Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Gray Barista

Did you ever notice all those cheerful young college kids working at Starbucks? As a middle-aged – O.K., late middle-aged – guy, I certainly noticed them. And I longed to become one of them. So I did.

Call it, as my wife Kim did, my mid-life crisis. Following a career teaching high school, my work as a freelance writer had taken me away from kids and plopped me in front of my computer, hour after hour. Drinking Starbucks coffee. Maybe, I thought, some of the youthful energy I enjoy at Starbucks would rub off on me. Maybe it would combine with the extra caffeine I’d be exposed to. Maybe I could become 23 years old again.

Kim confessed to me later that she encouraged me to apply at Starbucks because she knew I was “kitchen challenged” and for some unknown reason wanted me to become kitchen functional. Food preparation, like opening clasps on my wife’s bracelets, always made me feel clumsy. As long as I was going to drop 40 years, I might as well shed a few insecurities at the same time.

Rob, the manager of the busy Gainesville store where I applied, let me know that I did not fit the profile of the typical young and inexperienced applicant. I asked about Starbucks’ commitment to “embrace diversity” as one of its Guiding Principles. “How, exactly, do you do this?”

“You,” he answered, looking at my gray beard. I was pleased, as a white male, finally to be in a minority.


Rob gave me a 200 page training manual and started me on a series of tastings of Starbucks coffees. For my first I wrote, “Tastes like coffee.” I paused. “Good coffee.”

After the second tasting, I wrote, “A lot like the first one.”

Having mastered coffee tastings, I next turned to the cash register, a skill not emphasized when I majored in English in college. Forty different beverages, each with a distinct abbreviation, with an assortment of sizes, milks, added syrups and custom treatments - which means about 500,000 different creations, each with its combination of buttons on the various screens, plus buttons for pastries, credit cards, discounts, etc. To add to the fun, many of the terms are in Italian. And every month or so the company moves the buttons around on the screen as a way to prevent over-confidence.

So I’m working away at the register. The line of Starbucks regulars, many of them students tanking up on caffeine for exams, is growing, but they all appear to be in a good mood, possibly because they know their next fix is imminent. I’m trying to find all the right buttons, make the right change, and exchange small talk with each customer. I find myself saying “I’m new” a lot, and wondering how long I’ll be able to use that line. My partners have quietly stepped in to call the drink orders back to the barista who will make them. Later, when business slows considerably, I practice calling back the drinks and working the register. Both at the same time!

Just when I’m starting to get in a groove, I feel myself losing contact with the floor. Earthquake? Seizure? No, one of my partners has decided it’s time to mop the floor beneath the rubber mat on which I’m standing, and it is slowly sliding out from under me. At the same time, another partner, an attractive woman in her 20’s, is crawling around between my legs raking $20 bills from under my register into her till. I think this moment falls somewhere between hazing and sexual harassment.

I had one glitch when, after ringing up two simple gift cards for $10 and being handed a $20 bill, I read on the screen (and the customer on his) that he was owed $14,600 in change. I have no idea what button I touched. After the manager came over and straightened things out, the next customer, who had witnessed the whole thing, approached with a smile and said, “I want whatever she ordered.”

Passing the Bar

I was already pretty good at making black coffee at home, so how much more difficult could it be to make a double tall nonfat 140 degree upside down Caramel Macchiato?

Lots. The customers at our Starbucks are not considerate enough to come in one at a time, so I often find several marked cups - the most I counted was fifteen - lined up on the bar, each begging to be filled. Now. I watched one veteran buzz through a line of drinks, starting some while finishing others, rinsing and refilling the milk pitchers and cleaning the steaming wands at the same time. Meanwhile, he was speaking with the customers, delivering drinks to customers by name, and rotating the tires on his car in the parking lot. I’m exaggerating a little here, but not much.

Suffice it to say that the first day I worked the bar I found a thick stack of “recovery coupons” - good for a free drink when we had messed up a drink or were too slow in making it - placed where I could reach them easily.


On my ninth day, a Monday, I sat down with Rob for my “Certification” – an hour-long final exam on the material covered in my training. I flunked. Well, not exactly flunked, but I received an “Incomplete.” Rob postponed my test at the espresso bar until the demands there had slackened and my clogging up the flow of beverages would not be so noticeable.

Rob’s wisdom in withholding my certification became evident a few days later when I created a new drink, one that I dubbed the “Moppuccino.” I was pulling a whipped cream canister out of the refrigerator, and apparently a piece of the spout reached up and grabbed the shelf just above it. Four gallons of Frappuccino mix tumbled to the floor in slow motion, followed by whatever else had been so carefully prepared in advance of the rush of customers who had materialized in front of the cash register. Everything stopped – for about two long seconds. Then we all scrambled – for sanitized rags, the mop, and the pitchers whose lids had not opened.

I quickly volunteered to clean out the refrigerator – the brown tsunami had splashed all over the interior. I figured this was a dirty job that was a fitting punishment. I also figured that I could avoid looking anyone in the eye. I waited for someone to say, “This happens all the time,” but nobody said that. 

I spent the rest of my shift at the cash register, where there was nothing much for me to spill except the cash. Five minutes before I left I was assigned to wash the dishes, which I did without incident except for the time when I unscrewed the top of a whipped cream canister without first squeezing out the pressurized air. Droplets of whipped cream sprayed out in about a five foot radius. I caught half of the spray, and the customer writing on his laptop at the bar hardly noticed what happened to his keyboard.

Nobody ever spoke to me about my spill, but one partner asked me if I knew the name of the captain of the Exxon Valdiz. Weeks later, hardened droplets of Moppuccino still clung to my shoes.

All too soon it was time to complete my certification exam. My task was simple: make three basic drinks perfectly in three minutes. Rob stood next to me with a timer.

I immediately noticed that someone (not me – I swear!) had neglected to wipe off the steaming wands, so I had to lose a few seconds in doing that. Then I could not find the whole milk pitcher among the soy, non-fat, organic, eggnog, and whatever else was there. When I found it, there was no thermometer to check the temperature of the milk. The whipped cream canisters on the counter were empty, and I had to dig into the back of the refrigerator to find one – carefully because Moppuccion was not one of my assigned drinks. I finished the mocha, applying the whipped cream with a flourish – too much of a flourish, apparently, for when I jammed on the top, whipped cream squirted out of the drink hole oozed down the sides of the cup. Then I quickly finished my latte. Rob called “time” after four minutes and forty-five seconds. And I had not yet begun the cappuccino. Rob weighed my latte and found it too light for Starbucks standards.

Another grade of Incomplete.

My subsequent training consisted of working at the espresso bar when the manager thought we would have no customers. If one came in, I was offered my ten-minute break, when I would sit on the customer side of the bar to hear the drinks being called. I would picture myself making each one quickly and perfectly - the right ingredients in the right amounts and the right order - conversing intimately with each customer as I handed off the drinks. It’s easy when you don’t actually have to make the drinks.

I’ve become aware of another reason Rob had hired me. Yes, as the gray barista I add to the store’s diversity. But also, like the juggler who drops one on purpose, I remind customers how difficult the job is.

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