Saturday, September 19, 2009

World's Worst Barista

I spent last summer living at the beach in Charleston, S.C. Jealous? Don't be. I spent most of the three months wearing a green apron inside a teeny Starbucks. I imagined myself steaming lattes for smiling customers when I filled out the application. I would educate curious clientele about the selection and roasting process of Sri Lanka beans and the subtle caramel notes and nutty undertones in our signature espresso shots. I breezed through my two-week training course at a cafe in an upscale brick shopping center led by a team of baristas with peppy personalities best reserved for kindergarten teachers. They awarded me a Barista Certification Pin even though my test cappuccino exceeded the weigh-in limit by .7 ounces. Then they sent me to an out-of-the-way, understaffed drive-thru Starbucks attached to a Tire Kingdom.

The first day I rolled two soggy loads of garbage across the parking lot to the raccoon-infested dumpster in the 100-degree coastal heat. Sweat drops formed around my hairline. The mechanics laughed and whistled. Then I donned a pair of yellow rubber gloves to scrub the urinals in the bathroom shared with the tire store. I dragged away heavy rubber mats and shoved out refrigerators to sweep and mop. I came home at 11:45 p.m. smelling of dish water and burnt espresso with whipped-cream stained sneakers.

I woke up at 5 a.m. the next morning and drove back over the Cooper River Bridge to man the drive-thru during the Saturday rush. (With 11 Starbucks in my vicinity and three within biking distance, the only one that hired me was 20 minutes away.) The line of cars wrapped around the parking lot and extended to the road in the mornings. Customers played with their blackberries while waiting up to 20 minutes for their a.m. caffeine fixes. Most kept a cellphone attached to their ear as they ordered at the speaker and paid at the window. Sometimes they'd hand over a credit card and ask me to reload a couple of hundred bucks on their Starbux Goldcard as they chatted.

One Sunday morning a woman with cropped gray hair and sunglasses beat on the drive-thru window. I hesitated before stepping in front of the automatic screen, half expecting her fist to crack through it. "Are YOU Ashley? Did you make this latte?" she asked.

"No ma'am," I answered.

"I said no foam," she said. "Do you all not understand what that means? This has an INCH of foam." She rolled up her window and drove away before I could offer to remake her drink.

By 10 a.m. I was ready for my lunch break. I returned 30 minutes later to discover that we'd run out of cold plastic cups. The shift supervisor, a fill-in from another store, couldn't convince any nearby stores to spare us any. We had to explain to customers that they could have that Strawberry Banana Vivanno Smoothie or Tall Iced Mocha, but we'd have to serve it in a hot paper cup. "What the f*** is wrong with you all?" a burly guy asked me at the window. The bleach blonde in the passenger seat shook her head.

My beverage-making skills didn't improve as the weeks rolled by. My register drawer came up $20 short. Twice. My headset pack wouldn't stay clipped to my pants. It would fall and rip off my headset, yanking my hair and one day tearing my earring halfway down my earlobe. A gallon of whole milk busted on me when I opened the industrial refrigerator one night. I spent half an hour sopping up the mess with a mop. Another time I knocked over the giant sugar bucket when I tried to pick up a pile of straws that had fallen underneath it. I ended up sweeping up three sticky dustpan-loads of sugar. I usually had some caramel stuck to my forearm or chocolate sauce smeared on my cheek. My once manicured nails peeled down to stubs from handling all the sanitizing solution. And my skin always reeked of stale coffee and sour milk.

Some days I spent my entire eight-hour shift at the drive-thru window, handling thousands of dollars and watching oblivious customers roll their eyes at the speaker or pick their nose in the drive-thru camera. I came home and threw myself on my bed, still in my uniform. "Welcome to Starbucks. You're on with Rachel. What can we get started for you?" replayed over and over in my hazy sleep. "Would you like a a cinnamon chip scone to go with that Venti Skinny Hazlenut Latte with light whip?"

One afternoon a skinny woman in workout gear pulled up in a jeep and ordered a Grande Green Tea Frappuccino with four pumps of raspberry syrup. "I'm sorry, but we're out of raspberry syrup," I said.

"Unbelievable. You were out when I came by two days ago," she said. "How hard is it to pick up the phone and order more? I want to speak with your manager." How would I explain that we didn't have a manager because she'd quit after being demoted a week before I started? She ended up asking me to substitute strawberry juice for the syrup. She took a sip and handed it back to me. "Nope. Tastes funny. Throw this out and make me a normal Green Tea Frapp."

