THE MUNDANE HORROR OF TALKING TO COFFEE SHOP CUSTOMERS

For several years, I was on the other side of the horror show that Graham described yesterday. I was a surly, judgmental Seattle barista, and, at times, my customer service was piss poor. The shop where I worked was very busy in the mornings. Some days, during our morning rush, between 6:30 and 8:30 we would have a line to the door for the whole time, and a steady flow of customers after. Often, I and one other colleague would serve around 200 people by 10:00.

I’d always be tired, sometimes (often) (mostly) from drinking the night before, but definitely because of the exertion of waking up in darkness and immediately having to perform a physical job and talk to people. Most of the time, these factors would make me behind the beat or, even worse, grumpy. Or—horror of horrors—I’d become manic and chatty.

Everyone is terrible, especially in the morning

I was no fun to be around when my shift started, for the reasons above. But I’d often find my mood getting worse if I had to work the register. I would always try to get to work a tad early—typically that meant arriving at 6:15 or 6:20 for my 6:30 shift. My preference was always to have my own coffee before serving others, for obvious reasons.

But sometimes my colleague would already be so deep in the weeds, all by themself— occasionally, at 6:15, there would already be a line to the door, and my colleague would have to dash back and forth between the espresso machine and the cash register—that I would feel obliged to clock in early and get started without saving myself.

This uncaffeinated state made the four typical types of bad behavior by customers unbearable.

  • Impatience: Coffee shop customers expect Starbucks speed, which is impossible in inde shops. In my shop, we had two baristas working a manual machine. A Starbucks store that does the volume of my former shop can afford to have three times as many staff members on the floor during any given morning, and a lot of their work is automated. It’s no exaggeration to say that, at my job, I did the work of three people at the Bucks. No shade, it’s just a fact. And, even though I was really fast by the end of my tenure, that shit took time.
  • Entitlement: After waiting in a line that was fifteen people deep, some customers would expect their drink to be ready instantly—forgetting that fifteen people in front of them also ordered drinks, which also needed to be made. The worst entitled customers would hover by the machine, watching your every movement, and ask every couple of drinks why theirs wasn’t ready. Sometimes they’d just grab the latest thing to come off the line, even if it wasn’t theirs.
  • Indecision: How the hell are you going to stand in line for twenty minutes and not know what you’re going to get?
  • Rudeness: This is the worst of it. Handling hundreds of customers in the morning is emotionally exhausting. Everyone hates their job, so few people are happy in the morning, and they take it out on their barista, consciously or not. That would often take the form of ego-tripping—sometimes I’d get scowled at or even berated for messing up an order, or missing the theft of a drink. More often, someone would treat me or my colleagues as automatons. They’d get to the front of the line and say, “Latte,” like they were on the phone with an automated customer service bot, before I could even say “Good morning” or “What can I get you?” That shit adds up if it happens twenty or thirty times over the course of an hour.

 

Not all regulars are good

With all this emotional labor (the real hard work of customer service), you really start to look for a familiar face. I got tight with my colleagues at this shop. But I also formed dozens of intimate, superficial relationships with regulars.

You have to chat up your regulars. I’d delight in seeing the nice ones and tell them about whatever—often things that I wouldn’t have told close friends, because it was usually about them. With the regulars I didn’t like, I would still have to carry on a mutually humiliating, job-imposed fake friendship. Some regulars are real friends, like the bartenders who I hooked up with Americanos and got taken care of at the watering hole in return, or the couple that I had lunch with when I last visited D.C., where they’d moved after a couple of years in Seattle, or the guy who invited me to join his fantasy football league.

But there was also the woman who kept hitting on me at work, and would feel free to sit down with me and my friends—sometimes even a date!—at the above watering hole, and keep hitting on me. Or there was the guy who had a creepy vibe, and spent way too long talking to the women that I worked with. Up until the point that he shoved a dick pic into my friend/colleague’s face at work, I had to pretend to banter with him. Regulars will not hesitate to go over your head and complain to the owner if you do not play ball with their harassment, or simple obnoxious behavior.

I feel bad for the good ones

It was a fun job, but it got to me, especially after I’d been at the shop for a while. Frankly, I wasn’t really cut out for it. But some people thrive on it. They love the work and the hustle, and for them, meeting a ton of cool new people, which really did happen often, was worth the frequent rudeness and occasional abusive behavior. They’d form valuable, durable relationships with customers, and have meaningful conversations with them.

I could get like that sometimes, with good people. But other sometimes I would harangue a regular, in the midst of a rush, because of sleep-deprived mania or residual drunkenness, or some kind of combination of the two. 

Even the good regulars—which I have to assume Graham would be—probably got sick of my shit on days like that. They hadn’t even had their coffee yet, poor kids.


Also published on Medium.