May I Help You?

Memory Monday
When I become a famous author, people will pay big money for this card.

When I become a famous author, people will pay big money for this card.

Yesterday I paid a visit to my old Starbucks–the one where I worked from early 2004 to mid 2009. I go there less and less often these days because there remains only one barista (albeit one of my favourites) with whom I worked back then, and I think he may be phasing himself out and moving on to better things, as well. Since I left that place of employment, the main reason to go back there was always to see friends who hadn’t escaped yet. I mean, I am fully capable of making coffee myself at home, and we drink Dean’s Beans which is far superior to anything else out there, so I rarely go to Starbucks for the coffee. (Although yes, I do buy a cup when I’m in there.)

Now it’s a toss-up as to whether or not Mouse (not to be confused with this Mouse) will be there when I venture in, and although I know some of the newer baristas on a “passing acquaintance” level, what I usually find when I go in there anymore are a bunch of sort of uneasy memories. There were some great things about my barista era, and some painful things, too, and now that I’m married to my Paul and living in Our Town, and there’s another Starbucks that’s closer (remember, I’m in New England, where Dunkin Donuts is king–for some reason–so “close” Starbuckses are not a foregone conclusion), where one of my former colleagues is the manager no less, it just feels “safer” (and easier) to go to that one if I ever have a hankering for a coffee shop moment. But I went into my old Starbucks yesterday because they had just had a long overdue remodel, and I was curious to see what it looked like.

It looks great. It’s always been kind of a dark store, and it might be darker now, but it’s less dingily dark and more artsily dark, if you get what I mean. The barista who took my order, and whom I know slightly from back when he and I existed on opposite sides of the counter, asked me what I thought of the new surroundings. Because there was a queue behind me and I didn’t want to go into a long description of how there have been many other times in my life where a location which had formerly been my life was redesigned beyond recognition and that that always kicks in the nostalgia, and because it actually does look very nice in there, I said, “I love it! It definitely makes a lot more sense.” I meant that the front of store layout no longer leaves the customers as tangled huddled masses crammed into the doorway, but  pulls them away from the doorway and strings them along the length of the store in an actual line instead.

“Yeah,” said the Slightly Known Barista, “It makes more sense for you.” It was an inclusive, and yet oh-so-exclusive you. He meant you the customers. And that, more than the drastically altered surroundings, was what gave me the all-too-familiar “you can’t go home again” feeling. When you work directly with the public in any form, but maybe especially when there is something physical like a counter separating you, a pretty extreme Us/Them mentality springs up. There are always lovely customers, but it’s the monstrous customers (of whom there usually seem to be a lot more) who help to create this culture, and even though I haven’t been behind the counter at this or any other Starbucks in four years, I think I still sort of saw myself as an honorary barista.

What I really am is that annoying customer who knows all the trade secrets well enough to call you out on them. Like that time I went to the Starbucks in Our Town and the girl making my mother’s and my lattes ran out of steamed milk with which to top off mine so that there was about an inch of emptiness at the top of the (already small) cup. She just lidded it and handed it off as if she thought I hadn’t seen her do that, or as if I wouldn’t care, or as if I were a know-nothing customer who would just lie down and take it. I took the lid off and said, “Excuse me, could you please top this off?” It’s okay, barista-girl. I’m willing to wait for you to steam some more milk. I paid good money for this, even if it did come off a little plastic gold-coloured card. (Okay, so maybe I still go to Starbucks sort of regularly . . . )

The Slightly Known Barista didn’t have any ire in his tone of voice when he made his us/them-y comment–just maybe a put-upon tone over the fact that Corporate had once again not taken the needs of its baristas into account. (There’s an us/them, there, too.) It did look a little narrow back there . . . but I seem to remember its already being pretty squeezy in the old days, too, and am not convinced there was really such a difference. Ire or not, though, when he said that (“It’s better for you“), I heard his unspoken observation that, no, I am no longer a barista. I cannot know how they suffer.

In some ways, I guess he’s right. I no longer have to spend hours crammed with four other people into veal-like quarters, proffering unnecessities to entitled-acting patrons. Ever since Starbucks I have said that every human being should spend at least six months in retail or customer service so they can learn to treat other such people like humans, and I spent almost six years there and am happy enough not to be there anymore. But I think I remember what barista “suffering” is. I also know I could have marked my drink correctly and made that green tea lemonade way better than the one they handed off to me. And I would have asked how many “n’s” to put in the Jenn.


