Look, I don’t want to come down hard on you, barista folks, but we have some things to address about making espresso, basic food handling, and customer service. From a former barista to a present one, here are some things I’d like to ask you to consider.
Number One: I know your job sucks, but I also know that’s not my fault. Crappy customers definitely make your job suck. I know the types: the snippy, snotty, demanding ones who think you put a tablespoon too much foam on their latte. They didn’t want it without foam! They wanted foam! Just not that much foam. Or the customer who gets way too familiar with you, and is constantly making uncomfortable comments about how you look in that polo shirt (eyes firmly fixed on your tits), or wanting to know what you do over the weekend or in the evenings? Those customers can go to hell. But I also know that I’m not that customer. I greet you with a smile, ready to order clearly, and never hold up the line fishing for my debit card or deliberating between pastries. I keep your job moving at a quick clip, and I tip generously every single time. So I don’t appreciate it when you roll your eyes at me ordering the same thing five mornings in a row, or sigh with exasperation when I ask for the bathroom code. Dude. That’s your job.
Number Two: Speaking of your job, I feel a lot of sympathy for the parts of it that are difficult, but I also know that being a barista is not a super specialized position, and I expect you to do it competently. I know that what you do for a living isn’t covetable. People expect you to serve them like you’re a waiter in a fine dining establishment, but they want it as quick as Mickey D’s, and they balk when your corporation arbitrarily raises the prices of all of the drinks by ten cents to make up for increased coffee import taxes or the rising cost of milk. So, people are jerks to you. And you go home smelling like burnt coffee and bleach every day. And the skin on your hands is peeling, and at least once a month you end up with a blistering steam burn from someone being careless with the milk steaming wand. And you have to empty dripping trash with old milk in it, and check a lot of food for tell-tale signs of expiration, and you have to clean a lot of disgusting bathrooms that homeless people take sponge baths in. And your back and feet and legs hurt like a motherfucker and you’re only 19 and you’re bent over like Great Aunt Betty. I get it. And that’s not even counting the babysitting, flattering, cajoling, and policing you’re expected to do of the customers everyday. So, please, don’t think me insensitive when I say: I expect my drink to be made competently, in a timely manner, without harassment. And if you make a mistake, that’s okay. But if it’s a legitimate departure from what I asked for, I expect you to fix it without being charged extra. By legitimate departure, I mean anything that could affect the actual flavor, nutritional content, potential dietary restrictions, or volume of drink actually ordered. You know: the shit I paid for.
Number Three: I remember specifically how degrading it was to work this position, and how everyone treated you like you were stupid, and it sucked. Please don’t deal with this situation by treating all of your customers like they’re stupid. When we’re making small talk (that you initiated) at the register, and I don’t know what you’re talking about, or I misunderstand something you say, please don’t talk down to me, treat me like I’m ignorant, or otherwise make obvious signals that indicate how little regard you have for my intelligence. I know a lot of smart-as-hell people who work coffee, and I’ve never once treated a barista like I assumed they were working that job as some kind of penance for lack of culture, knowledge, understanding, or intelligence. In fact, most of the baristas I’ve known have been university students or graduates, well-read, interesting, vibrant-minded folks with diverse interests and high capabilities. It’s a job, as honorable as any other, and I have no judgment about you working there. I did it for years. So I think you’re just being shitty when you laugh and say, “Oh, well, huh. I mean, I thought anyone who’s anyone would recognize Bright Eyes lyrics when they heard them.” Or, “Tall skim vanilla latte? Oh, man. What a cliche.” You just sound insecure and mean when you say that shit. Similarly, not everyone has been drinking doppio macchiatos since they were weaned off mother’s milk; when a customer comes in and doesn’t know your beverage sizing system, or what a cappuccino is, just be nice, explain what things are, and ask if you can help in some way. Don’t shriek at me, “I’m sorry, grande? GRANDE? We are not Starbucks. We are Peet’s. We serve MEDIUMS here.”* That’s not just basic customer service. That’s basic decency.
Number Four: Along similar lines, show some basic courtesy for your customers and fellow employees. Nothing grates on my nerves more than watching a Starbucks barista snap at the person at the register, “You wrote it wrong on the cup!” in front of all the customers in line. I know it’s important when you’re churning out that many drinks to get things right and keep things moving quickly, and I know that the early morning rush can be a stressful time when manners tend to take a back seat to just getting shit done, but if you can help it, wait to tell them when things slow down. Or say it nicely, like, “Hey, next time you want to say ‘No whipped cream,’ can you remember to write a W and cross it out with one line through it? That’ll be a lot easier for you than writing ‘No Whip’ full out, and it’ll be easier for me at a glance to know what you’re talking about.” Believe it or not, this doesn’t take much longer than tearing someone a new one, and it makes you look much kinder. It’s truly uncomfortable to have to watch coworkers snipe at one another while they’re helping you. And while, unlike the bosses of most baristas, I don’t expect you to remember my name and signature drink every time I walk in (even if I do order the same thing from you twice a day Monday through Friday), I do expect you to quit asking me for my name in the same bored, blank, bleary tone of voice. Like, look me in the face when you ask for my name, and if I look vaguely familiar, try saying something nicer like, “I’m sorry, I forgot your name. What was it?” I wouldn’t mind if they said this to me every time. I know it’s the same meaning in essence: they don’t know my name. But it means the difference between feeling like these people whom I see twice daily recognize me versus feeling like I am invisible. Feeling like a stranger to the people you see as often as your coworkers and more frequently than your friends sucks. And again, it’s just basic courtesy to look somebody in the face when you’re asking them for information.
