The Truth About What Happens To Your Coffee


Off and on for a few years, I was a barista. I did it in a few different coffee shops, in two different cities, and they ranged in size and scope from “tiny artisan labor of love where making a cup of drip coffee took nearly 4 minutes” to “just push the espresso button, there’s a line of people on cellphones and screaming children waiting.” And invariably, no matter how charming or soul-sucking the establishment, there was the constant influx of customers who were clearly not psyched beyond belief to be out and about at 7:45 AM, and were going to take their pains out on you. (Never mind the fact, of course, that we had been there since 5:00. We chose this life, after all.)

In any case, one of the hazards of the job was clearly having do deal with people who “just can’t even until they get their coffee.” Which, okay, you have an addiction — fine. Take it out on the poor sap in the apron. Whatever. And I didn’t even really expect tips. Sure, they were nice, but I wasn’t going to be one of those baristas who dresses the tip jar up like a venus fly trap with a sign on it that says “Feed me, Seymour!” and essentially glares at every customer’s hand until they turn over their quarters. I wasn’t gonna dance for your money — and besides, I was technically being paid a living wage. It wasn’t your job to supplement my income. But I did get plenty of tips, and plenty of wonderful customers who were a real treat to see every day and became a ritual that made the job feel warm, secure, and almost familial. So not everyone, not even the majority, were deserving of the wrath they got.

But there were those who were horrible — and I mean horrible; I’ve never experienced more directly condescending, rude, and outright cruel customers than at coffee shops. The mothers who won’t even momentarily get off their cell phones to bark an order of 6 Frappucinos for their screaming toddlers, the intern who will drop an office floor’s worth of drink orders on you when it’s 6:45 and you are the only person working with a full line of customers and then impatiently snap at you about how he “really needs to go,” the twenty-something who will order a scone and then sit in the back of the shop the entire afternoon, filing his taxes, knitting a scarf, and roasting a turkey. At the risk of never being hired as a barista again, I believe I am finally ready to lay out the price that each of these transgressions came at amongst my coworkers.

Without exception, the coffee shops I worked at had their own special brands of ass hats that came in and out, and their own ways of handling it. First and foremost, the quality of your drink is inversely proportional to how much you berate us while ordering. That’s a given. The espresso will be burned, the milk will be scalded, and the syrup will be negligible. You can expect that. But some of the punishments for bad behavior were much more insidious, and though they never really crossed the line into the disgusting, they certainly wouldn’t have been appreciated. Aside from being charged too much for drinks whenever possible, there was a solution to every problem. The rude, impatient, condescending mothers who ordered the extra-hot lattes while still in their yoga clothes with their screaming, rude children? Yeah, they were getting made out of half-and-half. Their children’s Frappucinos? Extra shot of espresso. The businessman who talks down to you while simultaneously hitting on you? Decaf, decaf, decaf. Day-old baked goods, extra fat, extra sugar, no sugar at all, too hot, ice cold, whatever could be done to f-ck up your experience and ensure you wouldn’t want to come back (though it rarely worked), it was done. And yes, I occasionally saw a particularly bogus coworker go a little too far and actually do something really mean or gross, but that was exceedingly rare. Usually the retribution was diabolical, but it wasn’t stomach-turning. We kept it classy.

I know that it’s common for people in food service to punish customers for being complete tools, but there is something particularly wrathful about doing it right in front of the customers themselves, all while smiling in their faces and participating in their subtle hints that it’s taking too long. But I never really became a grizzled veteran at a coffee shop, so I didn’t even fully grasp the depths to which people would hold this ire. Sure, there was the errant barista who took coffee extremely seriously and would never dream of messing up an order, even for someone stabbing them in the neck with an ice pick at the very moment of ordering. But for every one of them, there were 10 people who didn’t really like the job, certainly hated getting up early, resented the lack of frequent tips, and were by-and-large overqualified for the job (debatable, I suppose, when most of them held arts degrees). Regardless of education level, though, there was a certain feeling that they (rightfully) didn’t deserve to be spat on and barked at by so many people, day in, day out. And yet, there they were, hip, young, in the big city, and having to make blended coffee drinks for an endless line of screaming children and their cruel parents.

Though I participated sometimes in the evil sabotaging of people’s drinks, and the hyena-like verbal ripping-apart of some of the more egregious regulars, I never fully enjoyed it as much as I think some of my coworkers did. I was still funding school, and still had a lot of hopes about what would happen when I moved onto the “real world.” For me, it wasn’t the “real world,” it was simply a means to an end. But I worked with no less than three people who graduated from Ivy League schools, and were talked to like a knuckle-dragging chimp by some overzealous, balding accountant. People who had to bite their tongue and find their place in this economy, in this hierarchy of worth. And yeah, sometimes they ruined your drink or made it more delicious at the price of 1,000 extra calories. But you, maybe without even realizing it, treated them like the gum that got stuck on the bottom of your shoe while walking down the sidewalk to better things (when there was a decent chance that they were significantly smarter than you). Sure, it’s not right when people in food service mess with your food, but it’s going to happen. Until we start treating each other with full respect — regardless of whether they’re charged with remembering it’s a half-caf, no-foam drink — you can expect to get none of what you asked for.

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image – Hallbadorn