Have you ever worked retail/customer service? What’s your us/them? Do you think everyone should be conscripted into such service, like the military in some countries, or am I just being ridiculous?


14 thoughts on “May I Help You?

  1. Would you really have asked how many ‘n’s there would be? I know of only one person who explains the two ‘n’s so consistent as you do (that person being you). It just makes me more scared I’ll get it wrong one day. On a related note: I stopped spelling out my name in American Starbuckses. Once, a lovely barista was screaming a fish name for five minute before I realized that’s what she would shout when she called my name. I have people spell out ‘boss’ now. It’s a little cocky, but at least it sounds like me.

    As I might have told you once (through my blog, so not actually you, more of an inclusive, but again in this comment so also exclusive you), I used to sell anti-slip mats. People would walk by and then see how good the mats worked. However, they assumed that ‘if it seems too good to be true, it probably is’ (valid assumption, normally), call me a liar and then walk on. I’m okay with the assumption, having your mind blown and a curiosity that translates itself into mean slander. But do it like a man and watch me demonstrate how, and that, it works. Then be ashamed of your premature conclusions and buy yourself a surprisingly good anti-slip mat.

    Other pet peaves I inherited from that job: people who do not understand the concept of gravity (‘It doesn’t even work with wine glasses’), but believe there’s some sort of magic going on, people that do not read the instructions and come back next year to warn other customers not to buy the stuff (‘Used it for two weeks and it was useless.’ – ‘Sir, did you see the giant red sticker that warns against using the product in direct sunlight because it will harm the quality of the product?’). I can’t be the only one who goes into rant mode because of your question.

    • I hope you’re NOT the only person–because for some reason I love these stories. I think they make me feel validated. (Another instance of “I can’t be the only person . . . “) I think I may start reblogging a few Starbucks stories from my old blog just because.

      And yes, I really would have asked how the person spelled “Jenn.” Or “Jen.” We were pretty inconsistent with “naming” our cups in my day, but when we did, I would always ask about things like that. I don’t correct baristas now–unless I know them pretty well and am just being a brat–but I always THINK about it in my head! I can imagine that “Bas” does create some issues. I loved the fish story! 🙂

  2. I spent a year scooping ice cream in a little shop (cramped behind the counter there, too) and yeah, there can be a very Us/Them mentality when dealing with certain customers.

    I agree that everyone should have to spend some time behind a counter of some sort serving the public. It might give Them a better understanding of how it feels to be yelled at when you can’t serve their party of 20 within five minutes of their arrival. Hello? I’m all by myself here and you are a party of 20, 2/3 of them whining, screaming children. I’m doing the best I can and you’re gonna heckle me anyway? It sucks.

    People don’t get that. Or else they’re just total assholes and that makes me sad.

    • Yeah–either way, it’s sad, I guess.

      Right around when some company policies were starting to change at Starbucks, creating a whole lot MORE work for the baristas with a whole lot LESS staff, I had a nightmare where we started selling ice cream AS WELL AS all the crazy coffee variations and food and stuff. I think I woke up in a cold sweat. So I don’t envy you that job. Yeah–the parties of a million were a pain. Also those people who come in three minutes before closing and order seven of the most complicated thing you have. Ya know?

  3. I worked retail for a majority of my life! It is a hard job…the whole “the customer is always right” mantra was a hard pill for me to swallow. My favorite thing to do with “nasty” customers was to kill them with kindness. The ruder the were the nicer I was. It didn’t take them long to realize what a jerk they were looking like to the other people in the store. When things go to be too much I’d go into the walk-in close the door and scream! lol

    • Ha! Good for you. I think that’s the way to handle it. I’m a little skeptical the jerks usually ever realise they were being jerks, but it usually does highlight it for any other people who might be witnessing the interaction . . . heh.

  4. I definitely think that is a good plan. In a lot of situations reversing the we/them situation would potentially make things a lot better. I never sold products to people. But I ‘sell’ service, and there it seems to me the seller can learn a lot from being the buyer. As a librarian I would definitely want some of us to be customers once in a while. If only to see if the answers we routinely give on ‘where are the bathrooms’ are really so clear as we think :). On the other hand, as a user of public transport, I think it should be mandatory for anyone in a position of decision making about public transport to ride the buses in Jerusalem for at least month. And anyone making decisions about sidewalks in whatever capacity should be forced to use the said sidewalk with a big bag of groceries, a baby carriage, a small child and a wheelchair, for a considerable amount of time… Just waiting for somebody to listen to me 🙂

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