Like most people, I love coffee. It’s right there next to “clean undies” and “toothbrush” on my Things I’d Want if I Were Stranded on a Desert Island list. But there are certain things you should know about the people who make your coffee and the businesses that employ them. It’s not always the rainbows and sunshine like the Starbucks ads would have you believe. In fact, in my experience, it rarely was. I can’t speak for every barista out there, it’s quite possible that my experience was unique (though, I doubt it).
My very first job was when I was 13. Until that point, my “resume”, if you could even call it that, was a few sentences long and consisted of “volunteer at such-and-such place” and “babysitter for the so-and-so’s”. I had no experience dealing with customers and an absolute loathing of coffee. WHY they put me in charge of the espresso machine? I’ll never know. But they did.
Anyway, I learned fast. (Don’t get me wrong, I fucked up quite a bit too, as was expected, but I learned pretty fast). Luckily, making a specialized coffee drink is essentially like any other standard recipe, really. With one major difference:
1. It needs to be ready….5 minutes ago.
Baristas KNOW that you’re in a hurry. It’s just assumed that everyone is on a time crunch. We’re all to blame for this. Ever notice how, even when you go to a coffee shop to get coffee and chill you find yourself waiting by the drink counter, impatiently tapping your foot or staring anxiously at the attendant? Yeah. In any case, baristas work as fast as they can. And unfortunately, the espresso machines they work with are cumbersome and slow. Baristas are severely limited by their equipment. And their work stations are tiny.
You’re lucky if you get two baristas on a busy day working two machines, sharing a milk fridge, pulling, grinding, pressing espresso and making a never-ending list of the ever-simple: cinnamon dulce soy double decaf lattes extra hot with no foam. The point is, please, for the love of god, show some patience. Why? Well, because…
2. These poor people will work at this pace with nary a break for a full 8 hour shift.
And they’re going to put up with your degree of impatience from EVERY SINGLE CUSTOMER. Is it worth it? Well…
3. You tell me if minimum wage plus an average of a 6% tip split 5 ways for 8 hours of insanity is worth it?
Baristas are expected the be the sunniest of sunny towards the people who are, at that point, the least of the likely to give a flying fuck. They haven’t had their coffee yet, they’re not in the mood to be receptive to a barista’s half-hearted smile. When I was a barista, I found that about 1 in 5 people left a tip, and it was usually either the change remaining from the cost of the coffee up to, at the most, $2. At the end of a shift, the tips were split between all of the employees on for that shift, which, on the best of days, ended up being around $20.
$20 on top of minimum wage for working at break-neck speed for people who stare you down, snap last-minute order changes at you, and will barely tip…if at all? Hmmm. Well, it doesn’t sound so great, so the schedules must be awesome (you say to yourself), or the perks (no pun intended)?!
4. Like many entry-level jobs, Baristas tend to be hired on a part-time or seasonal basis. Meaning schedules are unpredictable at best, and employers don’t have to offer benefits.
I was a barista for ONE semester when I was in college. And it barely, BARELY paid the bills. As in, on top of 18 credits, a 30hr a week job, and as many babysitting jobs as I could get, I still had ask for money from my parents just to get by. Pretty sad. The “benefit” I was sold on was 1 meal a day and as much coffee as I liked while I was working (if I came in on a day off, I had to pay half price), as well as the promise to be moved up to management if I stuck it out long enough. I stuck it out and was promoted to management level just long enough to realize I was killing myself for nothing. The sacrifice of my college education over getting the weekly schedule right for the College Buzz Cafe was not worth it. So I quit.
All that being said, my time as a barista helped me learn a few valuable lessons.
A) It’s easy to let a dumb job take over your life. The job can feel like it’s not taking up much time when, in fact, it truly is.
B) Never treat the line employees at any establishment like they’re half-wits, in any way, at any time, ever. I served coffee to some of the most prominent individuals in the city at the time, and many of them were insensitive, egocentric pricks. I will never forget those people. Many of them treated me like I was a pretty face but vapid to the core. It’s the sort of insult that stings at that “disbelief of your ignorant discrimination” place. And it sucks.
C) Take what you can from menial jobs and get the hell out. Staying with an entry-level job for no reason other than to push through (when you know things will never improve and when you HAVE the ability and circumstances to make a change) is asinine.
D) Don’t let yourself be manipulated by bad mid-level managers. Life is too short and it’s not worth it. If you have the ability to bring it to the attention to someone who can make a difference? Do it. Otherwise, duck out peacefully, take the positive reference, and move on. This can be a hard pill to swallow; it doesn’t follow the inherent rules of fairness that we’d all like to believe exist in the world. But in the end, if you leave on bad terms, you’ll lose the reference. And then the bad manager will have affected your past, present, AND future.
E) Lastly, if you can manage it, try not to order convoluted crazy complicated ridiculous drinks at local Mom and Pop coffee shops. Save that shit for Starbucks. Smaller coffee shops tend to focus on the quality of the coffee bean, not the number of adjectives placed before the name. You’ll want to be able to taste the coffee for a change.
We’ve all had bad jobs. And I understand that my experience is likely better than the experiences of many others. But I love hearing about different people’s experiences within certain special facets of society that I’d otherwise have no window into. So hopefully I’ve shed a little sunshine on the dismal reality of the life of a barista, and hopefully someone can take that knowledge and make a difference. Even if it’s to just be genuine and make a real personal connection with your barista, that small gesture can make their day. Let them know they’re not your coffee bitch. It goes a long way.
Also, while bad, this is certainly not the worst job I’ve ever had. Oh, it gets worse. And the lessons, well, they get better.