For almost an hour on a sizzling Thursday afternoon in downtown Tucson, Branden Webb has had the air-conditioned confines of Caffe Luce nearly all to himself, save for a writer perched in the coffee bar’s upstairs loft overlooking Congress Street.
In between paragraphs, I briefly observe Webb as he steams the espresso machine’s portafilter, wipes clean the handle and stainless steel, checks that the creamer in the ice well is full. This has to be the fourth time in the last 15 minutes he’s repeated this sequence. Time to lean, time to clean. He obviously knows the drill.
And so it goes in July for Tucson’s food service workers. For bartenders, servers and baristas like Webb—who depend on tips for a significant portion of their income—the summer swoon hits hardest.
“We lose a lot of business during the summer between all three of our locations,” Webb, downtown Luce’s head barista, later explains. “Our University location loses about 60 percent of its business. Our north side location (on Campbell and Limberlost) loses a little less than half of theirs. And it’s about the same here.”
“When college is out, business drops. In the afternoons and even in the mornings,” says Webb. “And it hurts a lot.”
Webb returns behind the bar just as a new customer swings open Luce’s glass door. A man in his 50s—tall, tan and sinewy—arrives with flowers. He places the bouquet just so on the counter as sweat trickles down his temples. Webb prepares an iced coffee to-go, shares a laugh with the floral arranger, and hands him his drink. There’s never an exchange of money. “See you next time,” Webb says, and the man exits to the stifling heat.
“So, he’s homeless. He’s a veteran. And he’s got a drinking problem,” Webb tells me at the end of his shift. “He came in earlier this year with a handful of flowers, and I taught him how to set it up and make it look pretty. I told him, ‘As long as you’re bringing us flowers, I’m giving you free coffee.’ And we’ve had that deal for about four or five months now.”
Webb, a native of Battle Creek, Michigan, who has more than 10 years’ experience as a barista—including three years working for Luce owner Mike Foster—says he treats everyone who walks through the door as if they’re a customer, whether they end up spending money or not.
“Obviously, you gotta spend money if you wanna hang. But I’m going to greet everyone with a smile, treat everyone with the same respect, and ask them how their day is going,” Webb says. “Being so close to the Ronstadt Center, we have a few more people coming here off the bus that are less fortunate, that are struggling. Some come in here just for water three or four times a day.
There’s not a water fountain anywhere along Congress. It’s one of those things we simply have to supply. No one else is doing it,” he says. “Not many places on Congress are open and available to that kind of visitor, someone who is not going to be spending money.”
Webb devotes most of his work week—about 32 hours—behind the counter at Luce, either as a barista, or in the kitchen preparing gourmet sandwiches or baking muffins from scratch. The triple-berries are his favorites.
“They always turn out different. The batter comes out swirled, like a lava lamp,” Webb says. “You really have to know how to bake and cook vegetarian here. You have to have a good palate.”
“But the coffee is still what does it for me. I like learning about coffee,” he says. “Sometimes, when you know a lot about your craft, it’s hard to stay focused, to not get bored. With coffee, there’s always more to learn. How an espresso can go bad. How to fix it, how to manipulate it. It’s a science.”
Webb spends at least another eight hours every week doing office work—making schedules for his co-workers, maintaining inventory, back-stocking food items, and sometimes managing Caffe Luce’s social media accounts.
Mike Foster purchased Luce’s downtown location from former Sparkroot owner Ari Shapiro in late 2015. For the first eight months, Webb says, the coffee bar “just sat and fell apart” under bad management. But in the past year, Luce’s downtown location has thrived since Webb’s close friend Foster asked him to run the place.
“Getting the right staff has been the most important part,” Webb says. “The heart and soul of any shop is who you’ve got behind the counter.”
I spend a couple mornings shadowing Webb (when he actually has customers), peering over his shoulder as he serves fresh-baked, chocolate chip cookies to a mom and her four kids; when he surgically slices pears and brie for a grilled panini; and as he brews his specialty: a 6-ounce cappuccino with flawless foam. He’s always the same: compassionate, congenial, professional. I ask him if it’s authentic, or if this version of himself is transactional, a coffee-house personality he’s mastered over the course of a decade.
“My favorite part of this job is making connections. I’m always trying to connect with somebody on any level,” he says. “It’s in the first 30 seconds that a customer decides if you’re worthy of their good mood or not. And that’s important to me. So I try to remember a name, I do my best to remember a drink, something personal about the person to make that connection.”
“It’s not about the transaction,” Webb adds. “It’s all about community building.”
Branden Webb usually works from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, at 245 E. Congress Street.
Header image by Kate Selby.