I was scrolling Twitter in early January when I came across a tweet that made me pause, immediately hit the like button, and go down a rabbit hole.
“Life update, and I could not be more excited,” the tweet by user Jesse Lash announced, accompanied by a screenshot of the author’s LinkedIn profile revealing the start of a new job, “Barista, Jan 2022 – Present”. Underneath were previous product design roles at companies like Square and NASA.
To Jesse’s surprise, the tweet garnered 4,100+ likes, 190+ retweets, and 60+ comments.
“I’ve never been more jealous of someone. I can’t stop thinking about this,” one user commented. “wow someone actually did it, someone got out,” “love this,” “my dream,” “this is inspiring,” “this is going to be me after the next 4 years of hustle + 10 years of soft-work,” others expressed, amongst a mix of other congratulatory replies.
These sentiments are not uncommon on the internet. Though increasingly they’ve infiltrated my social circle too—coworkers, friends, and friends of friends have expressed similar coffee ambitions. Recently, my friend Jessica, a communications manager, admitted serious career crushes on her local baristas. “I could even serve abroad, somewhere in Europe or a beach town,” she daydreamed in the group chat.
And just weeks ago, another tweet on my timeline sounded similar sentiments. “Every tech employee wants to one day quit and open a cute, little coffee shop…right?” wrote Liz Bertorelli, a social media lead at TikTok Canada. The tweet made its rounds to over 700 likes in a day.
I had a lot of questions.
Like… What in the existential angst is going on? What’s with the sudden uptick for these aspirations? Is this unique to tech? And why coffee, specifically?
To satisfy my curiosity, I chatted with three folks who are in various stages of a ditch-the-office journey. I unpack their journeys and some of the reasons why so many are drawn to the espresso bar right now.
Someone who actually did it: Jesse’s story
“It was interesting to see how many replies to my tweet were by people who were like ‘you made it! You got out!’,” Jesse reflected. “It made me realize the ‘golden handcuffs’ are a thing.”
Jesse made it clear when we chatted that his intention wasn’t to escape the corporate world. He liked his previous jobs; he was a self-described internet and design nerd. But he’s also been a life-long coffee nerd and that part of himself kept calling. So much so that he and his wife had one-way flights booked for Hawaii to open their own cafe. Those tickets were for June 2020, life circumstances obviously placed that dream on hold.
Jesse spoke about coffee like a wine sommelier, with depth and technicality. As a coffee hobbyist, he tried to work as a part-time barista pre-pandemic, even training at his friend’s coffee bar for fun. “No one wanted to train me and only have me two days per week,” he said. At one point, he even tried to convince potential employers to hire him for a 4-day workweek so he could barista on the fifth.
In December of 2021, after months of contemplation, Jesse left tech and accepted a full time barista position at a local cafe.
“I had the privilege of building savings in a lucrative industry to be able to step away and reassess,” Jesse at one point acknowledged. “It would also be naive to not recognize the role the pandemic played in my decision.”
Jesse recalls his days at Square, with ping pong tables, communal lunches, and the social environment that accompanied. “You take all that away, and here I am at home, all by myself. As a people person, I felt alone,” he said. Jesse craved more human connection—a need that Zoom calls were not fulfilling.
“Now I get to chit chat with Branden who comes in every morning or catch up with Chris who always wants his espresso done a particular way,” he said. “It feels very different from our conversation right now, prescheduled and timed.”
It’s been five months in coffee for Jesse. “I’m absolutely loving it,” he told me when I eagerly asked him how things were going as a barista. “I just got onto bar this week and I get to dial in the espresso,” he added, referencing a precise and fickle process to get the perfect espresso. He’s even now picked up part time design work to mix things up.
Actively planning it: Zack’s story
Zack, a privacy and cybersecurity lawyer, has been at his New York City firm for six years, though he knew he wanted to leave in his first. His grand ambition? To open and run a mixed concept cocktail bar and arts venue. “Not a nightclub,” he clarifies, but a lounge and late afternoon cafe, with live music, DJ sets, and visual arts installations.
“I find [the corporate world] very impersonal, artificial. It feels a little dehumanizing,” Max told me over the phone on an early Sunday morning. “The goals are macroeconomic. It lacks community. I like knowing my customers, forming a connection,” he added.
Zack is actively meeting people in the industry to see if the concept is feasible. “I’ve also been thinking about a job at a bar to learn the basics and meet other nightlife owners,” he said. “I’m in the R&D phase for sure.”
“Whether it’s in 2 years or 6, I’ll make it happen,” Zack asserted. It helps that he enjoys the more ‘corporate’ activities associated with running a business, like revenue management, taxes, contracts, and hiring. The concept of entrepreneurial growth is an exciting one for him, “but not in the Silicon Valley way,” he clarified. “Not necessarily because it’s making money but because it's contributing to culture and society.”
When I asked Zack whether he considers his ambitions an escape from law, he corrected me to position it the other way around, “I think staying in my current role is an escape. I’d be succumbing to fear of failure, escaping something bolder and more creative. Life is too short to spend it doing something that doesn’t make you happy at your core.”
Fantasizing about it: Jessica’s story
Jessica started her current brand communications role at a major Canadian retailer during the pandemic. Having worked virtually her entire tenure at the company, she’s found it challenging to make deeper work connections or navigate professional development opportunities.
“When you're WFH, you’re often alone with your thoughts which makes you re-evaluate your ‘why’,” she said. “Why am I doing this? Is it filling my cup? Am I making a difference? As an extrovert, am I feeding my soul with human connection?”
Like many, Jessica and her partner got into coffee over the pandemic—they ditched their Keurig and perfected pour-overs. “Now we like to try different coffee shops and buy their beans to brew at home. There's something peaceful and relaxing about the ritual of going to your local cafe for a morning coffee. Every time I stop in, the baristas just have such an easy vibe. Especially during the pandemic, you realize how much you missed the simple things in life.”
Inspired by her local baristas, Jessica daydreams about leaving the corporate world to join them behind the counter. “I like what I do, though I just feel like sometimes I work so hard for zero thanks. But if you make a dang good cappuccino, you're making someone's day. And let's not forget that you’d never take work home!”
What’s stopping her from following in Jesse’s or Zack’s footsteps? “The money,” she answered without hesitation. Her dream may be distant, but it’s not off the table. “Maybe if my partner gets a big wig gig and we’re financially secure enough for me to do this,” she jokes. For now, she’ll keep practicing her latte art at home.
No sugar, no milk
There’s something distinctly modern and new about the existential doubt employees are feeling towards their corporate jobs. This reassessment of workers’ relationship with labor seems as millennial as a self-deprecating Buzzfeed quiz. Perhaps we’re collectively inching towards a redefinition of success; one where life interests, hobbies, mental health, and relationships are part of the equation.