In general, be nice, and work hard enough. Being a barista is thankless enough, and I’m sympathetic to that. Deeply. I think you should have fun and not take the job too seriously, unless it’s your passion and then sink yourself into it and be the best barista you can be. But I don’t think that taking the job itself lightly is the same as showing disrespect or apathy for the people you encounter every day. From my own barista experience, I know I’m a sincerely great customer: I know my baristas’ names, give them respectful distance, always smile, ask how their day is going, don’t use up too much of their time, and tip generously. All I’d like in return is a modicum of kindness and the minimal effort it takes to churn out my favorite drink.
*Word for word what happens every time I walk into Peet’s. Typically, it’s early morning, I’m somewhere out of my normal morning ritual, and because I’m ordering my first cup of the day, I am pre-caffeine and hoping that whatever words stumble out of my mouth at this point are comprehensible and related to getting coffee in my system, stat. Worse, the Peet’s menus don’t have ounce quantities written on the menu so you just get to guess – will a small be like Starbucks’ tall, or like 8 ounces? What is a medium? The counter staff seem to have been trained to be reluctant to help you translate their terms.
10 replies on “Dear Barista: An Open Letter from One Coffee Maker to Another”
Oh this. I work at a Starbucks in a Barnes and Noble (does that make me lowest of the low?), and yes, I have a college degree, and no, this wasn’t what I thought I’d be doing with it (economy!) but lord do I hate assholes. Specifically the ones who don’t understand how they can use their BN discount card but not their Starbucks card. And then get in my face and point to the Starbucks logo behind me and say “well that says Starbucks”. And just because we’re not allowed to put out a tip jar doesn’t mean we won’t accept a tip. Cause damn it, we hustle.
Wow, I feel absurdly lucky. The baristas at my Starbucks (hey, around here it’s them or Dunkin’ Donuts, which… no.) are, without exception, pleasant, polite, friendly, remember my name, remember my drink, always ask for clarification nicely, and are never even remotely snotty. People ahead of me in line often order a small/medium/whatever, and they always just hold up the corresponding size and say, “This OK?” Having been in retail/customer service for so long, I’m pretty attuned to when things are even a little amiss behind the counter, but I guess I just lucked out.
I’m far more forgiving of spotty service than many customers, just because I know so well why it happens, but I’m also, I think, far more appreciative of good service.
I should clarify that I have a wiiiiiiiiiide acceptance berth for baristas who are clearly at the end of their shift, overwhelmed with high volume/shitty customers, and a lot of general apathy. There’s just a line they cross when their behavior becomes aggressively (or passive-aggressively) rude, and that I think is uncalled for toward the average decent customer.
As a former Peet’s employee, I have to say that the pervasiveness of Starbucks lingo in coffee culture IS annoying. Many customers forget that baristas at different cafes aren’t trained in the Starbucks language and get all huffy when their needs aren’t immediately understood. My memories of customers demanding a Venti and then staring blankly when asked for clarification are less than fond. Yelling and rudeness is unnecessary on both sides of the counter, of course. I would just say, “I want to make sure your drink is the correct size. Would you like a small, medium, or large?”
If the response I’d gotten from Peet’s baristas had ever been so kind, I’d never have brought it up. :)
I should add – I’m not trying to say that Starbucks lingo should be inherently part of the pervasive culture nor that they should have to interpret or guess what I’m talking about. but as you pointed out, there’s a nice way and a shitty way to ask for clarification, and I’ve only ever, ever encountered the shitty way.
That’s unfortunate, I hate that there is such a snotty attitude surrounding coffee now. Coffee is delicious and people should be happy about it! IÂ actuallyÂ really loved being a barista, though I did have the benefit of awesome coworkers and enough friendly, generous-with-the-tips regulars to offset the douches. Free espresso all day long helped, too :)
I’m 100% with you with the Starbucks lingo. It’s taken over coffee culture. Â I think it goes right up there with being treated like you’re stupid by customers who don’t realize not every coffee house models itself after Starbucks. When I was a barista I had no problem correcting people. Albeit I don’t think I was ever outright rude, but more tongue-in-cheek sassy. As in: “you better be speaking Italian and ordering 20 lattes, otherwise I don’t know what a venti latte is.”
Yes to the yes. Number two – its like my life flashed before my eyes. Too many service industry folks get treated like utter dog crap, along with being underpaid/ overworked and in turn, cant help but get burnout and treat everyone with the same sort of attitude. I think as long as I worked in the service industry, that was a really hard thing for me to learn and differentiate – it was like I had to shut down every semblance of being nice to just function and not want to off myself. So while yes, as someone on the other end of the counter now, I get annoyed when I’m treated like I’m a money swinging clown whose out to personally destroy the day of whoever is making my cup of coffee, but I also think that hey- maybe if service industry paid more, had some more protection from volatile customers and the two strikes rule ( i’ll be nice to you 2x and if you are a dick afterwards, I’m done being nice) perhaps you would see a shift in workers.
Oh, I wholeheartedly concur. We kind of had an unspoken rule that unnecessarily jerky customers got some very “special” treatment on their pastries and in their mochas.