With every shift came a new story. A woman drove off in tears when we told her we were out of decaf espresso. "It's hard to care when I saw villagers fighting over rice last week," shrugged a barista who'd returned from a humanitarian trip to Kenya. Another day a mom rolled her eyes and squealed her tires after I handed her two trays of drinks for her van load of kids. Yes, she'd waited 20 minutes, but did she consider that she'd ordered a bag of specialty ground coffee, six drinks and three heated pastries when we had a line out the door in the front?

"How's Tom?" some customers asked. Tom was a barista who'd shot scalding sanitizing solution into his eye the week after I'd started. I never saw him again, but a shift supervisor told me his eye swelled to cartoonish proportions. He had a 90 percent chance of regaining his sight.

One petite woman came by a couple of times a day to order a Venti whole milk, 10-pump, extra-hot, no-water, add-whip Chai Tea Latte. A tiny, sun-baked dog groomer came in for her afternoon six-espresso-shots-on ice. Another woman would drive through in the morning and afternoon to get two Venti Mocha Frappuccinos with extra whip, extra caramel and extra chocolate drizzle -- for herself. She barely fit in her car. I cringed with guilt like a dealer serving addicts their fix.

One day the woman who'd banged on the window to yell at me for her over-foamed latte came back and pointed to me. I cowered. "Yesterday I had the best Caramel Macchiato of my life," she said. "That girl made it." I didn't know what I'd done to the lauded latte -- maybe put in one too many shots of vanilla syrup or forgotten an espresso shot.

I relished repeating orders to customers, secretly hoping they'd detect a tinge of sarcasm in my tone. "So that will be one triple Tall decaf one-percent, 2-pump, 170-degree, no-whip, stirred-to-the-left Mocha and one non-fat iced Grande Cinnamon Dolce Coffee with eight ice cubes," I'd say into the headset. My coworkers told me I flashed a death glare into the monitor screen. Sometimes the veteran baristas would chime into their own headsets to interrupt me when I sounded confused after a complicated order. "Sorry about that Kim -- she's new," they'd say. "I'll have your two non-fat extra-dry Grande Vanilla Cappuccinos right up, hon. So did y'all have fun on your Alaskan cruise with the Rogers?"

July 4 I worked from 2-10:30 p.m. A pair of goateed Jon Gosselin look-alikes drove up and ordered two quad Venti Java Chip Frappuccinos. Now that's 48 ounces of chocolate-chip-coffee milkshake with eight extra shots of espresso topped with a mountain of homemade whipped cream and chocolate drizzle. I noticed the guys were still sitting outside the window five minutes after I'd handed off their drinks. "Can I get you all anything else?" I asked. They didn't speak. The driver just pointed to a small half-ring stain on the leg of his faded jeans. He'd set his drink on his lap. "Can I get you some extra napkins?" I asked.

"No," he said. What did he want me to do, get in the car and scrub him with a wet rag? They rolled their eyes and drove off, only to return 10 minutes later. I asked the shift supervisor to answer the window. The guy grunted and pointed to his pant leg again. My angelic coworker made them another round of free drinks without a word.

But what amused me more than the cellphone dependency and elaborate orders I encountered during my Starbucks experience were the dogs. We'd hand out dog biscuits to the canines in cars. Sometimes dog owners would drive by and only order a newspaper or cup of water so their pet could get a treat. I miffed customers if I forgot to toss Fido a biscuit. Once a couple gave me an expectant look after I handed off their beverages and dog treats. Another barista clued me in -- They were waiting for the whipped cream cups for the pooches.

One day I fussed over a giddy Yorkie in a beat-up pick up and offered her a treat. She didn't even sniff it. When I handed the big guy in the stained T-shirt his latte and pumpkin loaf, he pulled the bread out of the bag and let Princess nibble it from his fingers.

"I'm over this," an insurance salesman who did a short stint at our store said one day. "The Starbucks drive-thru is a microcosm of American society and everything that's wrong with it."

1 comment:

  1. LOVE IT. wow. between the verbal abuse and sexual harassment at my job and the psychological torture of yours... we had quite a summer. I MISS YOU!!


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