The 14th installment of a series about the launch of a local coffee shop and roastery. Read previous From the Ground Up stories.

"If you could be any kitchen tool, what would you be?"

Every prospective barista interviewing at Compass Coffee had to answer this question, posed by co-founder Michael Haft. The answers, he says, are indicative of a person's creativity and work ethic.

"A spoon. You get more with a spoon," said one person.

"A knife. My friends say I will cut people with the truth," said another.

"Spatula. You can cut things with it, flip things with it -- you multitask," said a third.

For the record, Haft would be a chef's knife, prized for its versatility and utility. And he and co-founder Harrison Suarez were doing a little bit of everything in the hectic few days before the cafe soft-opened on Sunday, Sept. 21. Luckily, they have help: Their first hire, Tim Hayes, came aboard about a month ago to manage the cafe side of Compass's operations.

Hayes moved down the street from Mockingbird Hill, where he managed the high-end coffee shop and sherry bar. The second hire, Brandon Warner, arrived shortly thereafter. Warner will handle Compass's roasting operations, once he is trained: The former editor at Consumer's Checkbook had never roasted coffee before he was hired. He sent Haft and Suarez a blind inquiry letter detailing his interest in the field.

Warner sat in front of the roaster with a laptop and his coffee books one Tuesday, looking like a typical customer in the cafe -- except for the fact that his bosses were interviewing his prospective co-workers only a few feet away. Hayes, who was responsible for screening candidates, took the lead on the interviews. The most important thing he was looking for, he said, was a good attitude.

"What kind of vibe do they give off?" Hayes asked. "You don't necessarily have to have industry experience. That can be taught."

Getting a few preliminary questions out of the way -- a candidate's availability for full or part time work, their experience, their smoking habits (smokers were asked not to light up during their shifts, lest the smell on their fingers affect the taste of the coffee) -- he got to the important questions. Addressing David Semple, a 50-year-old candidate with experience working in fine dining, he asked, "Why Compass Coffee?"

"The neighborhood, I have to tell you, has been a little rugged. But if you look at the demographics in D.C., that's a good thing, because it's changing," Semple said. "You're in a spot that's going to be, in a few years, very profitable. I'd like to be a part of that ... I'm coachable and I have very little ego."

Hayes talked about the company's philosophy: "So, obviously, take care of customers. After that we're all about real good coffee, all the time," he said, repeating the company's motto. "After that ... really, what we're asking people to do is find a way to make it work. Determination."

"Water seeks a level," Semple said.

"The last thing, we just kind of sum it up as: Everybody cleans," Hayes said. "No one's above a certain task."


Semple, along with eight other new hires, reported for training on the Wednesday before Compass's soft opening. In addition to manager Hayes and lead roaster Warner, Compass hired three assistant managers and five baristas -- only a few of whom had coffee shop experience. They also hired Kevin Frisch, an attorney who befriended Haft and Suarez due to their common interest in welding, who started helping out with construction projects and assorted tasks in his spare time, for fun. They've brought him on as a full-time fulfillment director, working on their wholesale business, as well as their in-house legal counsel.

"I hate to bring everything back to the military, but we were leading a platoon . . . Then, leaving the military -- slam on the brakes -- we're only responsible for ourselves," Haft said. "There is something very nice about having a team again."

Haft and Suarez prepared for training with their characteristic Marine precision, writing an employee handbook, training goals and syllabi for classes, for which employees received various assignments.

But after nine months, it's time to step back.

Hayes handled most of the training. Warner, after leading a session on the basics of coffee beans, noisily roasted; he built up a reserve of 800 pounds of roasted coffee for the opening. Haft and Suarez checked in occasionally, but mostly, they hung out in the back of the shop, welding desks and shelves in their office.

"In no way are we going to be absentee owners," Suarez said. Rather, it's about encouraging employees to find their own way. Water seeks a level, as Semple put it -- meaning, Compass's employees will either sink together, or rise to the occasion.


The second day of training covered coffee basics: how to pull espresso shots, adjust the grind and make latte art. Hayes supervised a drill that would simulate service on a very busy day: The assistant managers would pull shots for various drinks, passing them down the line to baristas who would steam milk and make frothy hearts and leaves in the foam on top. The sounds of churning liquids and the taps of knock boxes and milk pitchers competed with the percussion of the roaster.

"Watch each other, coach each other," encouraged Hayes.

Assistant managers Nicolette Grams, Alex Parker and Ian Storey weighed their espresso shots on digital scales, which helped them determine if the grounds were the correct degree of coarseness. Done correctly, 17 grams of coffee should produce a 34-gram shot of espresso.

"If the espresso isn't right, the rest of the drink won't matter," Grams said.

"I don't feel good about this at all," Parker said, watching his shot dribble out of one of the shop's futuristic Modbar espresso makers. "Thirty [grams]." He frowned. "I'm going to bring it a hair coarser."

On the other side of the bar, the first latte that came down the line looked more like a kidney bean than a heart.

"You want to have one stream [of milk]," said Brittany Pugh, a former Starbucks barista who has also stepped up to the role of company cheerleader. When barista Mike Stringer -- every bit the coffeehouse archetype with his retro glasses and beard -- gave up midway through a latte art attempt and made an abstract creation, his coworkers laughed and applauded.

"It's beautiful," Pugh said. "It's a Picasso!"

One attempt later, when Stringer succeeded at pouring a leaf, the applause was genuine.

"I'm like a proud mama," Pugh said. "I'm like -- 'My babies!' Everyone's doing good latte art."

While latte art was not the most important thing for a Compass Coffee barista to master before Sunday's soft-opening -- to Haft and Suarez, the taste of the coffee is more important than its appearance -- there was still an anxious energy in the room.

"The idea is that [the customers] are going to see everything," Hayes said. "They're going to be watching."

"I think by the end of today and tomorrow, we're going to be ready," Parker said. "Is everything going to be perfect? No. I'm nervous, but [I] should be nervous. If I was overly confident, then [I] wouldn't care."

Like so many others in the coffee craft in this city, Parker has tattoos on his arms. One of them reads, "Just stay calm."