Alex Sanchez emerged as their barista champion.


Sanchez, who plans a career as a physical therapist, said, “A good latté depends on the perfect foam, aerating the milk to make the perfect heart. Getting the design is all about pouring. Showing customers and seeing their expression is gratifying.”

Gonzalez noted the competition was heated, but “Alex’s explanation of the process along with a description of the equipment and the importance of its maintenance was excellent.”

Wulke, the champion at the Foothill/Gould store, is an accounting major. He developed his skills crafting coffees at St. Bede’s and at a “mom and pop” café in Kansas.

“Presentation is everything,” he said. “Making the artwork is the process of dragging the milk through the middle until the design is perfect.”

I had no clue!

Wulke says he likes making hot chocolate, “You get the biggest contrast between the chocolate and the milk.”

It seems to me our society doesn’t value competence and adherence to doing a job well. We want everything as quickly as possible, which often negates quality. It was refreshing to observe at work Alex Sanchez and Joe Wulke, who emphasize both good service and craftsmanship.

I once thought that talent was innate. However, I now believe that young people must teach and train themselves in infinite patience, which is to try, and to try, and to try until it comes out right.


JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at Visit his website at